Written by Andrew Neff

February 2020

Our Tenuous Relationship with Mindfulness

Mindfulness counters spiritual apathy by offering a glimpse at transcendence, maybe

About the Author: Andrew Neff is an adjunct faculty at Rochester University in Michigan and has a Ph.D. in neuroscience. He runs this blog for now, but will be stepping away soon, and is looking for an editor to replace him/me. Please contact me at AndrewNeff@GolgiProductions.com if you're interested.

The aspirations of Buddhism are not modest. Following the noble eightfold path, we’re promised nothing short of an end to suffering. Sadness, anger, separation from the ones we love, forced association with the ones we don’t, the failure to gratify any desire, all of it is suffering, and all of it can be overcome.

The practice of mindfulness meditation, often associated with Buddhism, also offers a psychological bounty. Some say it’s like watching a sunrise; there’s depth and peace and a sense of renewal, it’s warm and optimistic and rare and at times, almost perfect, maybe perfect. By maintaining a bare awareness, we’re promised relief from the trials of our modern life. It’s not quite psychological perfection, but according to science, on average, people who practice mindfulness don’t regret it.

At the same time, mindfulness is fleeting. Neither sunrises nor mindfulness offer a plan for how to approach the challenges we face in the rest of our lives. Unlike full-blown Buddhism, there is no eightfold path or any noble truths. There’s no lifestyle-renunciation or studying of ancient texts required. Mindfulness is available in the app store. Mindfulness is often thought of as a Buddhist practice, and it kind of sort of is, but as anyone who’s ever really, thoroughly, committed to reading at least most of the Wikipedia page on Buddhism will know, Buddhism is way more than mindfulness.

In some circles, mindfulness offers the 21st century a chance to feel connected to deeper and more meaningful life goals. It occupies a place in the continued secularization of spirituality, alleviating our modern psychic distress without any religious roadblocks. Or, in other circles, it’s mostly trash - a commercially hyped and intellectually hollow perversion of a sincere religious practice. 

But this is not a diatribe against the shallowness of mindfulness compared to the great depths of its Buddhist origins; Ronald Purser’s perfectly-titled McMindfulness and plenty of other sources have done a swell enough job of that. 

This, for one, is an attempt to grapple with my own, and our shared spiritual apathy. It’s also an introductory-lecture-rant on the science of mindfulness, especially where it falls short. But most importantly, it’s become an attempt to redeem mindfulness from the brink of pseudoscience that skeptics like me would often like to banish it to. Sure, mindfulness is popular, easy to do, commercially co-opted, not effective for a lot of people, and stripped from its cultural context. At the same time, it’s not not Buddhist, and on the occasions that I actually try practicing mindfulness, as opposed to complaining about it, I feel good, maybe even perfectly good; good enough to think that maybe mindfulness can play a role in improving our modern lives.

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Before beginning, though, there are three things I’ll share.

Number one, as I say, mindfulness has offered me a lot of relief lately. I, like about half of Americans, am not ‘very satisfied’ with my career, which, in particular instances, roughly means that most of my work-life is spent somewhere in between despondency and rage over my career-prospects, albeit, with short breaks for mindless engorgement by endless social media feeds. But instead of all this anxious-depressive rumination and obsessive clinging to ignorance, we, as humans, can make the choice to detach. We can go outside, sit down, and feel the cool wind, we can passively listen to the falling of wet snow and boot-crunching of thin ice. We can choose to observe the emergence of thoughts into consciousness and decide to let them go. It’s a choice, in a way. Mindfulness is like Epsom salts on the hemorrhoid of working and living in the 21st-century economy.

The second thing is that I believe in mindfulness like any other person of a certain demographic, which means that I really don’t believe in it at all. This past week, I spent about twenty hours working at one of my three part-time jobs, about fifteen hours preparing job applications, watched four hours of T.V., and spent 553 minutes on my phone, which is down five percent from last week but is still an hour and thirty-six more minutes playing ‘Brawl Stars’ than I ought to have. In the midst of all of this semi-un-employment, I didn’t spend more than twenty minutes being intentionally mindful. I spent over ten times longer writing this article, in which I complain about not being mindful, than I did practicing mindfulness.

