Sunday, July 28, 2019

The commodification of “mindfulness”

Wat Pho buddha

From “The Problem of Mindfulness” by Sahanika Ratnayakeis for Aeon:

“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. [….]

With the no-self doctrine [P. anatta/S. anātman], 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. People who worry that they are neurotic, for example, will probably do so based on their repeated feelings of insecurity and anxiety, and their tendency towards nitpicking. They will recognise these feelings as flowing from the fact that they might have a particular personality or character trait.”

The entire article is here.

There is much to think about in this article and I agree in the main with its argument. However, I think the discussion of “no-self” [P. anatta/S. anātman] doctrine is palpably weak insofar as it applies more to superficial understandings of same and not the more psychologically and philosophically elaborate or sophisticated accounts within Buddhist traditions (our author acknowledges that, although raised as a Buddhist, ‘like many “cultural Catholics,” [her] involvement was often superficial’). In part, this means viewing the doctrine of no-self in light of what, why, and how this notion arose in opposition to prevailing Indic ideas with regard to the “self” or “soul” within “orthodox” Hindu traditions and philosophical schools. One result of this includes a corresponding awareness and appreciation of the fact that the doctrine does not endorse or encourage an abandonment of or diminution in personal responsibility (for our thoughts, feelings, actions, etc.) but rather, and not unlike psychoanalysis, a temporary suspension of an egoistic orientation and moral framing and judgment by way of facilitating a dispassionate and analytic approach to mental phenomena (and this involves notions of cause and effect that are intrinsic to attributions of responsibility). As the Dalai Lama and others have explained, conventional notions of self and person(hood) have their place and are well established in experience, but the doctrine in question here is inextricably connected to other metaphysical ideas having to do with such notions as “dependent arising” and the “emptiness of inherent existence,” and it is in this larger framework that the notion of no-self must be examined. So by way of just one example, consider the following from Rupert Gethin’s introduction to anatta in his book, The Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 1998):

“The monk Nāgasena put it as follows to King Milinda. Suppose that someone should steal mangoes from another man’s trees; if he were to claim in his defence that the mangoes he stole were not the mangoes the other man planted, we would point out that the mangoes he stole nevertheless arose in dependence upon the mangoes that were previously planted. Similarly, I cannot, by appeal to the teaching of no self, claim that it was not I who robbed the bank yesterday but some other person who no longer exists, since the teaching of no self states quite categorically that the ‘I’ who exists today only exists by virtue of its dependence upon the ‘I’ that existed yesterday; there is a definite causal connection.” [This is only one way to defend conventional notions of the ‘ownership’ of (or responsibility for) our thoughts, feelings, etc. from a Buddhist perspective.] One might also look at the transcript of a talk at Harvard University some years ago by the [fourteenth] Dalai Lama [‘His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso] on “self and selflessness” published in Kindness, Clarity, and Insight (translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, co-edited by Elizabeth Napper) (Snow Lion Publications, 1984): 157-167.

I also believe it is true (and I am not alone in this) that many people in our society do, in fact, have a hard time concentrating, holding a thought or focusing, thinking clearly, devoting sufficient attention to a topic or problem, in short, they are easily distracted and their minds appear to flit about like a fish on dry land (an image from the Dhammapada). There are those who are of course thankful exceptions to this generalization, although from time to time none of us is immune from experiencing such “distracted” states of consciousness.* And simplistic nostrums and New Age bromides that “fit[ ] oh-so-neatly into a culture of techno-fixes, easy answers and self-hacks” still leave far too many susceptible to the latest fad. In so far as we’ve identified a genuine problem on this score, new technologies, be it the smartphone or social media platforms like Twitter or Instagram, may contribute to or exacerbate the disquieting mental phenomena that “mind-training” and meditation are meant to address as an intrinsic part of a larger regimen of “spiritual exercises” and indispensable sundry traditional philosophical, religious, and psychological therapies of self-examination, “self-discovery,” insight, and human fulfillment or eudaimonia.

Perhaps the closest relevant analogy to what troubles Ratnayakeis is the comparable commodification and common reduction of Yoga philosophy and psychology to āsana(s), that is, bodily poses and physical exercises from “the East.” As I wrote in an introductory post on Yoga almost a decade ago: Patañjali’s Yoga system is one of the six āstika (orthodox) darśanas, hence it is a distinct philosophical school and a spiritual praxis, as elaborated in his Yoga Sūtra (3rd to 4th century CE). This Sūtra is usually read together with its indispensable commentary, Vyāsa’s Bhāsya, and is often referred to as the “Eight-Limbed Yoga” (astānga-yoga), only one limb of which, the third and “outer member” (āsana), is found in contemporary “YMCA” and “classified ads” yoga (there are all-too-few exceptions to this generalization).

* Its converse, namely prosoche or “attention,” defined as continuous vigilance and presence of the mind (a notion, incidentally, that calls to mind certain Buddhist spiritual techniques), was extremely important in the life of Suzanne Necker (Suzanne Curchod, b. 1737 – 6 May 1794), one of the more remarkable salonnières of the Enlightenment’s Republic of Letters. Dena Goodman writes that Madame Necker’s “seriousness, and that of the salon whose discourse she shaped is revealed most clearly in the concern she displayed in all things for paying attention. The word attention dominates the five-volumes of her journals published after her death by her husband. One must pay attention, she reminded herself repeatedly, not get distracted. Her purpose in life was not to distract men from their serious business but rather to discipline herself and her guests so that that business might be carried out. Her concern was to concentrate her own attention and to focus that of the philosophes (her guests); her intent was to be a serious contributor to the social and intellectual project of Enlightenment through the shaping of its discourse in her salon.”

[A rough first draft of this post appeared on FB, and I am grateful to Ruchira Paul and Elatia Harris for commenting, thereby provoking me to think more about topics broached in the article.]


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