Ron answers questions on a whole range of meditation and psychology related topics, from the online BG community.
Mindfulness has become a wildly popular concept. It is rare that a term from a contemplative tradition breaks into popular culture with such vividness and recognition. Self-help sections in bookstores are now chock-full of guides on mindfulness for everyday living. In psychology, an alphabet soup of therapies capitalize on mindfulness, such as MBSR, MB-CBT, ACT, and DBT. It is no longer unusual to hear business gurus describe mindfulness as a way to increase productivity, sports trainers claim it as way to get in the zone and or celebrities tout it as fashionable. Mindfulness has struck a nerve in our popular culture, and people are looking to it for answers to their problems.
Mindfulness is sometimes presented as a panacea, a magic bullet that will strike down our illusions in a moment and make us smarter, happier and stress-free. This hype around mindfulness, while bringing greater attention to meditation, also blurs mindfulness in the public imagination into a vague cure-all. This snake-oil approach to mindfulness is what I call the Myth of Mindfulness.
With so much hype about mindfulness, it would be easy to assume that everyone knows what it is. Students who are new to meditation are often not clear on what mindfulness really is, and are too embarrassed to ask, because they assumed that if everyone is talking about it, then everyone else gets it. But in reality, pop culture definitions show that it is greatly misunderstood. So sincere practitioners get confused and are too embarrassed to ask about it. It sometimes gets defined as “attention,” “focus” or “being completely in touch.” In more mystical writings I have seen it described as “presence,” “surrender” or “being in the here and now.” In the psychological and stress reduction literatures there is a focus on mindfulness as being “nonjudgmental attention” and “radical acceptance.”
This is where meditators are often left scratching their heads. If mindfulness boils down to nonjudgmental acceptance of everything, and paying full attention in the moment, then how does it liberate us from our illusions? After all, someone deeply engrossed in a rampage during a game of Grand Theft Auto has great mindfulness by that definition. Someone breaking into a house is very mindful of every little noise they make, and is totally “present”. If you stop to think about it, I’m sure you can imagine many scenarios in which people can be “mindful” and do awful or even stupid things. So for someone trying to awaken, mindfulness by some of the most popular definitions doesn’t make a lot of sense. In the context of Buddhist meditation what does mindfulness really mean?
Mindfulness in four easy pieces
The reason why the popular definitions confuse beginning meditators is because they are meant to serve totally different ends than those in meditation. In the therapy literature mindfulness is intended to help the person relax and get in touch with their feelings, which is not the focus of mindfulness in Buddhist meditation (though it is often a nice side-effect). In the self-help literature mindfulness is often intended as a way to help the ego accomplish something or get something – which is actually the opposite of what mindfulness is used for in contemplative traditions. It may be cynical to say, but celebrity versions of mindfulness are simply meant to enhance a public persona and will remain in the public eye until mindfulness has jumped the shark. If the meditator relies on pop concepts of mindfulness, they will be working against the path rather than moving forward.
Many definitions of mindfulness that are out there leave out three-fourths of the picture. They have it right when they include attention, so we can think of that as the first piece. What follows is a discussion of the other three missing pieces.
Piece 2: Mindfulness of… a meditation object
In order to pay attention, accept, or be nonjudgmental you need something to pay attention to and be nonjudgmental about. What you need is called an “object” in meditation. An “object” has a special place in the world of meditation; it is what the meditator selects as the focus and centerpiece of the meditation. Objects come in all shapes and sizes. Just about anything (and literally “no-thing”) can be an object. Objects are what the mind uses to get the meditation going and keep it going. Some traditional objects are the breath, sensations in the body, a repeated word or phrase, a question, the flow of thoughts, mental images, painted discs called kasinas, emotions and hundreds of other things. In some traditions the goal of the meditation is to maintain an awareness of the object through literally every waking moment. In specialized practices the mind is allowed to freely wander and whatever it naturally focuses on becomes an object for an instant, before it moves on to something else. In the context of practice it is important to remember that mindfulness is always “mindfulness of…” there is always an object to which the attention is applied. This crucial piece is what is often missing in pop definitions of mindfulness, as if it were a disembodied process with nothing to anchor it in reality.
Piece 3: The Quality of Attention – Falling in love with the object
But this is not the whole picture. Mindfulness is not just being present in the moment. It is not simply attention, and it is not the object either. And it is not both. It is an intimacy between the meditator and object that is unique depending on the person and object. At this point, the attitude of the meditator plays a great role in mindfulness. The meditator begins to build a relationship with the object, to learn about it, understand it, and become deeply alive to it. The meditator needs to generate curiosity, interest and affection for the object. I once heard the concentration meditation teacher Tina Rasmussen describe this process as “falling in love with the object.” This is a perfect way of describing it.
