A recent New York Times Blog by Judith Warner describes the author’s journey into mindfulness (http://warner.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/05/the-worst-buddhist-in-the-world/). The initial reaction of her husband was “I never thought that you, of all people, would get into that New Age stuff,” That’s funny, Pema Chodron, whose work she is reading seems decidedly old age — 2500 years to be exact. The author describes the disorienting and perhaps even alienating effect when people around suddenly become less reactive — a consequence of embracing mindfulness practice. She notes this in one of her friends and sees it in herself interacting with an old friend. She cautions that mindfulness can be an extreme form of solipsism. I agree and I disagree. Americans often misappropriate mindfulness practice into something that becomes self-absorbed, but this is not inherent to the practice or the wisdom tradition from which it is derived. Mindfulness made significant mention in a special health issue of U.S. News and World Report. The work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and the Center for Mindfulness were featured, as well as the brain research of Richard Davidson in Madison. The cover image of the article shows a blissed out corporate woman sitting with her hands in mudra (ancient yoga-like postures for the hands). This is a stereotyped image of mindfulness and meditation in general. It suggests tranquility, transcendence, bliss, other-worldliness. And as with all stereotypes, the image is misleading and inaccurate. Transcendent piety is a caricature of mindfulness, cobbled from Buddhist images and through the marketing of meditation. We must be careful that such non-reactivity is authentic and not just our ego’s way of taking control of the situation. If we identify with the role of mindfulness we are missing the point. I tell my students that they will be more themselves rather then less if they travel this path. Transcendental piety could be evidence of what Chogyam Trunpga called spiritual materialism.
Judith Warner continues, “People who are embarked on this particular “journey of self-exploration,” tend to want to talk, or write, about it. A lot. But what they don’t realize — because they’re so in the moment, caught in the wonder and fascination and totality of their self-experience — is that their stories are like dream sequences in movies, or college students’ journal entries, or the excited accounts your children bring you of absolutely hilarious moments in cartoons — you really do have to be the one who’s been there to tolerate it.” I certainly have read such tracts, and have written my book Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness (http://108metaphors.com) as a reaction against this style. I’m not sure Warner has gotten beyond the cultural role of mindfulness. Mindfulness is rather ordinary. At its simplest, it represents a process of getting to know ourselves, becoming intimate with our experience, as the teacher Larry Rosenberg points out. It is not about getting beyond ourselves; it is, rather, being ourselves more completely. I discuss this issue in one of the chapters in Wild Chickens when I quote Thoreau, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.” Mindfulness is a matter-of-fact orientation to experience that is native and accessible to all. What people often talk and write about and sometimes act out is that caricature of mindfulness. And if this is ego-laden then it isn’t authentic mindfulness.
Warner, I think, misses the point when she say, “For the truth is, however admirable mindfulness may be, however much peace, grounding, stability and self-acceptance it can bring, as an experience to be shared, it’s stultifyingly boring.” I don’t get this. If mindfulness leads us to equanimity (e.g., peace, grounding, stability, self-acceptance) it can’t be boring. Equanimity is a translation of the Pali uppheka that can also be rendered as interest. We become keenly interested in what happens, even when that happening is quotidian. Mindfulness is a pervasive and permanent cure for boredom because this moment is always interesting no matter what is happening.
Warner cautions, “I’ve also come to wonder if something desirably human is being lost in all this new and improved selfhood. That is to say: an edge. That little bit of raggedness that for some of us is really the heart of what makes us human.” Would that mindfulness practice could smooth all these edges. The limerence of practice may suppress these edges but doesn’t remove them. Ram Dass lamented that after many decades of practice he still had the same neuroses. We don’t lose our edges, we just learn to manage them better — in ways that are less self-destructive and less harmful to others. “We are human beings who take form though an impetus to joy, interest, and concern.” This is what I tell my students when they fear losing themselves and becoming mindful zombies — falling into the same misconception as Warner. When we move on the path of mindfulness we learn to strip away the conditionings that make us reactive and habitual. In the space created, we can then move towards experience based on joy, interest, and concern for other living beings and the environment in which we live. We can become unencumbered in this way, and what would be wrong with that?