May 5, 2013


Why does mindfulness need attention?

It occurred to me that the assumption of the desirability of mindfulness begs a question before further consideration. The question is simply this: why does being mindful require attention? Why is mindfulness not our natural state?

There are two main reasons, I feel. The first is the structure, form, and organisation of the world that we live in presently (here in the West) is explicitly designed to capture your attention (and take it away from the now). The agencies are the many forms of “the news”, either via the Internet, free-to-air TV, newspapers or magazines, or institutions like Facebook or YouTube—if one digs below the surface appearance and ostensible presentations of these structures one sees very quickly that they are all explicitly designed to capture your attention and to maintain that capture, and no amount of money, time, or ingenuity has been spared in this regard. And the deep core purpose of this collective process is to generate money. There is no doubt that, as a group, we worship Mammon.

(As an aside, the assumption of the value of the explicit generation of money has had some extraordinary and inexplicable consequences: how can we explain that women’s home duties are not factored into the economic account from which the gross national product is calculated, for example? It is clear from this fact that some activities are immensely privileged over other activities; I may come back and explore this example in another post.)

The second reason concerns the experience of our mind located in a physical body. As far as we can tell, awareness is largely a property of the mind; again I will come back and re-explore this position, because it too may be a fiction or, at least, an unquestioned assumption. The fact of a mind in a body has two consequences for me: one is that, given options, the body chooses to be comfortable wherever possible. In my view, Freud’s identification of the pleasure principle was a classic example of incomplete thinking: avoidance of displeasure explains far more in my view as well as explaining why we are oriented towards pleasure. Occam’s Razor tells us that we need to accept the simplest explanation that fits the facts (“Thou shalt not multiply assumptions”) and I believe the avoidance of displeasure explains far more than the pleasure principle, as well as explaining the PP itself. By definition, pleasure is the opposite of displeasure and my observations tell me that people spend far more time avoiding displeasure than explicitly orienting themselves towards pleasure; the latter falls out of the former, in other words, when we know what we don’t like. So, the body moves towards (or away from) the options presented to us on this calculus; these intentions to move are experienced as “I feel like a drink”, or “I’m feeling horny”, or “I feel like…”. To be aware of part of the pull away from mindfulness, then, one needs to become aware of what is actually generating these feelings. It’s all tanha!

The second consequence is a development of the first reason I speak about above: that is, because the mind is aware of its own existence and usually takes pleasure in its existence; the move to “I think, therefore I am” seems inevitable; and the consequence is that the mind will do whatever it needs to to ensure that it is surviving.

The fact that two and a half thousand years of Buddhist and other scholarship has shown us that the self actually does not exist (if you spend enough time looking for it, you can’t find it anywhere) is no argument against the experience of the mind’s need to preserve its habits, illusions, etc., all of which create an experience of its continuance, comfort, and its reality of existence. In western philosophy this is referred to as persistence of identity over time and is one of the foundations, in fact is the deep assumption, of all philosophical work that examines the mind. Very few have questioned this assumption, and my realisation of untenability of this assumption was what let me to Buddhist studies in the first place.

My experience of looking closely at my own mind is that in fact the self does not exist but is a very convenient collection of habits which the entire culture we are embedded in  colludes in maintaining. For example, I have a Canberra license with a particular license number and the Electoral Roll records me as living at a particular street address in Kambah. And of course these are the perhaps necessary complexities/consequences of a developed culture that requires people to live among each other and interact with each other, and which has evolved rules and structures to preserve itself.

One of the consequences of the belief in the existence of self is that the mind loves itself: to the thinker there is nothing more interesting than what’s going on in my mind. Conversely, nothing can be as torturous as what’s going on in my mind, either, if you listen to it, and if you believe that what it is telling you is real. And there is the corollary that, if it’s interesting to me (whether experienced as positive or negative), then likely it’s going to be interesting to others as well; hence the endless conversations around us. And all of the others are thinking the same thing: that what I am thinking is both real and interesting. The deep consequence of being in love with the way that you think is that the mind starts to have an existence of its own independent of the body. Observe this for yourself: thinking always occurs in the past, or about the past, or in the future or about the future—never in the present moment. We are always thinking about something, at some time before or after now.

Yet the body lives only in the present. All physical experiences in the body happen in the unfolding of the infinite instants of the present moments. Observation of the stream of thought will reveal this to us in time—and one of the hallmarks of the Stretch Therapy approach is a collection of effective physical techniques to bring the awareness into the present moment. In the instant of this occurring, all discursive thought simply disappears. There is only sensation, either via the five senses or in the body itself. And if you are a meditator, continuous and lengthy observation of the rising and falling away of the stream of thought and the concomitant experience of sensations in the body leads to a deep understanding of the impermanence of thought. Enough for today.

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