Mindfulness for people who hate mindfulness

I tried mindfulness in the past. It didn’t work, and I developed reservations about the purpose and direction of mindfulness as a movement or fad.

I’m not alone in being critical. Edwin Ng wrote a great piece from a Buddhist perspective, critiquing aspects of the mindfulness movement:

this initial reception of sensorial and perceptual impressions with non-reactive awareness has to be followed through with the ardent application of what is described in Buddhist teachings as appropriate attention and the clear comprehension of the conditionality of phenomenal reality-selfhood…

In this way, mindfulness is guided by an ethical imperative which requires the practitioner to cultivate a wise and compassionate ethos of care and engagement towards self, others and the world. Mindfulness is, therefore, not exactly non-judgmental but rather entails an ongoing evaluative task of being heedful and discerning about the intentions driving the actions of body, speech and mind.

I think this is the difficulty I encountered in practicing mindfulness. It’s generally promoted as non-judgemental awareness, but I think people are either misunderstanding what non-judgmental means, or merely repeating a principle they don’t literally apply to their own practice.

Non-judgmental could mean “don’t beat yourself up for having bad thoughts”. In other words, don’t judge if judging adds another layer of reaction to your awareness.

But mindfulness can’t be truly non-judgmental in the sense of not preferring some states of mind over others. At the very least, mindfulness practice must prefer being mindful over being unmindful.

Mindfulness and positive thinking

I’ve begun using mindfulness as part of my positive thinking work, because I finally understood that the relationship between thoughts and feelings is immediate.

In other words, if I’m feeling bad it’s because I’ve just had a negative thought.

Today I walked past the mechanic and felt bad, because my mind turned to the thought of when I need to get my car serviced, and from there to a general thought about all the hassles and responsibilities I have in life.

That train of thought is guaranteed to make me feel bad, and produce a greater sense of life’s burdens in me.

But if I’m mindful, I’m paying attention to each and every thought I have, and noticing the immediate emotional reaction to it.

Esther Hicks’ material refers to this as our “emotional guidance system”, which tells us whether our thoughts are in alignment or out of alignment with our desires and the perspective of our “inner being”.

Without getting into the metaphysics of that system, the point is that your emotions are always giving you immediate feedback on the direction your thoughts are taking you.

The self-aware mind

What happens in mindfulness is that the mind itself becomes aware of the connection between thoughts and emotional feedback.

I began paying attention to my thoughts – all of them, one after the other – and to my surprise it was as though my mind began regulating itself, diminishing the intensity of negative thoughts as the correlation between thought and feeling became clear.

If we are not aware, we don’t see the connection, and we persist in focusing on thoughts that make us feel worse and worse.

Hicks explains that if you put your hand on a hot stove you know immediately what is wrong and pull your hand away. That we don’t do the same for negative thoughts is due in part to lack of awareness of cause and effect, and in part to the insistence of others that such thoughts are necessary, realistic, and somehow virtuous to hold.

So practicing mindfulness in the context of positive thinking really is valuable, because it amounts to a highly focused and disciplined application of the basic principles. You wouldn’t consciously put your hand on a hot stove, and you won’t consciously focus on thoughts that make you feel bad either.


How positive thinking works

If you start paying attention to your thoughts while noticing how each thought feels, you’ll soon discover that some thoughts are a bit strange.

What’s strange about them is that they may be focused on a subject that seems “positive”, yet the thought itself feels negative.

The thought “I need to get something done now” feels both good and bad.

That’s because the subject of accomplishing things is a positive one. I want to accomplish things, it would feel good to accomplish things.

But the focus on “need” is negative. The subtext is that if I don’t accomplish things then I will have failed.

There’s a big difference between “I need to get something done” and thinking of a specific thing I want to do.

“I need to get something done” vs “I really want to do this specific thing”.

The former focuses on the absence of what I desire.

There’s self-sabotage built into this kind of thought. It doesn’t aim towards what I really want, nor does it aim away from what I don’t want.

Instead it beats me up for not doing something unspecified right now.

…which isn’t especially helpful.

Imagine saying it to someone else in an anxious voice: “You should be doing something right now!”

Not especially helpful.

How would they react? Probably with a well-deserved “Wtf are you talking about?”

Imagine saying it to them again and again at every opportunity. Maybe say it every time they sit down, every time they appear to be relaxing or enjoying themselves: “Shouldn’t you be doing something???”

If you don’t pay attention to your thoughts, you’ll just feel a kind of acceptance that you should be doing something… followed by the frustration of not knowing what it is you should be doing.

Maybe you’ll throw yourself into any activity just to escape that unpleasant feeling, and you might be productive.

But there’s a big difference between the productivity that comes from escaping unpleasant feelings and the productivity that comes from doing what you feel genuinely inspired to do.

If you accept the thought at face value then your orientation is toward “I need to do something…but I don’t know what”.

By paying attention to how the thought feels, you notice instead “I’m making myself feel bad for no good reason”.

I wouldn’t have noticed this if I hadn’t decided to pay attention to all of my thoughts.

Imagine choosing to no longer activate thoughts of that type…the “feel bad for no good reason” thoughts.

The trajectory of positive thinking is such that removing these kinds of thoughts makes space for new thoughts, since there’s a limit to the number of things you can focus on in a single day.

But it also lifts your overall mood, removing one source of negativity and thereby making more positive thoughts accessible.

And on the subject of “things I want to accomplish”, perhaps we’re now free to consider things that feel good, instead of repeating thoughts that feel needlessly bad?

Or perhaps what would feel best right now is to accept that the whole subject of accomplishments is not about “should” or obligation, and was never something best framed by need or by external pressure.

Are we best served by approaching accomplishments from the direction of avoiding shame and humiliation? Or are we better served by looking at it through the lens of inspiration and appreciation?

