Mindful Unawareness

I had the occasion the other day to listen to a podcast episode of the radio program “Speaking of Faith,” roadcast by National Public Radio about religion.  The particular episode was about a doctor named John Kabat Zinn, a popular author with a medical degree from MIT who specializes in what he calls the “science of mindfulness,” basically meaning meditation as a means of relieving stress and anxiety.  You can listen to the podcast here.

What I gathered from the program is that Mr. Kabat Zinn sings the praises of meditation as an antidote to  the fast paced, hectic nature of our modern lives; the program plays excerpts from a seminar on “mindfulness” which he gave to executives at Google in California, in which he has them closing their eyes and listening to him speak about living in the moment, and persisting in that moment, to let time sort of slip away.  Mr. Kabat Zinn talked about this method of meditation being open to everyone, and emphasized that it was not a religious practice (he said somewhere at the beginning that he didn’t want to use the word spiritual for this reason) but was accessible to everyone.  He also talked about, but did not elaborate on, scientific research that backed up some of his more specific claims, that practicing “mindfulness” could actually stimulate parts of the brain that we do not normally use, which I found quite intriguing.

On the whole, the program left me with a great deal of ambivalence about his project of encouraging “mindfulness,” though I should point out he has written numerous books on this subject, of which I have read none, though I’ll talk more about his books in a moment.   First let me say something positive about his project:  as one whose blog is an attempt to live out more fully my own contemplative stirrings, I think it is a good thing to recommend the contemplative life to people, albeit in a rudimentary form.  In modern societies, it is a difficult message to preach, because meditation often seems like something that only spaced out weirdos with no jobs or responsibilities  do or would want to do.  For this, I think am grateful to Dr. Kabat Zinn for his efforts, especially with regards to the scientific aspects of what he does, as it might convince some people who might not otherwise consider meditation, though I believe its benefits do not really depend on scientific evidence.

On the other hand, I have serious reservations about some of his ideas and the way he talks about “mindfulness.”  First off, as with any popular presentation of the contemplative life (I say popular based on the program but also on the titles of his books that I looked at on Amazon) there is always the problem that his readers will get a garbled idea of what meditation entails.  I have been praticing a very rudimentary form of lectio divina for a few years now, and it is something that takes a great deal of effort to practice with constancy, at least in my personal experience.  Given what Zinn said in the program, I’m not sure his readers wouldn’t just view this as one more “take or leave it” item in the spiritual buffet table that is modern, consumerist American culture, thinking that they could drop it after a few weeks once they felt sufficiently “spiritual” enough for having done something that required a serious effort for more than a week or two.

Second, though I find his assertion that medical science can substantiate the physical benefits of meditation interesting, I am concerned that his emphasis on this as well as the “practical” benefits (the “immediate relevance of it to our lives) of “minfulness” distorts the purpose of the contemplative life in order to popularize it.  I put the term “practical” in scare quotes in part because my experience has been that the “practical” benefits of meditation are mostly, well, that you are able to meditate more often.  The benefit of contemplative practice is not that it necessarily “improves” your active life (relieves stress at work, makes you perform better in bed, improve the quality of your relationship, makes world peace possible, etc.) but that it makes you see the value in silence, in stillness as opposed to activity, and that these goods don’t depend on your activity.  I would not deny that the mind can influence the body, and that it might produce such effects, but I doubt that one can reliably expect tangible, physical benefits from meditation this way.  This is very much to the point, as it seems Zinn and others market “mindfulness” therapy as a way of recovery from mental disorders (at least in one book which Dr. Zinn wrote the forward to).  I think this is a rather dangerous way of marketing it, for I believe it could give people inflated expectations of what benefits meditation is supposed give you.  (I say this as someone who is not recovering from mental illness, btw).

