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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Mindfulness Thinking

Prince Gautama snuck out of his palace unseen by the guards who at his Father’s orders protected him within the walls. Though he was provided all manner of entertainment and all delights of his senses, the prince was dissatisfied, unhappy, and curious.

Once outside the gates he stole through the streets and alleys of the grand city that he had only seen once in a royal carriage traveling a selected route along bowing finely suited men and ladies curtsying in gilded gowns in front of pompous homes.  But now he saw skimpily clad old men, grimy children begging for bread with their wailing mothers, men who had no legs or with a patch on an eye and dirty cloths bandaging their heads. He saw pain, but even more experienced suffering. How can this be, he thought. Why are people hurting and why am I? How did all this pain from war and want come about?

He wandered out beyond the walls of the city into the farmlands where he saw families toiling the land, but unable to grow enough for their needs and those of the landowners. And he saw that even farmers, smiths, and merchants who could eat or enjoy this day were uncertain about the next. He felt their unhappiness, their grief, their loneliness, and their lowliness.

Why is there such suffering in life? No matter how much he studied, no matter how many wise men he asked, no matter how many journeys he took, no matter how many leagues he wandered, he could not come up with an answer.

Grieving, he came upon a beautiful tree alone in a meadow and resolved to sit there until he had the answer or died. He sat for hours, then days, and weeks, and maybe eons when came a sudden flash. The answer was that there was no answer; and indeed the answer itself is the source of suffering. He realized that all answers must pass.

And thus he became the Buddha.


The Buddha Story is not unlike the stories of Eve and Pandora and the beginning of thinking and its quest. But it adds an important element: the emptiness of the products of thinking, e.g. thoughts, answers, and truths. The Buddha and many great spiritual leaders had an insight into insight as a way to see through thoughts and transcend answers that kept thinking animals in the bondage of suffering.

And so the Buddha is in Rorty’s terms an “ironist” accepting the contingency of language, selfhood, and community dispelling the illusion of a final vocabulary, a deep-seated self, and a utopian community. Words are empty, the self a deception, and the perfect community a fantasy. But that does not mean in Ivan’s words in the Brothers Karamazov “all things are permitted.”

There are currently two ways to respond to the postmodern realization that neither the will of the gods nor the dictates of reason provide the answer to suffering and the meaning to life. The first is action or politics to liberate our selves from the behaviors and institutions of humiliation, which is based on nothing more than a decision against cruelty and for solidarity.  The second is contemplation and its dissemination through exercises of meditation—which today is called “mindfulness.” This tension between contemplation and action can be discovered throughout the history of religion and politics, private spirituality and public organizing.

Mindfulness is achieving critical mass in the contemporary world. Corporations are employing mindfulness facilitators, as are agencies of government and sport teams. Many therapists, especially cognitive therapists, are adopting the technology of mindfulness to fight depression, anxiety, and even physical pain. Recently I attended a mindfulness summit in which Sam Harris, neuroscientist, philosopher, and atheism proclaimer, urged it as a way to promote spirituality over religion, which he judges harmful to human health. Other teachers of mindfulness discussed the discipline and practiced it with the participants.

So what is mindfulness? Most of its teachers say that it is not a doctrine, although they teach it--primarily through meditation, attentiveness, and breathing. But they mean that mindfulness is not fixed doctrine or dogma.

Here are some of its usual characteristics: attentiveness to the sensations of the body, inner experience in contrast to the experience of objects, a flow of images and sensations without stopping on any one thing, an absence of self as an author or subject, letting go the figure of the gestalt in order to sense the ground, calmness and centeredness releasing stress and anxiety, stopping the chatter of the mind, reducing or changing the self-talk, being here-now-with in all its tension in time, space, and community, freeing the mind of things, of thoughts, of names, of forms, of problems and solutions, an “emptiness” of mind, heightened consciousness, a being in touch with consciousness, which being beyond or behind thoughts is a mystery, ineffable, unable to be studied or explained.

Some critical questions:

1. Is mindfulness a substitute of “spirituality” for “religion”? Or is it a new religion?
2. Is mindfulness a substitute or a preparation for action? Does it reduce the need for action and politics? 
3.  Is mindfulness a preparation or alternative for thinking? By eliminating thoughts is mindfulness in fact thoughtlessness?


1. A sociologist studies religions as social systems, organized by a language and symbolic system that is shaped by a special revelation contained in writing and/or tradition. Religions are social systems with rules and rituals, governed by office holders whose authority is determined by revelation, rules, and rituals. Religion, while an element of almost all cultures, provides both the coherence and distinction of those cultures, usually determining who is in and who is out of the culture. 

For Sam Harris mindfulness is indeed a substitution of spirituality for religion. For religions with their own belief systems, which often contradict both science and common sense, become the occasions for exclusion, regression, violence, and even the dehumanization of the “others” outside their circles. Contemporary religion in particular is a perversion of the human prospect and therefore needs to be rejected.

Yet at times, mindfulness adherents speak of the mystery of consciousness as having an almost divine quality; it is the “within” side of nature or pure consciousness with an almost independent status. Like a World Soul. Or it is the Spirit of Life and Love. Even atheist Harris speaks of "pure consciousness" and the desirability for building organized communities within which people who do not believe in religion can have support in developing their spirituality.

2. Some mindfulness teachers speak as though mindfulness is the answer to all life’s problems; and in saying so they seem to promote a quietism that opposes political action to change the institutions that keep people in submission. The mindfulness summit leader affirms mindfulness changes the world "from the inside out." In this it coincides with the religions of personal salvation to achieve social change. This could lead to the unwitting acceptance of the status quo.  It thus becomes a sort of “opium of the people,” relieving their anger, their passion, and their determination for social justice. It employs personal conversion and neglects or diminishes political action. 

But most do not. They see mindfulness as a way of putting attention and intention in action so that it is less frenetic and scattered and therefore more strategic, critical, and effective. In my own tradition, we speak of “contemplation in action.” Meditation may be useful, as are workshops and retreats, quiet times of wonder, and certainly physical exercise. But what is most important is action that is thoughtful.

3. But doesn’t mindfulness diminish and reject our thoughts? Isn’t the objective to get rid of thoughts or at least pass beyond them to the stream of consciousness itself? Isn’t mindfulness the cessation of thinking? Isn’t thinking the obstacle to and opposite of mindfulness? Shouldn’t mindfulness be considered thoughtlessness? The unexamined life? An immersion into the world and reality before it is cut up and categorized by our inadequate, illusory thoughts?

Perhaps some mindfulness gurus would assert that in their quest for perfection. But most I think would see mindfulness as a training for or even quality of clearer thinking. By manifesting through direct experience the transiency, contingency, and symbolic make-up of thoughts, mindfulness supports thinking beyond its thoughts. These teachers would urge that we not get caught in the thoughts we inherited or even made-up yesterday. Always be ready to criticize your culture’s common sense through thinking and, yes, through acting thoughtfully. The transcendence you experience, even alone sitting on the mountaintop, is that of you thinking in the company of other thinkers where thoughts, even those of your self, your morality, the utopian community, perfect gods, and the absolute truth, are called into question and surpassed.


As many thinkers have declared, in order to think we construct categories (analogies, metaphors, symbols, words, and formulas). We adjust, combine, reconstruct them as we receive more experience and as we acknowledge the stream of conversation and consciousness from which they come. Mindfulness can help, as long as it doesn’t become another rigid practice or truth, a scientific or progressive religion, another new age fad, that all should join in order to achieve the perfect world.

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