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.
It provided a progressive, gradual path, with no impossibly heroic, all-at-once leaps of superhuman enlightenment needed. Just incremental insights, one building on another, climbing a gentle stairway to heaven in doable fashion. All by starting with following one’s breath and watching one’s thoughts and emotions.
Preview of coming attractions we’ll be looking at
Yet there were veiled signals that all was not lightly held choiceless awareness, acceptance, clear understanding, and ease. The people doing it, or the way they practiced, at least judging by the written accounts available to me at the time, sometimes seemed obsessive-compulsive, even pig-headed. Both theory and practice appeared to be naively and blissfully unaware of certain fundamental axioms of psychology.
It seemed caught in catch-22s and gotchas that no one talked about. For example, it spoke of choiceless awareness and acceptance while simultaneously and surreptitiously denigrating essential and omnipresent aspects of human nature like thought, which it consigned to a mere water-boy role. Despite the talk of acceptance, some emotions were viewed positively but others negatively as hindrances.
Detachment and equanimity were employed to the point they often amounted to a full-court press against fully experiencing emotions. Though the rhetoric of choiceless awareness greeted practitioners at the front door, a technology of highly trained control over attention came in through the back.
So much attention was placed on the microcosmic mechanics of the second-by-second arising and falling of thoughts, emotions, images, and mind-moments that macrocosmic “missing the forest for the trees” blindnesses went begging for attention.
Supposedly, choiceless effortless awareness was both means and end, yet the training to achieve it consisted of unflagging effort and vigilance, directing attention in certain ways in preference to others.
To cap it off, why would metta practice — a visualization technique and hallmark of the mindfulness tradition to cultivate the feeling and capacity of “lovingkindness” — be necessary if one were truly aware of and in touch with the natural, innate human capacity of empathy through meditation to begin with? Wasn’t this like “adding legs to a snake,” as they would say in Zen? And if the separate individual self truly did not exist, why was it being called upon to generate such an experience for itself like this?
These were the issues and questions that presented themselves to me, while at the same time I wondered why those within the tradition were without eyes to see them. Or perhaps someone, somewhere had answers to such impertinent questions, but if so, they were not saying. More likely, I felt, the silence spoke as loudly as it did for a reason.
The more accounts I read of others’ experiences, and the more deeply I looked at my own motivations, experiments, and forays with mindfulness, the more I began to realize that all was not as it first seemed. There was a lot more going on underneath the surface than was generally acknowledged. Over time, with more experience and observation, and more reflection, the reality of the issues sketched out above impressed themselves on me with more force, and became very clearly drawn, particularly in hindsight.
As set forth here, they express both my feelings and observations, and also my reasons for not pursuing a mindfulness practice after a trial period, although the decision was made more intuitively at the time, and not as logically thought-out as it appears here. Instead, I moved on with what has become my own sort of “practice” — that of personal acceptance and self-trust; relaxed, free observation (whether formally meditating or not) combined with a deep, natural well of curiosity and inquisitiveness; a willingness to “live in the question” no matter how long it might take to arrive at answers; a growing trust in the validity of all life processes; and an intuitive embrace of the imperatives of my own being.
The issues, blind spots, and unconscious syndromes with mindfulness meditation we’ll be covering here are not things that should take years of practice to realize, but can be readily observed if one has not been unduly conditioned to ignore them. And in fact, one of the dangers of too thoroughly buying into a heavily reinforced and prescribed system like mindfulness is that it can blind one to things that are not difficult to see otherwise, if one just looks with an unencumbered view unencrusted by years of conditioning in it.
It is rare that one sees any of these issues discussed, though, at least seriously, some of them perhaps at all. And this is the case even as mindfulness meditation is being written about more than ever and receives unprecedented attention these days due to its seeming intellectual rigor. Yet they are particularly relevant considerations to weigh when contemplating engaging in a practice like mindfulness that promotes a supposedly all-seeing methodology.
The view from 30,000 feet — the basic modus operandi of mindfulness
Before plunging in, here’s a brief run-through of the mindfulness program for those not familiar with it, or a quick refresher for those who are. Mindfulness is typically defined as open, nonjudgmental awareness of the moment-by-moment present without trying to change it. More specifically, following the incoming and outgoing of the breath as the primary anchor for attention is a foundational practice.
As thoughts, images, feelings, emotions, bodily sensations, or sense impressions arise in the context of following the breath, they are noted and allowed to pass through the field of awareness, before then returning to the primary meditation object again. The idea is to maintain a stable flow of attention without getting caught up in either the content of thoughts or emotions, or “lost” in the chain of association that typically follows in response to them.
One oft-used alternative to following the breath as the primary object of attention is tuning into proprioceptive internal sensations, and slowly moving one’s attention from the top of the head down through the body to the toes, or the reverse (termed body-scanning). While so doing, you note areas of tightness, pain, warmth or coolness, energy flow, vibration, pulsing, tingling, numbness, etc., while giving them space to be or to resolve, or relaxing into them.
Walking meditation may also play a role, especially during retreats (sitting for too many hours a day leads to physical stasis that is detrimental to health) as a way of extending the hours that can be spent in meditation. It’s also simply a way of practicing attention while engaged in something more active. Here, one’s footsteps are followed by attention through the cycle of lifting, moving, and placing, while walking at a slow place to invite more clear attention. As with sitting meditation, thoughts and emotions that arise while walking are noted and allowed to pass through awareness before returning one’s attention again to the movement of walking.
As another alternative, incoming impressions via the five senses from the surrounding environment, if continuous enough to serve as an attentional anchor, might be used as a stable reference.
Non-grasping acceptance of, but also emotional detachment from, what is observed in order to maintain equanimity are other key aspects of the practice. Labeling one’s perceptions as they arise may be used, as well, to maintain moment-by-moment awareness and detachment without getting lost and drawn into the vortex of experience, feeling, emotion, and thinking. (I.e., as perceptions, feelings, and thoughts arise, one may internally note, “wanting, wanting,” “hearing, hearing,” “sadness, sadness,” “joy, joy,” “Michael, Michael,” “remembering, remembering,” “itchy, itchy,” etc.)
Why do this? What is the point?
Aside from promoting relaxation and stress release, ultimately the idea is that once you gain clarity into the phenomena of life through such observation and awareness techniques, and get beyond your habitual, conditioned reactions, you can begin to touch into what the flux of experience is actually all about, and who or what you really are beyond it all.
When attention is stable and penetrating enough, the meditator is encouraged to examine experience for certain characteristics said to be ultimate truths of existence in the phenomenal, conditioned world. These three primary features or “marks of existence” are held to be the impermanence of all phenomena (anicca), the lack of an abiding self (anatta), and the unsatisfactoriness of experience, or suffering (dukkha). Clearly seen, one can then, theoretically, through the continuing practice of detached equanimity and insight, disengage from these entanglements and connect with a deeper, unconditioned reality.
Underneath or beyond the transitory flux of mind-moments that undergird experience is said to be the underlying void, or ultimate emptiness from which all creation springs. Touch into or awaken to this spacious emptiness, openness, awareness, or oneness at the heart of all being, the larger identity that all of us share beyond the illusion of our separate selves, and you realize your true nature, a recognition and shift of identity often termed enlightenment. This, at least, is the promise of mindfulness, Zen, Tibetan Mahamudra, Transcendental Meditation, Advaita/nondualism, kundalini practice, and other related traditions that share similar roots in the East.
Often, what actually goes on beneath the surface of an endeavor turns out to be different than the ideal or what appears at first blush. Discovering it may require a bit of digging to see what one finds. That’s what we’ll do next.