Piece 4: Remembering to remember
Adding to the complexity, and depth, of this practice-oriented view of mindfulness is that it also includes the act of remembering – the last piece of the picture. Staying focused on an object, even for a few minutes, can be difficult. There is effort involved in staying with the object, especially at first, because the mind likes to wander off. What is needed is a constant act of remembering to pay attention to the object. This act of remembering is also referred to with the shorthand: “mindfulness.” This is the work of meditation and it can be very difficult for some meditators. I have been meditating for years and I still need to put effort in each time I choose an object and “put mindfulness before” me, as the Buddha described it. That initial effort gets easier and easier as time goes on, and eventually you will even take joy in that effort, as if the act of remembering brings with it the inspiration to keep at it.
A mature practitioner will see that though mindfulness does indeed include attention to the present moment, it is so much more. Mindfulness is the gentle, recurring, building of a relationship between the mind of the meditator and an object of meditation. To build this relationship the meditator constantly guides the mind back to the object and surrenders as much attention to the object as they can. In this process, the mind becomes quiet and still, and the object starts to become more and more joyful to watch. Once the meditator begins to master mindfulness, they will find that they are wondering “…is this it? There must be more than this.” And the answer is that there is much, much more. When mindfulness increases, so do the other factors of meditation, particularly concentration, energy and investigation. At this point, two things can happen, the meditator can increase attention so much that they experience “absorption” with the object, in which the object seems to absorb the whole of experience, or the meditator can begin investigating the object to see if the teachings of the Dharma are true (check out the General Dharma page for more). What the meditator will inevitably discover though, is that mindfulness is not all that there is to meditation and awakening. Mindfulness is the foundation upon which more complex and subtle meditative techniques rest. It is the first skill a meditator learns, the one that is done throughout all of one’s practice as a supporting background, and the one that continues to need refreshing even after enlightenment.
Once the meditator has mastered mindfulness, they may be surprised by what he or she is not experiencing. The meditator finds that mindfulness does not translate into a complete lack of stress, or a solution to the problems of life. The meditator will not become more beautiful, begin to make genius business decisions or suddenly dunk baskets like a star. In fact, becoming even more sensitive and attentive in general might make you more irritable, not less! This might seem like a let down to those who have bought into the myth of mindfulness, but that is only because the myth caters to the very thing that all of pop culture caters to: the ego. In developing and truly experiencing mindfulness, the meditator cannot help but gradually shed illusions, and the biggest illusion of all is the self. This can happen in a sudden wallop of absorption, on through the gradual erosion of illusion that insight produces. Either way, if you engage in a sincere practice of mindfulness you will find that while the myth sounded nice, the reality is far far better.
One of the hardest lessons that I have learned in life is how not to be nice. Not that I’m a jerk or anything. After all, I’m a therapist and I put a high premium on the healing power of basic kindness. But when I started out in my therapy training, I was under the illusion that all I had to do was sprinkle the magic ingredients of “warmth” and “caring” and presto! People would see the way forward and get better. It took a little while, but I did find out that I was being more than a little naive.
A lot of my training in therapy has been one hard lesson after another that being “nice” to people is often code for avoiding the things that make them uncomfortable. Avoiding the uncomfortable often makes people’s psychological health no better, and in some serious cases can actually make it worse. Not that anyone should be downright mean, but there needs to be a brave moment where the “stuff” gets put out front. It’s vulnerable. It’s painful. I still hate doing it. But it is how healing happens. I’m a chronic “nice guy” who had to learn to get comfortable with making others uncomfortable. If I didn’t, therapy would become an empty self-serving exercise rather than a real opportunity for change. Time and again when I ask patients what helped them most in therapy they say something along the lines of “you were real with me” or “you really called us on our BS.”
In my life as a meditator, I’ve run into a parallel phenomenon: a whole army of “nice guys” and “nice gals” in the spiritual scene. Like me, they have an almost instinctive reaction to be warm and caring (a whole bunch of them are therapists too). We are big on things like “compassion” “right action” and “right speech”, which for many means speaking, acting and refraining from action all in a spirit of kindness. For the most part, I love this. I could do a lot worse than to be a part of a community that wants everyone to become happy and stay that way. But I’m beginning to suspect that there is a serious shadow side to all this niceness, and that we might be taking it way too far. Our obsession with compassion and right speech may have become our way of avoiding painful truths about ourselves.
