Sunday, July 28, 2019

A Critique of Mindfulness Meditation

Today, Aeon brings us an extended and intelligent analysis of the practice of mindfulness meditation. I have no reason to take a stand for or against meditation. Many people have profited from it. And, if the choice is between Xanax and meditation, the latter seems more useful and less biochemical than the former.

My own ignorance notwithstanding, mindfulness is now all the rage. At Cambridge University of all places. Graduate philosophy student Sahanika Ratnayake offers an excellent analysis. She has one advantage over some of the rest of us. She was brought up within a Buddhist tradition, and thus, she sees clearly the religious aspect of the practice. It is always nice to know that our thoroughly secular, thoroughly scientific mental health professionals are directing people toward religious practices. When they are not handing out medication, that is.

What is mindfulness? Ratnayake explains what she learned during a Cambridge trial.

Over the years, before and during the Cambridge trial, therapists have taught me an arsenal of mindfulness techniques. I have been instructed to observe my breath, to scan my body and note the range of its sensations, and to observe the play of thoughts and emotions in my mind. This last exercise often involves visual imagery, where a person is asked to consider thoughts and feelings in terms of clouds in the sky or leaves drifting in a river. A popular activity (though I’ve never tried it myself) even involves eating a raisin mindfully, where you carefully observe the sensory experience from start to finish, including changes in texture and the different tastes and smells.

The results were both good and bad. 

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. My experience was mirrored in the research findings, which concluded that regular mindfulness meditation reduces stress levels and builds resilience. 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. Did I think the essay I’d just written was bad because the argument didn’t quite work, or was I simply anxious about the looming deadline? Why did I feel so inadequate? Was it imposter syndrome, depression or was I just not a good fit for this kind of research? 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.

If we assume that emotions are trying to tell us something, about our lives, about our moral character, about whatever else matters… mindfulness seems to make it more difficult to read them. Ratnayake concludes, intelligently, that the practice tends to detach us from our worlds. It works almost like a drug, calming emotions and failing to allow us to read them.

Now, she continues, Westerners have replaced religion with psychotherapy. They used to turn to religion to understand themselves. Now they turn to psychotherapy. One might question whether religion is really designed to help us to understand ourselves. I prefer to think that it joins people in community.

Surely, we ought to question whether we can really gain any distinct advantage by pretending that our selfhood reduces to a bunch of semi-mythic narratives:

Where once Europeans and North Americans might have turned to religion or philosophy to understand themselves, increasingly they are embracing psychotherapy and its cousins. 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.

Mindfulness seems completely inner directed. It does not require any analytical thinking or even understanding. Dare we mention that the next time you go into a job interview you would do better to have more to say than: OM:

When eating the raisin, for example, the focus is on the process of consuming it, rather than reflecting on whether you like raisins or recalling the little red boxes of them you had in your school lunches, and so on. Similarly, when focusing on your breath or scanning your body, you should concentrate on the activity, rather than following the train of your thoughts or giving in to feelings of boredom and frustration. 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.

SR continues to point out that many people embrace mindfulness because it seems to be totally non-judgmental:

One reason that mindfulness finds such an eager audience is that it garbs itself in a mantle of value-neutrality.

She adds:

As well as relieving stress, Kabat-Zinn and his followers claim that mindfulness practices can help with alleviating physical pain, treat mental illness, boost productivity and creativity, and help us understand our ‘true’ selves. Mindfulness has become something of a one-size-fits-all response for a host of modern ills – something ideologically innocent that fits easily into anyone’s life, regardless of background, beliefs or values.

Of course, mindfulness cannot really help us to understand ourselves, because its purpose is to overcome the Self, to produce a state of selflessness… which might have something to with charitable giving. Yet, the Buddhist practice seems more to do with complete detachment from the world:

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 I found with my own experience, though, it’s not enough to simply watch one’s thoughts and feelings. 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.

She continues:

In particular, mindfulness is grounded in the Buddhist doctrine of anattā, or the ‘no-self’. Anattā is a metaphysical denial of the self, defending the idea that there is nothing like a soul, spirit or any ongoing individual basis for identity. This view denies that each of us is an underlying subject of our own experience. By contrast, 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.

I am not so certain that Western metaphysics posits the Self as an entity, but Ratnayake has clearly grasped the essential. The mind that mindfulness seeks to regulate does not belong to anyone in particular. It is not really yours. Or anyone else’s. Thus, she continues, your thoughts and feelings are not really yours either. If you follow the theory behind mindfulness you will end up detached from yourself and from your world. As for other people, those who are near and dear to you, the family or community you belong to… these two will become erased:

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. We don’t tend to think that thoughts and feelings are disconnected, transitory events that just happen to occur in our minds. Rather, we see them as belonging to us because they are reflective of us in some way. 

