Mindfulness is a hot commodity: looking for a quick fix?

This talk was given to One Mindful Breath, Wellington, in November 2018.

Something that goes by the name ‘mindfulness meditation’ is a hot commodity these days. You can find many models on the market, some are more or less expensive, and of varying quality (like cars and dishwashers). The brands that are on the market either claim origins in the Buddhist tradition, which lends them the kudos and the aura of ancient wisdom, or studiously avoid doing so. That claim ultimately refers back to the Buddha’s foundational teaching on insight, vipassanā, or (these days in the commodified form mindfulness) meditation – the Satipatthāna sutta, his discourse on the focuses of awareness.

These days we often speak of ‘the mindfulness industry’, which designs, packages and sells these kinds of mindfulness courses and manuals. The contents typically adapt formulaic meditation practices developed long ago in monasteries for training purposes. The industry brings its products to market as quick fixes – in radical contrast to the Buddha’s own concept of insight meditation, as we’ll see in a minute.

Who or what is the target market for these products? In economic terms it’s mainly health fund managers and public health services in many countries seeking low-cost, short-term therapies for stress, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological disorders. For instance, in Britain you can actually get a free mindfulness course from the NHS if you get a referral from a doctor. So the mindfulness industry competes with Big Pharma and its quick-fix products, which you can buy on prescription and over the counter at any chemist.

Beyond that, many individuals seek out the courses in question to relieve stress, and many psychotherapists direct their clients to adopt the techniques in question. On short-term clinical criteria, they basically work quite well. Outside the therapeutic area, many corporations and military establishments also build mindfulness practices into their training programmes. It’s called mental fitness training.

A defining aspect of a quick fix is that it doesn’t require you to do anything to change your way of life or how you manifest in the world.

You can go on being an over-busy executive or hang out at a pub on a Friday night because you’re doing your meditation practice. You don’t have to join in any ongoing practice group, or commit to any lifelong ethical commitments. This is where quick-fix mindfulness process definitively deviates from the Buddha’s version, which is all about cultivating ethical values, changing the way we live and becoming deeper, wiser individuals. It’s about self-transformation.

It does so by ushering each of us into our inner worlds, and providing us with a detailed map of all the nooks and crannies of our own mind, habit and character to help us orient ourselves. The Buddha’s version invites us to lead an examined life, the sort of examined life that Socrates said was fundamental to human wellbeing.

Quick-fix mindfulness works just fine unless – heaven forbid! – what ails us is precisely our way of life. Then we have a problem. Okay, so let’s be brave, and explore that awful possibility. We could start with a prophetic passage from Friedrich Nietzsche from his book of 130 years ago The Will to Power:

The story I have to tell is the history of the next two centuries… For a long time now our whole civilisation has been driving, with tortured intensity growing from decade to decade, as if towards a catastrophe: restlessly, violently, tempestuously, like a mighty river desiring the end of its journey, without pausing to reflect, indeed fearful of reflection… Where we live, soon nobody will be able to exist.

Pretty dire prediction. Was he right? Are we hurtling along – ‘Look, ma, no hands!’ – ‘without pausing to reflect, indeed fearful of reflection’? Are we ignorant and scared of what’s actually going on in our own inner life, ‘under the hood’ as we say these days? We seem to be living on automatic pilot, according to external stimuli without thinking about where we’re going. This depends very much on what is going on under the hood.

Throughout recorded history wise people have insisted on the need to look under the hood, to probe the inner life. The ancient Egyptians coined the injunction: ‘Know thyself!’ Very quickly the ancient Greeks had picked it up and chiselled it literally into the very fabric of the temple of the oracle in Delphi. Then the early Christians made it part of their tradition. Meanwhile, back in India, the responsibility to know thyself had already become a foundation stone of the dharma – most notably in the discourse on cultivating awareness that I mentioned. Western literature, music, art, philosophy, and psychoanalytic theory have all historically privileged the exploration of the inner life as well. You’ve got to go inside. As the Zen tradition puts it, if you want to catch a tiger you have to first enter the tiger’s cave.

But what part does the inner life hold in the way we live now? Dispiritingly enough, for many it has little place. I’ll introduce a writer here – Christopher Bollas – along with his recent book, Meaning and melancholia: life in the age of bewilderment. For quite a long time now, resistance to the inner probe has popped up in our literature. For example, Henry Willcox, one of the main characters in EM Forster’s book Howard’s end boasts, ‘I am not a fellow who bothers about my own inside.’ (p.119).

