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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Mindfulness and the Loss of Philosophy

Today meditation is usually associated with mindfulness, where philosophy, spirituality and religiousness have been reduced to psychology and psychotherapy (just think about how the term "ethically-neutral", in modern mindfulness is seen as something positive). In other words: mindfulness has become a part of what I call the Mythology of Authenticity

Clinical psychology and psychiatry since the 1970s have developed a number of therapeutic applications based on mindfulness for helping people experiencing a variety of psychological conditions. Mindfulness practice has been employed to reduce symptoms of depression, to reduce stress, anxiety, and in the treatment of drug addiction.

Programs based on Kabat-Zinn's and similar models have been adopted in schools, prisons, hospitals, veterans' centers, and other environments, and mindfulness programs have been applied for additional outcomes such as for healthy aging, weight management, athletic performance, helping children with special needs, and as an intervention during the perinatal period.

The mindfulness revolution appears to offer a universal panacea for resolving almost every area of daily concern. Recent books on the topic include: Mindful Parenting, Mindful Eating, Mindful Teaching, Mindful Politics, Mindful Therapy, Mindful Leadership, A Mindful Nation, Mindful Recovery, The Power of Mindful Learning, The Mindful Brain, The Mindful Way through Depression, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. When scientists are describing these as "ethically-neutral" it most often means subjectivism, an absolutely non-neutral sophistic technique.

Various scholars have criticized how mindfulness has been defined or represented in recent western psychology publications. These modern understandings depart significantly from the accounts of mindfulness in early Buddhist texts and authoritative commentaries in the Theravada and Indian Mahayana traditions.

The popularization of mindfulness as a "commodity" has been criticized, being termed "McMindfulness" by some critics. According to Jeremy Safran, the popularity of mindfulness is the result of a marketing strategy:  "McMindfulness is the marketing of a constructed dream; an idealized lifestyle; an identity makeover."

According to Purser and Loy, mindfulness is not being used as a means to awaken to insight in the "unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion," but reshaped into a "banal, therapeutic, self-help technique" that has the opposite effect of reinforcing those passions. While mindfulness is marketed as a means to reduce stress, in a Buddhist context it is part of an all-embracing ethical program to foster "wise action, social harmony, and compassion." The privatization of mindfulness neglects the societal and organizational causes of stress and discomfort, instead propagating adaptation to these circumstances.

According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, "absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism." The popularity of this new brand of mindfulness has resulted in the commercialization of meditation through self-help books, guided meditation classes, and mindfulness retreats.

Buddhist commentators have criticized the movement as being presented as equivalent to Buddhist practice, while in reality it is very possibly denatured with undesirable consequences, such as being ungrounded in the traditional reflective morality and therefore, astray from traditional Buddhist ethics. Criticisms suggest it to be either de-moralized or re-moralized into clinically based ethics. The conflict is often presented in concern to the teacher's credentials and qualifications, rather than the student's actual practice. Reformed Buddhist-influenced practices are being standardized and manualized in a clearly distinct separation from Buddhism seen as a religion based in monastic temples, as expressed as mindfulness in a new psychology ethic practiced in modern meditation centers.

In traditional context, philosophy is a central part of mindfulness. There are especially two aspects which indicate this:

1)  Wonder

2)  Discrimination

1)  Wonder

The great masters asked philosophical questions - that is: not in an intellectual way as in the academical philosophy, and not in the sense of repeating a mantra - no, they asked philosophical questions in a meditative-existential way, as the wordless silence within a strong existential wonder. As Plato said, then philosophy starts with wonder. You probably know the wonder you can feel when you look at the stars, or when you are confronted with all the suffering in the world. This wonder fills you with a silence in which all thoughts, explanations and interpretations in a moment wither away. It is in this silence you ask the great philosophical questions, open inwards and outwards, listening and observing, without words, without evaluations.

The wordless silence within the existential wonder is the same as asking philosophical questions in a meditative-existential way. And it is this philosophical questioning which can be the beginning of a deep inquiry into Man and reality - a lifelong philosophical voyage of discovery towards the Source of Life: the Good, the True and the Beautiful. 

