Mindfulness meditation’s blind spots, unconscious agendas, and hidden downsides, Part 4

A key tool deployed in mindfulness is detachment in observation, in the effort to maintain objectivity of awareness. But it’s a double-edged sword with an unacknowledged cost, and masks a deeper motivation. Similarly, breaking down experience into bits and pieces to elicit the perception there is “no abiding self” obscures one’s vision in another way.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

The alluring image of detachment

Much of the scientific or modern appeal of insight meditation comes from its detached methodology of observation, which mimics the modern scientific approach of attempting to remain as objective as possible. In these times of alienation and disillusioned idealism, not only is mindfulness the most scientific of meditation methods, but it is also attractive for the images of detachment it projects.

When one has been frustrated in their idealism or isolated in their alienation by our gigantic, technological, and impersonal culture, to have a method offered whereby one can work with these feelings in a different, more constructive or alluring way can be very appealing. In the process of meditative detachment, one can be removed from direct relationship with life processes that may be painful and not be as deeply affected by them. The equanimity that goes hand in hand with detachment can serve as a psychological buffer to provide a soothing balm for the inevitable dislocations of life in today’s world.

More fundamentally, though, masked by the practice of detachment is what amounts to an unspoken fear or distaste of emotional involvement in life. This hidden aversion is an unseen blind spot in mindfulness that originates in the underlying Buddhist philosophy of the “three marks of existence” (mentioned in Parts 2 and 3), one of which is unsatisfactoriness or suffering (dukkha). This is enough of a preoccupation in Buddhist psychology that an ultimate long-term goal of the entire practice becomes oriented toward not just reasonably minimizing psychologically rooted suffering but the Sisyphean task of avoiding it entirely.

Almost any emotional involvement is seen as inviting suffering. It’s one of the main reasons for the strategy of detachment, apart from the role of detached witnessing in enabling one to step back, as it were, and observe phenomena more objectively by not getting entangled by them emotionally or discursively. Ironically, aversion is one of the “five hindrances” (negative emotions) in Buddhism and mindfulness that is to be transcended, and yet here it sneaks in through the back door. (The other four are: desire for sensory pleasures; sloth and laziness; restlessness, agitation, and worry; and doubt and uncertainty.)

Detachment, disidentification, and the experience of no-self

Tying in with this outlook is that in Buddhism there is said to be no abiding element one can call “self.” In the process of vipassana meditation, one approach taken in certain stages of the practice is that of disidentifying with anything that might come up during one’s meditations.

One way this is done is by “labeling” thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and experiences as they arise during meditation. (“Thinking, thinking”; “wanting, wanting”; “hearing, hearing”; “remembering, remembering”; etc.) While the immediate intent of such a technique is to simply provoke a more distinct awareness of what is being experienced, a more long-term effect is to enforce the sense that all of it is impersonal phenomena that arises on its own without a self involved.

It shouldn’t come as a big surprise, then, that practicing a technique of this nature that purposely elicits a sense of detachment or disidentification from what is experienced almost guarantees one will, in fact, arrive at the conclusion there is “no abiding self” (anatta). Disidentifying from and labeling one’s experiences introduces a definite “observer bias” that plays a significant role in coloring, if not actually creating and shaping the kinds of things that are then observed to be present.

The “I” is a gestalt — not a singular entity

The modular, multiplex nature of self

There seems to be considerable confusion in not only mindfulness but numerous other Eastern approaches when it comes to notions of the “I,” ego, or self. When you sit in meditation and examine the building blocks of perceptual experience in mindfulness, it is true as these traditions say that at this micro-level you cannot find any abiding self or “I.” However, to jump from that perception to the idea there is therefore no “I” of any sort on the personal level is a fundamental misconception that misses the forest for the trees.

Here is the key: The “I” is not a singular, discrete entity — it is a gestalt. There is no specific individual “thing” you can point to that is “I” or “me.” True enough. But that is not what the “I” is. The “I” is instead an interlocking, mutually reinforcing constellation of modular behavioral factors or forces that are geared toward the survival of the organism. It is a bundle or multiplicity, as well as a product of evolution. We are talking here of all the fundamental human motivations, “programs,” and emotional responses such as hunger for food and sex, fear and desire, love and hate, dominance and submission, social reciprocity, joy and grief, interest and apathy, belief and uncertainty, and so on.

