Mindfulness meditation’s blind spots, unconscious agendas, and hidden downsides, Part 4

A key tool deployed in mindfulness is detachment in observation, in the effort to maintain objectivity of awareness. But it’s a double-edged sword with an unacknowledged cost, and masks a deeper motivation. Similarly, breaking down experience into bits and pieces to elicit the perception there is “no abiding self” obscures one’s vision in another way.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

The alluring image of detachment

Much of the scientific or modern appeal of insight meditation comes from its detached methodology of observation, which mimics the modern scientific approach of attempting to remain as objective as possible. In these times of alienation and disillusioned idealism, not only is mindfulness the most scientific of meditation methods, but it is also attractive for the images of detachment it projects.

When one has been frustrated in their idealism or isolated in their alienation by our gigantic, technological, and impersonal culture, to have a method offered whereby one can work with these feelings in a different, more constructive or alluring way can be very appealing. In the process of meditative detachment, one can be removed from direct relationship with life processes that may be painful and not be as deeply affected by them. The equanimity that goes hand in hand with detachment can serve as a psychological buffer to provide a soothing balm for the inevitable dislocations of life in today’s world.

More fundamentally, though, masked by the practice of detachment is what amounts to an unspoken fear or distaste of emotional involvement in life. This hidden aversion is an unseen blind spot in mindfulness that originates in the underlying Buddhist philosophy of the “three marks of existence” (mentioned in Parts 2 and 3), one of which is unsatisfactoriness or suffering (dukkha). This is enough of a preoccupation in Buddhist psychology that an ultimate long-term goal of the entire practice becomes oriented toward not just reasonably minimizing psychologically rooted suffering but the Sisyphean task of avoiding it entirely.

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Mindfulness meditation’s blind spots, unconscious agendas, and hidden downsides, Part 3

The reductionistic approach of mindfulness where experience and perception are broken down into ever-finer subcomponents is a key feature of the practice. The scientific flavor of this accounts for much of its appeal. But the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, especially in the psychological arena, which leads to the downside of reductionism in meditation — a blindness to gestalts.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

What has turned out to interest me most about mindfulness is how the underlying principles of the practice, along with the techniques that guide what is paid attention to, promote unnoticed agendas that become unconsciously buried.

This outcome is not simply incidental. These unconscious agendas, as well as oversights and forms of denial based on unacknowledged judgments and biases, are, surprisingly, part of the very structure of the practice itself. Because of that, these factors influence not only what one experiences and how it is interpreted, but just as importantly what one does not notice or see.

I hope the exploration here about how this could come to be interests you too, and helps in promoting an attitude of real inquiry — of looking beyond recommendations that sound good on the face of things, but may be overly simplistic or idealistic, and to always ask why.

Here, then, are a number of points about mindfulness as a practice I feel are consistently overlooked, even though a few of them may be given nominal consideration in passing from time to time, but which seldom seem to be addressed at any real length.

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Mindfulness meditation’s blind spots, unconscious agendas, and hidden downsides, Part 2

Years ago, I felt drawn to mindfulness meditation but was strangely put off by it at the same time. On the surface, it seemed straightforward and transparent, but there were hints that not all was as it seemed. About that, though, insiders were mum. After outlining these issues, we take a reconnaissance flight over the terrain covered by mindfulness to get the view from 30,000 feet and set the stage for a more zoomed-in look to follow.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Note: The critique here comprising parts 2 through 6 of this post series was originally written 30 years ago (with present-day additions and edits to repurpose it for the blog), and addresses the traditional version of mindfulness prominent then in the West known as vipassana. While this form of the discipline is still going strong, the currents of mindfulness today that have gone mainstream, while very similar, are a bit different in certain ways. One result has been to loosen up how the meditation practice is carried out.
Therefore, I leave it up to the reader to decide whether every single one of the criticisms made here applies with equal force to any given strand of today’s wider mindfulness movement they may know of. I hope the things we’ll be looking at prove useful in keeping your eyes open when exploring any kind of meditation in any of its potential forms.

Introduction: Stairway to heaven?

