Western mindfulness always comes with an agenda, and this is what gives it the particular, rather humourless, flavour that it has. The agenda of Western mindfulness is very much to ‘fix things’ or ‘make things better’ – it’s a practical, goal-orientated kind of thing. It has been turned into a technology or science, which it isn’t. The agenda of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, for example, is to reduce stress. No prizes for guessing this one! In a more general way, we could say that the underlying agenda of all that types of ‘generic mindfulness’ have been developed in the West is to allow us to go back to the way we were before, so that we can carry on in the way we were before. We’re trying to ‘correct the situation’. When we apply mindfulness to the field of mental health this is very much what we are doing – we are using it as a tool to achieve an ‘agreed-upon’ aim that we have in our minds. In the world of mental health we use the word ‘recovery’ a lot and the implication here is – needless to say – that we ‘recover’ the way that we were before so that we can carry on being the way that we were before. That’s the whole idea obviously – while we’re trying to do is recover is ‘ourselves as we were before’.
The thing about this is that recovering ourselves as were before has absolutely nothing to do mental health – mental health is a journey, a ‘letting go of the past’ (rather than ‘a clinging onto the past’). Mindfulness or meditation has nothing to do with recovering the way that we were either – that’s a crazy idea! That’s simply ‘acting out of attachment’. We will probably say that we aren’t trying to recover ourselves as we were but our mental health as it was before this doesn’t wash either. What makes us think that the way that we were before was ‘mentally healthy’? Isn’t that a bit of an assumption? An Eastern meditation teacher will tell us that ‘the way we were before’ was simply deluded! Another way of putting this is to say that the way we were before was profoundly unconscious – we were in a kind of trance, a trance created by the automatic acceptance of our unexamined assumptions. We were simply ‘operating on autopilot’ in other words. We hadn’t started questioning anything yet at that stage – we were simply ‘going along with things’ because this was (by far) the easiest thing to do. The idea that it was actually possible to question the fundamental basis of our way of life hadn’t occurred to us and – nostalgically – we look back at this period of our lives as if it were a happy time, which it wasn’t. It was simply a comfortable time, which is not the same thing at all.
From a societal point of view, we value mindfulness purely and simply because it represents a way of fixing the problems that we have created for ourselves with our unconscious way of life. This is hardly the first time anyone has said this – Anthony De Mello says that we engage in psychotherapy not because we want to wake up but for exactly the opposite reason, because we want the therapist to fix our toys so that we can quickly go back to playing with them again (in the comfort of our playpens). This is exactly what we are trying to do mindfulness. This is absolutely what we want and there can hardly be any doubt about this – we want to carry on with our socially-approved lifestyle and ignoring the problems that this extraordinarily superficial lifestyle is creating. This is essentially what we want from mindfulness – it’s not as if we are being radical revolutionaries who are fed up to the back teeth with this absurd ‘distraction-based’ way of life that we have created for ourselves. We aren’t fed up at all – on the contrary, we just want more and more and more. We can’t get enough of it!
The ‘collective of us’ that we are calling ‘Western civilisation’ (even though it is very pretty much over the entire planet stage) is functionally incapable of wanting to question (or let go of) the assumptions that it is based on. Only the individual can find the courage and curiosity within themselves that is necessary to want to question the bedrock of assumptions that their life is based on – the collective, the group, can never do this. This ought to be obvious – a group of people only gets to be ‘a group’ by tacitly agreeing on a particular set of rules for thinking and behaving. If those ‘group rules’ are questioned then the group ceases to be a group and becomes a collection of individuals instead (i.e. it becomes a collection of people who no longer share the same ‘generic world-view’). There is a game which going on here in other words and if we are to continue to play this game then the one thing we must never do is question the rules that lie behind the game. Once we see that society is a game then we will also see that society is never going to question the assumptions that it is based on – just like a corporation, society is geared towards one thing and one thing only and that is perpetuating itself. Society is a virus in other words – it is ‘an entity which replicates itself without being able to question why it does’. The only type of ‘change’ it is interested in is the type of change known as optimisation, i.e. ‘getting better and better at doing what it is already doing’.