Which leads me to my third thing. I, also, like any other person of this demographic, am aware that I make bad choices regarding my mental health. Almost exclusively bad choices. I apply to the wrong jobs, talk to the wrong people, say the wrong things, adopt the wrong attitudes, and relax in the wrong way. In the United States, throughout the course of any given year, 20 percent of adults qualify for a mental illness, and about 80 percent of adults are lying about not qualifying for a mental illness.

To a critic, the enthusiasm we see in popular spiritual culture, and in scientific circles, represents a compromise in our modern search for spiritual salvation. We can’t commit to self-improvement because of some vaguely defined generational-immaturity. We don’t pursue spirituality because we’re mechanically grasping for worldly gratifications, unable to remain cognizant of the drives beneath our mostly-materialistic pursuits. We’re not going to, like, delete our Instagram account or anything, but we can start following the Dalai Lama on Twitter. Which I do, and which, along with Wikipedia, has informed an unhealthy portion of this essay’s consideration for Buddhist philosophy.

On the other hand, maybe, right-wing boomers and members of the r/skeptic subreddit can go F-themselves for telling us that our personal spiritual quest is empty. Maybe, our millennial truth is that we find deep meaning in at least some of the activities we choose. Maybe, we’re already doing what makes us happy. What’s so bad about a modern world where new-mothers can join a Facebook group where they share their experiences and provide each other support? What’s bad about spending fifty-five seconds watching a cat play the piano? Am I to suffer eternal damnation for insisting that Richard Gere still has a great head of hair? Why can’t we share an hour on a Sunday afternoon with a newly-sober chef who’s realized that he can learn from other cultures, but will still drink and smoke on international T.V. and get an impulsive tattoo under the right circumstances? Shouldn’t we be accepted and respected for the lives we’ve chosen?

In my view, if we’re honest, we’re mostly just confused and lonely and unable to bear the possibility, even for a minute, that our lives aren’t perfect. I know what you’re thinking; F-me now for rationalizing my own unhappiness by telling other people they aren’t actually happy. Very perceptive. But maybe, if we could abide in this place of honesty for more than 6 seconds, we’d see that our internet engagement falls mostly into the categories of celebrity worship, fame-seeking, work-avoidance, and enlisting in the culture wars in search of a scapegoat. That our engagement with the media is one part sincerely-good, one part utterly-bad, and a hundred parts mindless distraction. And maybe I’m wrong, and Richard Gere’s hair has gone downhill in the past five years or so. It’s hard to say when you’re so personally invested in a thing.

 

Mindfulness Research 101 - A Brief Interlude Worth Skipping

Many Clinical Psychologists and Psychiatrists, somewhat desperate for an alternative to current mental health therapies, I imagine, have begun turning to mindfulness. As probationary members of the western scientific establishment, before adopting mindfulness into their practices, they need traditional scientific evidence - with statistics and peer-review and authors with academic credentials etc.

The research typically goes as follows; one group does mindfulness, another group does something else, and scientists look at whether practicing mindfulness, compared to doing something else, improved people’s lives, on average. But it’s not so simple.

The first issue with this type of study is the intervention itself - not everyone’s doing the exact same thing. Imagine that someone told you to practice mindfulness for a month straight, ten minutes per day. How well do you expect you’d follow these directions? Maybe you’d miss a day or ten? Another issue is that you and I might have a slightly different understanding of what mindfulness really means. Maybe when you practice mindfulness, you focus more on your senses, whereas I focus on my thoughts. One last major issue is that practicing mindfulness may open a Pandora’s box. When I started writing this essay, it was about mindfulness, but about halfway in, a swarm of Buddhism escaped and started flipping over tables and spilling drinks and ripping open bags of flour. It’s possible that people in the mindfulness group are encouraged to explore things related to mindfulness, however haphazardly that may occur.

