Tuesday, 23 August 2016

platitudes, pleonasms and the present moment

I was chatting about mindfulness meditation at a wedding the other day. My interlocutor said she found the practice helpful to her, and from how she talked about it it was clear that this was true. It seemed it helped her stop catastrophising, become more realistic, become calmer, able to think 'what's the worst that can happen?', take stock, take a moment, show herself some encouragement and kindness, regain self-possession, and so on.

But what struck me was how the words she used to express how helpful it was often seemed to me, as is often the case in talk about mindfulness, fairly 'nonsensical'. At best they sometimes appeared to amount to little more than tautology, at worst to a metaphysics of the philosophically disreputable sort. And yet, such phrasing came naturally and seemed important to the 'sell'; what was going on?

The kinds of phrases I'm thinking of are: The past and future don't actually exist. All that exists is the present moment. Only the now is real. In the present moment nothing bad is actually happening. So attune with this present moment and you can be ok. (It doesn't matter what she actually said; here I'm interested in the kinds of things one generally finds oneself hearing or saying when talking about mindfulness meditation.)

First off: it's surely metaphysical blah to say that whilst the present exists the past either does or doesn't exist or that the future either does or doesn't exist. Of course if by 'exist' you mean 'exist now' then by definition only the present 'exists'. But how are we to get comfort from a mere definition?

And if not 'exist now' then what? We do - let's recall - have a language-game in which we talk of whether something did or did not happen, actually, as a matter of fact. We distinguish between 'imaginary' or 'fictitious' and 'real' in relation to past events. We don't use present tense verbs to talk of past tense events - that's just to mis-speak. But we do actually and properly say of a purported past event that it did or did not actually happen. So to the extent that it means anything to talk of existence or obtaining in relation to past events, then it can be referring either to events non-actual or actual. Similarly for the future: something either will or won't happen. By definition it isn't happening now, but it is nevertheless a fact that it will or won't happen later. There are, one could say, facts about the future. (You can say what you like as long as you make it clear what you're talking about ... and hopefully don't saddle us with a 'metaphysical theory' of 'future facts' or some such...) The facts just are those which will actually obtain.

Now the mindfulness practitioner as I'm caricaturing him or her here perhaps draws comfort from the fact that the feared phenomena are not happening now. The fear is merely about what might happen. But the phrases offered us here are either grammatical truisms or flagrant nonsense. What then is the relation between the genuine comfort and the pleonastic platitudes?

Well, perhaps it's this. That although the phrase 'all that exists exists now' is platitudinous or nonsense if we take it as aiming to communicate a fact, it is yet helpful if we see it as the right words to shake someone awake who has fallen into a dream. Being in a trance or in a dream they have lost 'reality testing'. By this I mean that they have stopped instantiating in their mind the distinction between now and then, or between here and there. The platitude does not provide information, but instead it prods us awake. It reminds us of the fact that there is a distinction between now and then that we can make and that we've stopped making. Catastrophic fantasy can be separated from tractable reality, and one can align oneself with the latter. (You're frightened of the monsters in the dark; but then your mum comes into the room with all her bustle and life and 'reality' and the fear dissolves. Later: you just turn the light on. Later still: you know full well what's just 'in your mind' and what's (not) in that cupboard in the corner of the room.)

I suggest that the platitude might also 'help' (pacify) in soporific self-deceiving ways. That is, we might say 'oh well the bad thing I fear will happen is not happening right now, and life is only ever a series of right-nows, so I don't need to worry because I can always live in the right-now.' Well, that's kinda dumb because the thing I fear might happen and then it would be correct to say, at that time, that it is happening right now, and this future possibility is what right now in the present time I'm worried about. I'm not, in this imagined scenario, worried about it happening right now: I'm worried about it happening in the future.

But leaving that aside the value of the phrase is, I suggest, that it helps the anxious mind reinstate a distinction between now and then which, in its anxiety, it had lost. Whilst it can sound rather metaphysical, or be presented as if it's some kind of positive realisation into the nature of existence or time or facts, really it is just a wake-up call for the anxiously somnolent to start functioning again. For when my anxiety is such that I fail to distinguish the possible and the actual, I get caught in runaway fears. Worry about the future is fine: it can help me face up to what will happen, or to take steps to prevent what might happen, etc. But some kinds of worry stop the mind from working and from doing precisely that. I panic because, losing sight of the distinction between the present and the future, or between what is likely to happen and what is the worst that can happen, I lose sight of, e.g., the possibility of taking this time to make sensible plans to avoid possible mishaps.

Here's where I'm arriving at: that something that sounds like the worst kind of metaphysics is actually a non-information-carrying device to help us put our feet back on the ground. It's tempting to imagine that the phrase works by speaking some kind of truth or expressing some kind of thought. It's tempting to imagine that it carries its effect through a cognisable propositional content. Through some truth one might come to realise or see. But that's not it. It's rather that it has an effect on the form - and not on the contents - of the mind. It recalls us to ourselves. In this respect what it offers is less like something to be understood or grasped, and more like ECT.

Now: that this can happen: that is an interesting thing! That is to say: we utter the words that make a conceptual distinction between here and there, now and then, present and past or future. And then the mind recalls itself to itself, becomes able to reinstantiate this distinction in its form, so that we can emerge from trance into this unhypnotic bliss. It risks too metaphysical an inquiry but I'm yet tempted to ask into the conditions of possibility ( - ask 'what the mind must be like for this to be possible? '- ) of the bliss-bestowing possibilities of mindfulness.