Monday, 15 December 2014

a plea for mindlessness

A theme around which I frequently circle is what I suspect is corrupting in mindfulness meditation. Here I leave others - and there are myriad such others these days, others with good minds and good hearts - to speak for what is valuable in the practice. Doubtless too there will be good interpretations of what is meant by 'mindfulness' which obviate the following critique. I offer it more in the spirit of an articulation of a critique of whatever object might happen to fit it - i.e. as a piece of thought - rather than tying it to any particular empirical denizen of the psychological landscape.

One route into the kind of understanding of mind which I accuse of being banalising and corrupt is through a certain way of thinking about rumination. When I am anxiously preoccupied by something I am often rather lost in the process; I may be 'fused with' my thoughts as the ACT practitioner puts it. I'm in a slightly dreamy, trance-y, state of mind, not terribly aware of what is going on around me. The feelings which arise in me in relation to my own imaginings may be almost as vivid - depressed, fretful, say - as if I were confronted by the corollary non-imaginary situation itself. So far, so good.

At such times I will not often be reflexively aware that I am currently ruminating. That after all is rather in the nature of trance. And here is where what I think of as the corrupting conception of mindfulness arises. It arises in the idea that what I clearly need to do about this is to become more self-aware, become 'de-fused from' my ruminatory process, become a more effective stood-back inner witness to my own thought. There is a corollary corrupt metaphysics to go with this epistemology. The metaphysics has it that there is an inner place called 'my mind' in which thought 'goes on' or 'occurs'. The idea of the practice, as I am reading it here, is one in which I, the self, becomes an inner observer on a quasi-objective inner landscape in which mental events occur and mental states obtain.

Clearly a lot turns on what we mean by becoming more conscious. To be clear: the idea of an increase in vitality affects, aliveness of the body, a quickness of and clarity to the mind: this is all unimpeachable. But I don't believe for a moment that this is all that is meant by becoming more mindful. For how that mindfulness is often described is in terms of self-awareness. As if to become more vitally alive is to become more aware of the pre-existing sensations in my body. Waking up the body: great. Becoming aware of one's body: not so great. The danger is becoming the kind of self-reflective individual who always checks on an impulse before acting on it, who has a certain detaching lack of immanence within her own emotions, who refrains from being a passionately dynamic presence in the world and instead opts for a po-faced ethic of poised stillness.

Here is what disturbs me the most about mindfulness, along with various other palliative and quick-fix trends in broadly cognitive-behavioural psychological traditions. What if I end up catching myself in my neurotic rumination, getting thereby some relief from it as I somewhat disidentify from the runaway self-entrenching thoughts - only for this disidentified way of self-relating - i.e. for this way of being in the world constituted by in-the-moment self-relating - to take over as a governing ethic of living? Wouldn't it be far preferable to remain alive as someone unreflectively embedded in the hurly burly of their own physical and mental life, with no loss of the energy of un-self-conscious self-becoming, if this were possible? 

This after all is what psychoanalytic psychotherapy offers. It offers one the chance to peel back the defensive carapace of avoidant modes of relating, awakening the dormant transference monster within, tolerably bringing to the surface within the transference relationship the conflicts which often tacitly generate the rumination in the first place, developing a greater trust in the straightforward acceptability of many of one's feelings and hence decreasing rather than increasing the need for the kind of self-reflective awareness that risks mobilising that ethic of smug detachment, increasing self-shaping self-reflection but not as any kind of two-stage in-the-moment po-faced faux-beatific devitalising self-checking loop of awareness between thought and action. Mindfulness, it seems to me, risks adding another stage of mental machinery: having thoughts -> become aware of having thoughts -> make self-aware response. The ethic embodied instead in, for example, 'where id was there ego shall be' (i.e. becoming at one with one's desire) is radically different. Rather than wasting psychic energy on effortful self-regulation, the analytic patient is invited to enjoy an upsurge of vitality through removing the self-stultifying defences. 

To represent it diagrammatically: 

interaction with someone -> feeling -> anxiety -> defense -> symptom -> managed through rumination

What are you going to do? Peel it back to just: 

interaction with someone -> feeling

Or manage it with:

feeling -> anxiety -> defense -> symptom -> ruminatory tendency -> mindfulness -> defusing -> relief from rumination but life-sapping defences still in place and energy-sapping reflective poise mobilised

Well? What choice is there really?

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

and gone my way and forgotten it

R S Thomas
I have seen the sun break through 
to illuminate a small field 
for a while, and gone my way 
and forgotten it. 

But that was the pearl 
of great price, the one field that had 
treasure in it. I realize now 
that I must give all that I have 
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receeding future, nor hankering after 
an imagined past. It is the turning 
aside like Moses to the miracle 
of the lit bush, to a brightness 
that seemed as transitory as your youth 
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.


Commentators on Thomas's fine poem sometimes miss the fourth line. But isn't that the most striking thing: that one can see the miracle, even know it for a pearl of great price, and then just go on to forget about it?

This one simple fact, it seems to me, could be the basis for a whole human psychology. We experience love, the balm of loving and being loved, we experience the repose this gives us, the settled wellbeing and vitality, the togetherness of mother and child not getting in one another's way, and in this moment of knowing the melting heart, the kindly gaze, the held hand, the contentment of joint attention, security and acceptance - we know with self-evidencing clarity that this is all that really matters - and then it just goes. And we don't even notice it going. And we don't even notice when it's gone. And then after a time of irritable bereft lostness, preoccupied by some or other agitation, we see it again, the sun illuminating the field again, and it melts and warms us, and it appalls and amazes us that we lost it.

Why do you leave me? When I find myself lonely, troubled, empty, irritable.... But, well, really you don't leave me, it's just that I somehow forget that you were ever there. And that's why I struggle. I forget about the balm of your love, I forget about the joy of loving you. Is it something like this?


[a song:]

there are times when i know what love is.
quiet times, when my toes nestle in the warm living earth, and
a smile shines in my eyes without me knowing it.

yes: those are times when i know who you are.
peeking round the corners of my wish and fear,
and i meet you so quietly, and listen to you there.

and, when i leave, you ask me to hold on
to you and, sure, i do try for a while - but the
great forgetfulness soon clouds over me -

and you are hurt without knowing why,
whilst i fly up towards a sun that’s all my own:
invincible, majestic, expansive, sullen.

or that so exciting, desirable face i
call yours is all i see - and this is so
hurtful to what is most human in you.

or my wings melt and now i am unreachable
and think you’ve left, though really i’m plummeting
down into the ocean’s loneliest blue.

sometimes, though, i’m wounded enough to be able to
give something to you open-heartedly,
sing to you directly, and listen quietly to you singing.

so sorry i am that i leave you without knowing it;
how i wish you could tether me in the warm living earth,
bind me to those times when i know what love is,

quiet times, times when i know who you are,
peeking round the corners of my wish and fear.
and i meet you so quietly, and listen to you there.