This means, as noted above, that if your feelings are not yours and if they are not trying to alert you to some aspect of your life, you will never learn how to read them and will never be able to take responsibility for your good or bad behavior:

But 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.’ Its conceptual toolbox doesn’t allow for more confronting statements, such as ‘I am feeling insecure,’ ‘These are my anxious feelings,’ or even ‘I might be a neurotic person.’ Without some ownership of one’s feelings and thoughts, it is difficult to take responsibility for them. 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.

Rather than becoming a no-self individual, Ratnayake recommends that you see yourself as a distinct individual. I would qualify this by saying that you do better to see yourself as a social being, connected to a myriad of other people, bearing responsibilities toward them and allowing them to bear responsibilities for you:

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. I know I have a propensity towards neurotic worrying and overthinking. Thinking 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.

Ratnayake sees that the mindfulness approach to mental health truncates human existence and becomes part of the problem that it is trying to solve:

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. 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. Mindfulness follows the trend for simplicity and individuation. 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.

She concludes with a point that I would have preferred to see developed more fully. The search for self-understanding, like the effort to obliterate self altogether, runs seriously afoul of all ethical obligations. Knowing who you are does not tell you what you should do. Being and doing are not the same thing. Those who emphasize being are most often attempting to absolve themselves of moral obligation. Mindfulness does not and cannot tell you what you ought to be doing. When you are facing a difficult moral dilemma mindfulness will be of little help:

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. Its roots in the Buddhist doctrine of anattā mean that 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.


trigger warning said...

In my opinion, most - perhaps virtually all - of this booming mindfulness/yoga business is a cargo cult, with about as much understanding of Eastern religions as post-WWII Vuanatuans had about logistics and air traffic control.

But, going beyond a peurile cargo cultish fixation on forms, C S Lewis nailed the general problem:
"For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.”

bruce said...

At its simplest, mindfulness is just putting things in context and in perspective. It helps in my pain management, which is chronic pain in one leg, by reminding me to be aware of the rest of my body and not just the pain in one small area. Very similar to what surgeons do by getting patients active soon after surgery - after say a hip replacement, lying in bed makes the pain feel worse. Getting the body moving reminds the brain to stop panic reaction, that the body is still whole and functioning. Some mental discipline can achieve a similar result, breathing for example reminds the body that life is going on, sensing my painless leg reminds me that my pain is just a blip (and I am on a small speck circling a star in one of millions of galaxies...etc).

No it is not 'based on' the anatta doctrine, but on Buddha's early meditation experienecs documented in Pali texts. These have been continuously studied and practice in SE Asia but not in Sri Lanka as it happens. In fact the study of Pali texts and meditation was reintroduced in Sri Lanka just over a century ago, by a pretty dubious westerner as it happens. So no she is not well placed to comment. There is also some jealousy between Sri Lankans and SE Asians over the fact that the latter preserved the tradition. Anatta is Buddha's direct response to dogmatic Hindus of his day, it became more important in the Mahayana northern Buddhist schools. Some Thai Buddhists who teach mindfulness even reject anatta, or gloss over it as unnecessary.

Yes this putting things in perspective approach is also there in mere counselling, and maybe 'mindfulness' sounds more exotic and sells better, which is unfortunate, but it works and the idea is sound. Buddha should be credited with a systematic approach to overcoming 'unhappiness' (dukkha in Pali). He was not a moralist, but therapeutic in his approach. For moral problems go elsewhere (some Buddhists will disagree with me).

sestamibi said...

Anattā is a metaphysical denial of the self, defending the idea that there is nothing like a soul, spirit or any ongoing individual basis for identity.

"In Oceania the prevailing philosophy is called Ingsoc, in Eurasia it is called Neo-Bolshevism, and in Eastasia it is called by a Chinese name usually translated as Death-worship, but perhaps better rendered as Obliteration of the Self."

--Emmanuel Goldstein, "The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism"

Anonymous said...

I'm a Catholic Christian.

I think the problem here is the context for understanding.

Here's what I've been discovering. I use techniques that might be described as mindfulness, but the point is to isolate the feeling from the thought ... then feel the feeling with out any "reverberating" feelings which have tacked themselves on. That is, identify the thought and the feeling, feel the feeling without fear. (I should note I am very high-strung.)

I find that when I do this, my psyche will often heal itself / resolve a conflict within itself in the next week or so without prompting.

The problem with the mindfulness is they feel it as detachment. When what you really should be doing is feeling only what you need to feel.

I don't know if that makes any sense.

But it works for me.