At one time in the past, I had for a while been drawn to and yet also was somewhat repulsed by — at the same time — the particularly exhaustive yet seemingly so ultimately simple practice that mindfulness meditation comprises. I was drawn toward practicing but eventually ended up abandoning the endeavor because there were a number of key things about the whole enterprise that kept “bugging” me.

On the surface, it appeared to be straightforward, transparent, scientific, methodical, repeatable, and unburdened by needless gibberish or nonsense compared to other approaches to meditation I had encountered or read about. There was no cultish demand to pledge one’s devotion to a guru. No superstitious mumbo jumbo, supernatural deities, or faith in unseen realms required.

It was based on one’s own direct firsthand observation of the inner panorama. There were no inscrutable or quixotic Zen koans or parables. No arbitrary meaningless mantras to hold echoing in the mind, ringing some internal Pavlovian bell like a carrot in front of a donkey, or swinging in the mind’s eye like a hypnotist’s pendulum to lull one into stuporous trance.

Instead, it advertised clean crystal clarity, spacious awareness, fundamental insight into being itself. And, ultimately, connection and oneness with one’s own underlying true nature, identical to and contiguous with that underlying existence itself. Look here, in this way, according to this procedure, it said, and you will see.

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Mindfulness meditation’s blind spots, unconscious agendas, and hidden downsides, Part 1

Mindfulness practice is much-lauded these days, with seemingly few conscientious objectors. Criticisms that do exist focus mostly on peripheral concerns rather than the heart of the practice itself. Allow me to raise my grubby hermit’s hand and be counted.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Back to the future

This multi-part post began as an article I originally wrote 30 years ago that never saw the light of day in any publication at the time — even the samizdat many-to-many and zine scene I was involved in before the internet came along. Not long after passing the pages around to a few acquaintances in the yoga community here in the U.S. for comment at the time, and discussing the implications between us, I xeroxed a few copies for safekeeping and then packed them inside a cardboard box along with other essays on such topics. In time, all trace of the piece eventually disappeared into the maelstrom that is our basement.

Over the years, the stapled pages inside their file folder survived a move to a new home as well as a few different basement clean-outs thereafter without ever surfacing. Eventually, I came to wonder if perhaps I had inadvertently pitched the article by mistake in some fit of zeal to flog into submission the subterranean chaos beneath our ground-floor living space.

Then one day during a recent deep-dredging operation, wading through the accumulated detritus of nearly half a lifetime, the long-lost screed unexpectedly emerged from the muck, clinging to other associated, long-submerged flotsam. And in reading through it for the first time since before my hair began turning gray, a thought arose: Maybe I should put this message in a bottle, cork it up as best I can, and send it out onto the open ocean of the internet to see on what shores it might land… before it can be sucked down for another deep dive into Davy Jones’ locker to be lost again, perhaps for good.

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New neighbors, Part 3: Refugee cats versus our own — brokering a peace

Feeding tom-kittens Jack and Justin to help usher them through their rapid adolescent growth spurt wasn’t enough, by itself. Since their home base was right next door, they would also need to be integrated into our own brood of cats to prevent fighting with our two toms, which could potentially maim any one of them.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Note: I have changed the names of the two neighbor cats in this post, and the preceding one, to provide anonymity for our neighbors out of respect for privacy. For the same reason I have not included any photos. I think it’s unlikely anyone in our neighborhood will read these stories, but you never know.

Roaming for food, seeking haven

As far as I could tell, Justin and Jack were fed at their place next door twice a day. Presumably they were fed in the morning right before or after being let out of the garage for the day, and again when being put inside again at night. On the other hand, perhaps they also had access to food ad libitum from a feeder overnight, although they were so ravenous when showing up at our place each morning, I doubted it. Or, alternatively, perhaps they didn’t much care for the food they were given.

I didn’t know any of this for sure, and could have been wrong. It was my best guess, based on the clues I could discern while keeping at arm’s length and not prying.

What did seem to be pretty clear, though, is that the two were put outside all day to fend for themselves. And when you do that with a cat, you can be sure they are going to try to line up other sources of food for themselves with sympathetic neighbors.

