The Real Truth About Mindfulness

‘Many benefits and fruits of Zen practice are real, but they are not to be gained, nor pursued. Just sit, regularly, for a sustained period, and see what is here right now.’

Rosenbaum and Magid

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Mindfulness and Psychotherapy

Many psychotherapists find that mindfulness is of value in terms of their practice. There is a considerable evidence base that it can be an effective therapeutic tool. (Also see Baer, R. A.  and  The Lancet,)

Psychotherapists using mindfulness techniques help patients to understand, for example, that ‘thoughts are not facts’ (Christine Dunkley & Del Loewenthal) Self- awareness is vital, and such therapy can help people understand how they might be contributing to their own distress. For example, we might learn to accept the impermanence of life, instead of denying it:

“It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not. We need to learn to appreciate the value of impermanence. If we are in good health and are aware of impermanence, we will take good care of ourselves. When we know that the person we love is impermanent, we will cherish our beloved all the more. Impermanence teaches us to respect and value every moment and all the precious things around us and inside of us. When we practice mindfulness of impermanence, we become fresher and more loving.” Thich Nhat Hanh

There are three main ways in which mindfulness is used in therapy: (Barker)

  •   Teaching mindfulness to clients
  •   Practising mindfulness themselves in order to cultivate therapeutic qualities
  •   Attempting to create a mindful encounter in therapy itself

The techniques of mindfulness are used in several different therapies. For example, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy blends mindfulness with Cognitive-Behavioural therapy.

Mindfulness Based Stress-Reduction Therapy, developed byDr Jon Kabat-Zinn, aims to help alleviate some of the anxieties of daily life.

It is often used in the treatment of chronic diseases, with some beneficial outcomes. It is frequently offered as a group therapy, focussing on such aspects as staying in the present moment and the importance of the individual taking regular time out for meditation.

Critique of Mindfulness 

‘The commodification of mindfulness and meditation is increasingly prevalent and problematic’ Rosenbaum and Magid

 

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Whilst there is no doubt that mindfulness can be helpful and therapeutic, it has limitations. It is not for everyone, and needs to be used professionally.

Whilst there is considerable value in using mindfulness to reduce stress and increase self-awareness, it must be emphasised that it is not a panacea for all ills.

‘There is a contemporary shift in its use and meaning, which actually distorts mindfulness, taking it far from the original Buddhist emphasis on ethics and consideration of others. The danger is that it will be diluted into a corporate, self-serving and over-secularised commodity.’ Rosenbaum and Magid

An increasing backlash against this popular trend is occurring, in that it is becoming fashionable and commercial. It is often promoted as a kind of designer cure-all, another ‘one size fits all’ solution to life’s ills. Another criticism is that it encourages a narcissistic focus on the self.

Thus, there are mindfulness colouring books, mindfulness apps and books like Mindfulness for Dummies, The Mindfulness Diet, Mindfulness for Dogs, Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate, Mindfulness on The Go, Mindful Birthing and so on.

‘…this new corporatised McMindfulness – which in the long term will do as much as a McDonald’s Happy Meal to sate a person’s gnawing hunger for a richer life.’

 Daily Telegraph

 

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Incredibly, a Chicago burger bar sells ‘a more mindful burger.’ Joiner.

I wonder how they might advertise this product? Your ideas are welcome in the comments box below. Please contribute whatever comes to mind!

Here’s my take on it:

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One American headline asks:

‘Does L.A.’s Absurd, Narcissistic, and Pricey Mindfulness Trend Have Its Benefits? 

In Los Angeles, mindfulness has become a hot commodity (Los Angeles Magazine)

The writer’s conclusion is that it does: ‘Bring on the chakra exorcism and $24 hemp smoothies,’  she adds, entranced by her experiences. One of these ‘experiences’ is lead by a woman ‘spending the full 15 minutes with a hand over her heart, head tilted dreamily to the side, whispering, “May I forgive myself” over and over again.’

There is criticism of mindfulness as a process that prevents thinking, that it can be used as an avoidance of considering difficult situations, merely by an unquestioning acceptance of them.

Although the NHS supports mindfulness, an Oxford academic claims it stops people thinking deeply:

‘I think mindfulness and meditation are bad for people, I absolutely think that. People should be thinking.’ ( Theodore Zeldin)

This misuse of the concept surely constitutes another form of mindlessness; there is  criticism that corporate organisations use mindfulness in order to stop employees thinking about problematic work issues. (Hackspirit.com)

In similar vein, some schools and universities have used mindfulness to reduce student stress. However, there has been criticism that, as in the corporate setting, such use masks institutional flaws by focussing the problem on the students’ mental health.(Harriet Swain)

Another criticism resides in the ‘infantilising’ nature of this approach, in that it implies that students are going to be troubled emotionally if they do not engage in mindfulness.

Of course, some children are troubled emotionally; at this present time, the evidence of this in terms of child suicides is painfully apparent.

Offering mindfulness exercises is not going to help such children:

Pooky Knightsmith, vice-chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, said such exercises could be actively harmful for those who are particularly vulnerable or have a history of trauma.

“If a child is suffering abuse at home, being given space and time for thoughts to drift through your head isn’t necessarily good,” she said. “Schools need to be aware of the potential risks, even with the most seemingly nice of interventions.”

(Independent,2017)

Have you had experience of mindfulness? What do you think of it? DWill you let me know in the comment box below?

A Christmas Present: the Best of 2018. Thinking Quotes to See You into the New Year.

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Here is a selection of some very pertinent and powerful quotations from this year’s blog posts on Ways of Thinking.

Please leave below any short-or long- comment that comes to mind after reading these, either about the blog in general, or specifically regarding this post. I’d love to know your thoughts!

