Mindfulness is loaded with (troubling) metaphysical assumptions | Aeon Essays | Sahanika Ratnayake – Jul 2019
Three years ago, when I was studying for a Masters in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, mindfulness was very much in the air.
The Department of Psychiatry had launched a large-scale study on the effects of mindfulness in collaboration with the university’s counselling service. Everyone I knew seemed to be involved in some way.
I’m entirely fed up with mindfulness being forced upon pain patients as a supposedly effective method of “pain management”.
Raised as a Buddhist in New Zealand and Sri Lanka, I have a long history with meditation – although, like many ‘cultural Catholics’, my involvement was often superficial.
At university, however, I turned to psychotherapy to cope with the stress of the academic environment. Unsurprisingly, I found myself drawn to schools or approaches marked by the influence of Buddhist philosophy and meditation, one of which was mindfulness. Over the years, before and during the Cambridge trial, therapists have taught me an arsenal of mindfulness techniques.
At the end of the Cambridge study, I found myself to be calmer, more relaxed and better able to step away from any overwhelming feelings.
Yet I’d also become troubled by a cluster of feelings that I couldn’t quite identify. It was as if I could no longer make sense of my emotions and thoughts.
I couldn’t tell whether I had particular thoughts and feelings simply because I was stressed and inclined to give in to melodramatic thoughts, or because there was a good reason to think and feel those things. Something about the mindfulness practice I’d cultivated, and the way it encouraged me to engage with my emotions, made me feel increasingly estranged from myself and my life.
In the intervening years, I’ve obsessed over this experience – to the point that I left a PhD in an entirely different area of philosophy and put myself through the gruelling process of reapplying for graduate programmes, just so I could understand what had happened.
What I’ve uncovered has disturbing implications for how mindfulness encourages us to relate to our thoughts, emotions and very sense of self.
The mindfulness movement is a prominent example of this shift in cultural habits of self-reflection and interrogation. Instead of engaging in deliberation about oneself, what the arts of mindfulness have in common is a certain mode of attending to present events – often described as a ‘nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment’.
Practitioners are discouraged from engaging with their experiences in a critical or evaluative manner, and often they’re explicitly instructed to disregard the content of their own thoughts.
The goal is not to end up thinking or feeling nothing, but rather to note whatever arises, and to let it pass with the same lightness.
Others point out that the goals of psychotherapy and mindfulness do not match up with core Buddhist tenets: while psychotherapy might attempt to reduce suffering, for example, Buddhism takes it to be so deeply entrenched that one should aim to escape the miserable cycle of rebirth altogether.
as mindfulness has moved from therapy to the mainstream, commodification and marketing have produced watered-down, corrupted versions.
In claiming to offer a multipurpose, multi-user remedy for all occasions, mindfulness oversimplifies the difficult business of understanding oneself.
It fits oh-so-neatly into a culture of techno-fixes, easy answers and self-hacks, where we can all just tinker with the contents of our heads to solve problems, instead of probing why we’re so dissatisfied with our lives in the first place.
As with the “deaths of despair” plaguing our country, a simplistic and easily measurable method of limiting prescribed pain relief is implemented in increasing cruelty because it’s easier than dealing with why people are turning to illicit drugs in the first place.
To understand why mindfulness is uniquely unsuited for the project of real self-understanding, we need to probe the suppressed assumptions about the self that are embedded in its foundations.
Western metaphysics typically holds that – in addition to the existence of any thoughts, emotions and physical sensations – there is some entity to whom all these experiences are happening, and that it makes sense to refer to this entity as ‘I’ or ‘me’. However, according to Buddhist philosophy, there is no ‘self’ or ‘me’ to which such phenomena belong.
Like their Buddhist predecessors, contemporary mindfulness practitioners stress these qualities of impermanence and impersonality. Exercises repeatedly draw attention to the transitory nature of what is being observed in the present moment.
With the no-self doctrine, we relinquish not only more familiar understandings of the self, but also the idea that mental phenomena such as thoughts and feelings are our own. In doing so, we make it harder to understand why we think and feel the way we do, and to tell a broader story about ourselves and our lives
The desire for self-understanding tends to be tied up with the belief that there is something to be understood – not necessarily in terms of some metaphysical substrate, but a more commonplace, persisting entity, such as one’s character or personality.