They will also try to secure secluded quiet spots and hidey-holes near preferred food sources for napping. They will scout out perches to serve as lookout posts or for keeping an eye and ear out for telltale signs food may be on its way. If they get caring attention from their benefactors as part of the bargain, so much the better.

Our own cats, with more frequent access to food, rarely wandered more than a half-block away, sometimes perhaps a block. Jack and Justin, though, had been spotted ranging as far away as two or three blocks from home, based on reports and photos posted by others in our neighborhood group online, as well as sightings by a friend of mine. Of course, part of this roving around could be attributed to the fact they were not neutered, but food is always a factor.

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New neighbors, Part 2: Refugee cats at our door

When two hungry, rapidly growing, unneutered tom-kittens unexpectedly arrived on the scene — with a brood of our own cats to care for already — deciding how to deal with them wasn’t easy. Would I be overstepping my bounds to help them out myself? Or should I leave it up to owners who didn’t understand the Tao of Cats?
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Note: I have changed the names of the two neighbor cats in this post, and the post to follow, to provide anonymity for our neighbors out of respect for privacy. For the same reason I have not included any photos. I think it’s unlikely anyone in our neighborhood will read these stories, but you never know.

So where were we with the story of our next-door neighbors who moved in a couple of years ago, as we were wrapping up Act 1 of the tale? In a nutshell, the primary theme was: Nice people, but completely unaware of how the high level of daily, hours-long noise the family squalled out into the soundscape affected those around them. Particularly the constant whooping, hollering, and shrieking emitted by their five energetic, pre- and post-adolescent children.

Before moving on to the next chapter here about the neighbors and their refugee cats, though, there’s an interesting loose end to tie up that unexpectedly capped off the previous chain of events some time after I made the original post.

The conclusion of the initial installment of the story found my wife and me hunkering down, resigned to putting up with the ongoing noise for the time being, while contemplating a potential next move, but not eager to make one because of the potential confrontation or ill will it might generate. Because most of the noise comes during the warmer months, and particularly the summer when the neighbors’ backyard pool is open and in use, we got a long-awaited respite once the family closed it down in the fall of the first year they moved in.

For perhaps four months or so after that until springtime of the second year, we were able to enjoy some peace and quiet. Not complete, mind you, but with the noise level much reduced. With their five kids in school during the day in the colder months, and temperatures often too wintry afterward in the small slice of daylight left to play outside for long when they returned home, there was simply not as much opportunity to wreak havoc on the airwaves.

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A mouse in my pocket

The pocket that held the mouse whose luck turned around.
Once in a while there is the chance to save a mouse from the carnage that goes along with owning cats who like to hunt. What difference does it make?

As much as I love our cats, one of the tradeoffs is dealing with the other animals they kill. Periodically, my wife or I will open the front door to find lying on our concrete porch a dead bird or mouse, or leftover mangled rabbit parts, lifeless before us.

My wife cannot face such scenes, and calls me in to take care of the mess if I haven’t yet come across it myself. Otherwise I will try to handle the cleanup of any blood or entrails, and dispose of the body, before she has a chance to see it, perhaps giving her a brief report later — if even that isn’t too much for her to hear.

While I’m not freaked out by the small, dead bodies and don’t mind the task itself, still, it always brings at least some pangs of regret or sadness.

Last year I remember finding a beautiful yellow finch at the foot of the short wooden staircase outside our kitchen door that opens into the attached garage, which is accessible via cat door and serves as another location where the cats leave their kills. Holding the finch in my hands, its eyes unseeing, but body and breast both still warm and supple, an emptiness arose inside and a lump came to my throat. Only moments ago it had to have been full of life. At the same time that you know cats are only doing what’s natural, your heart sinks to see such a beautiful, feathered and fellow creature — up close and personal, but gone.

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On the run with Jim Walmsley and the kids (dream 9)

I am out again on the dirt roads, outside the hometown where I used to live decades ago, this time to the southwest of town, on a training run with the renowned ultrarunner Jim Walmsley. He is passing through the Midwestern plains and farm country here on his way across the country somewhere.

