In my early 20’s, in a quiet fever to understand my own anxious self, I came across a book, Going to Pieces without Falling Apart by buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein. I can recall it having a profound effect on how I understood the workings of my own mind. Here I am, rereading it in my 40’s, still trying to better understand the working of my mind, finding Epstein’s work as enriching as ever. Like going back to a favourite destination after many years, remembering things you thought you had forgotten and noticing things you didn’t notice in the first place. It is both refreshing and nostalgic.
In the book, Epstein describes his initial encounter with psychotherapy and how he arrived in anticipation of an “experience” and left with only an “explanation”. This is a poignant distinction between therapy and meditation: therapy is often about describing and explaining our thoughts and emotions, whereas mindfulness practice, Vipassana in particular, is about attempting to have a more direct experience of our “self” – to actually experience how our thoughts and emotions arise.
This direct experience of the “self” (and the illusions thereof) makes room for a deeply therapeutic experience. However, I would like to strongly caution against reducing mindfulness to a therapeutic tool. As seems to have become the trend amongst therapists more recently. The practice of mindfulness is born out of Buddhist Philosophy – a rich and complicated philosophical tradition. It could be a waste of time, at best, and psychologically risky, at worst, to practice mindfulness in a way that does not incorporate Buddhist epistemology.
I recently discovered Stepehn Bachelor. Fiona and I were hiding away in the little library at the Buddhist Retreat Centre, Ixopo. Browsing the spines of books I couldn’t help break my noble silence with enthusiasm for the title “Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist”. I presented it to Fiona as if I had just found something she had been waiting for all along. She clutched onto that book all weekend. Bachelor, a former monk and remarkable scholar of secular Buddhism, draws on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s astute definition of Mindfulness:
‘Mindfulness,’ writes its foremost proponent, the American Emeritus Professor of Medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn, ‘is a way of being in wise and purposeful relationship with one’s experience, both inwardly and outwardly. It is cultivated by systematically exercising one’s capacity for paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, and by learning to inhabit and make use of the clarity, discernment, ethical understanding, and awareness that arise…’. What Kabat-Zinn presents here as mindfulness is more than just a short-term therapeutic intervention to treat a transient health problem. It is a practice that not only demands considerable mental discipline but also a revaluation of the purpose of one’s life and the ethical values needed to realize that purpose
How Buddhist Philosophy both adds to and differs from Western Psychology is not easily explained. My own oversimplification would be that Psychology “treats” the Self, attempts to cure the struggles we have with it, helps us uphold and strengthen our sense of self and defend it against threats to its integrity, more successfully. Whereas Buddhist Philosophy encourages us to transcend this notion of having a “self”, or at least take it far less seriously. Buddhism might argue that the thing Psychology is attempting to treat is, in fact, incurable: “Dukkha”, the feeling of “perpetual unsatisfactoriness” as Epstein interprets it, is a human condition that we need to learn to sit with rather than attempt to eradicate. In fact, it is often our attempts to escape “Dukkha” that perpetuate our suffering (in the Western World we call this attempt at escape – “addiction”). But, this is probably just one of a myriad of distinctions one could make between psychotherapy and Buddhism and, at the same time, there are many ways in which these disciplines speak to each other rather than differ from each other. Their meeting place is a shared enthusiasm for understanding and addressing the ways in which we struggle.
The central point is that, if one is to take the practice of mindfulness seriously, then one must seek clarity about what it is that mindfulness (or meditation) is designed to achieve. To effectively practice mindfulness is to do more than just get the technique right. It helps to learn how to sit, how to breath or what to focus on. But there is an entire psychology of its own that informs mindfulness. To ignore this is to learn a relaxation technique, at best, or get lost in ones own neurosis, at worst.
If people come to therapy to find the means to face that which is difficult to face, then Buddhist practices may have something to offer. It seems possible that when we can’t face aspects of our selves and we shut off from our own interiority, this is often mirrored outwardly: We become blind to parts of the world out there. In many cases, we can be said to have stopped living, going about life with a certain level of automation. To practice mindfulness is to move past our own automation and ignorance; to have a more direct experience of our selves from moment to moment. [In future posts will address addiction as a form of automation]
Epstein talks about that which is “hard to face” and how we are in the habit of pushing away aspects of ourselves that we struggle with. We have an inherent tendency to hold on to what is pleasant and push away what is unpleasant. This is one of the reasons why the practice of mindfulness should not be bastardised from Buddhist ethos – it is best practiced in the spirit of complete acceptance, non-judgement and even non-violence (towards ourselves). Meditation is, therefore, a method for sitting with our selves, the good and the bad; a means facing our “selfs” and the things that are hard to face – with necessary compassion.
Rob Nairn (former professor of Criminology) has made it his life work to guide Western minds in the methods of mindfulness. He warns against treating mindfulness as a technique that you “get right”. It is, in fact, an attempt at “not doing”, which we are not in the habit of allowing ourselves. As the catch phrase that has been popularised encourages: “Don’t just do something, sit there!” It’s not about doing something; it’s about being something: what or how you are in this very moment. The conundrum being that through trying to do nothing, something remarkable is gradually achieved: we come to terms with our own neurosis; with how our minds incessantly interfere with our experience; with how we build stories around every thought and sensation; with the constant scanning and evaluating for whether something is acceptable or not, good or bad, right or wrong. It is upon this scanning that a non-acceptance of our selves is built. With on-going practice, as we allow the interference from our critical-scanning minds to subside, we start to have a more direct experience of our internal and external worlds, as they are.
This is the practice of Vipassana – “Seeing things for what they are”.
“The aim of mindfulness is to know suffering fully. It entails paying calm, unflinching attention to whatever impacts the organism, be it the song of a lark or the scream of a child, the bubbling of a playful idea or a twinge in the lower back. You attend not just to the outward stimuli themselves, but equally to your inward reactions to them. You do not condemn what you see as your failings or applaud what you regard as success. You notice things come, you notice them go. Over time, the practice becomes less a self-conscious exercise in meditation done at fixed periods each day and more a sensibility that infuses one’s awareness at all times.”