Being more than Mindful of Mindfulness – Part 2

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Part 2: Will Mindfulness take us to where we want to go? What are the consequences for a mindful life?

This is the second of three posts in a series titled “Being more than Mindful of Mindfulness”.

In the first post I examined whether or not Mindfulness as a clinical intervention is efficacious. The conclusion that I came to in that post was that Mindfulness is promising. As a therapeutic technique it is designed, according to the Australian Psychological Society, to “interrupt patterns of ruminative cognitive-affective processing” by “changing the relationship to thoughts, rather than challenging them”. It is too early to say that it is powerful in remediating the difficulties of those who have a clinical diagnosis. However, it does help the well stay well.

In this Post, and in the final Post, I will examine Mindfulness more as an approach to life.

Summary

The solution to what ails us, isn’t detachment then contentment. It is attachment then discontentment.

I am going to explore this statement by considering the practice of Mindfulness in its original context, to see where it comes from and to examine its purpose. In this blog we are going to see the practice of Mindfulness in its proper context, to see where the practice comes from and see what its purpose is.

Siddhartha Gautama Buddha was born in the sixth century BC in the area now known as Nepal. In many shrines around the world he is depicted as a large figure with a serene smile. It is a smile that depicts an internal peace and equanimity. He was given the title of Buddha because he attained this “enlightened state”. He did this by first understanding that suffering is brought about by craving, and second by committing himself to meditative practices that eventually led to a separation of himself from those cravings. If we are to understand this, and go through the same practice, we too will be happy. This is the goal and practice of Mindfulness Buddhist practices: To be happy by removing ourselves from our own cravings. The happy state is brought about through ritualised discipline over many years and the result is the state of “Nibbana”, the Pali term for the goal of Buddhist practices. You might have heard it called ‘Nirvana’ thanks to Kurt Cobain using the Sanskrit version of the word. Nibbana is a composite word, a conjunction of Ni and Vana. Ni is a negative preface like “a” in greek. Vana means desire, lusting or craving. So Nibbana literally means not-desiring or not-attaching, or not-craving. From the Buddhist perspective, we become content by detaching.

Detaching from, or “letting go” of, what we want is thought to reduce our sufferings. One could quite rightly argue that this is not at all irrational. If I had craved getting the university medal, I would have created undue pressure on myself. The goal was clearly beyond my grasp. Detaching myself from such a “craving”, if I had it, or “lusts” and genuinely “letting go” seems quite reasonable, and to do so, if I had it, would have helped me avoid unnecessary distress that some people put themselves through.

In this regard it is quite clear that we might be able to gain something by giving up any extravagant expectations we have. But are all expectations extravagant? Are there any attachments that are acceptable? For example, is it okay to be attached to other people? What would happen to us if we detached from others?

In Praise of Attachment

When I got married I took a risk. When I had children I took a risk. I could have lost one, some, or all of them. I have no sense of regretting the risk, at least not yet. My wife could end up not liking me. My kids could end up rejecting me. The fact is, I like them all. A lot. I’m attached to them deeply, and I stand to lose a lot if they reject me. (Strewth, I even found myself feeling quite sad when I had to get on a plane the other day…. I was only going away for two nights!)

We attach ourselves to other people. We are driven to do this. So intrinsic is the desire to attach to others, none of us have to be taught how to do it. It is what we do. Yet it is not just what we do but what we need. So much of human development depends on good quality attachment. If you grow up in a safe and connected environment, it is like being set up for a good future. If you don’t there are often challenges up ahead. So much happiness is linked to good relationships, so much sadness is linked to poor relationships. We relate to each other. We attach ourselves to each other. Right from birth.

Most of us, with good reason, think that having bad relationships is the worst thing possible. Clear examples of this are sexual abuse (which I have written about here) and physical abuse. The impact can be devastating. Yet the intrusion of the bad, may not be as bad as the absence of the good.

Hannah Thomas at the University of Queensland published a study in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. She examined the emotional responses to different forms of bullying of over 10,000 High School students. She concluded that “Of particular note, (was that) social exclusion had a strong association with adolescents’ psychological distress and low emotional wellbeing”. You can find a brief summary of her work on the University of Queensland website. Thomas’ research reveals that the absence of supportive relationships, not just the presence of bad relationships, is strongly associated with distress. It is the omission of love that upsets us.

Detaching ourselves from others, isn’t good. It is bad. It isn’t an aspiration because it isn’t the solution. Detachment is found in many psychological problems and is linked to suffering.

Attaching ourselves to others isn’t bad. It is good. It is an aspiration because it is the solution. Good quality connection is the remedy for much of what ails us. The solution for an excluded child is not to teach them techniques of detaching, it is for teachers at school to observe exclusion, and to take people who exclude others to task. The solution is to talk to the excluded adolescent and to help him or her to establish safe and close relationships. Feeling safe and close to others has wonderful medicinal qualities, a bit like an aspirin – it reduces inflammation throughout your body, but we don’t just to it for our physical health and wellbeing. We do it because of our existential desires. We want to be close. It makes life meaningful and it brings us life.

It seems clear to me, that most people see attachment as a solution, not as a problem.