There are things about Walmsley I feel a kinship with that have led me to take an interest in him, and to follow the ups and downs of his career. But more than that, he is a wonder to behold in action: The loping, mesmerizing stride of a gazelle possessed by no other in ultrarunning. The superb, technically accurate footing of a mountain goat dancing effortlessly across minefields of scattered rock. Relaxed abandon fused with a relentless drive. A masterful grace evident in his easy handling of the most challenging trails. The agile coordination rounding hairpin-tight switchbacks. His confident facility breezing down twisting paths atop sheer canyon drop-offs.

And beyond that, there is the subliminal joy exhibited in the lilt of his limbs running even on the most prosaic terrain. Which is where we are presently, now that he has shown up on my turf for a run, unexpectedly, in a dream.

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Gaining the luxury of time by doing less, Part 6

And now, after an interminable five-month hiatus, the thrilling denouement of the thinking person’s guide to slacking responsibly. Even fortified against the madding crowd by the numerous practical steps and information outlined previously, the way of “doing less” doesn’t happen without an ongoing shift in consciousness. In this concluding leg of our journey, we’ll look at what it takes to cover that terrain.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

Unless you’re convinced of the wisdom of doing less in today’s overbusy world — driving that point home is what Parts 1 and 2 were all about — significant resistance to actually going down this road will arise within. And, even with the knowledge of how thoroughly unhealthy America’s culture of overbusyness is, it still may not be easy to embrace suggestions for actually doing less, as you might have discovered while digesting the strategies and tactics outlined in Parts 3, 4, and 5.

This is because the way of doing less also forces you to confront your own preferences for, or addictions to, activities that may not be contributing to happiness in your life. Or in fact may be actively undermining it.

You may already know what some of these diversions are in your life but find yourself reluctant to give them up — a reluctance that might have been dredged up by the practical pointers covered in the previous three parts. Even the attitude itself of regarding activities detrimental to your deepest well-being as something to “give up” indicates an embedded or conditioned philosophy of always “wanting more.” Thus, if you do experience such reluctance, but still say you want to do less, then you have some internal psychological or spiritual “work” to do.

Successfully doing less and reaping the rewards of a more relaxed schedule requires that you take a psychological or spiritual journey (use whichever word you prefer). It’s a different kind of work than we’re used to doing for money or to keep our households running. Its entire makeup is different because it involves looking or feeling within rather than doing outwardly. In fact, the whole “way” of doing less embodies an internal shift to bring a better balance with outward doing by cultivating more looking, listening, and feeling. Not only within yourself but when it comes to the world around you.

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Gaining the luxury of time by doing less, Part 5

Widen your horizons, and you’ll find a diverse array of strategies and tactics for taming the dragon of daily life, all enumerated here. Also not to be overlooked is the “mental game” where one begins to employ the less-is-more “jujitsu” underlying it all.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

The elephant in the room: our jobs

Our world is schizophrenic. Most people dislike their jobs yet fear losing them. But when people trust you enough to tell the truth, most will admit they would really rather not work — at least not at the jobs available — but do so anyway because they have little choice in today’s world.

On the other hand, when people are doing something they like, they aren’t lazy. They are enthused and put significant energy into it, though in such situations they tend not to overwork, instead finding an unforced rhythm of uptime and downtime. This is what natural activity looks like, not the scheduled-to-death lives so many of us live these days.

Best of all worlds: self-employment, flextime, or working from home

In the best of all worlds, this more natural rhythm of uptime and downtime would apply to our working hours as well. However, it’s usually only possible if you’re either self-employed or are employed by a company that allows you to work from home with compensation based on work performed rather than hours clocked. Carving out a niche for yourself in the business world as a self-employed individual, or landing a job with a work-from-home arrangement, though, is beyond the scope of this series of postings. But I highly recommend it if you have the personality, discipline, and motivation for it, and there are a few things I want to point out here.

Self-employment does potentially carry the trade-off of “feast or famine” periods where you alternately work more than you would like, but get unplanned periods of extended time off too. This pattern is well-known by many who make their living working for themselves. It all depends on the type of business you’re in.

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