Mindfulness meditation’s blind spots, unconscious agendas, and hidden downsides, Part 3

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

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 withers 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 main 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.

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

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

  1. “since everything observed is just impersonal phenomena”
    Impersonal phenomena observed by a person. Hm.

    “But at what level are things most real? At what level can “illusion” or samsara be said to have been finally penetrated?”
    Love that. My own impression is that this is a pointless quest. There are no guarantees. There is only the adventure.

    “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.”
    You’d think. You cite evidence to the contrary. I wonder if anyone has done a study on this.

    “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”
    Key stuff, this. Why is it that content and meaning and even self are kinda dumped in the trash basked labeled illusion?

    “attention to support a deeper examination of thoughts and emotions with an empathetic attitude of listening”
    Seems to me that this would be the corollary of “non-violent communication” where messages from others are treated that way. Does not the inner being deserve the same?

  2. Regarding “Impersonal phenomena observed by a person. Hm.” Actually, the worldview of Buddhism, and a few other Eastern philosophies such as Advaita Vedanta, is that awareness in and of itself is the observer, but it is an impersonal awareness. Also, its source originates in an absolute awareness, consciousness, or emptiness that is the ground of all being, out of which everything arises including the material universe. So philosophically it equates to absolute idealism or panentheism, i.e., “all is one.”

    To perhaps make more clear the point about insight into the microcosm not necessarily affecting the macrocosm: Another example would be that insights derived from quantum physics (microcosm) don’t help when attempting to understand or affect the behavior of biological organisms (macrocosm). Nor do they help in understanding or predicting the evolution of species and ecosystems, at an even higher level. Or tomorrow’s weather, for that matter. ;-) They are very powerful on some levels, obviously, but not others.

    “Content and meaning and even self are kinda dumped in the trash basket labeled illusion”… This happens, in part, because just about everything in Buddhism (Hinduism too, though not Taoism) is ultimately viewed as illusion other than the absolute itself. This goes back to the underlying Buddhist/Hindu worldview of absolute idealism. In and of itself, idealism doesn’t automatically lead to writing off what’s secondary to the absolute as problematic, of course, or shouldn’t. Because in this view the absolute gives birth to the “relative,” which is not in itself bad. (Heck, it could be a good thing, if you like the fact you seem to exist as a person. :-) )

    The “bonus” insight in Buddhism and Hinduism, though, that pushes things over the edge into the circular file is all this stuff (thought, emotions, self, or anything associated with them), or at least a huge deal of it, is given black marks for generating karma and suffering. If you accept this proposition, it makes the majority of the “manifest” side of existence problematic, if the goal is to eliminate both suffering as well as rebirth on the wheel of life (samsara).

    I obviously agree that feedback from “the inner being,” as you put it, deserves the same kind of nonviolent treatment as messages from others. But the hidden violence here is overlooked because it’s wielded in a way similar to the “soft power” of political imperialism, with a covert agenda of co-opting and maintaining control over things. More on the latter in Parts 4/5.

  3. The awareness you speak of comes through on large doses of psychedelics as well, though I have read reports where the usual self (ego) goes quiet, and another kind of self emerges that is encompassing, yet still connected with the person doing the observing. Pollan says that he wanted another word for “I” that would express all that. I don’t think he found it, though maybe someone has since.

    Seems to me that the possibility or even desirability of the elimination of suffering is another a priori axiom, and a questionable one at that.

  4. Re: psychedelics and Pollan. The differences between East and West when talking about self, identity, and awareness can cause communication issues if these terms, as well as their overall context, are not defined well, which they often aren’t. The mainstream West conceives of awareness/consciousness as a discrete thing that emanates separately from each of a multitude of disconnected egos/selves. This idea of self arises out of the conception that everything in creation is fundamentally separate and distinct like billiard balls bouncing around caroming off of each other.

    The viewpoint of the East is the opposite: egos or selves are likened to waves on the ocean of a kind of universal awareness/consciousness, but all fundamentally connected or one. You sometimes see this discussed in terms of small-s self and capital-S Self, each self a wave, and Self equating to the ocean. Another way of putting it would be that each self is like a porthole through which unmanifest Self sees/experiences the manifest universe.

    So in reference to reports about psychedelics or Pollan talking about another kind of self emerging that is encompassing yet connected with the individual… The East has a worldview and language to discuss that — self and Self in a context of interconnected unity. Whereas it’s difficult coming from a Western worldview to conceive of or talk about how two different kinds of unrelated s/Selves might be connected. Its fundamental perspective isn’t really geared well for that.

    Yes, by Jove, let’s just eliminate any and all suffering — and with it the Bzzzt feedback mechanism for motivating change itself on the human level. Pure genius! The East, or at least mainstream Buddhism and much of Hinduism, takes a big swing and a miss on this one (in my opinion, of course). “Batter, batter, battuh… SWING!” ;-)

  5. You are right on, Pollan complains a lot that he does not have the right language to describe what he experienced. But he is batting for those western scientists who are willing to come out and speak about the possibility of consciousness being one of the building blocks of the universe. You kinda get the impression they are still rare, and not really appreciated. But I think reality is on their side (vice versa, actually:).

    Capital Self. Interesting. I am planning to talk psychedelics soon, and will try that on.

    “Another way of putting it would be that each self is like a porthole through which unmanifest Self sees/experiences the manifest universe.”

    Cool, man. Haven’t heard that one yet. I figure we each are a feedback mechanism for that unmanifest Self….

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