To say that there is no singular identity that constitutes what the “I” is, while accurate on the micro-level, is blind on the macro-level to the reality of the self-perpetuating internal drives, energies, and forces that impel our behavior as human beings. No matter how much one may try to spiritually bypass all these interlocking instincts and emotions, it is futile. Whether or not it is the case that awareness or perception originates from some other place than this I-constellation — which is another question altogether — it does not affect the reality that the “I” or ego-self has its place in the scheme of things and must be given its due.

Procedural blindness to the self generates unconsciousness

To treat this “I” as if it is illusory just because it is not a discrete entity that one can perceive as such is to almost purposely ignore its reality as a full-fledged, fully functioning gestalt we must deal with on its own terms. Why? Because we work with it every day in a myriad of ways as we go about our daily lives.

To try to explain it away as insubstantial, or purposely disidentify with or disclaim any association with the I-constellation, simply drives more deeply into unconsciousness the things about it one does not like. The end result is to distance oneself from real relationship and connection with the events of life as mediated by the self — that in fact would not exist without an individuated locus of activity and experience.

When you utilize a method like insight meditation that is designed to break down experience into its component parts, then of course that’s what you’ll see when you employ it. But that in no way negates the fact those subcomponents simultaneously are part of a larger gestalt.

This is simply to say that existence is hierarchical or nested — things within things within things. There is not just a single “level” at which they exist. Things can and often do span more than one level. What constitutes a “thing” depends on what level(s) you are focusing on.

Mindfulness falls into a simple logical error here by jumping to the conclusion that when you focus on building blocks, then those are all that exist. I beg your pardon? How about pulling back and expanding our vision to take in a wider view?

“Either/or” thinking leaves no room for “both/and”

Another way to characterize vipassana’s way of reasoning about the ego, I, or “small-s self” is what’s sometimes referred to as “either/or thinking.” Often things are “both/and” instead, which is the case here. A common example: automobiles. We wouldn’t say that when you go in under the hood and chassis of a car and start working with the gas tank, fuel line, carburetor, engine cylinders, pistons, crankshaft, differential, and wheels that somehow the car doesn’t exist. Both levels exist — the individual subassemblies and the collective, integrated, functioning car.

An additional analogy: What mindfulness does is something like dissecting a frog: By cutting it up into pieces you kill (blind yourself to) the living, breathing frog, which is more than just its dismembered heart, eyes, lungs, and legs. (So… Don’t kill the frog. Let it live!)

A third example: If one were to look at a computer as consisting of only the circuitry at the hardware level, or the endless ones and zeros coursing through it, without taking into account the operating system and applications, you will have missed what a computer is really all about. It is the operating-system instructions in concert with applications that govern what the computer actually is (its identity) and does. It’s not merely some evanescent flux of disconnected ones and zeros flickering on and off in the nanosecond dimension.

Doublespeak about the ego indicates repressed awareness of it

Further confusion about the ego is sown by the doublespeak about it that abounds among many adherents of Eastern traditions. Often one is told that the ego doesn’t actually exist, but then in the next breath that it must be rooted out. That we must be ever-vigilant about its wiles and ways of sneaking back into the picture to entrap us.

Well, which is it, then? Does it exist or not? Sometimes attempts may be made to finesse the contradiction by labeling it a paradox but aren’t convincing. When you hear double-talk like this where the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing, it usually indicates a lack of understanding of the subject. It’s also a telltale sign telegraphing the kind of split in consciousness that results from attempting to suppress awareness of something (here, the ego/self) that one does, in fact, know exists underneath the cursory denials.

