Mindfulness is said to be various things. Often it is spoken of as a ‘life-enhancing skill’, or in terms of a ‘tool’ that we can use to help manage stress or anxiety or anger. This tends to sound pretty good – who doesn’t want to learn a ‘life-enhancing skill’? Who doesn’t want an extra tool under their belt to help manage difficult mental states? This actually sounds pretty great – it’s a product that markets itself! The thing is – however – that this way of talking about mindfulness is subtly deceptive, subtly distorting. Mindfulness isn’t a life-enhancing skill at all. If it was this would make it just like any other life-enhancing skill that we might hear of. That would make it just one more product in a world full of products. It becomes just another accessory, just another app for your phone.
When we label mindfulness in this way it sounds as if we are valuing it, as if we are saying something good about it, but really we’re ‘de-potentiating’ it. We’re neutralizing it. We’re turning it into something mediocre, something generic. Mindfulness isn’t a skill (or ability) and it isn’t a tool. It isn’t a technical accomplishment either, for all that we tend to think of it in this way. It isn’t just another thing that we can learn to do, it isn’t just one more box to tick. What mindfulness is really is something which is at the same time very much simpler, and very much harder to comprehend. Mindfulness is what G.I. Gurdjieff calls remembering ourselves! Mindfulness is noticing that we are actually here. It is ‘waking up’ out of our habitual patterns of thinking and behaving. Or we could say that mindfulness is remembering something that we – in all our busyness – have quite forgotten. Mindfulness is remembering who we are actually are …
This puts a rather different perspective on things. In what way is ‘remembering who we actually are’ a skill? If it is a skill, then who has the skill? Who learns the skill and who practices it? If we say that being mindful is the same thing as ‘being conscious’, then does this make ‘being conscious’ a skill? And if we say that it is, then who practices the skill of being conscious? If I’m not conscious (i.e. if I’m not present, if I don’t remember myself) then why would I want to practice it? Why would it even occur to me? If I don’t remember myself then how am I going to remember to ‘practice’ being here?
What’s happening when we categorize mindfulness (or mediation) as a skill, as some kind of ‘add on’ or ‘accessory’, is that we are ‘inverting’ it whilst at the same time concealing the fact that we are doing so. We’re putting the cart in front of the horse in a big way! We appear to be valuing mindfulness but actually we are only valuing it insofar as it can benefit the one who is to utilize the mindfulness. This is not an obvious point. What – we might ask – is the difference between valuing mindfulness and valuing the one who is to practice (or utilize) the mindfulness? Why can’t we just say that mindfulness is valuable because it benefits the one who is to practice the mindfulness? What’s the distinction? Surely both come down to the same thing?
In this view – which is the view which we are almost bound to take – it is ‘the self’ who is to benefit from practicing mindfulness. This is precisely why it is valuable – because it is of benefit to the self. How obvious is this? The only thing is, however, that this isn’t how it works at all! This is quite the wrong idea about mindfulness! If I think that practicing mindfulness is going to benefit my ‘self’ then I am very much mistaken. If I think that practicing mindfulness is in any way going to enhance or augment my everyday sense of ‘who I am’ then I have got the wrong end of the stick entirely. Mindfulness isn’t another tool in the service of the self. It isn’t any sort of a ‘tool’ at all, no matter what we might like to think. It’s not there to prop up the status quo.
The reason we like the notion of ‘skills and ‘tools’ so much is of course because having them enhances us – they are extra ‘muscle’ for us, extra leverage. The more skills and tools we have available to us the more amour, the more ‘fire power’ we have in the face of difficulties. What the everyday ‘sense of self’ values above all else (no matter what we might like to believe) is the ability to control, the ability to ensue that everything goes the way it wants it to go. Any skills or tools that we acquire therefore are valued by us because they represent an extension or amplification of our ability to get things to be the way we want them to be. But the point we are missing here – in a truly dramatic fashion – is that mindfulness is not going to do this for us at all!
SEEING WHAT WE DON’T WANT TO SEE
Mindfulness – of course – isn’t about being able to control better. It isn’t about getting more effective at attaining our targets, our goals. It isn’t about helping us to consolidate our position (or ‘dig in more securely’). It isn’t about helping us to get things to be the way we think they ought to be but rather it is about finding the courage (or interest) to see them the way they actually are! In order to see reality in an unbiased or un-slanted way we need both courage and some genuine, honest-to-goodness curiosity about life because what we will see when we see things ‘as they really are’ is for sure not going to confirm what we’d like to see, what we’d like to be the case. Our likes are the same thing as our biases and so seeing the world in an unbiased or un-slanted way is pretty much guaranteed to show us stuff that we don’t like.
