Archive for the ‘Mindfulness’ Category

24 September

Right Mindfulness – A Human Constitutional Analogy

We concluded our recent discussion of Buddhist mindfulness by exposing a fatal flaw in the approach to meditation that seems to have become de rigueur in certain circles of the self-improvement industry. Specifically, a movement that purports to be all about enhancing awareness has failed to take account of one of the fundamental paradigms of New Age thought – the verifiable fact that our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions impinge directly on the quality and details of our physical reality. Any notion of “right mindfulness” that does not enhance our awareness of this constant creative process is leaving us in the dark instead of enlightening and empowering us. We need an approach that focuses our attention on the fascinating interplay between inner and outer reality – an approach that encourages us to create the best personal realities we can.

In this post, we shall employ an analogy from political science to flesh out one way of maintaining the kind of mindfulness dictated by a recognition of our personal, creative power. Although this analogy may prove inaccessible to people with little background in the social sciences, the language of politics is steeped in concepts that deal with the distribution of power and with hierarchies of authority. The analogy is imperfect (and there is little to be gained from attempting to make it “fit” more closely) but I hope it will help you to think about how effectively you are using your own power at any given time, and thereby remind you just how much power you actually have.

The Supreme Law of the… Mind

As Constitutional scholars know all too well, Article VI, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution declares that the federal Constitution is the supreme law of the land, trumping all other sources of law, such as state or federal statutes, that do not comport with its dictates. In the case of personal reality, there is also a supreme law; namely, that we create our own reality with our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. (Yes, physical actions are relevant, but they are subsidiary. The actions that really count are the ones we take with our mind, for they determine all others.) If this concept is alien to you, or strikes you as implausible, then you might as well stop reading here. There are other things you need to read first. (Our review of The Secret contains a couple of recommendations – not including the subject of that review!)

The U.S. Constitution, among other things, established three branches of government – legislative, executive, and judicial. Explained in the simplest terms, the legislative branch (the two houses of Congress) makes federal laws; the executive branch Separation of Powers(the president and his administration) applies and enforces those laws; and the judiciary (the federal court system, headed by the Supreme Court) interprets the laws in cases of confusion and ensures that the laws are consistent with the Constitution itself – the supreme law of the land. This latter function, known as judicial review, is quite controversial in politics, because if the Court does not interpret the Constitution correctly it can be (and often is) accused of imposing its own, subjective opinions on the political branches of the government, which are – unlike the Court – elected by the people. For our purposes here, we do not need to concern ourselves with this controversy, but the idea of a high court reminding the rest of the system to adhere to first principles is absolutely crucial.

In the U.S. system, there is a separation of powers, in which each branch is given exclusive authority over certain matters. In other political systems, such as the British parliamentary model, there is a fusion of powers, in which the separation between the branches breaks down. The British Cabinet, dominated by the Prime Minister, is drawn from the majority party in the House of Commons; while it is an executive body, it essentially controls activity in the legislature and can therefore make laws as well as implement them. Similarly, the highest court in the British system is drawn from the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the legislature (Parliament), further eroding the separation of powers. It is worth noting this distinction, for in the human constitution, we have the ultimate fusion of powers.

Getting to Know Your Inner Government

In French politics, it is not unusual for the Prime Minister to also be the Mayor of Paris, or hold some other significant post. The French refer to this multi-tasking as le cumul des mandats – the accumulation of offices. In our personal politics, we have to do it all. We have an internal legislature, an executive “administration,” and a Supreme Court to make sure the other two branches behave themselves. How, exactly, can we identify these inner roles – these personal branches of government?

In the human constitution, the legislative function refers to the thinking of thoughts and the feeling of emotions; it is the mental enactment of our beliefs. Sometimes, as with real legislatures swayed by fleeting popular passions or the malign influence of lobbyists, the legislature passes poor bills. When you think negative, destructive thoughts that arouse within you damaging emotions, your inner legislature is doing a bad job for you. At other times, the inner legislature thinks beneficial thoughts that tend to create positive outcomes. As long as you are awake, your legislature is always in session, and it is a very busy institution. It is most effective – for better or worse – when it consistently churns out bills with similar objectives; if it’s output is mixed, the conflicting bills will tend to neutralize one another and result in muddled stasis.

