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?


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