In The Mystics Of Islam, Reynold A. Nicholson (1914) relates the following Sufi story:
Someone said to Rabi‘a:
“I have committed many sins; if I turn in penitence towards God, will He turn in mercy towards me?” “Nay,” she replied,” but if He shall turn towards thee, thou wilt turn towards Him.”
So God doesn’t bestow his grace on us because we ask, we ask because he has bestowed his grace. We find ourselves turning towards God because of God’s grace, not because of any connivance on our part. This Sufi teaching is applicable to all situations where we are trying to find peace of mind – we first need the peace of mind, the ‘inner stillness’, before we even know that inner stillness is what we are missing. Otherwise we won’t be thinking this way; it simply won’t be a concern of ours. Eckhart Tolle says somewhere that some stillness within us is needed before we can meditate – without it, all we know is forcing. Without some little seed of stillness within us all we know is aggression and manipulation…
Everything in mindfulness is based on us taking a genuine interest in our own inner process. This is why we hear words like ‘gentle’ so much – because the interest, the curiosity, the kindness has to be genuine rather than forced. It has to ‘come from the heart’, so to speak. Mindfulness – inasmuch as it has been taken over by clinical psychology – is invariably presented as a ‘technology’. In other words, it is presented as a ‘rationale for intervention’ along with a set of procedures or methodologies that when executed correctly will bring about the desired outcome.
So what’s wrong with this, we might ask? Isn’t this exactly what we want – isn’t this the whole point? If we think this however then we’ve missed the point. Mindfulness isn’t a technology – it isn’t a strategy (or set of strategies) that we can use to bring about a desired outcome. Mindfulness has nothing to do with outcomes; it has nothing to do with bringing about a particular or special state of affairs. This is the one thing that it isn’t! Mindful practice is actually the complete antithesis of this – it has to do with the dropping of our agendas, not the effective enacting of them. Mindfulness is about noticing the way things really are – not for any reason, not because we want to change the way things are, but just because that IS the way they are!
Our problem is that we only want to take an interest in the way things are because that might be a way of changing them. We can hardly deny that this is the case? If we have to ‘take an interest’ then we will do so. If we have to ‘allow stuff to be there, in a gentle, patient and non-judgemental way’, then we will give this a go. We will do our best to be accepting and non-judgemental, and all the rest. But would we be interested in our own inner state otherwise? Would we take an interest if it were not for the fact that we think it will do us some good? The answer is of course that we almost certainly would not be – we’re only taking an interest because we think that there is going to be some sort of pay-off, because we think that there is going to be some sort of advantage in it for us. That’s the whole point, after all. That is why – as a culture – we are interested in mindfulness, because of its benefits. Being an eminently practical culture, with very little interest in philosophy or mysticism, we just wouldn’t have cared otherwise!
Mindfulness (as far as we in the West are concerned) is a strategy and strategies are always carried out for a reason. Whoever heard of a strategy being carried out for no reason? Strategies are always carried out with an aim in mind; they’re all about the aim, in fact. Really – if we were to be totally honest – we would have to admit that we’re not interested in the way we are at all; on the contrary, we’re fundamentally disinterested. We’re fundamentally orientated towards heading off at top speed in the opposite direction – this is inherent in what we might call ‘the mechanics of the everyday or conditioned self’. This self maintains its integrity by not being interested in its own pain; it is only interested in a closed way, which is to say, it is interested only in learning how to do whatever it needs to do in order to make it go away. As G.I. Gurdjieff has indicated, the conditioned or everyday self is a ‘pain-avoiding machine’. Running away from pain (or insecurity) is the basic rule, the basic motivation. That’s our ‘essential tropism’.
Why – might ask – should this be so? Why should the everyday self be so fundamentally disinterested in its own pain, its own inner process? This seems like a rather dim view of things, to say the least. It has to be understood however that having an interest in our own pain, our own inner process, is a very big thing! Being interested in our own pain (without having an agenda behind the interest) constitutes a veritable revolution; it constitutes what the ancient alchemists called the ‘opus contra naturam’, the work against nature. We have to go against our own fundamental (conditioned) nature, and there can be no task harder (or more tricky) than this. Things will never be the same after we learn to go against our bed-rock psychological conditioning – the world becomes a very different place. Everything gets reversed – instead of automatically seeking security in all things, we become genuinely courageous (or ‘fearless’, as Pema Chodren says). We no longer go around doing stuff for a reason, always with an agenda, since when you are fearless you no longer need an agenda!