The executive function involves both the mental and physical mechanisms by which we carry out the will of the legislature. If, for example, the legislature passes a bill (i.e., adopts a belief) acting on questionable information, holding that your friend is a back-stabber who is out to get you, your executive will ensure that you start to behave differently toward your friend. You will look at her differently, talk to her in a different tone of voice, say things that you would otherwise not say, and perform actions towards her that reflect your belief that she is against you. All of this is largely automatic. Unlike the administration of President G.W. Bush, which used “signing statements” to essentially tell Congress that it had no intention of implementing parts of statutes with which it disagreed (a clearly unconstitutional practice that effectively created an extra-constitutional line-item veto), your executive is a dutiful servant of the legislature, as it should be. We don’t need to worry too much about the executive; there is no “imperial presidency” in our human constitutional affairs.

In James Madison’s original understandingmadison_legislative_vortex of the U.S. Constitution, the Congress was by far the most powerful branch, and potentially the most dangerous. While that has changed in American politics, in our personal politics the inner legislature is unquestionably the dominant force. The executive cannot veto its bills: though it may resist implementation of certain acts that deviate from past practice (habits), it is ultimately powerless against a determined legislature. Strongly held beliefs and deeply felt emotions are unstoppable; they will change your life. It is vital, therefore, to choose those beliefs and emotions wisely, and that brings us to consideration of the judicial function.

Mindfulness Wears Judicial Robes

In an ideal world, the inner legislature would only pass good bills that advance our personal interests. Positive, joyful beliefs and emotions would flow freely and consistently, causing the executive to bring about the conditions we desire. Unfortunately, in a sad parallel to real politics, the inner legislature goes off on bizarre tangents, can’t make its mind up what it really means, or gets seduced by evil factions. It needs guidance, and it doesn’t get enough from within its own ranks. Some part of us needs to rise above the partisan fray and impose a sense of purpose consistent with the supreme law of the mind. That task falls to our inner judiciary – our personal Supreme Court. Thus, the judicial function is one of reminding the legislature – the busy, thinking, feeling self – that its actions are much more than mere objects of consciousness, and that because of this, the legislature had better use its considerable power responsibly. In the human constitution, the judicial function is the pinnacle of awareness.

In an interesting departure from the political practices with which we are most familiar in the U.S., our inner legislature is free to ask our Supreme Court for guidance at any time – to use it as an advisory council. In other words, when you catch yourself starting to think or feel in a particular way, you can ask yourself whether such mental actions are likely to produce good results, bearing in mind that Case Law - US Reportsthoughts and emotions have real power over your life. Upon further reflection, the answer may well be that such thoughts had better be avoided at all costs, or that you have seen poor results from similar thoughts in the past. You can think of this as reading prior case law, or looking for precedents. The inner judiciary has volumes upon volumes of cases in its history – a huge treasure trove of potential guidance, if only we have the wisdom and patience to avail ourselves of it. Note, however, that the cases only date back to that point in time when you were aware of the connection between your inner and outer realities. If your memory only includes what happened “out there” but contains nothing about what you had been doing “in here,” then you have no useful precedents upon which to draw.

Most people live their entire lives in ignorance of the supreme law of the mind. They do not understand the true power of their own thoughts and emotions. Consequently, they rarely harness that power effectively (if they do, it is entirely by accident), and frequently find themselves stroking against the tide, never able to bring about the conditions they desire despite their best efforts. Destructive beliefs and emotions enacted by their inner legislature sabotage their progress. But when we live mindfully – when we become aware of both the existence and the workings of the supreme law of the mind – we are finally able to perceive the source of the problem. To our wise inner Court, the actions of the inner legislature that are bringing us down become obvious.

It is often said in mindfulness circles that freedom comes from recognizing that we have a choice over the contents of our minds. Ironically, many of these “authorities” have no idea just how true that really is.