When we consider the case of a company or organisation that is providing mindfulness training or opportunities for practice for its staff then we can be sure that the agenda is to ‘increase the efficiency of the staff in relation to the functioning of that company or organisation’ – why else would such an entity be interested? It’s certainly not the case that the company or organisation is interested in questioning the basis for its very existence! The one thing we know for sure is that this is just never going to happen. In the same way therefore, society as a whole (by which we mean the way of life that society embodies or takes for granted) values mindfulness for the sake of optimising this particular game, for the sake of smoothing out whatever ‘mental health problems’ may happen to arise in relation to its operation. Our ‘well-being’ or ‘mental health’ is constructed in relation to this way of looking at things therefore (which is to say, if anyone were to grow disillusioned with the remarkably trivial and unsatisfying way of life that we are expected to get on with and enjoy then our attitude towards his disillusionment will invariably be to see it as a manifestation of a grievous lack of well-being or mental health rather than appreciate it for what it is, which is ‘a sign of health‘. Just as Krishnamurti says (in an often repeated quote) ‘it is no measure of health to be well-adapted to a profoundly sick society’, it could also – and equivalently –be said that it is a measure of health to become unwell or distressed or de-motivated in a sick society.
The point that we are making here is subtler that it might perhaps at first seem – it’s not that we become ‘consciously disillusioned’ with society or this socialised way of life as a result of our reflections on its shortcomings or because of any insight that we might have in relation to its true nature. We don’t consciously see this; conscious understanding comes at the very end of the process, not at its beginning. It is a conceit of the rational ego that change comes from its decisions or its perceptions; as Jung noted, change only happens when it is forced upon us by psychic or environmental factors and we have no way of escaping it. Wisdom comes to us against our own will, as the poet and dramatist Aeschylus noted over two and a half thousand years ago in ancient Greece –
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
Conscious insight, understanding and change occur at the very end of the process of psychological growth and the process as a whole is involuntary and not in the least bit subject to our conscious direction. The way this process works is via suffering therefore – we suffer because we always resist helpful change (rather than embracing it or working gamely towards it under our own steam) and we also suffer because (for whatever reason) our situation has become untenable for us and this necessitates change. This is the process of what we have termed ‘disillusionment’ – when we are able to get the satisfaction that we need out of life then we will carry on, when our way of living no longer satisfies the needs that we have but do not realize that we have then the pleasures and satisfactions there were no longer hit the spot and we find ourselves facing into a world of dysphoria’. To the extent that our modern way of life is geared almost entirely towards distraction from everything that is real there is inevitably going to come a time when ‘it just doesn’t work for us anymore’ and society is always going put this back on us and say that there is something wrong with us! Society is going to say that we need mindfulness in order that we should feel better, even though ‘feeling better’ would not be an appropriate response on our part to this situation!
When we enter into ‘the world of dysphoria’ then what is happening is that we are unable to function as we ordinarily do it all because functioning as we ordinarily do is causing us pain. We do what we always do but somehow it just doesn’t work for us in the way that it always did. We can’t be ourselves in the way that we are normally able to (or when we are able to be ourselves) and so our situation becomes a chronically dysphoric affair, one that hasn’t any comfort in it.
It is precisely this ‘untenable’ situation that results in real change and this is what Jung was talking about when he said that we will only change ‘when our back is against the wall’ – if there is any degree of comfort at all to be had in our particular mode of conditioned existence (which is to say, if the ego-state we are identified with is not unremittingly dysphoric) then we will cling to whatever comfort we find and the process of change will be thwarted. What all of this comes down to therefore is that we are almost inevitably going to be using mindfulness as a way of trying to ‘recover’ the non-dysphoric functionality of the old ego state and so what this means is that we are (without knowing it) ‘going against the healing process’, if we may put it like that. In the West of course, we don’t particularly believe in the healing process – not in the psychological sphere of things anyway. What we believe in, when it comes right down to it, is rational interference (otherwise known as ‘therapy’).
