Talk given August 12, 2014 to a full house at New York Dharmapunx. Josh started the talk, introducing the theme of authenticity and inauthenticity, the roots of self-abandonment and the false self. A focus was placed on how the performative self leads to feelings of emptiness and the abandoned body. George developed the theme by exploring self and other blame, family systems of dysregulation, ultimately emphasizing the goal of learning how to hold abandonment experiences.
Back in the late 1970s Jon Kabat-Zinn realized the potential value the 2,500 Buddhist meditation and awareness technique called sati—commonly translated into english as “mindfulness”—would have in therapeutic settings if it was stripped of its spiritual trappings and presented as a course in stress reduction. And so secular mindfulness was born, the wholsesale transformation of one the many, integrated tools of Buddhist practice into an entire self-help cottage industry. The new mindfulness was employed towards a vast array of ends, from reducing stress in the workplace to preventing addiction relapses, developing well being and so on. The list is potentially endless (check out a catalogue from your local 'well being' institute for the details).
Naturally, an essential development in presenting mindfulness as a marketable commodity was to extract it from the less market friendly tools in buddhist practice, such as the demands to participate in a spiritual community (sangha) and the emphasis upon ethical behavior (right speech, right action and right livelihood). Its certainly easy to grasp why Right Livelihood had to go: Most of us willingly agree that harmful speech, killing and stealing are generally bad ideas, but refraining from work that involves misrepresentation or crippling stress is a huge ask, as it would instantly eliminate, or require significant change towards, the bulk of capitalism's 'dream jobs:' advertising, public relations, banking, social media start ups and so on. Surely such a complicating ethical demand had to go for mindfulness to find a quick consumer base.
It doesn't stop there. Mindfulness itself was additionally eviscerated of its challenging qualities: while awareness of inner states (sampujhanna) is certainly one element of the 2,500 year old practice, the Buddha referred to mindfulness as "the gatekeeper of the mind," an analytical tool to help us remove unskillful mind states (attapa). The new mindfulness was diminished, er simplified, to acknowledging moment by moment inner experience without judging; we're asked to believe that so long as we're aware of our body sensations, feelings, mental energy and thoughts, accepting these experiences as they are, the bulk of our suffering would disappear. This belief is founded on the idea that excessive self-rumination and resistance to our underlying states are the chief culprits of all suffering; the daily trudge to alienating employment in a world increasingly bereft of meaningful social engagement is conveniently swept under the carpet.
The drawbacks to acceptance based mindfulness, stripped of membership in a spiritual community, appreciation of the four noble truths and the demands of changing behavior towards the ethical are significant. Painful emotions, born of early childhood abandonments and poor attachment schemes, do not go away on their own; they require reliable relational support to override. And while studies of stress reduction at the workplace have indicated that workers become more productive and peaceful at their jobs, is that really such a positive development, if the jobs are alienating, requiring humane hours and leave us too busy to seek deeply meaningful employment?
Secular mindfulness, without insistence on ethical behavior, brings to mind the philosopher Slavoj Zizek's (largely misplaced) criticism of buddhist practice in general: focusing on acceptance based inner peace results in an abdication of ethico-politically based actions. Without directing attention to the outcomes of one's engagement with the world, McMindfulness emphasizes relaxing into the present moment, breathing through exploitation in the hopes 'bad capitalism' will vamoose on its own. Allowing twelve hour-a-day workers to feel good about their lives, returning to small apartments with artificially high rents (who has time to protest for meaningful rent control and low income housing) is far from a positive development in the world. The result is well-being without adding any deep meaning to life. The critiques are popping up everywhere, "Mindfulness the Google Way: Well intentioned saffron washing?" by Sean Fiet being one of many cogent examples.
Alas, rather than confronting this diminution of mindfulness head on, many buddhist communities participate in over emphasizing retreat practice at the expense of 360 degree Buddhist practice. Rather than exploring the importance of reducing one's needless material addictions, practitioners are urged to go on weeklong, largely silent retreats that, while providing a nice break from mundane stresses, drain bank accounts and lead to little significant change in life. After returning from seven days spent amidst rolling hills, eating vegetarian meals being while urged to practice self-love, one returns to the daily grind. Acceptance can only go so far without its partner, change in external behavior.
Mindfulness is meant to be part of the far larger Buddhist spiritual tradition that demands a deep examination of our moral values. Without questioning our livelihoods and developing our ties to a spiritual community, insight doesn't produce wisdom, it devolves in a business as usual behavior, which has resulted in the global catastrophe of 21st century capitalism. And so no matter how beneficial mindfulness is on its own, without ethics, karma and community its part of the problem, not the solution.
The following is my adaptation* of the Buddha's Vitakkasanthana Sutta, roughly “How to Remove Unwanted and Obsessive Thoughts.” There are many wonderful translations available via numerous resources (see my note at bottom), so I urge those interested in learning more about this practice to review other versions.
Accepting that others will probably not change in the ways we want, that the way they've acted previously is a good indication of how they'll continue to operate is not defeatism or resignation; it teaches us, again and again, to turn and face what we can control: our intentions, what we focus the mind on, where we turn for security and emotional mirroring. Letting go of demands, we can respond to life with imagination and renewed resilience. When we’re no longer at war with the world, we can actually begin to find peace right here.
There is a time to cast aside our defenses and risk everything to live with an open and undefended heart. it's possible to be free. The key is to persist in the effort of revealing our fluid and messy emotional experience to others, until we find those who are capable of receiving and holding it with grace.
Without The Narrator we would quite feasibly be overwhelmed by random experience and our ability to self-soothe would be severely compromised. And so we host a stream of commentary about life, an arrays of views, opinions and explanations about our experience in the world, the new chapters to our ongoing inner autobiography. A voice that annotates our daily hunt for security, adding justifications to behaviors driven by largely unconscious urges and impulses.
The practice of acceptance is not resignation, agreeing that we will always feel encumbered; rather its a realization that resistance, as the Buddha taught in his second arrow teaching, lies at the core of unnecessary suffering. Nor does it mean we act out on every impulse, or wallow in despair, or give up the practices that bring about balance, such as meditation, exercise, medications if prescribed, support meetings and on. Acceptance lies in acknowledging and welcoming what's present as the place we're starting from, rather than wishing we were somewhere else.
Once we acknowledge that things that arise and disappear, the processional nature of world makes the idea of "existence"—of anything truly being—quite problematic. In other words: anything that is changing, and everything changes, cannot be pinned down as a solid and stable entity, something with an identity.
Why do human beings develop the tendency to fall again and again into unsatisfying relationships? Why do we repeat the past, even after developing awareness into the characteristics of unsuitable partners?
During our most vulnerable and formative years, each of us seeks reliable security, empathy, appreciation and encouragement from our caretakers, who serve as our developmental role models. We need to be presented with an array of aspirational skills, talents, behaviors and qualities worth developing over life, such as compassion, humor, creativity, resilience and so on; the human brain is a largely imitative organ, and we need observable targets if we are to evolve and progress throughout life.