The psycho world has a problem. For today, we’ll call it totalistic thinking.
Any time psychiatry discovers a new medication, psychiatrists suddenly discover that everyone is suffering from whatever the medication is supposed to treat.
When they discovered lithium, a medication that is very helpful in some cases, the profession, as a man (or woman) rose up to declare that everyone was bipolar and that everyone should be taking the new miracle drug. The same happened with Valium and even Thorazine. Most recently, psychiatrists were so thrilled to have a better treatment for depression that they decided to give Prozac and other designer drugs to everyone. After all, wasn’t everyone suffering from some form of depression.
One famous psychiatrist even claimed that Prozac was going to make you into someone else. He did not say exactly who that would be, but when you believe that a pill can solve all your problems—by giving you someone else’s problems, perhaps—then why would you bother to work on solving them yourself.
No one much mentions it but all of these totalistic approaches to mental health and happiness are relieving you of the dire necessity of having to do any real work.
The habit of totalistic thinking also extends to many of the simple-minded concepts that therapists have been peddling. One, about which I have had much to say, is Empathy. If you have a problem with your relationships or with your career or with your children, serious therapists will tell you to take two Empathy and call them in the morning.
And, of course, there is the other recent panacea: positive thinking. Again, there is virtue in balanced thinking-- that means, not just thinking in terms of the worst—but the notion that positive thinking will solve all your problems is far too mindless to be useful. Again, it is totalizing.
You can always learn a new form of mental gymnastics and feel better about yourself. No one is opposed to it. And yet, positive thinking is a waste of time if you cannot figure out how to deal with your problems, how to manage your relationships and how to conduct your life.
Life is not a state of mind. To imagine that rejiggering your state of mind will make you healthy, wealthy and happy is buy into a fairy tale. It derives from the aberrant notion that your mind creates reality. And it is probably derived from the experience of prayer. At least, those who pray do not believe in the omnipotence of their own minds. And they belong to communities, thus socializing the activity. Unless you are an angel, you are a social being, not a disembodied mind.
To be fair, the Bible says that you shall know people by their deeds. And that means, whatever your state of mind, people will know you by what you do, by what they can see and what they can take as an objective fact. Don’t use prayer or mindfulness as an excuse for doing nothing.
This morning in the New York Times we read that the latest greatest psycho panacea is: living in the present, often called mindfulness. Again, to be fair there is nothing wrong with meditation. A yoga class can certainly be mentally and physically beneficial. If you can take a deep breath, slow down and smell the coffee you will benefit.
Unfortunately, what Ruth Whippman calls “the spiritual industrial complex” has proclaimed that mindfulness is all you need. Again, totalizing thinking. It means that you should learn to live totally in the present. Whippman is correct to argue that this is a mistake.
As I have said before, if you do not learn from the past and never plan for the future, happiness, contentment and success will be elusive.
Whippman asks what mindfulness can do for her while she is standing at the kitchen sink:
According to the practice’s thought leaders, in order to maximize our happiness, we should refuse to succumb to domestic autopilot and instead be fully “in” the present moment, engaging completely with every clump of oatmeal and decomposing particle of scrambled egg. Mindfulness is supposed to be a defense against the pressures of modern life, but it’s starting to feel suspiciously like it’s actually adding to them. It’s a special circle of self-improvement hell, striving not just for a Pinterest-worthy home, but a Pinterest-worthy mind.
One might say that someone who is thinking about mindfulness while washing dishes is not in the moment.
For my part, I believe that “domestic autopilot” is clearly preferable. No one focuses on every action he is taking. If he did he would never get through the day. He would get completely bogged down. Besides, is it not best, to take an example, to scrub the pots on autopilot while using one’s mental faculties for reflections on more important matters? It’s not about being or not being in the moment. It’s about making the most efficient use of one’s mental capacities.
For my part, I’ll take autopilot every time. It’s like having routines. They are more economical. Besides, Confucius would have approved.
Whippman continues that what makes life interesting and engaging, not to say meaningful, is context-- the context of your actions, the way they fit with other actions, the way they involve you with other people in your world. Context connects you with other people. Context relieves you of the sense that you are alone.
What differentiates humans from animals is exactly this ability to step mentally outside of whatever is happening to us right now, and to assign it context and significance.
Let’s say that you are playing a game of chess. Does it make any sense to stop thinking about the future, to stop planning several moves ahead? If you do you will be taking yourself out of the game. And you will undoubtedly lose. The same, incidentally, applies to the game of life.
Whippman adds that the totalizing minds of the psycho world have so thoroughly convinced themselves that mindfulness will cure all of your ills that they assume that when you are suffering, it must mean that you have failed to be mindful.
But still, the advice to be more mindful often contains a hefty scoop of moralizing smugness, a kind of “moment-shaming” for the distractible, like a stern teacher scolding us for failing to concentrate in class. The implication is that by neglecting to live in the moment we are ungrateful and unspontaneous, we are wasting our lives, and therefore if we are unhappy, we really have only ourselves to blame.
Will the irony never cease. Think about it, “moralizing smugness” from the people who insist that you not be judgmental.
Finally, Whippman suggests that the new mania about mindfulness is really a way to police thoughts. Unfortunately, it is not hard to see that the therapy world is filled with people who are in the business precisely because they want to police your thoughts. And, because they want to reform your thoughts. Robert Jay Lifton wrote a seminal work on it several decades ago. It was called Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. For the record, thought reform is a euphemism for brainwashing.
In Whippman’s words:
This judgmental tone is part of a long history of self-help-based cultural thought policing. At its worst, the positive-thinking movement deftly rebranded actual problems as “problematic thoughts.” Now mindfulness has taken its place as the focus of our appetite for inner self-improvement. Where once problems ranging from bad marriages and work stress to poverty and race discrimination were routinely dismissed as a failure to “think positive,” now our preferred solution to life’s complex and entrenched problems is to instruct the distressed to be more mindful.
Funnily enough, if you live totally in the moment, how will you ever put together a plan to deal with any problem? You will be frozen in mental amber, lacking a face and a name, incapable of taking action, wondering why the world is passing you by. I promise you, mindfulness only stops time for a moment.