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.
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.
This is a dream from 10 or 15 years ago that I happened to remember recently. Nothing special was going on in my life at the time, at least that I experienced as being particularly noteworthy.
I t is the wee hours, about one or two o’clock in the morning. I am outdoors lying on my back in a grassy meadow.
It is a pleasant, warm, quiet night. A full moon bathes everything in its blue-white glow, in which I am basking.
I am still myself — a man. But I am fully pregnant and moments away from giving birth. It will not be a son or daughter, however. The person I am about to give birth to is… Myself.
There is no pain, just an exhilarating, quietly radiant joy suffusing my entire body and mind. I am completely in the moment, anticipating what is to come, yet already fulfilled, wanting nothing more, nothing less. My whole being is full, my heart filled.
As I look up, I see my mother and my only sister standing above me in attendance. They do not say anything but they too are happy, quiet, and expectant.
I am at complete peace, awaiting what is about to happen.
Sometimes, after the spiral has turned many years later, you discover the things that motivated you in the beginning are still what motivate you in the end, after other things have fallen away.
The first day I decided to become a distance runner, when I was 14 years old, I went out and ran four miles around the local lake just outside my small hometown. This was without any prior training, to speak of. It was not an easy effort, but not terribly difficult either — somewhat challenging, but it came naturally.
I had no special experience related to running other than a very active childhood playing outside just about every day exploring the neighborhood, taking part in little league sports, and running short sprint races against friends in local grade school and middle school competitions, or during playground recesses from time to time.
When it came to running specifically, as with these short races, I did nothing much longer than sprinting probably 75 to 100 yards, or playing games like “tag” where one might be continually moving for some time but running or sprinting only for intermittent short bursts. As far as track and field went, I had been more into long-jumping and pole-vaulting in the preceding years during middle school. Golf was also a pursuit, affordable to a wide swath of the middle and lower-middle classes in those days, and all of us except some of the adults walked and carried our own clubs around the course, rather than riding in carts.
Prior to the day mentioned above, I had gotten my feet wet a few times in the preceding weeks, running solo time trials of perhaps a mile and a half around the local neighborhood streets, but no more than that, just to see what I could do.
The second day, I ran four miles around the lake again. And each day after that I continued to run four miles or so, trying out different routes for variety. But immediately I was running almost 30 miles a week.
Starting out with distance running like this did not seem that unusual to me. I had always had more endurance than the other kids, whatever the game we were playing. Others always wanted to quit before I did. I did not have a high energy level, but the ability to endure had seemingly always been there.