What we’re actually going to observe – if we find the courage to see things straight, in an undistorted way – is that the world doesn’t agree with our biases, with our beliefs about how it should be. Reality doesn’t humour us in other words – we humour ourselves! We arrange for ourselves to see the world that we are predisposed to seeing, and then we hide all traces of us having done so. As David Bohm says, “Thought creates the world and then hides and says it didn’t do it“. Practicing awareness shows us the previously hidden activity of the thinking mind, and how it arbitrarily creates black-and-white realities for us. On another level, we could say that if we find the courage to see things straight, in an undistorted or unprejudiced way, then what we see is that we have forgotten who we really are! What we see is that ‘who we think we are’ isn’t who we really are. What we see when we disengage from the thinking mind is that we are existing pretty much as pure mechanical reflex, pure automatic self-validating habit, with very little in the way of genuine presence there at all…
What I see as a result of practicing mindfulness is that the comfortably reassuring picture of myself that I am expecting to have confirmed (or consolidated) for me doesn’t actually exist. In Buddhism this is called the truth of annatta, or ‘selflessness’. What I see is that I am existing as a bundle of self-validating conditioned reflexes, and that this bundle of conditioned reflexes isn’t who I am at all. In one way this is of course profoundly liberating because there is zero freedom in existing as a bundle of conditioned reflexes, but in another way it is a disagreeable thing for me to see because I am so identified with these reflexes, these habitual ways of seeing the world. I am so very used to assuming that this bundle of reflexes (or ‘rules’) is ‘who I am’, and this assumption provides me with a huge amount of ontological security.
So it can be seen that mindfulness is in no way going to be useful or beneficial to me when I understand myself to be this bundle of habits, this bundle of reflexes. I want to rely on this ‘conditioned identity’ as being true, as being ‘who I really am’, and mindful self-observation is going to show me the opposite of this. Far from allowing me to consolidate my established position, mindfulness is going to thoroughly undermine it! Cultivating the light of awareness of awareness isn’t in any way going to benefit the arbitrary fiction that I am this bunch of conditioned reflexes. Quite the reverse is true because mechanical reflexes lose their power when we allow the light of unprejudiced awareness to fall on them. G.I. Gurdjieff says that the everyday self – and the unconscious mental processes that prop it up – is like a type of chemical reaction which can only proceed in the dark. Shine some light on the matter and the reactions just can’t continue!
To speak of mindfulness as if it were a skill or strategy that belongs to this ‘bundle of reflexes’ which is the conditioned self is therefore highly absurd, to say the least! The everyday or conditioned self, as it makes its way through each day, invariably runs into certain sorts of problems, which it seeks to solve the best it can. This is mechanical or ‘unconscious’ life. The notion of ‘a problem’ is a funny one however – presupposed in the notion of ‘a problem’ is the idea that whatever we are trying to do (whatever it is that we are trying to achieve) is of paramount importance. This is how ‘goal-orientated thinking’ works – the goal becomes of primary importance. This is why any sort of obstacle or opposition to what we are doing annoys us so much, or worries us so much. If we assume (as we do in goal-orientated thinking) that the goal is of paramount importance then the other side of this assumption is that anything that stands in our way is automatically ‘wrong’, or automatically ‘bad’. It is simply something to be eliminated – it is simply ‘a problem to be solved’. Goal-orientated thinking is closed thinking, therefore.
Clearly goal-orientated thinking has its place. If the goal is important in a practical sort of a way then it isn’t helpful for me to be put off or distracted by the very first difficulty that comes along. I wouldn’t survive long if this where the case. I would become too inefficient to ever get anything done. I’d set off to do something (buy some shopping, perhaps) and something would come up and I’d get totally deflected. I’d forget about the task at hand and everyone would go hungry! But aside from this purely practical importance (which we’re not arguing about) there is a kind of way in which the purely practical importance of my goal (if indeed there is any) can be hijacked by something that we are not at all aware of. This scenario might sound on the face of it rather odd, or rather unlikely, but actually it happens all the time. We are very prone to over-valuing the importance of our goals – just as we are very prone to over-valuing the importance of our failures!
