Mindlessness?

I think I’ve always been attracted to meditation of one sort or another. When I was a young child growing up in Winnipeg, I found that I enjoyed losing myself in what the adults around me described as day-dreaming. Random thoughts would surge through my mind, almost as if I was sitting in a room watching a crowd of them shuffle past the window. And when I was upset, or felt burdened with unearned guilt, I learned not to single out individuals in the flood, but simply to grant them unfettered passage through my head.

My father worked for the railroad, so we were able to travel anywhere in the country at reduced fares -in fact, we travelled out to the west coast to see our relatives every summer. Like any journey, its anticipation far outmatched the trip however, and after a few hours of watching trees rush past, boredom would require an exploration of the different coaches on the train until my mother couldn’t stand the worry that I’d somehow slipped between one of the cars onto the waiting tracks, or had fallen off the back of the last coach. Then I’d be confined to my seat at the window until my father had calmed her down.

That’s where I taught myself hypnosis (although I simply called it ‘windowing’ until years later). The method was simple: watch the telephone posts flow past until, yawn, I was asleep and my head banged against the window -again alarming my mother. But, at any rate, I got so good at windowing, I found I could window in my imagination whenever I decided I needed to escape.

I continued the practice until adulthood allowed me to join a national clinical hypnosis society so I could actually use it in my, by then, beginning medical practice.

Around that time, though, the Beatles had become enamoured with the Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and his Transcendental Meditation, so mere hypnosis slipped quietly beneath the waves as far as public self-enlightenment and stress relief were concerned.

Naturally, I was disappointed, but curious enough that I decided to take a $200 course in TM. For that, a whole group of us got a morning of instruction in a quiet, darkened room, and a mantra which we were sworn on pain of -what, excommunication?- to guard in case any of us were so foolish as to disclose it to one another. I suppose the threat worked, because to this day I have told no one -even though I have always wondered if everybody got the same mantra that day. I mean, there are probably only a limited number of mantras that actually work, eh?

As the passing years crept over my mind, however, I began to suspect that even the  unique and secret mantra I had so carefully written down and hidden in the bottom of my sock drawer was just a designer label. By then, of course, Mindfulness had come along, so I substituted mindful breathing for the mantra and found it was much easier to remember.

And, yes, Mindfulness seems to work, but so did everything else I’ve tried -they all seem to be ‘windowing’ by alias- so I’m not entirely convinced I’m ever onto anything unique. It seems to me that all the methods I’ve used over the years are refugia: chapels that temporarily protect me from whatever storms are raging around me. In fact, I wonder if a better name for the current latter-day saint would be Mindlessness.

I was, however, interested in the title of an essay in Aeon that I thought might put windowing in its proper perspective for me: https://aeon.co/essays/mindfulness-is-loaded-with-troubling-metaphysical-assumptions

Written by Sahanika Ratnayake, a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Cambridge, and a some-time Buddhist, she feels that what she has discovered about Mindfulness ‘has disturbing implications for how mindfulness encourages us to relate to our thoughts, emotions and very sense of self… 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.’ Exactly! And it’s value neutral. No sense seeking refuge from the wind and leaving the door open, eh?

I wonder if one reason Ratnayake may have problems with mindfulness -or other methods that offer refuge from stress, say- could be her background in Buddhism: ‘the goals of psychotherapy and mindfulness do not match up with core Buddhist tenets: while psychotherapy might attempt to reduce suffering, for example, Buddhism takes it to be so deeply entrenched that one should aim to escape the miserable cycle of rebirth altogether.’

But Ratnayake’s objections seem to be deeper than that, though. ‘In claiming to offer a multipurpose, multi-user remedy for all occasions, mindfulness oversimplifies the difficult business of understanding oneself.’

She seems to feel that for a refuge to be valuable -for it to be helpful, even- it has to promote the goal of ‘self-understanding’. Why there is stress, in other words. She falls back on a contrast between meditation as understood (I assume) in the practice of Buddhism, and meditation from an more secular perspective. ‘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… One technique in Buddhism, for example, involves examining thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, and noting that they are impermanent, both individually and collectively. Our thoughts and emotions change rapidly, and physical sensations come and go in response to stimuli. As such (the thinking goes), they cannot be the entity that persists throughout a lifetime – and, whatever the self is, it cannot be as ephemeral and short-lived as these phenomena… Consequently, there is no self.’

Well, I’m sorry, I do not wish to abandon the idea of ‘self’; I’ve grown rather fond of it over the years. She does concede some territory to the mindfulness crowd, however: ‘Like their Buddhist predecessors, contemporary mindfulness practitioners stress these qualities of impermanence and impersonality. Exercises repeatedly draw attention to the transitory nature of what is being observed in the present moment.’ But then the inevitable caveat: ‘it’s often pragmatically useful to step away from your own fraught ruminations and emotions. Seeing them as drifting leaves can help us gain a certain distance from the heat of our feelings, so as to discern patterns and identify triggers. But after a certain point, mindfulness doesn’t allow you to take responsibility for and analyse such feelings.’

She goes on to argue about the value of self-knowledge and learning from the tumult, but I think misses the larger point. Short of psychotherapeutic needs for more serious issues, there is value to sheltering, if only temporarily. Think, even, of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and his ‘Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care, the death of each day’s life.’

Me? I just wanted a place to collect my thoughts away from the wind. My object wasn’t to change the weather -just to escape from it for a while. Call it TM, Mindfulness, or just plain Mindlessness, it’s all windowing to me. I think of it as my quiet place, and it has served me well for what seem like the millennia I have lived. That’s gotta count for something, eh?

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