The second type of limitation to this research, slash all psychology research, is assessment - how to know if someone’s emotional state has improved. Ultimately, we have little choice but to accept a person’s self-report. Basically, subjects are asked whether mindfulness made them any happier. Maybe we ought to trust that people are self-aware enough to report back honestly. Just kidding, we definitely shouldn’t - there are plenty of reasons why a person might say that mindfulness made them feel better, despite the possibility that, in reality, it didn’t.

One example - say, even before taking part in the study, one subject had read up a bit on mindfulness and became convinced that it would work. Now, taking part in the study, might this person, in order to prove themself right, be inclined to say that mindfulness worked for them? Research subjects are generally not recruited at random. Instead, fliers that outline the study are sent around, and participants are selected based on who responds. Who do you think responds to a flier that’s looking for subjects to participate in a study on mindfulness meditation? Say, possibly, people who already have an interest, and perhaps, an inclination towards believing in the value of mindfulness?

Example number 2 - Mindfulness looks good. In the public consciousness, it’s rooted in a three-thousand-year-old religious tradition whose chief public figure preaches compassion and has a great sense of humor. Isn’t this a club you’d like to belong to? Might there be some value to integrating mindfulness into your self-definition or public-image, besides its emotional benefits?

At this point, lots of research has come out, and the results have definitely shown that mindfulness can improve a range of psychological ailments, including sleep. However, there is no evidence that mindfulness is superior to existing treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy (albeit, it’s certainly cheaper and easier to do).

But the verdict isn’t completely decided, as the limitations to mindfulness research can go both ways. It’s possible that people really want mindfulness to work, and therefore the results are unrealistically positive. However, it’s also possible that research-subjects aren’t practicing mindfulness properly, or aren’t really committing to research protocols, and therefore, the results may undervalue mindfulness’s transformative capability. Without a real scientific method for approaching the human subconscious, we may be a century of scientific-advancements away from a real understanding of the potential of mindfulness.

 

To Buddhist Philosophy, and an Argument For Redemption

In the earliest known texts, the Buddha is quoted delivering sermons on the concept of ‘non-self’. The illusory nature of personae, if that’s the right word, occupies a privileged place in the Buddhist worldview as one of the three characteristics of existence, alongside the impermanence of all things and the inevitability of suffering for those who don’t follow Buddhism.

Understanding the meaning of non-self, though, is a rabbit-hole that I haven’t yet figured out how to navigate. The internet, and even the ancient texts, are flooded with what seems like variable perspectives. As soon as I think I have a grasp on one account, I find a new term that needs explicit defining. To understand non-self, maybe I’ll first need to understand the ‘self’. To understand that the self is not ‘real’, I’ll first need to understand the meaning ‘real’. So, for now, I’ve given up on the internet, and have readily permitted the concept to take on a life of its own.

Back to my self. Although I am frantically seeking steady work, I’m not sincerely worried about my physical welfare. Food and shelter are not a consideration. What’s left, it’s starting to become clear, is mostly status-seeking, and my plan is always some variant of becoming a certain person, then presenting my creation. I rigidly cling onto a definition of myself, either one I have and hope not to lose, or one I don’t have but hope to obtain. Consequently, I spend my days becoming - and seeking recognition as - a particular self. Say, perhaps, a spiritually-engaged ex-researcher who has finally transcended the shallowness of academic psychology and begun engaging with meaningful issues on life-satisfaction that actually resonate with people’s lives... It’ll need some tweaking.

My ‘self’, however, both the superficial manifestations of my psychology and my deeper motivations, are in some essential way, according to Buddhist philosophy, neither permanent, nor real, and more importantly, are causing suffering. I have very little trouble accepting this. One day’s despair, the next day’s rage, one minute I’m lashing out at the people I love, ten minutes later I’ve hatched a new plan that will certainly lead to the acknowledgment I crave. In fact, I’ve got a great idea for a neuro-sci-fi-adventure-thriller-literary novel...