 

‘In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.
In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.
And in an age of constant movement nothing is more urgent than sitting still.’

The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. Pico Ayer

Blog post: What Thinks Can We All Think Up?

 

‘Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.’

(Samuel Beckett. Adapted from a line in Waiting for Godot.)

Blog post: Thinking and Acting

 

‘A thought once spoken is a lie.’ Tyutchev

‘There is no truth. There is only perception.’ Flaubert.

Blog post: Thoughts and Secrecy

 

‘We must care to think about the unthinkable things, because when things become unthinkable, thinking stops and action becomes mindless.’ (James W. Fulbright.)

Blog Post: Unthinking, Not Thinking and the Unthinkable.

 

‘Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.’  Albert Einstein.

Blog post: The Unthinkable: ‘Failed Empathy’ and Hatred of ‘the Other.’

Do you have any suggestions for subjects for next year’s posts? Please leave below and I’ll try my best to accommodate!

Unthinking, Not Thinking and the Unthinkable.

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‘When there is true no-thought, no-thought itself is not.’

A Zen teacher

If we think about it, the above statement implies a total void. So what is there, in our minds, if there is not thought? Can we ‘not think’? If we are not thinking, does this mean our minds are blank, devoid of thought?

Let us pause for a moment and turn the concept of thinking on its head. Let us consider this state of ‘not thinking.’

It would appear that not thinking is as difficult to contemplate as thinking. Could lack of thought, lack of no-thought, be a positive experience? Such an empty mind is what some who meditate aim to achieve: a relaxed state, without the intrusiveness of thought, a freeing experience:

‘Thinking no thing will limited-self unlimit.’ (Zen Flesh, Zen Bones)

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Is this state, then, better described as a quiet mind, or is it an empty mind? The term mindfulness has its root in Buddhist practices. Yet mindfulness has the word full in it, implying we are full-of-mind.

In her research paper, Susanne Semb Thunes suggests that mindlessness is the actual opposite of mindfulness; this is a state of witlessness, of brainlessness, of the empty-headed, a foolish vacuousness that is quite different from the Buddhist state of serenity, which is a rarefied and enlightened state, free of worldly thoughts.

In a less spiritual way,  unthinking may also imply a more careless and carefree casting off of cares and worrying thoughts, as in Dryden’s poem ‘The Secular Masque.’ He refers to

‘A very merry, dancing, drinking,
Laughing, quaffing, and unthinking time.’

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‘The Wedding Dance.’ Peter Breughel the younger.

In a less wanton vein, the poet Denise Levertov in her work Relearning the Alphabet,’ describes the feelings of delight when one goes back to beginnings, the magical sense of renewal.

Joy-a beginning. Anguish, ardor,
To relearn the ah! of knowing in unthinking
joy; the beloved stranger lives,
Sweeps up anguish as with a wing-tip,
brushing the ashes back to the fire’s core.

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The ‘unthinking joy’ mentioned by this highly regarded American poet refers to the potential recovery from the anguish of the Vietnam war; the whole poem is one of several that represents the poet’s responses to this and other human tragedies of her time.

In an earlier blog post, the idea of unthinking in terms of driving a car, playing a musical instrument, or practicing a sport was discussed. Often, in these circumstances, people resort to an ‘autopilot mode,’ which involves suspending thought and not utilising the conscious mind.

There are obviously several interpretations and meanings of the word ‘unthinking’ and some differ greatly from automatic thought or the Zen notion of no-thinking. Is it possible for us to ‘unthink,’ in the way that  Shakespeare’s character Wolsey exhorted Queen Katherine to do in the quotation from Henry VIII?

‘Remove these thoughts from you. The which before

His highness shall speak in, I do beseech

You, gracious madam, to unthink your speaking,

And to say so no more.’

Shakespeare meant the word ‘unthink’ to imply a kind of forgetting, a conscious removal of the material from one’s thoughts.

This plea to ‘unthink’ is reminiscent of a judge’s courtroom injunction to sustain an objection and strike off from the records a comment already made or a question posed. The jury must not include the comment in their deliberations; the implication is that they have to unthink it. I suspect that this is practically impossible.

The more one tries to unthink something, the more one will think about it. Oliver Burkeman, quoting Dostoevsky, in his excellent, thought-provoking book The Antidote, says in this regard

‘Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that
the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.’

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The word ‘unthinking’ is often used to mean inconsiderate or insensitive. This might be an appropriate way of describing, for example, someone who speaks loudly on their mobile phone in public, or those who might thoughtlessly disrespect another person’s feelings or wishes. These behaviours may often be difficult to challenge and may need a strong approach.

‘Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking.’ John Maynard Keynes

The importance of examining one’s own thinking is paramount here. How easy it is to slip into ways of thinking that might be destructive and hurtful, perhaps without conscious awareness of the implications and effects of what one is saying.

‘We must unthink our thinking lest our thinking become unthinking thinking.’
Steven C. Scheer

‘Unthinking’, in the sense of not thinking, may also be used to refer to someone who cannot think or self-reflect. Not being able to think for oneself can have the most unthinkable consequences.

What does the word unthinkable imply, then, when defined as unimaginable, inconceivable? Here is a word that features strongly in descriptions of atrocities, acts of barbarity, crime and horror.

‘We must care to think about the unthinkable things, because when things become unthinkable, thinking stops and action becomes mindless.’ (James W. Fulbright.)

Unthinking behaviour or mindlessness, the inability to reflect on oneself and one’s actions, may lead to the committing of heinous acts. We do not need to look to the future and simply imagine the results of being unable to reflect; there are decidedly sinister examples throughout history and in the relatively recent past.

What might be the consequences of this state of mind, when it becomes extreme? This, and other related issues, will be explored in the next post.