People who worry that they are neurotic, for example, will probably do so based on their repeated feelings of insecurity and anxiety, and their tendency towards nitpicking. They will recognise these feelings as flowing from the fact that they might have a particular personality or character trait.
…after a certain point, mindfulness doesn’t allow you to take responsibility for and analyse such feelings.
It’s not much help in sifting through competing explanations for why you might be thinking or feeling a certain way. Nor can it clarify what these thoughts and feelings might reveal about your character.
Mindfulness, grounded in anattā, can offer only the platitude: ‘I am not my feelings.’
This is the one that drove me away from both meditation and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: if I am not my feelings, which are the neurological traces of my responses to my experiences, then what am I besides a robot?
A life is fulfilled by feelings, like satisfaction and contentment or ecstasy, not merely actions. Emotions are like the gas pedal and brakes of the brain while thoughts are like the steering wheel.
Without emotion, there is no action, just thought. It’s been shown neurologically that emotions are what get us moving, not thoughts. Without an emotional spark, whether of joy or anger, anticipation or dread, we would never become active at all.
The relationship between individuals and their mental phenomena is a weighty one, encompassing questions of personal responsibility and history. These matters shouldn’t be shunted so easily to one side.
By relinquishing the self, we divorce it from its environment and therefore its particular explanatory context.
While mindfulness might indirectly help me glean something about the recurring content of my thoughts, without some idea of a self, separate from but embedded in a social context, I couldn’t gain much further insight.
Trails of thought and feeling, on their own, give us no way of telling whether we’re reacting disproportionately to some small event in our lives, or, as I was, responding appropriately to recent tragic events.
To look for richer explanations about why you think and feel the way you do, you need to see yourself as a distinct individual, operating within a certain context. You need to have some account of the self, as this demarcates what is a response to your context, and what flows from yourself.
hinking of myself as an individual in a particular context is what allows me to identify whether the source of these worries stems from my internal character traits or if I am simply responding to an external situation. Often the answer is a mixture of both, but even this ambiguity requires a careful scrutiny, not only of thoughts and feelings but the specific context in which they arose.
The contrasting tendency in mindfulness to bracket context not only cramps self-understanding. It also renders our mental challenges dangerously apolitical.
This is the goal of our society: to stamp out all strong feelings of anger at an unjust system, or disgust with the conditions we are forced to live in.
In spite of a growing literature probing the root causes of mental-health issues, policymakers tend to rely on low-cost, supposedly all-encompassing solutions for a broad base of clients.
The focus tends to be solely on the contents of an individual’s mind and the alleviation of their distress, rather than on interrogating the deeper socioeconomic and political conditions that give rise to the distress in the first place.
This is exactly what’s going on these days and an explanation for why so many people are turning to drugs for pleasure and then getting caught in a destructive addiction.
Older people tend to suffer high rates of depression, for example, but that’s usually addressed via pharmaceutical or therapeutic means – instead of considering, say, social isolation or financial pressures.
Our rulers want to adjust our brains to tolerate the misery they are forcing upon us, turn us into “productive workers” that “accept” even the worst working condition without complaint.
Its embedded assumptions about the self make it particularly prone to neglecting broader considerations, since they allow for no notion of individuals as enmeshed in and affected by society at large.
The goal is to blame everything on the individual by insisting we are just not “coping” well, that our pain is only due to our lack of mental fortitude, that we are weak and defective if we cannot tolerate the pain, both physical and emotional, of living in this society that demands productivity to feed the increasing wealth and power of the rich.
The problem is the current tendency to present mindfulness as a wholesale remedy, a panacea for all manner of modern ills.
Yes, we are always told our inability to tolerate pain is our own problem, not what our society is forcing upon us. The “top dogs” manipulate and exploit us and then insist the problem is with our “resilience”.
With its promises of assisting everyone with anything and everything, the mistake of the mindfulness movement is to present its impersonal mode of awareness as a superior or universally useful one.
it sidelines a certain kind of deep, deliberative reflection that’s required for unpicking which of our thoughts and emotions are reflective of ourselves, which are responses to the environment, and – the most difficult question of all – what we should be doing about it.
Sahanika Ratnayake is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Her PhD project concerns the history and philosophy of contemporary psychotherapy.
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