Monday, March 9, 2009

What Is This Thing Called Mindfulness?

It may be "all the rage" but the first time I heard about "mindfulness" was when I read Judith Warner's blog post in The New York times on March 5. Link here.

Apparently, this rage is psychotherapy's version of Buddhism. Since I am not a Buddhist, I have no way of knowing whether it is correct Buddhist practice. I suspect that it is not.

If mindfulness represents a sea change in psychotherapy, it suggests that therapists no longer want their patients to become thespians. Now they want them to become monks.

In days past therapists encouraged people to get in touch with their feelings and to express those feelings openly and honestly. Which is a good way to make your life into a permanent psychodrama.

Apparently, this goal has now been surpassed. Perhaps because therapists never really addressed the salient point: if you want to get in touch with your feelings, where do you put your hands?

Mindfulness is the anti-drama. Perhaps Warner is not being entirely fair when she ways that mindfulness turns ordinary humans into pod people, but surely she is right to say that having an edge is better than living in a zoned out state where you are disconnected from other people.

Why mindfulness, and why now? Perhaps because when the market crash ended our non-stop revelry, people had trouble dealing with the emotional fallout. For all of the therapy sessions spent feelings our feelings, we had no way to deal with the emotions that were provoked by the new reality.

If you are overly preoccupied with your soulfulness you will be unequipped to get to work on real world problems. For focusing on your inner mental space you will be ignoring the challenges offered by the real world.

If you do not know that emotions are trying to direct your attention to the external world, they will quickly overwhelm you.

So, people did not know how to deal with the new reality, and they could not control the emotions it was provoking, so they had to find a way to tamp down their emotions. Thus, mindfulness.

Whether or not Judith Warner is the best person to lead us through the thicket of mindfulness, she has been there and has tried it. To my jaded psyche, her opinions ring true.

As when she says that mindfulness makes people dull, boring, solipsistic, emotionally empty, and disconnected from the trials and travails of everyday life.

Warner describes mindfulness as an effort to help us all to get in touch with our essential humanness, to embrace fully our thoughts and feelings... the better to mobilize our empathy to connect with all of humanity.

To which Warner retorts that it is better to love your loved ones and to be a friend to your friends than to throw yourself into such a mindless exercise.

Why not converse with a real human being in a real human language. Isn't that better than this pseudo-connection with the empty abstraction called humanity?

Why this unseemly and perverse tendency to connect with abstractions? To me it seems like a disguised attempt to glorify unethical behavior.

We are all born into groups, but we can only maintain our place in them by behaving according to the group's standards. Otherwise we will be exiled or demoted. Membership requires good character.

On the other side of the ethical divide, we have all been born as members of the human species and we will continue to belong to it no matter what we do. Belonging to a species is a biological fact; no more, no less.

The most loathsome person on the planet, the person who has murdered, pillaged, maimed, and mutilated his fellow humans... is a fully human as you and I.

He may not be quite as humane, but people who revel in their mindfulness will go out of their way to include him in their utopia.

What can mindfulness do to help us with the current very real crisis? In short, next to nothing. As an approach to crisis management, mindfulness feels like a simple abrogation of responsibility.

Whatever the virtue in Mary Pipher's mindful practice of sending "silent good wishes to people all over the world," this is not really going to tell us how to adapt to the new world and how to make it run efficiently and effectively.

We are not going to solve the problem by becoming monks or even by emulating their example. By definition, monks are not even in the arena.

And, as Theodore Roosevelt reminded us, it is the "man in the arena" who will get us out of the current mess, or, at least, will make a valiant effort to do so.

For an extended version of my thoughts on TR and the man in the arena, follow this link.

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