Inasmuch as our automatic allegiance to ‘preserving the status quo’ (which comes down to ‘preserving ourselves as we already – by default – understand ourselves to be’) we are absolutely NOT going to be fearless. We can’t have an agenda to preserve the way things are and at the same time be fearless, at the same time be ‘genuinely curious’ about the world. As we have indicated, the basic motivation of the everyday self is to preserve and perpetuate itself at all costs and ‘taking a genuine interest in oneself’ is going completely against this. We’d be going against the grain in a big way if we allowed ourselves to become genuinely curious; being curious is the biggest risk we’ll ever take – who knows what we might find out if we start getting genuinely interested in things (rather than just being ‘interested-with-an-agenda’)? Existence itself is the risk, as the existential philosophers have told us, and the conditioned self is never going to be ready to take that particular gamble…
We’re really making the same point over and over again here, in a number of different ways. Everything we do we do ‘for our own sake’ – we might like to imagine that this is not the case, but it is. As conditioned beings, we are fundamentally motivated by self-interest, as Anthony De Mello has said. Another way of putting this would be to say that any rational action we undertake necessarily involves taking our starting-off point (which is to say, the basis upon which we make all of our decisions) absolutely for granted. It just wouldn’t work any other way – we cannot proceed in a logical / rational way unless we first assume our starting-off point to be valid, or ‘right’. Otherwise we’d never get started; otherwise the whole endeavour falls to pieces before it gets anywhere. This is a basic principle in logic as well as in the mechanics of the conditioned (or rule-based) self – the axiom, the rock-solid basis has to be assumed; if we didn’t ‘assume it’ then it just wouldn’t be there…
When we apply any rationally-conceived / purposeful action therefore, we are necessarily going to be both conceiving and carrying out this action for the benefit of our taken-for-granted starting-off point. The action is an extension of our starting-off point, an extension of our hidden assumptions. We are – whether we care to admit it or not – ‘striving to uphold the status quo’ – the status quo being ‘everything in our life that we assume, everything in our life that we take for granted without ever realizing that we do’. Fundamentally, therefore, we’re not ‘risk-taking’, we’re ‘risk-avoiding’; anything we do on a rational/purposeful basis is always going to be for the sake of preserving and perpetuating the self which is who we think we are, the self that we’re very much in the business of ‘taking for granted’ in everything we do. There isn’t anything more inescapable than this. That’s what the purposeful self’ is – it’s something that takes itself absolutely for granted in everything it does!
As soon as we understand this point we understand why mindfulness can never be a system, can never be a strategy, can never be a technology. The moment we understand that the purposeful / conditioned self always takes itself absolutely for granted in everything it does we understand that mindfulness is by no means as straightforward a business as we might previously imagined. How do we turn around to face the source of our pain when our motivation for doing so is when it comes right down to it the motivation to run away from pain? How are we ever going to be genuinely interested in ‘what’s going on’ when – unbeknownst to us – our fundamental bedrock motivation is to preserve and perpetuate the standpoint that we’re coming from, which is ‘the self that we assume we are’? How can we be both ‘genuinely interested in seeing what’s going on’ and ‘fundamentally committed to preserving and perpetuating that self that we assume we are’? It’s either one or the other – it can’t be both.
This brings us back to the Sufi story that we started off with – if we are to sincerely ask forgiveness this does not come about as a result of our own agency; it is God’s grace that we do so. In the same way, if we are to take an interest in ourselves, in what’s really going on with us, this isn’t by our own agency. It is a grace that is bestowed upon us. This perfectly illustrates the difference between the Western and the Eastern / Middle-Eastern ways of looking at life – in the West it is all about the technology, the skills, the strategies, the tools, etc. But what have any of these to do with a grace that descends from above? What good are our technologies, our systems, our clever theories and models with regard to receiving grace?
We in the West are full of a type of false confidence, a type of confidence that looks good on the surface but which is really just empty bravado. We make everything sound so cut-and-dried, but it isn’t. We make it sound as if we are ‘in control’, but we’re not. We’re not in control and we never will be; after all, how can ‘who I assume myself to be’ be in control when this idea of ‘self’ is a wrong assumption to start off with? Controlling isn’t ever going to get us anywhere because it always proceeds on the basis of what we assume to be true but yet cannot ever verify. It jumps, but it never looks at where it has jumped from. It proceeds, but it can never examine its basis. The big snag here is therefore that everything we do is done (as we have been saying) on the basis of the self which we think we are and any journey from a false starting off point is guaranteed to get us nowhere! This ‘snag’ is inherent in the nature of the controlling or purposeful self, which is the self on whose basis we are doing the controlling. We should be a bit more careful before setting off on our journey; we should be a bit more careful before trying to control or manipulate everything in sight. Our ‘technology’ doesn’t really serve us, after all – it only serves the illusion!