Blog Introduction

For more on the purpose and origin of this blog, click here for the inaugural post.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Mindfulness madness

Mindfulness is all the rage. I've lost count of the number of articles I've seen and heard over the past couple of years touting mindfulness as the panacea for all life's troubles. In the past few months I've been bombarded by email reminders for a Mindful Leadership Conference which you can attend for a mere $1700. This is troubling to me and not just because of the profiteering.

Mindfulness, awareness, meditation, call it what you will, is a powerful practice with the potential to transform your life. But it's not easy. Sidattha Gotama (the Buddha) became awakened because his outstanding clarity of mindfulness led him to deep insights about the human experience. However if 20 minutes a day on the cushion was all it took to acheive this, there would have been many more Buddhas in the past 2500 years than there have been. 

Full and unwavering mindfulness is stupendously difficult to achieve.  It is highly unlikely that any of us will achieve all of the benefits of mindfulness without three important ingredients:
  1. an accurate understanding of how the human experience works
  2. an ethical framework based on the above, that helps keep us from fooling ourselves (among other things); and
  3. spiritual friendship - fellow travelers to help and support us on our way

Why it's so tough

There are several human tendencies that come with this body/mind that make full mindfulness difficult. The big players are:
  1. our expectation that life should only contain pleasant things. Because of this....
  2. our habitual craving of pleasure (e.g. nice food, sex, certainty, admiration from others...the list is long)
  3. our habitual pushing away of anything unpleasant 
  4. the delusion that success at #2  and #3 will produce a happy life.
The main henchman for all of these tendencies is our ego. Its superb at justifying our actions in ways that feel good and avoid feeling bad. Our ego is a master of disguise. It can even dress up as mindfulness itself. For example let's say I've been practising mindfulness and have decided that this is the ticket! Mindfulness is where my life is going, it's the new me!

Right off the bat I'm in trouble. I've started building mindfulness into my ego-approved identity. When someone at work makes a decision that sidelines me, my ego wants revenge. But because I've now got mindfulness in the 'me-brochure', I dress up my vengeful response as 'self compassion'. I was taking care of myself because that's important right? Yes it is, but revenge has no place in a mindful life because its born of ill-intent and that is harmful for both me and others. It's not a form of self care.

My ego thinks that revenge will somehow protect me. Its very short sighted, fear driven and reactive. However its also very clever. Its devious at sneaking its way into the role of navigator of our lives. We need some powerful aides to see through its disguises on this journey to full mindfulness.


The help we need

Requirement #1: a clear understanding

In contrast to the belief listed in #4 above, Gotama taught that the path to full human flourishing is one of accepting the whole array of experiences that we encounter. That's not to say we do nothing to change difficult circumstances, but we accept first, then respond from the value of non-harm.

The vast majority of our unhappiness is self generated. The desperate clinging to pleasure and the desperate avoidance of unpleasantness are themselves the problem. It is not the achievement of a perennial state of pleasure that leads to a fulfilling life (and good luck with that!). It's the letting go of the expectation (#1), the clinging/aversion habits (#2 and #3) and the belief (#4) that lead to full flourishing as a human being. 

If we don't see this, any mindfulness we think we have, will have a false floor. It won't penetrate deeply to the root of our suffering. We will make erroneous connections between cause and effect in life. I'll blame my experiences on things 'out there' (e.g. the devil, luck, other people) rather than the interplay of the world, my senses and the patterns 'in here' (including my habits of clinging and aversion).


Requirement #2: an ethical framework

In the situation with my workmate described above, my ego is very likely to accept the self deception which means I won't look at my actions honestly. When I portray myself as having certain qualities and I act in ways that contravene that picture, I feel cognitive dissonance. That's unpleasant. But if I do what most humans do most of the time, and run from anything unpleasant, I don't look at this experience. My ego just keeps telling the "Lenore is a mindful person' story. It's only if hold my seat in the unpleasantness and have the courage to look at it honestly that I see the truth of my situation and I can grow. 

How would this play out? Gotama's sign posts would make me question my vengeful actions. I'd see myself dressing up vengeance as self compassion. I'd identify the fear that's driving me to want to behave that way. I'd feel fully the unpleasantness of the hurt at what my colleague did, perhaps the powerlessness. I'd notice the mind activity that generates those feelings. I'd get intimate with what the feelings are. I'd notice what happens in the body when those feelings are present. I'd be patient and kind to myself while I sit with this. I'd do what I have to do to re-energise and re-encourage myself. Then when I feel the fear has subsided, I'd think about what fear might be driving my colleague. I'd get creative in designing options for a response that cares for us both.