However, most people lose this silence as they grow up, and get satisfied with explanations and interpretations. And that´s the difference between the great masters and ordinary people. The great masters had a strong longing after something inexpressible, after something which can´t be satisfied by explanations and interpretations - perhaps a longing after awakening - or after realization. With the whole body, with life and blood, with soul and spirit, with brain and heart, they asked and inquired into themselves and into life. They were putting questions into everything, and were investigating it in a meditative way, as if it was something completely new. Simply because this philosophical questioning and inquiry constitutes a central meditation technique, which opens the consciousness in towards the Source. In other words they used philosophical questions as universal Koans. All other spiritual exercises were only used to support this.

This is also where the child is coming in. Children are namely still quite naturally asking philosophical questions. Therefore I often bring in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry´s book The Little Prince, in order to explain the simplicity in this.

2)  Discrimination

In the start mindfulness will be characterized by, that you again and again discover, that you already long ago have absented in your thoughts by evaluating, comparing, hoping and worrying, that you again and again are being distracted by the thoughts. This is in fact an important part of the realization-aspect of the training. What it is about, is that you become aware of this fact, and sober-minded again and again take yourself out of this already automatically confirmed stream of words and images. It was this practice Shankara called the Crown Juvel of Discrimination. Day by day, year out and year in, it is necessary to keep the Crown juvel of Discrimination clear. This is done by discriminating between neutral observation and distraction, again and again.

This is the beginning of how to think critically, and making rational arguments. It is a clarification of the thoughts. So central in critical thinking is the discrimination between subject and object, dream and reality - and what is lie or illusion, and truth or reality.

So, critical thinking, and therefore discrimination, are central virtues in traditional spirituality. The Dominican mystics call this steps discriminatio, the ability to discriminate between how the energy is used temporal or religious. The Orientals call it viveka, discrimination, the ability to use your will on that part of the energy, you can steer yourself, and steer it towards exercises, prayer, mantras, meditation, instead of towards career, worldliness, self-unfolding.

According to Rao and Paranjpe, viveka can be explained more fully as:

Sense of discrimination; wisdom; discrimination between the real and the unreal, between the self and the non-self, between the permanent and the impermanent; discriminative inquiry; right intuitive discrimination; ever present discrimination between the transient and the permanent.

In his article Neo-Advaita or Pseudo-Advaita and Real Advaita-Nonduality, Timothy Conway objects against the modern tendency to focus on mindfulness alone, and writes on the necessity of critical thinking and discrimination in a spiritual practice:

Some spiritual teachers and their disciples have become boxed into a viewpoint which constrains them to only see whatever happens as "good" or "perfect" or even as "nothing really happening," and have abandoned all capacity for evaluating phenomena and distinguishing what we can identify as the 3 levels of nondual Reality:

--level 3: the conventional level of the "appropriate & inappropriate," "helpful and harmful," "right and wrong," "justice & injustice," "up and down," "female and male," etc.; 

--level 2: the "psychic heavenly truth" that whatever happens for all immortal souls is "perfect," the "exquisite manifestation of Divine Will," the "flawless play of Awareness" bringing these souls Home to God-Realization; and 

--level 1: Absolute Reality, wherein it is realized that whatever happens is a dream, so nothing is really happening, there are no distinct worlds, no distinct beings, no multiplicity, only GOD, only Divine Awareness.

It is a grand paradox that nondual Reality should have these different truth-levels, but such is borne out by nondually-oriented texts and teachings from sages across cultures about the nature of Reality on the conventional level, the psychic soul level, and the Absolute "level" (which is, strictly speaking, not a "level" but the sole Reality, absolutely True, while the levels 2 and 3 are "relatively true," dependent on the Absolute Reality or Parabrahman).

The relevant point here is that if people don't simultaneously honor all three of these "levels" of Reality, especially the conventional level (level 3 in the above model), they will mistakenly think that being discerning or critical—i.e., critiquing any form of thinking or behavior—is "being negative" or "deluded" or "coming from the head, not the heart." (Actually, a true sage is free to utilize both head and heart as instruments of consciousness, sensitivity, and response-ability.)