What happens in practice, in the general run of things, is that our goals take on a significance that goes beyond the strictly practical, that goes beyond the actual ‘stated reason’ for the goal. When this happens then any problem that comes up automatically starts to assume more importance than it should do; the problem in question ‘looms larger’ than is should do – it starts to bug us more than it should do, it starts to worry us more than it should do. The problem takes on a weight that really belongs somewhere else, somewhere ‘out of sight’. My problems run into each other: the immediate problem becomes every problem I’ve ever had; the immediate issue serves as a flagship for all issues. What is happening here therefore is that ‘solving the problem’ becomes important to me not because of what the problem is, but because of what it represents. The particular problem I am getting to grips with has become what we might call ‘a universal surrogate problem’!
In general terms, we can say that the ‘problem’ represents a threat to the integrity of the conditioned self, a threat to the continued existence of the ‘self-concept’, whilst at the same time the solution to the problem represents the augmentation or enhancement of the self-concept. Essentially, my will has been thwarted and this doesn’t feel good – I don’t get my own way and as a result I start to feel annoyed or slighted or undermined in some way, I take the problem as a personal affront – a kind of an insult. Skills and tools thus represent – as we have been saying – the means by which the insecure self-concept can protect and consolidate itself. When I hear of some new skill, some highly effective new technique, this is why it sounds good to me! It certainly doesn’t sound good to me because I think that this might be a way by which I can throw light on the ways which I have of ‘pulling the wool over my own eyes’ so that I don’t have to see any uncomfortable truth! How’s that going to sound good to me? How’s that ever going to be attractive to me?
Fixing problems feels good to us because when we can fix a problem this makes us feel more secure in ourselves, more ‘unassailable’ in ourselves. It makes us feel that we are in position of power rather than a position of vulnerability. We could also say that fixing problems feels good to us because when we successful fix a problem, however small, however insignificant, we can allow ourselves to imagine that we are fixing the unacknowledged problem of our underlying insecurity. This is the problem that we really want to fix, but which we can’t allow ourselves to see that we want to fix. Being able to control effectively is a compensatory mechanism with regard to our unacknowledged insecurity, in other words. It is as if when I fix a problem, I am fixing everything that has ever gone wrong for, everything that has ever held us back, everything that has ever made me feel bad. The type of thing we are talking about here is sometimes called ‘pseudo-solution’ – I’m not addressing the issue where it belongs but rather I’m addressing it where it doesn’t belong!
Pseudo-solution happens all the time without us realizing it. If we realized it then it wouldn’t be pseudo-solution! A general sense of discomfort or ill-ease about life, dissatisfaction with life, fear about life, etc, can all be channeled into concrete tasks and goals. This – according to the existential philosophers – is the number one driving force in our lives. Sogyal Rinpoche calls it ‘active laziness’. We are ‘active’ because we are always doing stuff and we are ‘lazy’ because we are avoiding doing the work of seeing something that we don’t want to see. We are avoiding the psychological work involved in seeing that all of the strategies we engage in are really for the sake of ‘protecting who we aren’t’. Seeing that we aren’t who we think we are is something that we are just too afraid to see – it’s infinitely easier just to carry on with the self-deceiving game that we are playing…
It is because of this ongoing ‘fear displacement’ therefore that we value skills and technical means of establishing control as much as we do. We wouldn’t talk so incessantly of them if we weren’t chronically insecure! It’s not that skills and techniques can’t be very valuable in their own right – of course they can be – but the point we are making here is that they are only valuable when they are used consciously, for the reasons that we’re ‘supposed’ to be using them. When we use skills and techniques (and our positive knowledge base) for the purpose of ‘solving life’ then this is a different kettle of fish entirely. Why would we even want to solve life? What does this say about us? Where does the impulse to want to solve (or ‘control’) life comes from?
MAKING THE BAD FEELING GO AWAY
Really, therefore, we’re using our skills and techniques to ‘make the bad feeling go away’, to ‘make the dissatisfaction go away’, to ‘make the fear go away’. The more skills we learn, the more techniques and methods we have under our belt, the better off we feel with regard to this unstated goal, therefore. This is of course natural enough – who could blame us for this? Of course we don’t want to feel uncomfortable, ill at ease, insecure, fearful, and so on. Of course we want to make the bad feeling go away. But the only thing is that we CAN’T escape from this generalized sense of dread and alienation, this ‘angst’ about life. We can’t escape from this uncomfortable feeling because it stems from our relationship with reality. This bad feeling IS our relationship to reality. We can only escape it by escaping wholesale from reality, and it is our (attempted) escaping from reality that creates the alienated and insecure feelings in the first place. We are caught in an unpleasant kind of a loop, a ‘loop of fear’ that keeps on trying to escape itself, in other words, under the apparently positive-sounding guise of ‘fixing’ or ‘controlling’. We caught in the loop of trying to escape the pain caused by our own escaping and for us – whether we realize it or not – this ‘loop’ has become the whole world…
So we say that we want these enhanced methods, these enhanced ways of controlling, for a positive reason, but really we want them because we’re afraid. That’s we have such an appetite for methods – we want to retreat out of reality into the abstracted illusion-realm in which we feel ourselves to be ‘in control’. Wei Wu Wei (1963, p 16) says,
All methods require a doer. The only doer is the I-concept.
