Mindfulness is packaged and sold as some kind of marvellous thing that can (in a scientifically provable way) reduce stress, increase resilience, immune response, concentration, clarity of mind and productivity, and plenty more besides. All of this hype is however selling mindfulness short in a very important way. That mindfulness or meditation can result in all of these benefits are undoubtedly true but to focus on the benefits in this way is to miss the point. Worse than merely ‘missing the point’, we are going down the wrong road entirely. We are looking at mindfulness in terms of outcomes and this is putting the cart in front of the horse.
What we are doing here is promoting mindfulness as yet another tool in our arsenal of tools, and when we do this we get everything backwards. The reason we’re getting everything backwards when we do this is because we’re putting all the emphasis on the wrong place – we’re putting all the emphasis on ‘how we can work more effectively (or live less stressfully) within the given system’ and this isn’t what mindfulness is about. Mindfulness isn’t about becoming better adapted to the system that we happen to find ourselves in – it’s about being able to question that system, it’s about becoming independent from it. Mindfulness (or meditation) isn’t a tool that we can focus or direct narrowly where we want it – it’s not something we can control in that way at all. It’s more like a crate full of sweaty dynamite; we know that it’s liable to explode at some point, but we don’t know what the result of the explosion will be, and we certainly can’t direct it.
Another way of putting this is to say that mindfulness isn’t something that we can use to enhance the performance of ‘the self we think we are’. That’s what we are generally told – we’re told all the benefits and that – naturally enough – sounds very attractive to us, but this isn’t really the way it works at all. These ‘benefits’ come from ‘letting go of the self we think we are’, which means that the benefits we like the sound of so much can’t really be for that self. The benefits in question only come from relinquishing this shallow idea that we have of ourselves. As Ajahn Chah says,
If you let go a little you will have a little happiness. If you let go a lot you will have a lot of happiness. If you let go completely you will be free.
It’s not just that we have to let go of various things that we are attached to, the things that we either love or hate, things that we might want for ourselves or are afraid of. Simultaneously, we also have to let go of ‘the one who has these attachments’. Letting go means letting go of our idea of ourselves. This is what ‘letting go’ is really all about – it’s not a question of giving up this or that bad habit in order to benefit ourselves; it’s a question of letting go of the illusion of who we think we are (which is actually our only reason for doing anything, including ‘trying to let go’). We let go of the notion that there is someone there who has to let go! In short – we let go of everything, including our scientifically-proven ideas of benefiting ourselves.
‘Letting go’ isn’t a tool. It isn’t something we do in order to obtain a particular result or get a particular benefit. If it were, then it wouldn’t be ‘letting go’! Obviously enough, tools are the very opposite of ‘letting go’. This is all alien to our Western rational/purposeful way of looking at things – tools are all we know, control is all we know. If something can’t be used as a tool then we just not interested – we call such things ‘useless’ and we have no time for them. Saying that we’re only interested in tools (or that we’re only interested in ‘control’) is of course just another way of saying that we’re interested in looking outwards, at results, rather than looking inwards at the question of ‘why we should want those results’. The more the emphasis there is on results (or control) the less the emphasis there is going to be on ‘reflecting upon our basic assumptions’. When all the emphasis is on control then there is no emphasis on ‘why we want to control’; when all the emphasis is on tools then there is no emphasis on thinking about why it is that we need them!
We are not a philosophical culture. There’s no way that anyone can say that we are – that would be ridiculous! All of our attention is directed outwards onto outcomes. It’s all about outcomes; it’s all about purposeful doing. Quite possibly, we are the least introspective people ever to walk the face of the earth – we’re all about the image that we have of ourselves, and the banal never-ending business of protecting / promoting this image. We are not all about questioning our basic assumptions about who we are and what life is all about. Such philosophical considerations are for fools as far as we are concerned! We see ourselves as being practical and ‘hard-headed’ – the truth is rather that we are obtuse and at the same time perversely proud of it. We are working hard to benefit ourselves – even if the ‘self’ we are working to benefit doesn’t actually exist…
Our immensely conservative, control-based attitude is nothing to boast about, nothing to feel good about. It’s only ‘fear turned into a virtue’. As Sogyal Rinpoche says, it’s not just possible, it’s nearly 100% certain that we will spend our entire lives hypnotized by the mass-produced images and ideas and never coming close to finding out who we really are. This is what our civilization is geared towards, after all – it’s geared towards protecting us from the terrifying challenge of having to question our basic assumptions. It’s because we are running away from looking at our assumptions about life that we are so focussed on control, so focussed on ‘looking outside of ourselves’, and our culture is fully supporting us in this endeavour. The world outside of us is only a reflection of our inner attitude, after all. If society not only supports but enforces our running away from ourselves it is because – deep-down –this is what we want it to do.
Genuinely looking within is a game-changer of the very highest order. There is no game-changer like it, and there never could be! Krishnamurti called this ‘the only revolution’ to distinguish it from all of our superficial political or social revolutions. Awareness of what’s really going on inside us comes as a total revolution and the reason it comes as a total revolution is because we’re questioning the bedrock of all our beliefs; we calling into question the lynchpin upon which the whole world turns – the idea we have of ‘who we are’. If this idea goes then everything goes – this is the biggest ‘paradigm shift’ there ever could be. There could be no stranger and more unexpected thing for us than seeing what the world looks like when it ISN’T seen from the POV of the control-loving, tool-using rational-purposeful self. This is like ‘the universe next door’ – it’s there all the time but we’ll never see it. We’ll never see it because we’re not at all interested in seeing it, and we’re not interested in seeing it because it’s not any ‘use’ to us!
We’d be going against all our conditioning to take an interest in life as it is when its not lived on behalf of the narcissistic compartmentalized self. As far as we’re concerned we’d be going against ourselves, since all we know of ourselves is our conditioning. Society – we might say – requires us to be narcissistic consumers. It wouldn’t hold together otherwise – society needs us to be narrowly self-interested and not-at-all interested in ‘the bigger picture’. It relies on that. What we call ‘society’ (or perhaps ‘the system’) is the game we play to protect ourselves from seeing that this superficial self-image that we have passively identified with isn’t who really we are. The function of the game is to distract us from seeing the truth, in other words. This is of course the function of the game – what else would it be, other than ‘distraction from the truth’?
Living on the basis of the narcissistic compartmentalized self (or self-image) isn’t a happy situation however – there’s no actual joy in it. There’s no joy or happiness possible in the game because it’s only a game – we need hardly say this! It’s all happening on a false basis, it’s all happening on the basis of ‘let’s pretend’ and so there’s never going to be any fulfilment for us here, only anxiety, depression and alienation. To imagine, therefore, as the purveyors of corporate mindfulness do, that the chronic unhappiness that afflicts the game-playing self (the ‘self-who-we’re-not’) can be ameliorated by the judicious application of standardized meditation techniques is ridiculous – the only cure for the unsatisfactoriness of our situation is for us to wake up and see that we aren’t at all who or what we think we are. The only ‘cure’ is the radical one. No one actually wants this, however. No one wants a radical paradigm shift. Who would benefit, after all? Who’s going to make a profit?