The third concern I have is with his assertion that the benefits of meditation have nothing to do with “spiritual” beliefs.   This is problematic, as most meditative practices are rooted in specific religious beliefs, on the assumption that it helped one get to contact with higher realities than that of the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  But the question begs itself:  what higher realities?  In the Christian tradition, meditation on the life and death of Christ, on Sacred Scripture, is normally the focus, as conducive to communion with God and salvation; though I don’t know much about Buddhism,the focus I believe in its tradition would be on the transience of life, on the unreality of pain and suffering, and realizing the ultimately impersonal nature of the higher reality of the universe is what sets one free from this suffering.  As a Catholic Christian, I believe the former is the right way, of course, but needless to say, these are vastly different ways of conceiving the reality upon which one meditates, and this I think is the problem with Zinn’s generic brand of meditation.   I’m not sure one can get the benefits he thinks accrue from meditation unless one actually believes there is something worth meditating on.  I can’t speak for atheists or agnostics, but I was an atheist before becoming Catholic, and I think had anyone suggested to me that I should be more “mindful” in the way Zinn  suggests would have seemed absurd to me.  Why meditate to relieve stressor anxiety if these are merely physical problems? After all, there are drugs which can deal with those problems on a physical level which will provide more measurable physical benefits than meditation ever will.  More than this, Zinn, in the program at least, puts emphasis on “mindfulness” as a way of enhancing human progress in evolutionary terms, making it sound as if one can progress somehow biologically or further the human species “progress” by meditating.  This sort of thing make me think  he is not really appealing to any kind of general audience at all but, whether consciously or unconsciously, to his target audience, which seems to be, to judge from the radio program and the way his books are marketed, to West and East coast yuppies,  Silicon valley types and Northeastern intellectuals like himself—the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, in other words.  Zinn reveals this, I think, when during the program he uses the word spiritual over and over again, despite his declaration that it didn’t have anything to do with belief, as well as his frequent citation of the teachings of the Buddha.  Not that I think he actually believes Buddhism to be true, to be a better description of ultimate reality than say Judaism, but because he thinks it is more of a philosophy than a religion, and is therefore suitable for people like him and his audience.  This is also why he indulges in a bit of silly, pop psychoanalysis toward the end of the program, when he refers to Barack Obama as being a more “mindful” person than George W. Bush.  Evidently, “mindfulness” will not only relieve your stress, it will also make sure you vote Democratic as well.  (Phew! That was a close one!) I believe this kind of sloppy thinking leads people to confuse the contemplative and active life, which are both ways of being in the world, though the active is the lesser of the two.  Justifying the contemplative life by reference to its supposed effects on the active diminshes its value, and obscures its true worth.  Again, it very well may be that the good doctor has explanations for all of this in his books, so I don’t want to belabor these points too much.  After all, I am only a novice in the contemplative life myself, and possess no great store of wisdom.

Do I then think there is no benefit to the active life one can derive from the practice of meditation?   Not at all.  But if there is, its most tangible benefit may be that it makes me more aware of my limitations, even the limitations of my contemplative efforts.  I am a Christian, and I know it is not my efforts but the movement of grace which will grant me communion with God.  So perhaps what “mindfulness” can cultivate is an awareness of our limited nature, and an appreciation that we will go through life unaware of most of reality most of the time, because of those limitations, despite our best efforts.  And this is something that truly anyone can cultivate, regardless of their religious beliefs.  Call it “mindful unawareness” if you will.  It couldn’t hurt.  A month or so after this “Speaking of Faith” program aired, a Democratic congressman from Ohio suggested on the House floor that funding for “mindfulness education” be placed in the health care bill currently before the chamber.  Needless to say, this met with howls of derision from conservative/Republican bloggers, who were not really convinced of its usefulness, to say the least.  Obviously, I think these reactions to this congressman’s efforts are wrongheaded in regards to the value of the contemplative life, but I have to agree that people don’t really need government funding to get more time to meditate.  All we have anyway is the “still now,” the moment with no before or after, which we can strive to enter into and live in at any time—something I’m sure the good doctor could agree with.

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~ by Alypius on June 28, 2009.

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