 

8 September

Buddhist Mindfulness: Cultivating an Awareness of its Limitations

Mindfulness is generally understood to mean the cultivation of present-moment awareness, including the attainment of a state of mind in which thoughts, feelings, and emotions are mere “objects of consciousness” from which the self may be “liberated.” Readers of the painstakingly thorough, Buddhist-inspired website, wildmind.org, may be familiar with numerous exercises that are said to enhance your perception of reality and liberate you from unnecessary suffering by teaching you that you are free to choose the contents of your mind. Although there are some genuine benefits to be derived from these mindfulness techniques, the veritable cottage-industry that has grown up around them is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of personal reality. If you want to follow the path of the Buddha, knock yourself out – and stop reading now, because you won’t like where we’re going.

From the Ancient Orient to the Modern Self-Help Industry

As we discussed in our previous post on guided meditation, there are two main conceptions of meditation: mindfulness (moment-to-moment awareness) and concentration (focused attention). In practice, this dichotomy tends to break down or become rather “fuzzy,” as open-monitoring of one’s experiences – the putative essence of mindfulness – mutates into focusing on particular aspects of that experience. Indeed, this confusion permeates much of the scientific literature on the subject of meditation, detracting somewhat from the clarity of its findings on the benefits of any particular technique. Practitioners of mindfulness, however, need no such validation, for they are imbued with the certitude that they are on the one, true path. But, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once put it, certitude is not the test of certainty….

Purists have argued that modern mindfulness techniques do not comport with the teachings of the Buddha or certain strands of Hinduism. The modern, Western emphasis on non-judgmental acceptance of whatever thoughts and feelings arise in one’s mindstream is said to depart from the original concern to cultivate virtue and wholesomeness, which obviously implies the exercise of judgment on some level. (The very concept of “right mindfulness,” central to traditional Buddhism, contains a judgment about what is wholesome and what is not.) But one of the leading proponents of non-judgmental mindfulness in the West, Jon Kabat-Zinn, sees no inconsistency, adducing instead Buddhism’s central concern with “the relief of suffering and the dispelling of illusions.” Kabat-Zinn, of course, founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which has spread widely across the medical, psychological, and even business fields, becoming quite a little empire in its own right.

The sheer number of traditions within Buddhism accounts for much of this dispute, and it could easily be dismissed as irrelevant. However, we shall see later that the issue of judging the contents of one’s mind is very, very important. For now, we must acknowledge that mindfulness as taught in the West has been shown repeatedly to effectively combat stress and negative dispositions.  Part of its effectiveness against stress is surely due to reining in the mind’s tendency to wander off and entertain worst-case scenarios in a hypothetical future. The reduction of corrosive stress hormones circulating through one’s system in response to imagined threats has much to do with the boost to immune function attributed to mindfulness. And a shift in the activity of the prefrontal cortex – from the right to the left side – seems to be involved in helping practitioners recover more quickly from negative experiences and escape depression. Clearly, the practice is not utterly devoid of merit.

Add A Dash of Neuroscience and Stir…

Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain: The PracticalBuddhas Brain Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (2009), has done much to popularize mindfulness and bring science and the contemplative disciplines together, exemplifying the kind of harmony we wished for in our post on the origin of consciousness. I am particularly thankful for his explanation of why it is that our minds tend to behave like “Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for positive ones,” which lays the blame on our reptilian ancestors, whose threat-avoidance mechanisms linger on in the brains of modern man. His suggested exercises include numerous ways to emphasize the positive in our lives and, over time, rewire our brains to counteract this inbuilt negativity bias. Hanson’s mindfulness takes us beyond open-monitoring toward active selection of beneficial inner states. One cannot help but wonder if the purists, too, would be impressed by his attempt to train the mind to learn more wholesome habits, instead of simply watching the mental world go by.

Dr. Hanson, with both scientific and contemplative training, sticks his neck above the parapet of the scientific establishment and acknowledges the inherent transcendence of the mind, then promptly ducks back down again by presenting the mind-brain connection as one of the fundamental challenges remaining to be unlocked by science. (Such a balancing act would obviously be laughable to thoroughgoing materialists.) He is well aware that the most experienced Buddhists, when performing a loving-kindness meditation, are able to place themselves into the exceptionally powerful Gamma state, harmonizing multiple regions of the brain. But his approach to continuing mental evolution ultimately returns to an application of the Buddhist triad of virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom. Fascinating though this might be, it misses an opportunity to exploit modern brainwave entrainment technology – a resource the Buddha could never have dreamed of. More importantly, this adherence to Buddhism makes him subject to the limits of its worldview, to which we now turn.