The self and the brain

The self-functions that comprise the ego are part and parcel of existing as a physical being and essential to survival. Each of them has a basis in or ties into the brain in some way. Examples of these drives, motivations, and emotions are such essential aspects of animal and/or human behavior as: hunger and thirst; pair-bonding, sexuality, reproduction, and parenting; empathy and love; kinship ties, tribal/social affiliation, and reciprocity; cooperation and competition; territoriality, aggression, anger, power, and dominance and submission; the fight-or-flight response; desire and fear; sensorimotor patterning and training; conditioning, habit, and ritual; memory, language, abstraction, learning, reasoning, modeling, prediction, planning, and imagination; and so forth.

That is a lengthy list. And the reason for enumerating these functions here is to help show that the self is not just some “trick,” illusion, or error of consciousness (as often asserted by Eastern traditions) we can conveniently transcend by some special meditative insight, and then leave behind. Though how these manifest and in what context is highly malleable depending on one’s cultural upbringing and conditioning, nonetheless they are “built in,” as it were, in a fundamental way.

Attempting to transcend, root out, or evade these essential operational capacities that compose the personal self and animate our very lives only drives them further into unconsciousness. As long as we are all holding down the fort here on earth in human bodies (I haven’t seen anyone walking around without one lately, anyway) we need to live with and deal with them.

For more about how these self-functions tie in and interact with each other, look up the three major interdependent brain systems: the “basal ganglia” — a.k.a. the reptilian brain, considered a misnomer these days — the “limbic system,” and the “neocortex.”

How gestalts and reductionism contribute to blind spots

The self’s conjoined modularity is not just some strange phenomenon we have difficulty seeing because we are “too close to it” to observe objectively or clearly. While that has something to do with it, it’s not a one-of-a-kind exception. As we have seen, many “things” commonly thought of as such exist as just such gestalts or larger patterned wholes.

Further, gestalts comprise the deepest forms of behavioral patterning and conditioning for the very reason they are multifactorial, and can span more than one level, with potential roots, thus, in multiple areas. Because of this, they can be a potential source of blind spots. It can be challenging enough to become aware of them in the first place — without the added hurdle of a reductionistic method of perceptual training that conditions one to focus on bits and pieces like what is championed by vipassana meditation.

Mindfulness has a lot going for it in some ways, but it can be alternately frustrating, then amazing, perhaps even amusing — sometimes all at the same time — to see it fall into these kinds of either/or thinking traps, when it doesn’t need to be the case.


In Part 5, we turn to the hidden control within “choiceless awareness.”

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

4 thoughts on “Mindfulness meditation’s blind spots, unconscious agendas, and hidden downsides, Part 4”

  1. Since I saw this last, a piece of the header has become gigantic. “There seems to be considerable confusion” is the culprit.

    It is with a sense of surprise that I realize that Buddhist detachment is the opposite of “being in the NOW” that for example Eckhard Tolle brings to awareness, and is my impression that’s what Ram Dass meant in “Be here now.” In the power of NOW, one awakens from the trance of everyday functioning to really be engaged with the reality that offers itself. To experience the beauty of a snowy forest, for example, with a directness one normally forgets. To really see and know a beloved friend with the acute awareness of this unique moment and of time’s passing. Even to see and feel, to fully experience this very moment in the time of one’s life, that will never come again. To grieve after a loss instead of being carried away by the encroaching everyday.

    Whereas what you describe is movement in the opposite direction, from acute engagement, deeply experiencing, to (as I see it) benumbed distance. Is there a name for the sad condition where an abused person makes some form of abuse a virtue to make it bearable? Are you saying that Buddhism makes a virtue of alienation? That’s what I am hearing. It teaches it, it inculcates it, it encourages it. No wonder it made such inroads into our alienated modern world. Instead of waking people out of alienation, it leads them deeper and makes them feel good that they are alienated. Diabolical, if you really reflect on it.

    I see in my mind a photo I saw once… a spacious room in a monastery in California, with people all sitting silently on identical pillows arranged geometrically, same proper pose in the same direction, with proper social distancing space between them. Wow. And they probably paid to be treated like that.

  2. Thank you for your alert about the typographic glitch! I’ve gotten that fixed. There’s an unfortunate bug in WordPress’s newer block editor, which I switched over to recently, and it’s extremely easy to trigger the glitch you noted if I don’t exit in a specific way out of any paragraph I’m editing (or re-editing, as in this case) that contains a drop cap.

