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  • H James

The Paradox of Mindfulness


Always to seek for wider, deeper, transcendental experiences is a form of escape from the actual reality of "what is", which is ourselves, our own conditioned mind. A mind that is awake, intelligent, free, why should it need, why should it have, any experience at all? Light is light: it does not ask for more light. - J.Krishnamurti

It has been a quiet year in terms of this blog. Partly it's a motivational issue. Motivation is a little like riding a bicycle in that starting from a standstill requires the most effort, but once you get going you naturally find yourself wanting to go faster. Metaphorically I've been sat on a park bench eating a sandwich for the past few months peering guiltily out of the corner of my eye at my rusting bike. However, this has also been due to a feeling that the 'meditation/mindfulness genre' has reached a kind of saturation point, in which there is little I can meaningfully add. I also have to admit that my own meditation/mindfulness practice has hit a bit of a wall lately. I get into a rhythm, then after a week or so it drops away as quickly. It just seems very difficult to practice mindfulness. My mind just seems so intent on thinking, no matter what I do. The more I try, the harder it becomes. This is, I've found, one of the paradoxes of mindfulness; it requires considerable effort and discipline to practice regularly, yet the more effort I put into it, the more I chase away that state of non-thinking awareness that I'm looking for.

The famous 20th century thinker Jiddu Krishnamurti grasped this paradox well. As a young boy from a small Indian village he was 'adopted' by a group of European intellectuals calling themselves the Theosophical Society who were convinced he was destined to be some kind of prophet. I don't know what they were putting in their tea but evidently they had some foresight. However Krishnamurti was eventually to reject the idea that he was some kind of guru. In fact he rejected all kinds of organized religions or methods for 'enlightenment' and instead believed that it was the responsibility of each of us to find our own path - to still our own minds - by patient observation. In his own words:

Meditation is one of the greatest arts in life - perhaps the greatest, and one cannot possibly learn it from anybody. That is the beauty of it. It has no technique and therefore no authority. When you learn about yourself, watch yourself, watch the way you walk, how you eat, what you say, the gossip, the hate, the jealousy - if you are aware of all that in yourself, without any choice, that is part of meditation.

Essentially this could not be done by trying or by wanting to be a certain way. Meditation was not, as we so often believe, some kind of experience to be attained. For Krishnamurti, the very act of putting effort into mindfulness creates duality. The 'I' which is the subject just becomes stronger. By pushing ourselves to be a certain way - calmer, more productive, 'better' - we are simply projecting our own wishes, our own ego if you will, onto consciousness and so pushing true mindfulness further away. For Krishnamurti true meditation happened when we were no longer choosing or deciding to be or do anything, what he called 'choice-less awareness'.

More recently we have seen criticisms of the 'commodification' of mindfulness. Sometimes it seems mindfulness is everywhere. There are countless mindfulness apps and books to choose from, and if you work for a large enough organization in all likelihood you will have received a 'mindfulness for leaders' email of some sort. However this isn't particularly damning. Running is another example of something that has become increasingly popular, with a whole industry around it, but it in no way detracts from running itself. Sure, there are any number of brightly colored trainers to chose from, but ultimately when you run you do it for yourself, you find the spirit of it which is unique to you.

Perhaps a more serious criticism of mindfulness is that it is being used as a kind of 'coping strategy' to offset the evils of modern life, or even worse foisted on people as a kind of 'resilience training'; the underlying assumption being that it's not 'the system' that's dysfunctional, it's just that you're not handling it well enough, you damn snowflake! We live in an unbalanced system. Of course it could be worse (we don't have a plague!) but we always seem on the brink of some catastrophe - economic, ecological and so on. Anxiety is woven into our day to day life. Work has become the religion of our age, defining us and taking more and more or our time, just when more of us are questioning why. It is hardly surprising that mindfulness - at its heart an invitation to just stop and take stock of things - has emerged as one of the more effective ways of dealing with the stresses thrown up by our civilization.

Somebody like me who is 'pro-mindfulness' could argue that the problems of society are hardly the fault or something that tries to remedy it. You don't blame the medicine for the disease. Besides, surely its very strength is that it is 'outside' of social or economic or political considerations. But of course nothing is really 'non-political' (to say something is non-political, as George Orwell pointed out about writing, is itself a political statement). Charity, for instance, which is on the surface non-political, is often held up as something that, 'by easing the suffering', is indirectly allowing that suffering to continue, or at the very least does not ask too many difficult questions.

Arguably mindfulness falls into the same trap, and not just because it tries to remedy the psychic damage inflicted on us by modern life instead of, say, getting our hands dirty agitating for social change. Because also it can be seen as a way of 'removing' ourselves from the madness of the world. Indeed that is precisely one of its main qualities. It enables us to 'disengage' from the messy business of society. And in all honesty who wouldn't want to? Especially when - sooner or later - I realize that my influence on the wider world is pretty negligible, that I am little more than a dry leaf being blown along the pavement for all the power I have over events. Is it not far more sensible to ride along with the wind rather than raging against the weather causing it?

However, while mindfulness permits us to step out of the relentless stream of our thoughts, to gain some much needed breathing space, it also gives us insight into the wider processes at play. And while being able to step out of events - out of our relationships with other people, with the world, with our own though processes - is undeniably liberating, it soon becomes apparent that it is just a step. A step forward followed by a step backwards. Inevitably we return to the world, to our reactive, conditioned way of being, until we step out again. Eventually we realize that whatever I am, is a product of this world, that I am not really separated from it or others.

So the question arises: if I really am to become a more mindful, more whole, happier, calmer person, then how can I do that when the world of which I am fundamentally a part, is so messed up? This, to my mind, is the response to the criticism that mindfulness is somehow an 'escape' from the world, from one's responsibilities. Because if you really practice it with any seriousness, you can't help but conclude that I am the world and the world is me. This is itself is a kind of political act: a progression from consciousness to conscientiousness.

So here we have another 'paradox of mindfulness'. Something that allows you to escape the world, only to make you realize that the world is you; something that raises your awareness to the point you want to fix things, only to realize that action just creates re-action; something that requires steady practice and self-discipline, only the more effort you put into it, the harder it becomes. Understandably, they don't put this on the back of the book cover! In any case paradoxes are nothing to be afraid of. Contemporary science has its share of paradoxes, and unknowable, impenetrable problems (wave/particle duality, the uncertainty principle, four-dimensional space). Yet, like the ancient zen masters who say 'only don't know!', it just factors those paradoxes and uncertainties in. It makes them work.

This is why I'm not giving up on mindfulness just yet. There is something in it that works, even when it does not seem to be really working. In fact, they say if you're finding it hard to be present, then it means you are present. If you think you're doing it wrong, it's probably a sign you're doing it right, you just don't know it yet. And, ultimately, even if you are using mindfulness or meditation in order to simply de-stress, with no other intention, then this can only be for the good. One more person riding a bicycle is one less car on the road, so to speak.

- H James, 2019


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About The Writer

HC James is from London and worked as a teacher before switching careers to medicine. He currently works as a doctor in a south London Emergency Department and in his spare time visits family in California.   

 

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