Willcox represents a form of resistance to the inner life that we first find in early Protestantism, which counselled constant busyness (because ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’). That form of supposedly heroic resistance to the inner life is still popular, as in the classic retort: ‘Don’t ask a busy man like me to think about life, death, and the meaning of it all!’

In the last 100 years or so the resistance to the inner probe has been gathering strength and really does affect the way we live now. Bollas, a psychoanalyst, diagnoses an epidemic of what he calls psychophobia – fear of the mind. How does psychophobia manifest? One common manifestation is a character type he calls the normopathic self. In their complete disconnection from the inner life so essential to individuality, the normopath unreflectingly emulates the speech and actions of the crowd, in other words becomes a conformist. S/he is ‘abnormally normal’. For me, one of the classics of Italian cinema, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 film The conformist nails this dangerous syndrome.

Today, Bollas argues, one of the widespread expressions of psychophobia takes the form of what he calls transmissive selves and he dramatises this in a memoir from one of his favourite watering holes, the Rose Café in Venice, California, where smart, supposedly thoughtful people like himself meet their friends for lunch:

There were about eight of us, and people arrived gradually in pairs and singles. Some did not greet us at first as they were deep into their phones, largely unaware of the actual world; others at the table were smiling softly at their groins, reading their text messages… The phones were enthusiastically passed around: photos of an event attended by some of those present were met with the usual exclamations – ‘wow’, ‘cool’.

When we were all seated, and after the waiter had tried visiting the table three or four times, I came out of my psychic carapace and said, ‘So, shall we order?’ A glass of water was knocked over, bags dropped, alarmed heads popped up: I had verbally barged in on what in another era might have been a séance. (p.48)

Writers in many disciplines honour the supreme importance of deeply connecting with parents, siblings, lovers and friends in our emergence as fully-rounded individuals. Without immediate (in other words unmediated) close contact with such people, even our brains can’t grow as they should, according to neuroscientists like Susan Greenfield. Yet this meeting at The Rose is a typical gathering of people who are only going through the motions of interpersonal contact, while they privilege virtual interlocutors who aren’t present over ‘actual’ companions who are present, and a past event over what’s unfolding in the now.

People who are stuck in the eternal round of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, texting, and even email, don’t pause to reflect or introspect, let alone keep a handwritten journal of their most private emotions, thoughts and feelings. They are simply receiving and transmitting ‘information’. So they’re psychophobic ‘transmissive selves’. Like the mobile phone towers they rely on, they neither add to nor digest the content passing through them. There’s no inner life going on here.

When we cut off from the inner life, we leave ourselves defenceless against the ‘biggies’ that life itself invariably lays on us. Then of course quick-fix mindfulness might offer some temporary relief. But it doesn’t offer us a way of dealing with our big existential challenges, let alone teach us how to use those challenges, like the death of someone close to us, in order to grow ever bigger and deeper. Only coming to terms with our inner lives – for instance, in a lifelong commitment to living a reflective, ethical life – will do that for us. There are many ways to do that but our commitment to insight meditation and a commitment to the ethics that go with it are a royal road towards it.

We can laugh at the comedic lunch at The Rose Café. But the laughter fades, perhaps, when we’re confronted by an all-powerful archetype of the totally unexamined, unreflective life. I’m thinking here of Nietzsche’s prophecy in relation to Donald Trump: an individual who is ethically and psychologically unmoored, no lights on inside, finger on the nuclear trigger when not actually tweeting. Elected by millions of unreflective people just like himself.

On that happy note I’ll open it to questions, observations and outbursts of hostility.

Detta Donde: I enjoyed that thank you. I understand that these mindfulness courses are short fixes but I would hope that this could be a first footstep for people to go in deeper.

Winton Higgins: Absolutely. I completely agree with that and I’ve certainly met quite a few people who started off doing one of the better mindfulness courses, possibly MBSR, who’ve got a whiff of the dharma experientially and then sought out a dharma group to go deeper, a group they can practice with on an ongoing basis.

Noah Sloan: I feel like you’ve laid out the unreflective life and the kind of Buddhist ethics that change the way you live. Can you talk about what it’s like to step on the path from an unreflective life, maybe somebody who’s just had their mindfulness course and now is their first step. How do they get from there to the other end where they transform their whole life? I think many people might be put off by, ‘Oh I have to change everything about my life’ Too hard. I can’t do that.

