Wednesday, May 27, 2015

"Escaping into Blank Mental Oblivion"

Too much of a good thing can easily become a bad thing.

I have not found a reason to oppose mindfulness meditation, but I also recognize—see this post--that too much meditation can produce negative consequences.

The therapeutic power of mindfulness has been widely reported and accepted. Still, a little skepticism is always a good thing.

It’s one thing to take a few minutes to rest one’s mind. It’s quite another to make clearing one’s mind a way of life.

Oxford historian Theodore Zeldin has recently issued a caution about mindfulness.

The London Telegraph explains:

Theodore Zeldin said too many people were avoiding using their brains and instead escaping into a state of blank mental oblivion.

One appreciates a nicely turned phrase: “escaping into blank mental oblivion” surely counts as one.

Zeldin believes that the mind should be engaged in thought, not in self-emptying. And he believes that instead of trying to get into our minds we ought to get into the world, the better to develop and sustain relationships with other people.

The Telegraph writes:

But Dr Zeldin said the practice was distracting people form discovering more about other people and the world around them, and encouraged them to instead seek to make new relationships with those who shared different views. He said the world needed to move away from an era of self-discovery.

“It’s important not to think just about yourself,” Dr Zeldin told the Hay Festival. “You think that trying to avoid things by doing exercises which free the mind from thought and will empty out minds.

“I think mindfulness and meditation are bad for people, I absolutely think that. People should be thinking.”

After all, you cannot engage in the marketplace of ideas all by yourself. To develop your thought you need to exchange ideas with other people.

Zeldin recommends that you look outward, not inward. He wants you to stop introspecting, stop trying to be whatever you want to be and stop engaging in voyages of self-discovery:

He said people should stop believing they could be anything they wanted to be and instead start appreciating the value of those around them.

“One of the beliefs of this time is you’ve got to be yourself and develop your own potential, but only thinking of oneself is a feeble and cowardly activity.

“Our potential on our own is very limited. We go to these motivational speakers and they say you can be anything you want to be. You can’t. Your potential is very limited.”


Ares Olympus said...

A rather bizarre article at multiple levels. It would seem it equates "mindfulness" and "mindlessness". Its hard to see exactly what is the opinion of the article and the book.

The article starts with an insanely arrogant categorical assertion "People are wasting valuable thinking time" as if she knows how people should live, as if there is a moral obligation to act in a certain way, and those who go to monster truck shows to expand their minds are somehow inferior or superior, or I'm not sure.

Okay, but here's the book author saying “It’s important not to think just about yourself,” so at least we now know that meditation is about selfishness. I wonder if there's some sort of logical fallacy here?

And he apparently says “I think mindfulness and meditation are bad for people, I absolutely think that. People should be thinking.”

At least we can see this is a mere opinion, a prejudgement against something he is closed minded against, and rather than do his own "thinking" he's pretending to be advocate for other people to think more? That's very noble I guess. I wonder if he ever noticed that the word "should" is associated with guilt, and may not be conducive with good thinking?

Again he adds "“One of the beliefs of this time is you’ve got to be yourself and develop your own potential, but only thinking of oneself is a feeble and cowardly activity."

So now this confusing. Thinnking is clearly very important, but you must not think about yourself because its cowardly.

But I don't understand why it has to be one or the other? Its like he's reacting against something he dislikes, and willing throw everything out, rather than clarify what's so repulsive to him.

And the last quote “Our potential on our own is very limited. We go to these motivational speakers and they say you can be anything you want to be. You can’t. Your potential is very limited.”

So basically he's reacting against propaganda. He thinks there are these snake oil salesman out there that promise the moon, and he knows they can't deliver. He knows they just promote self-absorption and "wasting valuable time."

But now we have his opinions, so we can avoid those errors and stop listening to bad thinking.

But how would he ever know if his thinking is bad anyway?

Maybe he's just pissed off that his son won't talk to him, and his son told him he's an opinionated old windbag who has nothing useful to say, so now he's trying to prove his son wrong by writing a book to prove his love for humanity?

That expanation would make almost as much sense as this article.

Ares Olympus said...

Maybe Jonathan Haidt can help explain again?

So apparently the Telegraph is a conservative newspaper, and its readers are not interested in rubblish like meditation, so this article is an exercise in "In-Group Loyalty" by expressing a common conservative value of rejecting anything it finds not useful, and thereby making the political opposition self-absorbed and unworthy to be listened to.