Now we have a problem: Attachment is vitally important and has potential to bring contentment. But relationships and situations can provoke discontentment. When there is a mismatch between what is, and what is desired, we inevitably run into feelings of discontentment. Discontentment in our relationships, in our workplaces and with our world. This is common, and appropriate. Who is content with global warming? Who is content with bullying at school or in the workplace? If you are discontent is that so bad? Can it be that discontentment is good?

In Praise of Discontentment

At the end of a full day of seeing clients I can reflect on the sobering thought, “So many broken people”. It is so sad, but it is reality.

I commit myself to connecting.

For some it is easy for them to connect with me. For others, because of their experiences, it is not so easy for them to connect.

I commit myself to understanding. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes it is more difficult and takes longer.

At the end of those phases, I ask them this question, “What would you like to achieve by coming to see me?”

We set our direction with the answer they give.

There is a curious thing that happens at this point. We both acknowledge their own dissatisfied and discontented state.

They want change, and this desire is born out of their own dissatisfaction. They find themselves caught in the conflicted state between how they want to be, and how they find themselves to be, and that is what brings them to me.

What should I do then? Should I say that their dissatisfaction is the problem? That their desire for change is the bastard child of extravagant expectations?

I tend not to do that. Their dissatisfaction is the fuel for change, and it would be unwise to take this away from them at the very time that they desire change. The motivation (or discontent) stems from a belief that things “aren’t the way they should be”, and with deference to those who practice REBT (Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy seeks to undo Rules that people live by), is that so bad to have a ‘should’? Should’s lead to discontentment, discontentment leads to motivation, motivation leads to goals, goals lead to personal direction and goals achieved leads to a sense of satisfaction and self efficacy. This chain of events starts with the fertile attitude that “things aren’t right” and this attitude leads to ‘recreation’ via our imagination.

Now that you’re attached, it is okay to be discontent

This is one theory that the historian Peter Harrison has put forward regarding the birth of science in the 16th and 17th Century in his book The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science. In this book he postulates that a scientific paradigm didn’t rise out of overcoming our silly superstitions as some have put forward, rather science was born out of a commonly held notion that all is not right with the world. This belief comes out of the book of Genesis – the story of creation and its premature demise. Understanding this story led to a desire for a systematic approach to correct the consequences of the Fall in Genesis 3. I wonder if we never had this perspective in the West, would we ever have developed the scientific enterprise? Put another way, if we replaced the discontentment with acceptance and detachment, would we ever have been motivated to develop an enterprise to change the world? Can we do away with the Judeo-Christian idea of the Fall of man and its inherent belief that “all is NOT right” with the world and replace this with an “all is the way it should be attitude?” I think it is a contentious notion that the “all is well” and “hands off” approach to life is a wholly progressive step.

If you replace “all is not well with the world” with “I accept everything is the way it should be and I don’t need to change it” you may be undermining one of the core beliefs that has led to positive changes in the West.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that we should do away with accepting that life is the way it is. There is an ancient wisdom that our Buddhist brothers and sisters bring to the table on how to deal with a life that can involve a lot of suffering. We need to recognise our own limitations, and that some things are beyond our control. We can’t afford to be defined by the things we attach ourselves to – to our goals. For my part though, we ought never to throw the baby out with the bath water. Attachment to each other and to God is one of the most beautiful gifts you can be given. The love of friends, family and God fills us up, it makes us whole and protects us. Attaching to others and the world will often lead us to discontentment. But that ain’t so bad.

Happiness is to be found in the “cognitive dissonance between what is and what ought to be” said Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth. It is a view almost entirely at odds with the Buddhist notion of what happiness might involve. The ‘everything is just the way it should be’ attitude, the detaching leads to contentment trajectory, is not something that sits well with any of the Jewish or Christian faiths. Happiness isn’t found in acceptance, happiness is found in the lack of acceptance and the struggle to reform and refurbish a world that has been broken. This almost sacred discontentment helps carve out a direction and purpose for ourselves. The task then is not to detach and find an answer within, but to attach and realise that the answer is outside of you. This is the dawning realisation of some Buddhists who have been through thousands of hours of meditative training, the answer is not within, it is without.

“….say, for the even rarer few souls that manage to declutter their minds sufficiently, a more insidious challenge awaits. This challenge takes us beyond letting go, to the ineffable inner peace where our struggles with the world supposedly end. This is the realm of nibbanic cessation. Sorry to disappoint you but even the ‘complete peace and freedom’ that comes from ‘letting go completely’ is still located on this side of creation. Nothing, not even nibbana, breaks through to the Beyond, to the Creator who can never be reached by self-effort but who instead reaches out for us by a pure movement of grace. The initiative and timing is all from His side, not ours. There is nothing for the ego – gross, super-attenuated, or seemingly absent – to do. Nibbanic consciousness itself remains incapable of touching the other side of creation ‘where’ the Triune One is, ceaselessly outpouring His love to us.” Dr Chris Kang (2015). Resting in Christ p51

In my final post on the practice of mindfulness I assert that Christianity has always been mindful. The distinction is, that it has more focus. It has always been mindful of “what is pure, what is lovely…..” … see Part 3 to find out.

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