    About Buddhist detachment and its “benumbed distance,” as you’ve summarized my descriptions: I wouldn’t make an exact equation between Buddhist detachment and the alienation of our times. But the detachment it offers as a solution to the problems of living does, I think, piggyback on the more general feeling of alienation our culture breeds in terms of its appeal (which I alluded to in the initial couple of paragraphs of the post).

    Another thought your comments bring up is that I hope I haven’t been too uncharitable in my portrayals of mindfulness here. I should probably make more clear that the backbone of my critique in this series of posts was written 30 years ago specifically about vipassana, which could be called the “hard-core” version of mindfulness. I did mention that in the introductory note to Part 2 where the main narrative begins. But maybe I ought to go back and restore key occurrences of “vipassana” throughout the text when that would help clarify things. I converted most of those to “mindfulness” or “insight meditation” for today’s audience when I was expanding the exploration for the blog series.

    Nowadays, the movement has evolved additional forms that are “softer” in approach, so my critique may not apply so forcefully to these versions, depending on the one in question. Some of the newer forms of mindfulness are hybrids that have been influenced by Zen, which is much less structured. Or at least Zen is less structured in terms of the “beingness” of how meditation itself is done, although it can be as unbending or militaristic in terms of the formal discipline surrounding it. Then there’s one very recent mindfulness-fusion mash-up that amounts to a “cafeteria plan” offering a smorgasbord of techniques from many other currents of Buddhism, as well as having pulled in a few ideas and approaches from the modern nondualism movement, which lies outside Buddhism entirely.

    I would say one of the differences between vipassana and the wider mindfulness movement, and especially Zen for that matter, has to do with detachment. Overall, the newer forms of mindfulness still take a detached approach, but they’re not as emotionally clinical or antiseptic as vipassana. For example, in one of the most popular mainstream forms of mindfulness right now, I’ve seen the term “affectionate awareness” employed to describe the preferred attitude, even when dealing with thought. I have to wonder if this was a deliberate decision in how this particular coalition presents meditation, as a corrective to the emotional austerity of strict vipassana. At the same time, however, it largely does continue to recommend ignoring content and meaning of thoughts and emotions during meditation.

    Also, neither traditional vipassana or mindfulness defines the larger Buddhist tradition, though they are admittedly a significant chunk of it, and there are a lot of common threads. Again, Zen is significantly different, and there is another school of Buddhism called Mahamudra whose central directive for meditation is sometimes rendered as, “Let it settle itself.” Taken at face value, that’s less controlling than the highly structured and detached nature of vipassana. Of course, as with anything, there are differing interpretations of Mahamudra, and it has been “popularized” in some quarters (which traditionalists would interpret as “watered down” or “bastardized”). I just wanted to highlight here, though, that Buddhism overall is quite a varied tradition, just as varied as Christianity, for example.

  3. It sounds like I took it in a sterner way than you meant. My apologies. Much food for thought. It’s made me reflect on what the self really is (as I understand it.) I appreciate the nudge.

  4. I actually very much appreciate what you said in your first reply, no apologies needed. It let me know a couple of things. One, the tone of the post was probably too harsh in various places. As is sometimes said when ironing things out between people: “It’s not you, it’s me!”

    Two, it may also be I am assuming too much on the part of the reader. I’ve been immersed in Eastern philosophical and spiritual perspectives, and their interface with the West, on and off for decades. The core target audience will hopefully have a good deal of that grounding, but the potential wider audience that has only been exposed to mindfulness from a more secular perspective, or isn’t into it as deeply, will not.

    When I have time, I’m going to go back and edit the passages responsible for the unwanted harshness to be more even-handed. It doesn’t do a whole lot of good to point out the stuff I’m digging into if it’s framed in a way that’s too sharp. I don’t want to either be just preaching to the choir on the one hand, or driving in the point so hard it provokes unnecessary pushback from those it might prove helpful to in some way.

Leave a Comment