In fact, we might begin by completely letting go of any thought of accomplishment for now, and focusing instead on appreciating the many things we have already accomplished, beginning with the mere fact of being alive, of having survived to enjoy this present moment.

A diet for the mind

I was pretty impressed with my approach to weight loss a couple of years ago, so much so that I wrote a book about it.

One aspect of the diet I remember well is the discipline that came naturally, once I understood they underlying problem. It wasn’t easy, and there was a definite progression to it, but at least it wasn’t arbitrary discipline, or discipline for its own sake.

I remember realising that if I wanted to lose weight I couldn’t afford to eat mindlessly anymore. I couldn’t eat and lie to myself about why I was eating.

In every instance I was either eating because I needed sustenance, or eating for some other motive like pleasure or escapism. Being honest with myself about the motive was the essence of discipline.

Positive thinking

I’m beginning to appreciate that the same kind of discipline is required for “positive thinking” work.

In parallel to the simple dichotomy of food that is either for sustenance or in excess of sustenance (and therefore contributing to weight gain), all thoughts can be categorised as either better-feeling or worse-feeling.

The thought of monitoring every single thought seemed excessively burdensome at first, but this sense of burden was, appropriately, indicative of a negative thought…

It turns out that monitoring every thought, paying attention to the thoughts I am thinking and the feelings that derive from them, is not easy but like a physical diet it instills a positive sense of control and direction.

If eating mindlessly perpetuates the status quo of body weight, so thinking mindlessly perpetuates an emotional set-point.

But if you only eat for sustenance, inevitably your body weight will return to normal. And if you only think thoughts that feel good, inevitably your emotional set-point will attain a net positive.

On knowing what you’re doing

I seem to be one of those people who needs to understand fully what he’s doing and why, before he can commit real energy to it.

Some people seem to be content with just leaping into an exercise or practice. Maybe they work it out as they go along, or maybe they already have a better “feel” for how it’s supposed to work.

Whatever the reason, I crave a systematic and deep understanding of the things I do.

The things I don’t understand have proven to be challenging. Martial arts are the best example: I’ve been doing it for 17 years, but I still don’t have a clear understanding of how it is supposed to work.

That’s like driving without a destination in mind, but still hoping to get somewhere specific!

Bear in mind that my idea of having a clear understanding of how something works is to perfectly control all the relevant variables to their necessary degrees. That is, I don’t require useless knowledge of how things work, I just need to know enough to calibrate my own actions and controls.

I’ve applied this approach to posture and biomechanics over the past year, and it’s achieved good results. Learning how the shoulder girdle is supposed to function, how the ribs, pelvis, and spine should align, when the glutes and hamstrings are supposed to activate…I wish I’d learned it all years ago.

There’s still more to do, but it’s obviously been worthwhile. The only challenge is that every body is unique to some degree, and so it takes time to work out precisely what is going wrong. Plus, posture is a function of the whole body. It won’t be completely right until it’s completely right.

Meditation is another good example.

I’ve tried different forms over the years and none of them have been worth continuing. The problem is that I don’t understand in sufficient detail how they are supposed to function, what the benefits are supposed to be, and how it relates to my internal landscape.

The first book I read on meditation was really about awareness generally. It was called ‘Awareness’ in fact, by a Jesuit priest from India named Anthony de Mello.

De Mello’s work came under criticism at one stage by then-head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger. He (correctly, in my view) warned against the syncretist implications of de Mello’s work, and other inferences that conflicted with Catholic teaching.

My criticism of ‘Awareness’ was that it promised too much, too vaguely. Perhaps it was okay as an introductory text, but like many self-help books it implied that simply being aware is a panacea that leads to spiritual enlightenment.

Everyone is different, at least to some degree. And mindfulness, awareness, trying to be more conscious, are not panaceae.

Nonetheless, there is obviously a role for being more conscious of one’s thoughts and impressions. For me, that role is becoming more evident and necessary, as I begin to notice how my mood and my motives are steered by very subtle thoughts and fears.

As I mentioned in the previous post, we form a self-image from childhood that dictates — like a character in a novel — how we live the rest of our lives. But that self-image is typically false. We don’t know who we are, we simply live according to habits and beliefs developed at an early age.

Not knowing who we are is a challenge, because we cannot simply replace our flawed self-image with a new and improved one.

But we can pay attention to when our self-image steers us. We can notice the occasions when our past dictates our present behaviour.

This seems to occur through the influence of subtle, momentary thoughts and impressions that invoke our flawed self-image. If we pay attention, we can notice these subtle influences and decide not to follow them.

If we don’t pay attention, we will follow them out of habit, largely unconscious of them, but feeling their negative effect.

The answer therefore is a disciplined, consistent effort to be conscious of these subtle influences.

Now, this sounds very much like ‘mindfulness’, which various people and popular culture have urged us all to enthusiastically embrace.

But the difference for me is that I have a precise purpose, I understand the direction. I know what I’m looking for, and what the outcome will be.

That’s the difference understanding makes. I’m not flailing around on popular recommendation, seeking to do this thing called mindfulness. Instead I’ve recognised that to make further progress I need to pay very close, very consistent attention to a specific set of influences in my mind.

Cynical and amoral: the dark side of the mindfulness fad

My latest piece at MercatorNet looks at the dark side of mainstreaming mindfulness meditation:

I’ve met and worked with people who are deeply into this kind of meditation and promote it at the middle-management level. The scary thing is that they aren’t even completely cynical; they genuinely believe in the near-magical benefits of meditation, and see no problem in advancing Google-inspired programs in their own corporate territory. They see mindfulness and meditation in uncritically elevated terms, and are equally uncritical of the corporate structures of which they are a part. Meditation will save the world, but it turns out there’s nothing bad to save it from.