Yet critical thinking is the ancient art, expressed on the conventional level of daily reality, of assessing or evaluating beliefs and consequent behavior for the sake of the individual and common good, that which fully serves us, not weakens or imbalances us. Critical thinking can 1) identify any faulty thinking, self-deception, blind spots, distortion, misinformation, propaganda, and prejudice on the cognitive level of our views, and 2) identify external attitudes and behaviors that don't serve our private and public welfare—the commonweal; i.e., attitudes and behaviors that don’t truly free us and empower us and/or fail to accord with an ethics and value-system promoting authentic liberation, justice and fairness.

An informative Wikipedia article on the topic says that critical thinking values “clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance and fairness.” No wonder that experts in the field of psychology and education believe that our society and our schools need far more emphasis, not less emphasis, on critical thinking skills, so that we can better function from facts and sound premises, not from delusions, lies, half-truths and biases. For instance, in the realm of politics, healthcare, corporations and mass media, and certainly in the field of religion and spirituality, much more critical thinking, not less, is needed for distinguishing fact from fiction, truth from untruth, the proper from the improper, good from evil.

Ancient India hosted a healthy tradition of critical thinking and debate—debating the merits and demerits of certain philosophical and/or metaphysical positions and behavioral lifestyles. The sages of the Upanishads, the Buddha, Nāgārjuna, Śaṅkara, and other famous spiritual luminaries all strongly display this healthy tendency of constructive criticism and debate. Likewise with our ancient Greek wisdom tradition in the West. The Wikipedia article on “critical thinking” explains how any Greek-English lexicon will clarify that the verb krino- means to choose, decide or judge, and to separate or winnow the wheat from the chaff, or that which has worth from that which does not. Hence a krites or critic is one who can usefully discern, judge or arbitrate.

Jesus is alleged to have said, “Judge not, lest you be judged,” but the Gospel accounts indicate that Jesus himself frequently judged and evaluated the good from the not-good. His “judge not” message was addressed to the hypocrites, it was not meant as a general instruction to never engage in serious critical thinking. And consider how Jesus confronted the money-men and animal murderers in the temple at Jerusalem—and then he threw them outof that place.

Again, therefore, we can say that those who are kritikos, critical, have the ability to discern truth from delusion and the appropriate from the inappropriate.

An overall point to remember about critical thinking and critiquing flawed views/behaviors is that we always strive to maintain empathy and humility and a spirit of “constructive criticism.” We can steer clear of destructive criticism, and all manner of arrogance, hypocrisy and malice as we endeavor to criticize untruth and assert a greater truth.

Philosophy means love of wisdom, and with the discriminative inquiry we´re back in the existential wonder. As your meditation practice proceeds forward your personally thoughts will begin to open themselves for the original images, yes, your thoughts will also become characterized by more common and universal questions: How does man preserve peace of mind and balance in all the relationships of life? How do we learn to appreciate the true goods and flout all transient and vain goals? Is the destiny of Man part in a larger plan?

So, in this way philosophy is quite central in all traditional spiritual practices. Original wisdom traditions include Gnosticism and Mysticism within the early and medieval Christianity, Sufism in Islam, Hasidism and Kabbalah in Judaism, Advaita Vedanta in Hinduism, Zen and Dzogchen in Buddhism. In China you´ll find Taoism. But even older are Shamanism and Paganism; religious practices which I under one call the old religion and the old art.

Related articles: 

The Eckhart Tolle Show - a Critique (in this article I show that Tolle´s teaching is nothing more than guided mindfulness psychology, which, in the abjuration of thinking, is working as a hypnotic means for Tolle´s ideology, namely the New Thought movement)

Self-help and the Mythology of Authenticity

McMindfulness - The Marketing of Well-Being, by Jeremy D. Safran, in Psychology Today, Posted Jun 13, 2014

Beyond McMindfulness, by Ron Purser and David Loy, Huffington Post, posted July 1, 2013

Related book:

Meditation as an Art of Life – a Basic reader (in this book I show how philosophical questions can be seen as a central meditation technique).

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