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.
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.
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.
Note: The critique here comprising parts 2through 5 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 workingfrom 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.
Adding to our overbusyness today is the mirage of multitasking, which studies show actually doesn’t save any time at all. Far from promoting the practice, we consider how to tame its prime enabler — the smartphone beast, plus cover a few other tips. Multitasking by its very nature also helps breed and compound that gnawing emptiness inside you may feel. True satisfaction comes from a different direction.
By now, enough studies have shown so-called multitasking actually increases the time it takes to get things done that it should be beyond dispute. We fool only ourselves when we believe doing multiple things at once increases efficiency.
And truthfully, don’t you often find it just plain annoying to feel forced to multitask? Wouldn’t it feel great not to? Wouldn’t you enjoy bucking a damnable trend like this — giving such a frustrating habit ye ole heave-ho?
In Parts 1 and 2, we documented America’s descent into a maelstrom of overwork and overbusyness, how unnatural it all is, and how unhealthy and unhappy we are compared to other developed nations. Here, in Part 3, we get down to the business, er, make that pleasure, of actually doing less.
As I began putting together strategies, tactics, and tips for pulling back from the rat race, it became clear to me that many people would experience emotional resistance to them, despite the desire to do less. Reactions such as, “Oh, I could never give that up,” “I don’t have enough discipline,” “I don’t want to make that tradeoff,” “My friends’ feelings will be hurt if I don’t do such-and-such,” etc.
Which highlights the fact that the approach of doing less — scaling back — in order to reclaim a portion of your life from society’s excessive demands is not just a question of making changes to what you do during the week. Or changing the level of your involvement with certain habits or pursuits, or the pace of your daily activities. It is a psychological or spiritual journey as well. And in large part, that’s because we have internalized society’s demands on us and do not thoroughly question them.
Rather than cover that in this post, though, and delay getting into what it actually takes to do less in your life while still accomplishing what’s truly essential, we’ll hold off on the psychological and spiritual side of things for now. By first delving into strategies and tactics, and experiencing any psychological resistance that may arise along the way, we’ll be in a better position later to appreciate why “inner work” is so critical to the process.
I wanted to give a bit of a heads-up about that here first. Something to be aware of while we’re going through practical suggestions, so you’ll be ready for what might surface emotionally in response, and so you know what’s coming later. Ready? Let’s dive in.
America prides itself on its work ethic and role as the global epicenter of innovation and high technology. Yet it is at the same time the unhealthiest and least happy of the major developed nations. By contrast, primitive hunter-gatherer tribes that have been studied work the least, have the most leisure, and are much healthier. What’s wrong with this picture?
How we got here, or… Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten us into, Stanley
The age of too much to do in too little time we Americans are living in is not solely the product of something that has only become established recently, though it might well seem like it. Its ultimate roots extend deep into our past. The culture of overbusyness we find ourselves snared by is itself held in place by a worldview bound into place inside us largely by the unseen tendrils of Western religion that have grown up through the cracks of society everywhere. Or at least by religion’s darker side. (What? You thought it was all light and goodness?!)
Recall, for example, one of religion’s timeworn sayings whose job is to instill a collective “work ethic” disparaging downtime. The dictum “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” goes back at least several centuries under different variants and is tightly tied to religious admonitions to stay busy at all times, in fear of some kind of unseen boogeyman.
Those outside the church walls may chuckle at such sayings, but nonetheless still cling strongly to the idea of the work ethic, probably viewing it as so self-evident it does not require debate. Nonetheless, the arguments for it are strongly morally tinged — the emotional baggage that goes along with it, and the guilt experienced if one shirks from it, have largely religious roots.
There are a number of other such strictures in Western religion against enjoying oneself too much without sufficient justification. Fortunately they have not been able to stamp out all unbidden leisure, but they do induce a significant amount of guilt over it for many. And that is perhaps the strongest mark it leaves on us, psychologically. Even when we do relax, we may feel we should somehow be using that time to “make something of ourselves.”