WH: It starts in a slightly different place in that if you get a feeling for meditation, say you’ve been along to an MBSR course, and you think there might be more to it, to let your curiosity lead you into something like One Mindful Breath. This is in fact what happened to me. I did a meditation course because I wanted to reduce my blood pressure, and that worked. Fine, but there was a curiosity. I’m an academic and you’re not satisfied with something that works, you have to know why, so you have to look under the hood. I just enrolled in an introduction to Buddhism course. It was curiosity driven and it was just getting that sense that, hey, this really makes sense and from that point you gradually work out what the implications are for the way you live.

You don’t find out on the first visit to One Mindful Breath, in fact you probably don’t have any forms to sign up to, but you don’t undertake ethics without thinking about why these things are important. What is going on here? Essentially, Buddhist ethics are not rules, they are ethical priorities, principles to be cultivated in a flexible way, and you figure out why they’re important in terms of nurturing your own personal involvement and your own inner mind.

Ramsey Margolis: What if a person does have stress, anxiety, depression? They don’t just sign up for the whole nine yards straight away. You described the four tasks as having been downgraded into the Four Noble Truths. The first three tasks: experience life, let go of greed, hatred and delusion, and stop and savour those moments of peace and freedom. That, I would suggest, is commercially-driven mindfulness. I spent part of this morning with a Crown entity on a team-building day going through this with them. I stressed that the fourth task, the eightfold path, is where it starts to get a bit more – I hesitate to use the word ‘meaty’ as a vegetarian – it gets more substantial. Does that make sense to you?

WH: Yes except that I can’t imagine that you’re going to get through the three tasks in any kind of satisfactory way in a six-week mindfulness course. These tasks are, after all, lifelong tasks. They are part of the cultivation of the inner life. They are part of waking up, so they’re not something that’s ever done and dusted. You’re always going to go deeper, particularly if you have something like a major grief, a major loss, or some sort of major trauma, you’d be working for a long time on embracing that, on moving into that kind of experience not trying to shy away from it. So I just don’t think it’s an easy thing to do. For instance Freud’s essay on mourning and melancholia in which he talks about the process of mourning, the loss of someone close to you. It takes months, if not years, of what he calls ‘unpleasant work’. It’s so important for our development to go through that process, to open ourselves up to it. It seems to me that is what the first task is, it’s never something that we can regard as done and dusted.

Jeremy Fyson: Thank you for your talk. I want to follow on from that, and I’m not sure who said this: ‘Better not start. Once started, better to finish.’ I feel it’s a little bit like that when you look at these short term fixes you think it would be helpful for some of the people who are marketing them to put a big disclaimer on them that you may see things that really freak you out, and don’t expect six weeks to sort that out for you. We’re happy to refer you on to the right person.

WH: From my knowledge of six-week courses, you’re most unlikely to enter the tiger’s cave. There is unlikely to be something that freaks you out partly because of their use of formulaic approaches to meditation, techniques, which are not really opening up your inner life. They might be stopping your hyperactivity in the world for 20 minutes but I don’t think they’re the sort of thing that are going to open up real biggies. Whereas if you go on a ten-day intensive insight retreat that can happen. In fact I’ve seen it happen again and again, and if it’s skilfully dealt with by the teacher and by the meditator you come away from that retreat having had an awakening experience. I really think that the six-week numbers do not really run the risk of letting those sort of hobgoblins out of the bag.

Alex Carr: Thank you Winton. I wanted to say thank you firstly for the talk. I found it really entertaining. I really enjoyed thinking about the reluctance sometimes for people when they’re doing a mindfulness course to potentially have it change them. It’s interesting, as well, reflecting on how in capitalist consumer societies we tend to treat mindfulness like a pill, that it’s going to change us without is actually us having to be changed in ourselves.

My question is more thinking about One Mindful Breath. We might have someone who’s done a mindfulness course, and this is what happened to me, and might have seen one or two references to Buddhism somewhere, and you think ‘that’s interesting I think I’ll go down that path’. If you came along to One Mindful Breath or Kookaburra Sangha in Sydney, what would they tell someone to keep their curiosity burning, to get them past the point of okay this is something I’m interested in finding out about. Have you got a single short text that will keep that interest, that curiosity they’ve got burning?

