Back to the future
This multi-part post began as an article I originally wrote 30 years ago that never saw the light of day in any publication at the time — even the samizdat many-to-many and zine scene I was involved in before the internet came along. Not long after passing the pages around to a few acquaintances in the yoga community here in the U.S. for comment at the time, and discussing the implications between us, I xeroxed a few copies for safekeeping and then packed them inside a cardboard box along with other essays on such topics. In time, all trace of the piece eventually disappeared into the maelstrom that is our basement.
Over the years, the stapled pages inside their file folder survived a move to a new home as well as a few different basement clean-outs thereafter without ever surfacing. Eventually, I came to wonder if perhaps I had inadvertently pitched the article by mistake in some fit of zeal to flog into submission the subterranean chaos beneath our ground-floor living space.
Then one day during a recent deep-dredging operation, wading through the accumulated detritus of nearly half a lifetime, the long-lost screed unexpectedly emerged from the muck, clinging to other associated, long-submerged flotsam. And in reading through it for the first time since before my hair began turning gray, a thought arose: Maybe I should put this message in a bottle, cork it up as best I can, and send it out onto the open ocean of the internet to see on what shores it might land… before it can be sucked down for another deep dive into Davy Jones’ locker to be lost again, perhaps for good.
Salvage operation becomes remake
Turning the article into a blog piece did not turn out to be that simple, though. Initially, I thought it might be no big chore to electronically scan the original, 5,500-word xeroxed version and run it through optical character recognition (OCR) software to convert it into a computer file. Then, with a bit of editorial cleanup and format styling, I could turn it into a post for upload to the internet and that would be that.
As it turned out, even today’s improved OCR requires careful proofreading to eliminate all the inevitable glitches, hiccups, and mangled words, plus the occasional completely missing line of copy. In the process, poring over the OCR’d file to fix things up, and evaluating the writing from 30 years’ remove, I soon began to notice further fixes — editorial ones — that would be good to make as well.
So, after saving a file of the original version intact once the typographical cleanup had been finished, I created a new version to incorporate revisions. The fixes were intended to be limited at first — just where needed for clarity or to smooth things out here and there. But as is typical once I get to editing in earnest, new lines of thought, as well as extensions of points already present in the original but only cursorily covered, began to raise their collective voice. This resulted in a number of entirely new sections that have been inserted into the revised and updated article I had not anticipated, even as I was composing them.
Vipassana then, mindfulness now
Then there was the issue that times had changed since the initial writing of the piece three decades ago. Originally titled, “What the Ultimate Observation Method Overlooks: Taking Stock of Buddhist Vipassana Meditation,” the name of the meditation practice itself previously in use now bordered on passé for general internet consumption in 2020.
Today, the term “vipassana” is more commonly termed “mindfulness.” And not only is vipassana as a conceptual framework now mostly the province of practitioners involved in the Theravada Buddhist tradition in which mindfulness meditation is rooted, its additional labeling as Buddhist is also frequently dropped these days. Which is understandable since mindfulness is now very often taught secularly.
Even when the practice is prescribed during meditation retreats with an overtly spiritual focus, as it also widely is these days, such retreats are often attended by those from an array of religious traditions. In such a setting, harmony between them is emphasized, including the use of more common language, rather than the differences.
So, I have updated the title here to reflect current usage, not to mention the better crowd appeal and improved internet search-engine visibility the modern term will have. In other places in the text, I’ve also used the term “insight meditation,” which is another way vipassana has been translated into common language in the West.
New day, new world for mindfulness
Over the years, mindfulness has grown to become one of the foremost types of meditation practice followed in the Western world. It is also now among the most-studied scientifically. This was nowhere near the case when I first encountered the practice back in the early to mid-1980s.
Not counting the forms of meditation in Christianity, which have always taken a back seat to prayer in that tradition’s approach, the most popular types of meditation in the West are those that originated in Eastern traditions. These saw their biggest influx in the United States beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, with Zen and Transcendental Meditation perhaps most prominent among them at the time. Insight meditation followed not too long after, although it was a bit late to the party, but is now probably the leader in terms of practitioners, or at least that is my sense.
Other types of meditation less prominent in the public eye but well known within alternative spirituality circles in the West would include nondual self-inquiry, kundalini meditation, and various types of meditation in yoga. There are of course innumerable forms of meditation followed in all sorts of other alternative niches in the West too.
That should be a sufficient overview of the surrounding cultural context here, though. For those new to mindfulness, or with only passing familiarity, I just wanted to paint an overall picture situating it within the wider landscape of practices to give a sense of its place in the scheme of things.
Vipassana reloaded: its popularization and secularization as mindfulness
Today, as repackaged for public consumption at least, mindfulness has been fully secularized, shorn of its Buddhist roots, and transformed into a popular mainstream practice. It is even taught in business seminars as a stress-relief solution or relaxation technique for overworked office-dwellers in the claustrophobic cubicles of corporate conformity. It’s presented as a balm for harried housewives, and even as a tune-up to enhance creativity for anyone (in some of its modern guises, anyway — not in its traditional Buddhist incarnations).
And all of this while still serving as a gateway to more serious practice for those who develop a deeper interest in its spiritual side. What’s not to like, right? So say the many who have hopped on the bandwagon, at least.
It’s a different state of affairs than when mindfulness meditation was first carried from East to West as the niche obsession of nerdy, modern wannabe monks pursuing the ancient Shangri-La of nirvana and fundamental insight into the very fabric and nature of reality. This was the form in which I initially encountered it and, because of that, my exploration here is aimed at the motivations and issues relevant to a more dedicated pursuit of the practice. At the same time, those who have been introduced to the more popularized versions of mindfulness may find plenty of food for thought as well, the longer they are involved with it.
The enduring primrose path: déjà vu all over again
Because of its long road of growth in popularity and the groundswell of exposure for mindfulness training in recent years, it has surprised me a bit as more and more time has passed that the issues we’ll be covering are seldom discussed or even acknowledged in the first place.
Most criticisms of mindfulness that currently exist are from those offended by peripheral concerns that don’t go to the heart of the practice itself. They carp about how mindfulness is marketed, that scientific research on it is flawed or conducted by advocates with a vested interest (perhaps true, but it doesn’t address how the practice actually works), or that too many followers pursue it out of selfishness or narcissism. This last criticism strikes me as particularly hollow — when the demands placed on most by our economically burdensome society cause an overload of forced devotion to a soulless system they could well use respite from.
My interest in mindfulness meditation is to go instead to the real heart of the matter: to look at the practice itself on its own terms, the principles behind it, how it functions as a discipline, how it sets the context framing awareness, the mental conditioning it enforces and resulting attitudes it inculcates, the emotions it breeds, and how all of those shape our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, and our very relationship to experience itself.
At first glance, it may be these issues are not readily apparent. But for anyone who has been exposed to the practice for any length of time, they are things that should eventually make themselves seen and felt if one is paying real attention to the process. That for so many they evidently do not is why I have alluded to them as “blind spots” in the post title. And blind spots in spiritual pursuits are very often the result of hidden agendas — most often unacknowledged and unconscious even to those unintentionally promoting them — which is what makes this such a fascinating topic.
Anyway, it has been an absorbing if unanticipated interlude taking the opportunity to revisit, dust off, and expand this 30-year-old broadside to be turned loose outside the walls of my humble hermit’s lair. For there is no time like the present, even when it arrives three decades after the fact.
We’ll dive into the heart of our exploration in Part 2.