Humans don't do this naturally. Our egos ride in on the coat-tails of all sorts of experiences. They think they are our protector. They are very misguided. But they are also very wiley. We need more than just a meditation practice to deal with this part of ourselves. We need an ethical framework to jab us in the ribs when our egos sneak into the navigator's seat. We need signposts to make us sit up and look at what we are doing. 

Many spiritual traditions contain signposts such as not killing, not stealing etc. however these are often rules to control behaviour through shame. They are more like hand rails that stop people straying than sign posts to consider closely. Rarely are people mindful of the drivers of their 'good behaviour' in this paradigm - fear and shame. Gotama's framework is not about controlling behaviour through shame. 

Gotama's teaching is about looking deeply at experience and seeing for ourselves the effects of our choices. So for example the signpost to 'only take what's freely given', or positively stated, to 'practice generosity', is not a commandment. It's an invitiation to look closely at what happens for us and for others when we do this. Similarly, it's an invitation to look closely at the effects when we DO take what's NOT freely given. No lightning bolts from heaven, no judgment....just notice. What happens? How do you feel? What happens to your relationships with the people you take from? Without these signposts, our egos can navigate us WAY off track, dressing up all sorts of unhelpful behaviour as justified or even admirable.


Requirement #3: spiritual friendship

Another essential aide in this very difficult mission, is the company and friendship of fellow travelers on the same path. Gotama spoke of this way of life as 'swimming against the stream'. It's not easy! (Did I mention that already?) We need other travellers to help buoy our spirits in difficulty, to help keep us honest, to energise us, to help grow our wisdom through sharing experience and questioning us. Once again, a meditation practice alone is not enough unless perhaps you're already in the vicinity of Buddha-hood.

False advertising

Gotama's view was that there were two things needed for awakening in life. One is serenity, and the other is insight. You can indeed achieve serenity through meditation, even without any of the aides above. This has its benefits, especially with regard to stress. That's a good thing and worth doing in its own right. 

However in the current mindfulness madness I'm not hearing any caveats about the challenges of mindfulness. I'm not hearing anything about the importance of wisdom, of ethics or spiritual friendship to genuinely practising mindfulness as opposed to co-opting it into my 'me-brochure', my identity, which is driven by ego.

Theoretically, if any individual could wave a magic wand and instantly become as mindful as Gotama himself, they would likely find themselves arriving at the same ethical conclusions as he did. Causing harm, shutting down your compassion, and allowing your ego to drive your life is bad news. However full unadulterated mindfulness is bloody difficult! In the coverage I've seen so far, you could be forgiven for thinking that all it takes is 20 minutes of sitting quietly on a cushion every day and I'll become the next Buddha. Nup. That's just the start.

Honest advertising: priceless....and messy

Anyone who's practiced the dharma seriously will know that when you become more mindful you start seeing a lot more. Not all of it is pleasant. Mindfulness brings you face to face with all of life, not just the nice bits. You see and feel everything more clearly. Yes this includes joy and calm and energy and clarity and love. However it also includes pain, disappointment, shame, fear, hurt, embarrassment, loneliness, grief, guilt, anger...you name it. It brings you up close and personal with the whole catastrophe of life, the good, the bad and the ugly. 

Ultimately, if you keep going, there'll be less of these unpleasant things because they are often side-effects of letting our egos do the navigation. However to get to that point you have to look at them and be with them closely. It's not for the feint of heart. There's nothing I've seen in the advertising for the Mindful Leadership Conference that says any of this. Those motivated by a desire to flee unpleasantness are going to be bitterly disappointed. They may discard mindfulness and all its potential because it doesn't deliver as instantly or easily as the brochure and speakers suggest. Mindfulness-lite won't produce the big shifts that are being advertised in press coverage of mindfulness. Yet that's what seems to make the tabloids, brochures and conferences.

Living mindfully is an incredibly powerful choice to make. However we need to be realistic. Our egos are terrified of losing control and true mindfulness disempowers ego. It takes more than 20 minutes a day on a cushion to free ourselves from its grip. If we want the benefits, we have to walk the path. That requires an accurate understanding of how experience works, ethical signposts to stop us falling into ego-deception, and the company of fellow travelers. It requires wisdom from insight meditation as well as serenity from concentration meditation practices. It also requires a commitment to keep walking through our mud puddles regardless of how messy it gets. 

