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.
Reductionism with a spiritual face
Drilling down into perception
First is what one could call “perceptual-level bias,” or a skewing of the emphasis of awareness in meditation toward paying attention primarily to the smallest building blocks of perceptual events. This has parallels with the branch of subatomic physics in modern science, which concerns itself only with physical events at the level of the atom and smaller, leaving more inclusive realms of physical events to others. This of course does not make up the whole of insight meditation practice, but the strong emphasis on the microcosmic aspects of experience does comprise a large part of it.
In mindfulness meditation, one is trained to focus on the subcomponents of perception or experience, and gradually drill down to more and more microcosmic levels. Initially, one starts with the breath to develop enough concentration to be able to stay with what one is focusing on without attention drifting off. At first one may concentrate on counting each breath as an aid to remaining focused on it. Then one may break down the breath into the phases of inhalation, the short pause following, then exhalation, and then another pause following that, after which a new breath begins.
Thoughts and emotions are similarly viewed as brief, discrete events that arise, persist, and then disappear within small slices of time. According to one analogy, their coming into and going out of existence can be likened to the way children’s soap bubbles form and then pop. They’re first blown into existence like a thin film of soap that inflates into a bubble one can see coming into being, which persists for a short-lived period of time, then pops back out of existence.
Over time, as concentration and observation are trained, one can break down sensations such as the arising and falling of the breath or of thoughts or emotions into finer and finer increments. For advanced meditators who want to take this process to its extreme end, it is said thousands or millions of “mind-moments” occur in the space of a lightning-flash. Ultimately, such perception takes on the appearance before the mind’s eye of a rapid flux of events that disappear almost as quickly as they arise, such that their seeming substantiality dissolves into evanescence.
There is a reason for this microcosmic focus: to demonstrate that perception consists of a discontinuous series of such mind-moments rather than the unbroken flow we commonly imagine. And why is this aspect of events focused on? Because when you follow this method to its logical conclusion of observing nothing but separate mind-moments, it demonstrates the three “marks of existence” held to be fundamental in Buddhist psychology:
- The impermanence of all phenomena, anicca, along with its two corollaries…
- The lack of an abiding self, anatta, since everything observed is just impersonal phenomena and nothing is permanent, as well as…
- The unsatisfactoriness of experience itself, or dukkha, since nothing lasts that can be hung onto for any sort of ultimate fulfillment.
And, of course, these three marks of existence describing the phenomenal world are used to justify the underlying methodology of detachment, which we’ll cover later, part of mindfulness’s solution to the dilemmas of living.
The downside of reductionism: blindness to wholes and gestalts
The basic idea of reductionism is that the further one can reduce something into its constituent parts, then the better one understands it. The more “micro” or detailed the observations are that one makes about something, the more “real” their status then becomes in the eyes of the observer.
As we’ll see as we proceed, however, the phenomena of life and perception are made up not only of bits and pieces but of the wholes or gestalts that comprise those same subcomponent parts. And a key property of wholes or gestalts is that their distinguishing features and properties are often emergent — that is, not necessarily predictable from, or reducible to, their constituent subcomponents.
This means that wholes or gestalts are every bit as ontologically real and “causative” as the building blocks that make them up. And, also, that what is real on a perceptual level depends both on where you look and how you look. And since how and where you look determines what you see and what you do not, the methodology by which one looks can be a source of blind spots that escape attention if you are too intently focused on the subcomponents of experience. (I’ll cover gestalts further later in Part 4 when examining the question of the reality/unreality of the “I” or ego.)
In practice, then, mindfulness appears to accept as axiomatic the assumption that paying attention to substrate or microcosmic levels of phenomena is inherently “senior to,” or superior to, ordinary macrocosmic awareness.
One reason why mindfulness has appeal for modern meditators is that this reductionistic approach to observation of events is basically the same one modern science takes. Since, today, modern science provides the backdrop for all that is held to be plausibly believable by sophisticated 21st-century citizens, mindfulness-style meditation is something modern men and women can believe in due to its intellectual rigor.
While there is no disputing the fact that reductionism has its value when one is interested in the mechanical or elemental picture of how things function, the assertion that the reductionistic view of things carries more validity than all others ignores the fact that the level of detail with which one chooses to observe anything is just as much a reflection of the observational apparatus as it is of what is observed. One can always make increasingly detailed observations of something given a powerful enough or appropriately designed technology.
But at what level are things most real? At what level can “illusion” or samsara be said to have been finally penetrated? Might it be that it is the observer who decides what to look at — with whatever level is chosen automatically bestowed with the most credence or reality?
Here already, then, is one way in which “choiceless awareness” has been restricted by specifying what level of things should be taken notice of or paid the most attention.
Does attention to the “microcosm” build a corresponding awareness of the “macrocosm”?
Following on the heels of this is the additional assumption that knowing about the microcosmic features of experience, or gaining insight into how these phenomena appear and disappear in the field of awareness at a microscopic nuts-and-bolts level eventually results in changes in perception and behavior at the macrocosmic or everyday behavioral level.
A fairly common story related in the mindfulness literature, however, even by some advanced meditators, is the experience of emerging from retreats or other periods of intensive meditation and being unable to “cope” adequately with the outside world for some time, or of becoming angry and “losing one’s cool” in stressful situations and not being able to maintain the same demeanor and attitudes as one did while meditating.
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts
One reason why the above may occur is that mindfulness practices can result in becoming so absorbed in the mechanics of experience that the overall implications of it may become temporarily lost. It becomes likely one might ignore the possibility of “the whole being greater than the sum of the parts” or that one may “miss the forest for the trees,” so to speak.