This brings us to the very crux of our argument. What we are saying is that just as a company or organisation will be interested in the application of mindfulness from the point of view of the benefits that it can obtain from this, and just society is interested in mindfulness as a way of improving the mental health of its members without the radical cure of them becoming ‘de-socialised’ (and turn therefore into active rebels against the system as it is, since no one goes along with society if they can see it for what it is) so too the rational ego sees mindfulness as a way ‘repairing itself’ so that it can so it can then carry on as it is indefinitely, which is the only goal that actually means anything to it. How after all can the ego (or ‘concrete sense of identity’) have any goal other than the goal of self-maintenance or ‘carrying on as it is’? We could object of course that this has always been the case and that there is nothing new about what we have just said. The ego has always sought to subvert everything to its own ends, including meditation (especially included meditation). That is perfectly normal – that is only to be expected! There is a difference however which is far more significant than we seem to realise – the difference is that in the cultures where meditation originally developed there was an implicit understanding that the development and maintenance of what Alan Watts calls ‘the skin-encapsulated ego’ is not the ‘be all and end all’ of our life here on earth!
There can hardly be any argument over the suggestion that this is exactly the position we in the West to take; we pay lip-service (naturally enough) to the virtues of honesty, goodwill, kind-heartedness, compassion, sensitivity to others, etc, but these are all qualities that the ego identity can simply never have! This is something that needs to be understood very, very clearly but which isn’t – the thought-created ego identity is flatly incapable of caring about anything other than itself. It can mimic altruism, (it can sometimes mimic altruism very well indeed) but that is all it is – mimicry. The ego is a great mimic; that’s all it ever does really – it ‘mimics’ (or ‘pretends’). There is a lot of talk going on at the moment about narcissists and sociopaths and ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ but when it comes down to it we’re simply talking about ‘the common-or-garden self’, stripped of all its pretentions, stripped of all its camouflage. The mind-created concrete identity is always ‘the culprit’, so to speak…
This is not to say that the civilization in India where meditation originated and developed was full of people leading a deeply spiritual way of life, or that the general culture itself was not orientated towards using ‘chasing illusions’ the same as we do in the West. The point is however that there existed a tradition going back many thousands of years (testified to by the Upanishads and the Vedas) which meant that this way of looking at the world (the non-identity orientated way) always existed even if – as we might expect, the main current of life remained directed outwards, towards the ‘sense objects’, towards the world of the known and knowable phenomena, towards the world of ‘definite things’. But for those whose inclination was to take an interest in the other direction (rather than the commonplace direction of maya which – the Indian teachings tell us – continually distract us from seeing who we really are) the culture existed to support them in this. ‘That which cannot be apprehended by the mind, but by which, they say, the mind is apprehended, that alone know as Brahman and not that which people here worship’ says the Kena Upanishad.
No comparable contemporary Western wisdom-tradition exists – Christianity (for the most part) does not support us in the ‘nondual’ way that the Vedas and Upanishads do, but rather it binds us even more to the dualistic belief in the little self which is to be saved and which will (hopefully) dwell forever in Heaven. There is nowhere to turn for those whose inclination is not to continuously absorb or immerse themselves in the generic or fabricated reality that everyone else believes in. Meditation isn’t seen as a way of supporting the process whereby we painfully dis-identify from the rational ego, but rather it is pressed into service as a way of repairing that conceptual self and returning it to the fray. We simply can’t help doing this – it is inherent in our way of understanding ‘mental health’. We see mental health in terms of the ‘well-being’ of the societally-constructed ego, as we have already said. If we saw mental health in a negative way instead (‘negative’ meaning no goals, no agendas) then we would not get caught up in ‘the struggle to save the ego’ in this way but rather by practicing mindfulness we learn to support the process itself, the terribly painful process in which the beleaguered ego-identity ‘loses ground’ and gradually becomes untenable as ‘a meaningful basis for living life’.