Friday, 12 July 2013

mindfulness as patch

I've been wanting for a while to give some time to get clear in my thinking about why the current vogue for mindfulness meditation bugs me in the rant-inducing way it does. I think I've finally got somewhere with it, and in what follows I lay bare my objection.

Here is the first objection, which isn't very sophisticated! But honestly, as it seems to me: mindfulness meditation is boring. It can not only be boring to do. But it risks cultivating a kind of pervasive inner banality, a cucumber-coolness, in the practitioner. Here's a second objection: It is banalising in part because it risks entering into an unhealthy alliance with the massively banalising instrumentalist Gestell of our time. I should probably say what I mean by this...

But first of all here's something rather good about mindfulness: It takes us out, for a moment, of the endless for-the-sake-of-ness of too much of our everyday life. For a moment we have to stop. We might do mindfulness meditation because we've been told its good for our physical or mental health. But in the practicing of it the goal is a kind of goal-less-ness, the 'aim' is to simply be in the moment, in the in-and-out of the breath, in the present. And when the mind wanders off into the future or the past, in that particularly neurotic form of temporality in which we start endlessly ruminating, problem-solving, worrying - and when whatever is being done right now is only ever done for-the-sake-of what comes next - then the mindfulness practitioner gently and forgivingly brings it back to the present moment in which there is in the (non)activity, as it is practiced right now, no for-the-sake-of-ness. (I will now temporarily follow convention and summarise a) activities pursued within neurotic temporality versus b) engaged for-its-own-sake action with the labels a) 'doing' and b) 'being', although these terms are clearly not at all up to the task.)

Yet here's the rub: In doing this, we can easily end up i) spending our being-time in a state of just-sitting, or just-walking, or inwardness. And also then ii) carry on as usual in doing mode in the rest of our life. When surely, if we are living our life in an existentially alive and authentic manner, we will be living each and every active moment of it in a spirit of 'being'. So: Now I am doing therapy which has its own intrinsic values around human connecting, relating, loving, sharing, caring. Now I am playing my guitar and singing. Why? Well maybe sometimes it is 'to practice for a gig'. Maybe sometimes it is 'to relax' bla bla bla. But, well, most of the time, there it is, I want to play it, it calls to me from its stand in the corner of the room. And now I am making some good food, going for a run, working out, writing this blog post, laughing with my friends. Again sometimes there is instrumental value to be discerned in these (for example, if running was unhealthy as opposed to mental and physical health-promoting I probably would not want to be doing it). But on the whole they are sui generis goods done for sui generis ends. Or, if we prefer, they can be described as end-less.

So my worry about mindfulness is that it risks becoming a kind of technology of mental or physical good health that, far from unseating today's terrible instrumentalisation, the 'technological Gestell' as Heidegger called it, becomes something done as a piece of self-care so that the rest of the time we and our societies and our bosses and our workplaces can carry on exploiting us, inviting us to work for money, to 'work in order to live' instead of one's work being 'a living'. (Isn't it terrible, as an aside, to note how the very idea of 'a living' has become understood in financial terms.)

Now I know full well - well, I think I know this well enough - that I am a financially well-off well-educated middle-class person who is lucky in his work and friendships and general social set up etc. I have what many would see as a luxury of being able to 'be' in my various projects. It is all very well, Richard, criticising mindfulness as a kind of being which, in as much as it is not itself the form that our projects take - in as much as it is not only a kind of being-ness, but is also a form of project-less-ness - is but a poor cousin of that form of genuine being-for-itself-ness which informs living projects. But, Richard, you must remember that most of the tasks of the average working person are, well, really rather dull, necessarily instrumental, etc etc. They are ego-depleting, and this is why we need mindfulness as an adjunct to everyday life.

But, ok, yes, BUT! This is such a politically lame line to take, and also so massively existentially complacent. I know several very admirable fairly poor people who live existentially alive lives, who haven't got swept up into the whole house/car/mortgage/passive consumerist nonsense; who engage fully in what we might call 'DIY culture'; who are alive in their cooking and playing and relationships and parenting and also, often enough, in the way they undertake their work and in the work they do. It's just way too easy to suppose that alienated labour and consumer culture are the only options available for most people; and there are plenty of studies available now showing the false economy, in terms of real over-all quality of life, of working hard at depleting banalising alienating jobs in order to earn money to pay for holidays and other tonics.

Ok, ok, so this, you are telling me, isn't the fault of mindfulness. You're being ridiculous Richard! If anything mindfulness invites us to step back from the rat race, regain a little being in our lives that are so over-run by doing. Well, but my problem isn't with living mindfully per se (although if anyone invites me to suppose to simply 'wash the dishes when washing the dishes' or to 'tune into the taste and texture of every morsel of food in your mouth' as supposedly emotionally healthy aptitudes, I do want to invite them to mindfully pay attention to the feel of my boot on their backside), if by 'living mindfully' is meant: living in a largely non-instrumental manner. My problem is with the whole individualist, de-politicised, radically non-existential, conservative, tranquil-not-radical, nature of something which is so often now sold as a practice to enhance wellbeing. I want to encourage everyone to forget about mindfulness meditation practice, and instead to start living non-instrumentally in all aspects of their life. This might mean engaging mindfully (which does not mean: with a rather self-aware, very-slightly-smug, oh-so-equipoised, serenity-mongering, demeanour) in all of one's life projects. In other words, living fully, living out of one's 'id' (in Groddeck's, not Freud's sense - i.e. out of one's Being and not out of one's reflective self-consciousness), owning what one is doing, not using existential anaesthetics (capitalist-era defences like: slumping in front of the tv), etc. If mindfulness meditation becomes a name for passionate engaged non-self-conscious non-instrumental being-in-doing that characterises all of life then, yes, I'm all for it. But if it's something to be packaged at a workshop for those caught up in the stressy lives we all live today, then, well, forget it.