It is apparent in studying the behavior of “social insects” — for instance, termites or bees — that at the level of the colony or the hive, features of overall behavior exist that are simply not noticeable or predictable when looking at individual termites or bees. The basis of the emergent behavior of the whole is not to be found in a reductionistic viewpoint focusing on the individual members of the group. In fact, in such studies, it is often meaningless to even talk about individuals in isolation from one another since their behavior makes sense only when looked at in relation to the whole. It often appears, in fact, that the colony itself is the only real “individual” there might be.
Another story occasionally heard is about those who after much meditation (of about any kind, as far as that goes, not just mindfulness), would simply prefer to meditate all the time, if only they weren’t obligated to participate in the “outside” world. The fact that meditation gives them good feelings while they are doing it is taken to be a sign they are discovering “truth,” rather than being indicative of another possible conclusion — that what may actually be happening is they are simply becoming attached to a pleasurable experience instead. Thus the irony that in detaching from the outer world, one may become attached to their own inner world as consolation.
Breeding blind spots
When it comes to the situation in which meditators may find themselves at the end of long retreats — unable to easily cope with the outside everyday world — they may be given a readjustment period of up to several days for “re-entry” from the microcosmic attentional realm back into the arena of everyday behavioral experience. If we look at things matter-of-factly here, it shouldn’t be difficult to see that one thing that happens during intensive meditation is a skewing of normal functioning. Due to the heavy focus on the atomized substrata of experience, which is also highly passive in nature, the ability to perceive or at least actively respond in a normal way to the behavioral gestalts that constitute everyday functioning can be significantly reduced.
Of course, in the short-term one can easily recover from this type of imbalance in functioning because such skewing is dependent on the momentum of a nearly nonstop application of intense mindfulness techniques. And the shorter daily periods of practice that occur in everyday life do not typically have the same dramatic side effects as long, intensive retreats (because meditation periods alternate with much longer periods of daily activity in the everyday world), and so will not likely cause the same immediate problems.
In the long-term, however, mindfulness training — in focusing on the bits and pieces of experience — tends to breed blind spots. This occurs because of its neglect of the wider-angle view of aspects of experience that one would be more apt to notice if they were actually practicing a genuine “choiceless awareness,” as advertised. Even with the more modest daily periods of time spent utilizing mindfulness techniques, blind spots still develop because of the repeated enforcement of habitual ways of looking that promote certain ways of seeing and disregard others.
Eliminating blind spots would entail “taking the blinders off” to a more truly choiceless awareness by not forcing it into such deep grooves. The grooves of mindfulness practice may not seem so deep when you are apparently just letting thoughts and emotions come and go into and out of the field of awareness as they please. But in actuality that’s not what’s really happening.
In fact, you’re significantly limiting what is being looked at by following the admonition not to get caught up in the content or meaning of thoughts and emotions (which may carry important messages or feedback), and withholding the energy of attention that might go toward following them. And it is precisely the content and particularly the meaning of thoughts and emotions — the feedback or other messages they carry — that constitute the gestalt here.
As a result, when attention is purposely directed away from this aspect, both thoughts and emotions themselves as well as awareness of their gestalt wither due to lack of attention. This is also the flip side of the coin, a side effect, of too strictly utilizing the breath or another primary meditation object to pull one back out of any such observations or considerations.
Killing the messenger
While it can certainly be easy to get lost in thought or emotions and lose perspective in that way, the approach of more strict forms of mindfulness in dealing with this is like “killing the messenger” (albeit more “kindly and gently” than usual). Carefully approaching an awareness of thought and emotion need not be an either/or affair of getting completely lost in them at one extreme, as opposed to letting them pass through some sanitary corridor of attention as if handling them with rubber gloves, or like something radioactive to be safely decontaminated.
That said, there can be value in temporarily stepping back from thought and emotion in the way that mindfulness does to learn how they come and go in the field of awareness — that they have a life and trajectory of their own, so to speak. But what is needed is balance and to integrate them in a more complete way. It is not impossible to use tools like the breath to maintain stability of attention to support a deeper examination of thoughts and emotions with an empathetic attitude of listening, instead of treating them like a hot potato one could get burned by.
Of course, to avoid the cul-de-sac of a perpetual “hands-off” approach to thought and emotion, there is no formula other than considering and noticing in what ways you might be channeling or fencing off attention, and then relaxing the constraint. Then there is the opportunity for something new, or that you have ignored by pushing it away, to present itself. The very nature of this movement, though, is that it is not amenable to the same kind of control. Relaxing constraints is a form of nondirected self-trust, which brings value of its own and a different way of investigation that we’ll look at later.
Choiceless awareness in mindfulness is not actually choiceless
In summary, the laboratory-style approach to meditation is another way in which the techniques of mindfulness are reminiscent of the modern scientific paradigm of investigation. In the removal from the world of practical affairs, it is comparatively easy to maintain a posture of detached observation when no real pressing demands are made for a personal response. It is another thing to respond to the different constellation of factors present in the world of business or caring for one’s children, for instance, where the pressure for continual response is potentially ever-present.
The type of choiceless awareness promoted in insight meditation, where one passively watches the parade of phenomena passing in front of one’s inner gaze, is a practice not necessarily conducive to making the choices required in the world of practical details. And, in truth, it is actually not even choiceless, even though it is labeled as such — because it occurs under controlled conditions within a carefully defined prior context. Nor is this prior setup all, since it is then followed by specifying what to pay attention to (one’s breath, and the arising and passing away of thoughts/emotions), and what to ignore (their content and meaning).
With this kind of doublespeak, it shouldn’t be surprising when blind spots develop, or other points of difficulty manifest under pressure in real life. Somehow lab successes don’t always make the transition to the everyday world, where the controlled conditions of the experiment are not so easily duplicated.
We’ll look into examples of the blind spots and unconscious assumptions of mindfulness, among other things, in Parts 4 and 5.