But the concept of non-self is where I have been trying to abide, and the relationship between mindfulness and the concept of non-self is what I have been trying to understand.

If hypothetically, you call yourself a skeptic, you may think that the self-non-self division is arbitrary. You may think that a mindful-detachment or even a fully-Buddhist understanding of ‘non-self’ is really just the establishment of a new, now-totally-spiritual, personae.

Alternatively, if you call yourself a believer, you may think that the self-non-self division isn’t arbitrary - that the everyday-self is categorically different than the self we embody when practicing mindfulness. Perhaps there’s something really important about abiding in moment-to-moment, non-judgemental, non-elaborative, bare-awareness.

I, for now, am an optimist, and think that mindfulness offers us a peek at transcendence. In fact, when the German-born monk Nyanaponika Thera first popularized the concept, he suggested this may be the case, saying that “an untrained mind will occasionally touch its borderland”, and “Right mindfulness will show immediate and visible results of its efficacy, by defeating suffering in many a single battle”. Imagine you are at a restaurant famous for its 10-course meals, and the food is incomprehensibly gratifying. Trouble is, you can’t afford the whole meal, so you convince a waiter to let you have just a lick of a pad of house-whipped truffle-butter. Delicious, sure, but its just a taste of Buddhist transcendence, not the whole thing.

Mindfulness, easy as it is to practice, is not all there is to a balanced and peaceful life. And to be clear, nobody, not even scientists seeking research funding on the subject, really think that mindfulness is all it takes to be happy (although it is certainly ‘promising’). Those who don’t dig deeper won’t understand why to practice mindfulness or what the meditation really means. More importantly, without more consideration for how to live, people who put all their stock into mindfulness won’t have a concrete plan for integrating this mentality into their everyday life.

Although, perhaps, to be fair, Buddhism may not be the answer either. After all, I haven’t seen any research supporting the mental-health-curing or peace-inducing properties of following the Noble Eightfold Path. This absence of research is itself another source of boundless rage for me, however, I will spare you for now.

It’s become a trope in the spiritual world that seeking a thing isn’t the way to get it. If you want a healthy relationship, you first need to work on yourself. If you want a better job, you need to gain relevant work experience. You can’t just drive straight at a thing and keep ramming your head into the wall until it comes down. Mindfulness may not be Buddhism, but it’s nowhere near the daily activities that we habitually engage in. Perhaps, us moderns need to stop overstuffing our days with social-voyeurism, information-accumulation, and incessant-status-advancement. Instead, maybe we need to take a few moments to step away and release some of the tension at the seams. Perhaps, so long as we stop driving ourselves crazy over having happiness immediately, or something like it, or something leading to it, maybe we can find a more sincere and lasting satisfaction. If it’s true that mindfulness has psychological value, maybe it’s because of this detachment, whatever the philosophical status of that detachment may be.

I’m grateful that the idea of non-self has begun to infiltrate my psyche. I am also worried about what will happen when I stop writing this essay. It seems that contemplating non-self has created a major structural change in the way I think about myself. In briefly disconnecting from my rigid aspirations, sure I may not get that jolt of joy when I notice that this article reaches a circulation of 40 readers, but I also won’t sink into a pit of despair and anger and obsessive striving when that isn’t happening. Contemplating the impermanence, non-reality, and general-harmfulness of my self-concepts has at times persuaded me that my past is not my destiny - that I can be who I want to be, whatever self or non-self I choose.

About the Author: Andrew Neff is an adjunct faculty at Rochester University in Michigan and has a Ph.D. in neuroscience. He runs this blog for now, but will be stepping away soon, and is looking for an editor to replace him/me. Please contact me at AndrewNeff@GolgiProductions.com if you're interested.

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