We could equivalently say that there is ‘no such thing as an I-concept without a method. The ‘I-concept’ isn’t who we are – it is only an idea, only a thought, only a notion. It’s who we think we are, not who we really are. Because the I-concept isn’t who we really are it is always insecure. It is insecure because it doesn’t exist! It is insecure because it hasn’t got any reality! Because the I-concept is insecure is always caught up in some kind of controlling – it always has to have some sort of strategy, some kind of game-plan, some kind of method. It has to have a ‘gimmick’ because without a gimmick it can’t exist! Without its gimmick, without the particular ‘angle’ that it is playing, the idea that we have of ourselves straightaway starts to dissolve…
If we are relying on methods and techniques therefore (as we do rely on them) then what this shows is that we must be identifying with the I-concept. How can a method not be about identification? If there is a method then there must be ‘something to be gained’ and ‘something to be avoided’. There must be ‘a right result versus a wrong result’ and this is identification. In identification there is never any freedom. There is no freedom at all because everything is all about ‘getting it right and not getting it wrong’ and this is not freedom! On the contrary, this is a rule. This is the absence of freedom. For this reason, it can be seen that when we try to obtain freedom by using methods (or by using ideas) we will be forever going around in circles. There can be no other outcome – circles are all we are going to get!
THERE IS NO PROCEDURAL BASIS FOR ‘BEING’
Just as there is no procedural basis for freedom, there is no procedural basis for being. How can there be a procedural basis for being? How can there be a ‘formula’ for being? How can there be a right way and a wrong way to be? How can we ask, “What are the correct steps to take in order to be?” How can we ask “What is the correct gimmick to help us be real?” If we start off from the position of being identified with the I-concept then we are starting off from a position of ‘non-being’ because the I-concept does not exist. If we start off from a position of ‘non-being’ then no matter how many steps we take, no matter how many procedures we enact, we are never going to get anywhere else other than ‘non-being’. We are going to be dragging that ‘non-being’ around with us wherever we go. ‘Non-being’ – we might say – is our ball-and-chain. It is the maze or prison from which we cannot escape.
If anything we do on the basis of the I-concept is carried out on the basis of something that is itself not real, how is this ever going to get us anywhere? The movement away from the I-concept is unreal just as the I-concept is! As Krishnamurti says in The Urgency of Change (1970, p 189),
Any movement away from what I am strengthens what I am.
All the I-concept can ever understand is controlling, is manipulating, and all controlling, all manipulating, starts off on the basis of a position that is not actually real, a position that does not actually exist. And if we were able to see through the I-concept’s perennial manoeuvrings we would see that all of its strategies only ever really have one aim (albeit an unacknowledged aim) and that is to validate itself. In a nutshell, the I-concept’s ‘secret aim’ is to prove to itself that it actually is real, that it actually is who we are’…
So to get back to the point that we were originally making, in this over-rational culture of ours we tend to get the impression that mindfulness is some form of ‘cleverness’ – a type of strategizing that we can use to help manage the difficulties of everyday life better. And yet it isn’t really anything of the sort – to be mindful is simply to be present in one’s life and there is no cleverness in this at all! To be present is simply to be there and where’s the cleverness in this? We just have to be what we already are, nothing more. We just have to be and this is not a strategy, not a gimmick.
‘Being present’ is not a way by which we can manage life’s difficulties. Quite the reverse is true – it is life’s difficulties that help us to be present! When a difficult situation comes along it can either be a ‘trigger’ or a ‘reminder’ – either it will trigger us to react automatically to control it (to fight the problem or run away from it) or it will remind us to be present. In the first case we move into unreality (the unreality of the world that is created by the thinking, manipulating mind) and in the second case we find ourselves more fully in reality, we partake more wholeheartedly in reality. This – we might say – is ‘the art of being there’.
Practicing ‘the art of being there’ allows us to be present when, the over-riding urge, the constant habitual temptation, is to be absent, is to be not there…