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.

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?

Silence speaks

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.

Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

3 thoughts on “Mindfulness meditation’s blind spots, unconscious agendas, and hidden downsides, Part 2”

  1. So I have been fussing whether to provide feedback, since there is yet so much unsaid. But bloggers tend to appreciate feedback to the current post, so here comes.

    “fundamental insight into being itself”
    “connect with deeper, unconditioned reality”

    That’s pretty ambitious. I assume those are religious assumptions, not something founded on actual experience? “Spacious awareness” seems reasonable to claim and to expect.
    And finally, what is metta? I don’t have a handle on it from your brief description.

    “unflagging effort and vigilance”
    That sums up my impression of it. (Tried it a few times, did not enjoy it, and sitting is not something I want to do more of. Did not know anyone who did it walking.) The reason I tried it was because they said it calms the chattering mind.

    It strikes me that the term “non-judgmental” is used in the world of meditation (within that experience) in a different way than it is used in everyday life. Same could probably be said of lovingkindness. That might be part of why people have a hard time transitioning. But I am jumping ahead.

    It would be interesting to look closer at the three fundaments, as well as “detachment” as salvific.

    Myself, I got into visualization, what later got called progressive relaxation. It is very simple to learn for anyone, even kids, and one can ask one’s inner being questions. If asked nicely, answers might come… :-) Body scans can be part of it.

    While one does not need to meditate or study Buddhism to understand that “you can’t step into the same river twice” and that “life is suffering” – western ancients knew that too… we could have a very interesting discussion about whether “self” is abiding… it seems to me that people with Alzheimer’s have lost that abiding self, and people who take heroic doses of psychedelics lose that abiding self for a while and then return to it.

    I guess what I am trying to say it that it seems to me this vipassana/mindfulness process tries to prove a priori axioms. (?)

  2. About “fundamental insight into being itself” and “connect(ing) with a deeper, unconditioned reality”: These are held to be actual experiences, many people claim them, and they may well be. At the same time, these sorts of things are ineffable or nebulous enough that I think they function as “Rorschach blots” for people to project their own ideas onto as much as anything. Also, what they actually are or mean, or how they are intepreted is another thing entirely.

    Often when I have some experience or the other, even in ho-hum everyday life, I find it’s different than what I might have been led to expect based on someone else’s descriptions, or my “take” on it is just different, so I leave a lot of room for interpretation, typically. I take what others suggest under advisement but figure I’ll find out for myself as needed.

    Good question whether vipassana’s program for meditation takes the three marks of existence as a-priori axioms it then attempts to prove. I think adherents would say it’s the other way around: that looking deeply into existence in an unbiased way would eventually reveal them even if they weren’t pointed out ahead of time. This is how Buddha is said to have arrived at them via his own meditations.

    But the assumption in this stance is that vipassana’s method of looking is unbiased, which I obviously don’t agree with. I think it’s as much the case that the method “sets up” what is seen, at least to some degree. From my point of view, Buddhism falls into the either/or binary-thinking trap with its three marks of existence. Yes, there’s suffering in life, but joy as well. The phenomenal world is impermanent, but the Buddhist void/emptiness itself (ground of being) said to underlie it is posited as eternal and unchanging — though we won’t mention that, of course, naughty, naughty! ;-)

    Then there is the assertion about the lack of an abiding self — but I don’t want to spoil Part 4, where that issue is covered. As far as looking more into “detachment” as savior — that’s a theme that runs in and out of both Parts 4 and 6, so I’ll refrain from saying any more about that here as well.

    The metta/lovingkindness reference in the intro section was only meant to be a brief teaser and is covered in more depth in Part 6. If you want to get ahead of the narrative, though, don’t hesitate to consult your favorite search engine such as QuackQuackMo. :-) It’s actually pretty simple.

  3. I actually came across an explanation in Pollan’s book on psychedelics. So cool…. :-)
    Haha, naughty indeed. I am amazed how much of Buddhism has found its way into people’s language and interpretation of reality. I am using your insights to help me understand the various pits the “set and setting” of the psychedelic experience has fallen into. There is a crossover here somewhere, interestingly enough.

    Very much looking forward to the next installment.

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