Last week, one of my favourite writers decided that mindfulness was nothing more than “capitalist techno smegma”. This perspective had more to do with the use of apps as stopwatches and corporate mindfulness than it had to do with any real urge to go out and disprove scientific facts or careful practice. But whatever. I was intrigued.
What was interesting for me had nothing to do with whether mindfulness was scientifically helpful or not. It probably is. But it was the reflexive and more social approach which interested me the most. There were some very insightful questions. If we use mindfulness to feel better in a world where polar bears are dying, is that okay? Do corporations use mindfulness as a way of reducing anxiety because they cannot drug their workers? Is mindfulness a way of reducing dis-ease at our unhappiness with the world? In other words, is mindfulness a form of anesthetic which stops us from using our own power of agency?
I haven’t looked at mindfulness from this (or any) angle, but I have explored what it means to detract from social problems or unbearable situations by focusing on the need to be more ‘contained’ (or to keep quiet). And I’ve explored how psychology and its focus on the ‘individual’ can sometimes be used to deny what it means to be a contextual, social, cultural and historical person who lives in a world which is unjust. The minute we deny what it means to be a feeling person in a complex and interactive world, we can sometimes prevent helpful transformation.
Although mindfulness is perhaps a different concept (I don’t know), any form of practice which focuses on how we live in or with our world should be open to reflexivity or difficult questioning. The psy disciplines have therefore been interrogated and questioned. Nikolas Rose, in Governing the Soul has shared how all that is ‘normal’ has sometimes been defined by what isn’t. What is seen as socially undesirable has been constructed as abnormal in the past. Think of homosexuality. He speaks of the powerful gaze of the psychologist, and the way that authority can intervene (and sometimes interfere) with family life.
Sheldon Kopp, in If you meet Buddha on the Road, Kill Him, questioned our concept of madness or dis-ease by declaring
“I prefer the madness of Don Quixote de la Mancha to the sanity of most other men,”
“…in a world in which true madness masquerades as sanity, creative struggles against the ongoing myths seem eccentric and will be labeled as ‘crazy’ by the challenged establishment in power.”
“Attempts at social change are after all usually left to the youthful idealists, while older cynics wait for young fools to outgrow their folly….If this be the wine of madness, then I say: “Come fill my cup.”
“We who are sane know that our technology will save us, that war is inevitable, that poverty and hunger of a few of the undeserving poor are necessary to the well-being of the many.”
Those who question the system, who have ideas which make other people uncomfortable, who just won’t accept the ways that have been set out for us, are sometimes placed under the gaze of the professional. The hope is that they will learn to shut up. It is important to question or take a reflexive approach on the ‘psy’ disciplines. We have to question whether it is people or social structure which is most in need of change?
Knowing our thoughts, our views and our own minds is very helpful. I’m a fan of psychotherapy. I don’t see questioning as a threat, as much as a form of exploration. I explored and questioned an out of context perception of individuality while I was a psychotherapy client, and I shared my work with my therapist. He was not threatened in the least. The biggest problem he seemed to have was with my desire to procrastinate.
Questioning the practices which influence us and the authority they sometimes hold is important. We should question. Why do we want to be mindful? Are we upset? What does this relate to? Should we learn to mange our emotions, or can we use them as a source of agency? Why do we want to change? Do we want to learn what we feel so that we can use these feelings to create change or do we want to be more peaceful and passive (and if so, why?).
There are times when we have to live with the fact that there aren’t any set answers, that life is ambiguous, and that sometimes we try and try and we still don’t get anywhere. I had to learn to live with myself and to realize that I was never going to become a different person, no matter how hard I tried. I still have moments of shyness where I want to go bloody nowhere if it means crowds or parties. I can be just as awkward or uncertain as I was when I was a teenager. I say daft things to other people if I feel pushed for immediate answers. Nothing changes. I’ve learned to live with that.
If sitting by the water and gazing at the reeds helps me to acknowledge what I think or feel, then I’m all for it. If it’s a means of living with my own limited power in the world while I try again anyway, well that can be helpful. Awareness of my own emotions often brings insight into my own response-ability. If that is true, then good. But I have no intentions of sitting with my own insights or emotions until they subside, simply so that I can become an obedient servant of an exploitative system. Nobody should have to do that.
If you meet Buddha on the Road, Kill him. Sheldon Kopp.
Governing the Soul. Nikolas Rose.