Mindfulness - Reflections

    These are my personal reflections from the week Kira's Ways of Knowing workshop took the topic of "Mindfulness".  My commentary is over-long, as usual, but I find the review process a useful part of contemplation.

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    For me this topic (mindfulness)  is essentially synonymous with another recent workshop topic -- Presence, and my perspectives are much the same. We also discussed this in a recent PlayAsBeing session -- Awareness, Considered


    What's in a word?  Consider what is evoked -- for you -- by the following words in the contexts in which you think they have meaning.  Here are some of my impressions:

    • Mindfulness -- kind of jargony, unappealing to the public, and misleading because it implies that there is something called "mind" that is separate from other aspects of experience.  See below.
    • Awareness -- pretty general, better than mindfulness, but gives a false impression that this is a unitary capacity rather than one which has, in context and practice, a lot of specialized structure, skill, strategy.  It also implies that intelligence is "conscious" -- whereas a lot of cognitive activity occurs "unconsciously".  Implicit in this is the idea that mindfulness practices can work with process that come in and out of, or are "below" this type of conscious awareness.
    • Presence -- also jargony perhaps, but not overworked.  I like its implications of "here, now, whole".
    • Authenticity -- Perhaps undefinable,  but evocative -- I like its implications of agency, embodiment, and relationship.


    I liked the simple general definition given by Thich Nhat Hanh (which I quote from the homework suggestion page):  “Mindfulness is the capacity to be aware of what is going on, and what is there. The object of your mindfulness can be anything.”

    What kind of "object", and what kind of "anything"?  Here we have mindfulless as a human capacity, not a metaphysical quality or state or abstraction.  This definition leaves a lot open regarding what it is, the different ways it works, and what it might be used for.  And that is where all the interesting phenomena and practices reside.  Of course one possible "object" of mindfulless is the "self", subject to various ways in which it can be apprehended.

    I'm in substantial agreement with the Normal Fisher article quoted at http://www.everydayzen.org/index.php?Itemid=26&option=com_teaching&sort=title&titleFilter=mindfulness&pgLimit. I don't find it "paradoxical" in the least that mindfulness as described and practiced is really about embodiment (bodyfulness?).  Leaving aside the traditional mind/body dualism, it makes sense that any practice of increased awareness would both highlight the unity of the bodymind, and require some focus on the facets of it that have been masked by the dualistic framework for interpreting experience.  In other words, to look at the mind reveals the body aspect, and vice versa. Body practices such as awareness of breathing, propioception, and "subtle energies" are extremely useful for several reasons.  One is that they provide a present-time-and-place anchor for grounding / centering other mental activity -- providing a stable reference point for integration. Secondly, the bodymind is the space or screen in which all experience manifests, a more ancient and foundational structure of consciousness than anything implied by the cartesian mind/body dualism.  This underlies and predates (in an evolutionary sense) later more complex developments such as the ability of  individual humans to be "aware" of themselves through a conceptual self model.  In short, movement and cellular responsiveness is more basic than and underlies perception.

    On the other hand, I'm not at all in agreement with the cited quote from Tricycle Magazine.  Without going into too much detail, it basically strikes me as a misguided and unfortunate perspective -- a dispirited individual's wishful thinking to bypass their discontent by an idealized (and remote) transcendentalism:

    "We can only find this genuine happiness by first understanding that the present moment of mind and body is unsatisfactory. By progressing through the stages of insight - experiencing fear, then weariness, then dispassion when noting phenomena—we can give up attachment, the real cause of distress. The more clearly we see the lack of worth in mental and physical sensations, the less desire we'll have for them until, thoroughly disenchanted, craving will be snuffed out automatically. As soon as that occurs, pure happiness will arise by itself..."

    Getting back to the point of view on the Everyday Zen site (which I agree with) -- Fischer also eschews metaphysical or philosophical abstractions and places mindfulness in a very practical, embodied position:

    The Buddha and the original people who practiced this saw mindfulness as a concrete, almost physical location in the mind and in the heart, a place of craft where you could do some work. Roll up your sleeves and do some work. We have no concept in our cultural life of the craft of working with the mind and heart as if it were actually "stuff." But that is exactly the sense of it. To work with the mind and heart is something very practical, very grounded, very real. It is touchable, concrete, and located in a place.