WH: That’s a tricky one. My own experience was going on a meditation retreat, deepening into the practice, and having all sorts of experiences that I found quite significant and learnt from, and continuing. There is all sort of inspirational literature. The first thing that comes to mind is Thich Nhat Hanh I guess, as he has these delightful little books that cut straight to the chase.

But it’s like anything else that’s quite demanding. If you wanted to learn archery, for instance, you’d have a lot of experience of frustration, irritation with yourself, with the teacher, with the bow and the arrow, so there’s no way in which you’re going to avoid having to meet the challenge of persevering with it.

Some of the common reinforcements of keeping moving along the path are friends, your sangha, reading inspirational literature. Another which was very big for me was listening to tapes of dharma talks given by people who seemed to have really have it together. That’s about all I can say. Approaching it maturely. I know I’m going to have periods of frustration, lack of sense of inspiration, but I’ve got to have the fortitude to keep going through those periods. It’s likely that on an intensive retreat, you’ll have moments when you could gladly walk out the front and strangle the teacher. Your back aches, your knees are on fire. That’s all part of the training, it’s good to know that’s what life is about. It’s like any other major challenge you take up in your life.

You can’t get to heaven on roller skates, according to the old song, or in a Ford coupe. It’s not going to be easy, except in small patches.

Peter Cowley: Thank you very much Winton for that very interesting talk. I can see the pitfalls of the mindfulness business only giving you one step along a very long road. And I guess your point about people being intrigued by getting further along. I’m not sure how we facilitate that but it’s a very good point you made that if you really want to take something further you have to make some changes.

Having moved to Gisborne, I’ve changed my whole routine. I used to be a night owl and not wake up until 9 a’clock on the morning. I’ve changed it around. I go to bed early and get up early as well. I thought I would have a lot of resistance to that, and angst trying to get that to work, and I’ve been very surprised that it hasn’t been. I’m putting that down to I made the decision for myself for my own benefit. It wasn’t forced on me, I wasn’t coerced – ‘this is good for you you should do it’. That has a lot to do with it. If people come to meditation with curiosity and they are encouraged and given as much help as you can.

WH: It’s interesting the point you’re making about changing your life. That too can be something that’s curiosity driven. When we’re talking about changing the way of life and doing it according to certain kinds of ethical principles, it can be quite a fascinating exercise. One of the most interesting practices that I’ve ever engaged in was back in the early days, four of us decided we’d do an ethics practice. We make a commitment to meet once a fortnight, select one of the five traditional precepts (for instance, the first precept, cultivating universal friendliness) to practice intensively until the next meeting. We took non-harming, and turned it around into a positive principle of showing universal friendliness. We’d keep a daily diary in which we’d really try in those 14 days to be really friendly not in a stupid flashy way but make a point to being friendly to people we ran into. We’d make the phone calls we should make to people who are having spot of bother, diarising the whole way to figure out ‘where did the shoe pinch?’.

We could be really nice and friendly to the Salvation Army bloke collecting money at the station but somehow it was really difficult to be friendly to the kids. What’s all that about? Why is it hard in certain situations and not in others? Why is it harder to be friendly to those closest to us than it is to perfect strangers with whom we have no investment whatsoever. Give them a smile or even money in their hat or something like that.

The whole process was driven by this kind of curiosity. Then the next fortnight we’d go onto the next precept and do the same there. It really turned things around. It didn’t feel like in any way we were following a recipe of ‘thou shalt’ or ‘thou shalt not’ but we were actually exploring our own inner lives. The obstacles were there and where were the things we hadn’t seen before and we needed to work through? So that’s one way to change and to do it in a way that’s interesting and attractive and attracts one’s curiosity.

Another way to do this is to take on a biggie – like becoming a vegetarian. I’m not saying you have to become a vegetarian to follow the path but in the group I was in at the time just about everybody was a vegetarian because they thought about the first precept. In the first three months or so being a vegetarian every meal felt like a sacrament. It was this wonderful thing where I was celebrating my solidarity with all of life. It wasn’t ‘God, I’d really love a steak’. All that stuff dropped away. I made the transition very easily. It depends on the way you approach your own programme of gradual change which needs to be driven by you own experience, reinforced by your own experiences that you are making conscious because you are watching what is going on.



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