Now, who wants to hand over $1700 for this?

Friday, May 16, 2014

The company you keep matters

I've decided to make my blog posts shorter. This might mean I write them more often. They'll definitely be quicker to read. Let's see how we go....



I recently quit  my running squad and left my coach. It was a difficult decision because I loved the sense of camaraderie and belonging that came with being in the group and my coach was generous with his time and advice. 

Sport's a funny thing. It throws together people from all walks of life who can have very little in common other than love of the sport. This group was no exception. It was a mixed bag of personalities, values, skills and aspirations in life. Mostly I accepted them the way they were and enjoyed their peculiarities. I noticed that blatant egotism was more prevalent in this group than in my usual circles, but the group was about achievement in sport, not spiritual growth and I observed it with interest.

So why did I leave? 

Besides athletics, my other passion in life is Secular Buddhism. A few months ago I began to notice the difference between how I felt on my way home from the track and how I felt on my way home from meditation. You see, there were two people in the squad who disliked me and who frequently tried to convince the coach to throw me out. (Long story, but think: year 9 school yard.) I wanted to stay in the group and so I put up with it and treated it as grist to the mill for my dharma practice. I hoped that my coach's efforts to deal with it would one day see it subside. It didn't. The more I improved at athletics, the worse it seemed to get.

That two years was a fantastic exposé of our human need to belong. Every time their hate campaign would flare up, fear arose around that need. I learnt some good things from the experience. However one of them that came late in the piece was: the company you keep matters.

In Buddhism there's a saying that your enemies are your teachers. It's true. They stimulate a whole bunch of experiences in the body/mind - often unpleasant ones - and there is a lot to learn from those experiences. For instance I saw clearly how rejection hurts, even when it's from people whose affections aren't important to you. That's motivated me to be careful when I feel like rejecting others. 

I also learnt how much time and energy can be consumed when the body/mind feels fearful. Fear gets first priority when it comes to mental and emotional resources. This is especially true when you feel powerless. Very little of the nastiness that occurred was directed openly at me - it was bitching about me to my coach or other people. Rather than send them to talk directly to me, which I would have preferred, he'd listen, try to smooth things over and keep everyone happy. I doubted his approach would be effective but he wasn't open to input. I did actually invite the main perpetrator to come and speak with me once, which she did. I listened and addressed her concerns and it seemed to go well. I hoped that might change things. It usually does but this time it didn't.

Over time I started to see that the pattern wasn't going to change and I reflected on the impact it was having. When I came home from my meditation group I always felt grounded, joyful and energised - like my re-set button had been pressed. I felt nourished.  As I drove home from the track I felt at sea because I never knew what I'd said or done that day that would be recycled as ammunition to assassinate my character. I would hear about 'problems' second hand and would be told by my coach to just keep my head down in response. It was suffocating.

The joy that I initially felt at being part of this group gradually wore down. Even though I had good relationships with the other 15 people, the sustained unkindness from the two hate-club members undermined the joy. As Rick Hanson says, our body/minds are velcro for the negative and teflon for the positive.

As the words 'the company you keep matters' returned to me again and again, a phrase I've heard in Buddhist circles also arose: 'guard your senses'. When I first heard this I thought it was odd because the dharma requires us to build the courage to be with whatever is present. I thought that 'guarding my senses' might be a form of aversion to experience - avoiding unpleasant things. 

However what I've learned from this is to have respect and compassion for the fact that we are sensitive beings. Literally. Our 6 senses (taste, touch, smell, sound, sight and mind activity) are constantly connecting with our environment and that sense-contact shapes us. Our minds take the shape of what we rest them on. Mine was resting far too often on these troubled people and their ill will. I was pleased at how little ill-will arose in me in return - a sign of some progress maybe. However it was stressful and my body/mind often felt alert to invisible land mines always nearby. Out of compassion for myself (and my husband who has to put up with my upset) and a desire to grow kindness and joy in my life, it was time to walk away.

Siddattha Gotama (The Buddha) spoke of the importance of choosing our friends wisely*. He recommended avoiding fools and associating with the wise. He said that there's no external factor that leads to so much harm as bad friendship and no external factor that leads to so much benefit as good friendship. The company you keep matters.

I still love athletics. And I miss being part of the group. But removing myself from the company of people who practice ill will and flagrant egotism has been fabulous. I feel calmer and at liberty to deal with life's difficulties my way again. It also feels great to have time and energy back for my other love - the dharma.


*The Mahamangala sutta in the Sutta Nipata