Take a look at any best selling book on meditation and you’ll see what I mean. The language that is used is, well, “cheezy ” (right now I’m cringing a little at how mean that sounds, and that only goes to show how deep this problem can be with me). Hallmark has nothing on these books, in which the most common metaphors for meditation and awakening are hearts, flowers, and rainbows (I’m not kidding – these are the most common metaphors used). My instinct as a therapist is to detect BS quickly, and my alarms go off in a big way to most teachers and dharma books. It makes me (and probably a lot of other folks) very mistrustful of a lot of the dharma as it is presented in the west. After all, this “hearts and flowers” approach is a historically new thing and runs counter to how the dharma was first taught. The Buddha’s first teaching after his enlightenment was: “Life is suffering.” Yikes! In other words, if he were on the teaching circuit today he would open with: “stop pretending that everything is hearts, flowers and rainbows, because it just isn’t.” He chose to make that the very first thing he taught. If that isn’t meant to make us uncomfortable then what is?
Buddhism started out with such a harsh and direct truth and got even harsher and more direct from there. The second teaching of the Buddha was that the cause of suffering is none other than ourselves. Life may be suffering but don’t blame life. The “self” that we all work so hard to improve and maintain (by being compassionate and nice) is where all of the problems of life really come from. It doesn’t get any more harsh and personal than that. If the Buddha were to try and publish this in the modern dharma scene he would be laughed right out of Borders and told to learn some compassion.
So if this is how the dharma started, how did the tough-love approach used by the Buddha get lost in a blur of hearts and flowers? My best guess is that we are doing to the dharma what so many people do in therapy: try to turn it around to serve the problem rather than call ourselves on our BS.
Tough-Love for the Self
Suffering happens because we believe that the self is real. The object of meditation is to wake up out of that. The focus on kindness and compassion to the exclusion of the harder truths of Buddhism can act like a lullaby that keeps us asleep, and we remain stuck in the dream of the self. We have only made the dream a nicer, gentler one. What is needed is an alarm to go off, a bit of a shock to our system that disrupts our dream and wakes us up. That is partly what Buddhism is intended to be, but instead of waking from the dream, we are often picking and choosing parts of the Dharma for self-soothing.
For enlightened teachers, this situation is increasingly awkward. One teacher (who will go unnamed) has a wonderful analogy about the pervasive weirdness in the western dharma scene: imagine that enlightenment is a full stomach and everyone is hungry. Now imagine that the people who are full aren’t allowed to tell anybody because people might get upset, so everyone has to guess who they are by how they act. People can kind of tell who they are because they act contented, rub their stomachs and burp. Now imagine that everyone who is still hungry goes around rubbing their stomachs, pretending to be content and burping in the whole-hearted belief that this will lead to a full stomach.
The situation with enlightenment is identical. Many people are trying to get rid of the suffering caused by a belief in the self by getting the self to act enlightened, or at least what they think is enlightened, which is, well, “nice.” Our obsession with niceness fools us into believing we are getting enlightened when we are not, and helps us to avoid confronting our own suffering. The roots of the self just grow deeper the more we try to act like a compassionate enlightened being.
Embrace the Grouch
What can be done? A good place to start would be to go back to basics and start with the first noble truth – that life is suffering. You’re human, you get angry, you get cranky, and you have a right to that. Don’t deny it, accept it as your life and really own it. Confronting this harsh truth about life is the bravest thing you can do and is your birthright as a human being.
Once you get comfortable with being grouchy (and it could take some time to de-socialize from niceness), ask yourself just what it is making you so unhappy in the first place. Investigate it, rather than try to deny or repress it. Really dig into the truth of your dissatisfaction. You will see that the common denominator of all suffering is none other than your “self” or to be more precise, the concept of “me.” It is the self, the myriad identities and stories that make up “me”, that constitute the framework into which sensations and thoughts are sorted out as “good” or “bad” which leads to craving and suffering.
This truth can be seen just from a shallow intellectual perspective. Knowing it just won’t make a difference. Instead you have to do something about it, and that is where a practice like meditation comes in. If you do meditation right you will gradually pry your awareness loose from the “self.” Do it long enough and with a strong enough effort and you will pry it free completely, and that is what enlightenment is.
I speak from personal experience when I tell you that the freedom of getting even a little loose from the self is a far greater happiness than any that comes from being a “nice” or “compassionate” self. So don’t avoid it any longer. Embrace your inner grouch and then you can do the work of letting go completely.