    The question also arose about how the term "mindfulness" is being taken from its Buddhistic context and used in describing various mental health programs such as psychotherapy, addiction treatment, and so on.  I have to say I'm quite supportive of this trend.  For one thing, I don't see Buddhism as legitimately owning a trademark in the concept of mindfulless or any other human capacity.  In fact, I don't want to see the term associated with Buddhism in the eye of the public, and object to any effort to co-opt the term in that fashion.  I don't think of Buddhism as a spiritual system -- in my view it's a philosophy of mind, and a psychological framework, predominantly (or initially) focused, like Western psychotherapy, on the promise of alleviating suffering.  Not that I think a religion or other "spiritual" tradition ought to have loftier goals or deserves a more legitimate claim to defining ideas such as mindfulness.  I don't believe in the "purity" of ideas, but think cultures learn by mixing, testing, and applying ideas in the messy contexts of life.  From the perspective of the sociology of ideas, I've noticed there are several ways this type of knowledge is being mainstreamed into the current culture.  Public mental health programs are one, in which the requirement for d measurement and practical results can add a healthy empiricism.  Another route to mainstreaming these ideas is the psychology of leadership as promoted by management consultants corporate settings, and more recently, personal "life coaching" for individuals.

    Catching It In The Act

    Here are some examples, from my recent life, of (types of) situations in which I'm aware of the practical importance of awareness (or mindfulness).

    • Remembering "myself" -- as existing outside a particular state of identification.  For instance, noticing when I go into some more or less automatic emotional pattern, having observations about it, and the ability to make choices about my behavior and (by so doing) to change my experience and relationship outcomes.
    • Playing a game of strategy -- Go -- having the "presence of mind" to take a global perspective and consider various strategic possiblities.  In other words, "what's going on, and what's the best move?"
    • Dream interpretation -- remembering the images from a dream, and then finding a way to let their significance emerge in the context of waking consciousness.
    • Sangha or conscious relationships -- again, maintaining presence to be aware of latent possibilities within myself and others, and possibly make decisions on that understanding, rather than falling "asleep" into habits and automatic patterns.
    • Symptoms.  Habitual patterns (for example, tensions or "stable" sensations) in the bodymind are often experienced as fixed "symptoms" without additional significance or possibilties for choice.  With awareness one can often deconstruct, drop, shift, discover the significance of, or otherwise change these patterns.  Doing so provides a health benefit and frees "energy" for other activities.
    Homework Questions
    • Do you practice mindfulness?  Yes, everything is potentially a mindfulness practice.  Occasionally I do some structured formal practice, but that's of relatively minor practical significance.
    • Do you find the practice beneficial?  Yes, see below for some examples.  But it's a little like asking -- do you find it beneficial to have normal human consciousness? -- because that is useful / essential for virtually all types of activities.
    • Is the Pab 9 secs practice a form of mindfulness?  Depending on what people do during that brief pause, it very well could be.
    • Do you eat mindfully and/or think this is a worthwhile practice?  Yes.  This practice applies not just to food, but to sense impressions and whatever else the bodymind "takes in".  Conscious eating (or perceiving) involves presence and attention and it helps to slow down enough to marshal these capacities.  I've seen people err on the other side of this dynamic however -- a way of becoming unbalanced -- by creating a stuffy, somber, or overly "self-conscious" atmosphere around their practice.  For this meaning of "self-conscious" (which is not a practice of mindfulness presence) see the Fischer articles cited earlier.
    Followup Questions

    Here are some loose ends, or things I touched on but think deserve more investigation.

    • What useful distinctions can be made in awareness of "self"?  What is that "negative" form of self-consciousness?  How does a focus on "self" in this way actually detract from presence and awareness?
    • What is awareness "for", in various ways, both categorically, and in the real, embodied context of a particular "lived life"?
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