Perhaps Theodore Zeldin's book is actually quite inspiring and sensible but article writer cherry-picked quotes that made him look more of an old fart than he actually deserves?

The author is Sarah Knapton, Science Editor. SCIENCE? Wow. Maybe the Telegraph doesn't know what Science actually means. Perhaps science is about opinions and speculation and dismissing things you don't like? I'll have to ask a scientist sometime if that's what he does all day. This would also help explain why we shouldn't trust scientists.
Haidt's talk is about his own research on the five moral value systems that he argues underlie the liberal-conservative political dimension: 1) Care for Others/Do no harm; 2) Fairness/Justice/Equality; 3) In-Group Loyalty; 4) Respect for Authority; and 5) Purity. His research shows-across large numbers of people and many different countries-that there are very reliable differences in the degree to which liberals and conservatives differ in the extent to which they endorse these values. Conservatives tend to value the five domains relatively equally. Liberals, in contrast, value the first two domains much more than the latter three.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

This is the kind of thing that happens when religious systems are eschewed for their "dogmatic" components, while people can pick the trendy pieces that make them feel good or look sophisticated or exotic. Meditation is an example. So is Sufism. So is Kabbalah. So is Centering Prayer. So is Zen.

These practices and/or traditions are often no longer contained within a religious system or lifestyle... this is America, people can do whatever they want. But when people reject organized religion wholesale as an oppressive system of "thought control" or ridicule orthodox or conventional forms of religious practice, certain specific practices get taken out of context. Organized religion is "organized" for purposes beyond tithing.

I suspect meditation -- taken on by an amateur who thinks "too much of a good thing is just enough" without the help of a master, clergy, lama, sufi or whatever -- can be dangerous.

The spiritual realm is an important component of the human person. It's not a toy or a video game. St. Teresa of Avila was a Carmelite nun and profound mystic who is now deemed a Doctor of the Catholic Church. She had a confessor and a spiritual director. That kind of humility goes a long way toward effective spiritual exploration and freedom. It keeps you grounded.

Spiritual seeking is part of life. It is sometimes laudable, sometimes misguided. It is sometimes successful, and sometimes results in a dead end. But eventually, the wise seeker stops seeking and enters a community that supports him/her in their quest for connection to God, the divine, the universe, the source, or whatever. We seem to think the seeker is exotic or "cool," when often endless seeking is a sign of refusing to make any kind of commitment. That story doesn't usually end well...

Ares Olympus said...

Joseph Campbell offered one perspective in Power of Myth. He talks more about a place and time than any meditative structure.

And as a runner I might say a longer run has something of this quality, or a possibility of it. And a key perhaps is the rhythm of the stride helps align the mind with body, or at least the potential, similar with walking as well.

IAC talks about "grounding" and there are symbolic (reminders) and literal ways (practices) of doing that, and the more aspects of our being that is "grounded" the more we might catch our own self-deceptiona and rationalizations that keep us in conpulsive ways of acting and seeing the world.
[A sacred place] is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen….

[O]ur life has become so economic and practical in its orientation that, as you get older, the claims of the moment upon you are so great, you hardly know where the hell you are, or what it is you intended. You are always doing something that is required of you. Where is your bliss station? You have to try to find it. Get a phonograph and put on the music that you really love, even if it’s corny music that nobody else respects.

I also like the perspective of Iain McGilchrist's "Divided brain", seeing we have two ways of seeing, and so when someone says "thinking" you can wonder who or what is doing the thinking. Is there only one "thinker" inside of us? If not, part of thinking may be a communing between two or more divided ways of experiencing the world, and if we don't have an intentional process for these communions, we'll create them anyway in our projections and fantasies about the world around us.

Anonymous said...

Isn't the world of human affairs being generated by our thoughts and actions already? How can thinking more about the world change the world unless we change our patterns of thought, speech, and action? How does one go about changing thoughts, speech, and action without mindful practice?

Anonymous said...

This essay:

contains the following insight into the nature of worldly versus spiritual happiness.

"Had there been real happiness in objects, they [spiritual masters] would have stuck to this world. The difficulty is that the worldly men with gross Vyavaharic Buddhi [worldly intellect] are not able to understand or comprehend a supersensual spiritual bliss that exists beyond the senses, mind and intellect."