The Ultimate Failure of Buddhist Mindfulness

Although mindfulness is undoubtedly an effective stress-reduction tool, I remain personally underwhelmed by the practice, for reasons that are far more fundamental than its apparent disdain for brainwave entrainment technology. The fatal weakness of mindfulness is its failure to grasp both the creative and predictive power of our thoughts and emotions. While I share their concern to advance personal freedom, I find that mindfulness practitioners have an unduly stunted conception of the nature and scope of that freedom. This limitation may stem from an excessively rigid adherence to the teachings of the Buddha (and their ridiculously variegated iterations); but, ultimately, it stems from a failure to notice what is really going on. And that’s a pretty damning indictment for a movement that purports to be all about cultivating awareness.

Simply put, the mindfulness industry hasn’t noticed that we create our reality with our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. Thoughts and emotions are not just “objects of consciousness”; they impinge materially and directly upon the very fabric of our mindfulnesslives. In the Buddhist conception of reality, suffering is inevitable and all we can do is choose how we’re going to react to it. By distancing ourselves from our thoughts and emotions – rising above them and becoming a mental gatekeeper – we learn over time that we do not have to entertain thoughts and emotions that magnify or perpetuate suffering. That is all well and good, but it remains a passive and reactive conception of personal reality. There is simply no discussion of the much more profound role we can take on when we act as a mental gatekeeper – that of choosing the thoughts and emotions that will actively change our reality. And, by extension, there is inevitably no recognition of the corollary that suffering can be, if not eliminated, certainly reduced by a wise application of this creative principle. Rick Hanson gets half way there by acknowledging the impact of thought patterns on neuroplasticity, and seeing the need to “burn” better circuits. But he does not go further than that, perhaps because of his desire to retain credibility in the mainstream scientific community and within the mindfulness industry. With one foot stuck in ancient oriental mud, he can’t stride boldly forward into the New Age.

Thus, the kind of mindfulness we should be aiming for is one which does not merely observe the contents of the mind, but also compares them to the components of external reality, constantly seeking possible patterns of causation. Thoughts are not just transient mental guests with only fleeting, internal consequences; on the contrary, they are potent agents of creativity, with potentially life-altering consequences. To simply observe our thoughts in a non-judgmental way is to abdicate our responsibility to actively select those thoughts and feelings which will create the realities we seek. To be clear, then, this kind of mindfulness differs from the usual prescriptions not just in its focus on the vital interplay between inner and outer reality, but also in its explicit call for personal judgment. A fully mindful person is, therefore, aware of his true power and wisely evaluating whether that power is being applied intelligently and beneficially. This is not what the Buddha meant by wholesomeness, but in case it is not already painfully obvious, I see no reason to be constrained by his conceptions.

Of almost equal importance, the cultivation of a rather condescending attitude toward the thoughts that come to us spontaneously – treating them as unruly gatecrashers upon our blessed mental tranquility – leads us to discount the incredibly valuable information that those thoughts are giving us. Just as we send thought and emotional energy “out” into the universe, so energy returns to us and is “detected” as thought or emotion, in a kind of psycho-spiritual sonar system, if you will. This is not mere chatter above which we should rise; it is a bona fide sense that should be embraced. If you’ve ever received a telephone call from someone and said, “Funny, I was just thinking about you…” then you know exactly what I mean. Conventional mindfulness doesn’t just disconnect us from the controls of our personal “vehicle”; it also turns off the lights so we can’t see where we’re going.

Buddhist mindfulness, which beguiles the faithful with promises of “insight” and the “dispelling of illusions,” ultimately cheats us (like all major religions) by denying us the truth. While not guilty of foisting upon us the utter nonsense of omnipotent and omniscient imaginary friends, and helpful to some extent in turning our focus within, a fatal sin of omission renders it inadequate to our need for complete understanding and unworthy of further attention.