The Mindfulness Mess

By the time things get “trendy” they’ve become clichéd, and as we all know the hallmark of a cliché is its loss of authenticity and meaning. Having become a mere trope of its former self, a craze quickly wears itself out and fades away, destined to return at a future date in the sentimental costume of nostalgia. Mindfulness seems to be the latest trend, and trends are always suspect.

The “mindfulness movement,” as it is now called, is an outgrowth of the western fascination with eastern religion, specifically yoga and various forms of meditation. Neither yoga nor meditation are products of modernity, which in large part accounts for their popularity. As currently constituted here in America, both activities are inwardly-directed, which is to say self-reflective experiences of hyper-consciousness. As our culture’s speediness and level of distraction have increased, it’s not surprising that over-stressed, crazy-busy people have turned to activities which help still the mind and bring a sense of calmness to their busy world.

Because we tend to pick and choose from within the things we like, activities like yoga and meditation have been subjected to forms of adulteration, which is to say stripped of complexity and converted into activities which feel comfortable. Thus each have variously become primarily about self-improvement: physical fitness, appearance, stress reduction, improving concentration, productivity at work and so forth. The inconvenience of their esoteric spiritual underpinnings – focused on emotionally complex matters such as virtue, compassion, and devotion to the well-being of others – has generally been set aside in favor of our typical fixation on modes of personal validation or commerce.

Mindfulness, itself a nicely sanitized word which suits our desire to speak in diagnostic terms sounding less rather than more complex, is now as popular among some giant corporations like Google as it is at the corner yoga studio or health club. It’s making its way into schools, too, and is said to be helpful in calming down our ADHD epidemic of too-unruly children. In this way, mindfulness has graduated into a full-fledged instrumentality of self-control and control of others.

So what’s the danger here, if any? In a word, solipsism – the experience of heightened self-absorption mistakenly elevated to absolute wisdom. Stripped of its underpinnings focused on relationship to others and the world, mindfulness can easily become just another ego-trip, the illusion of selflessness which buttresses an inflated sense-of-self. Mindfulness then functions as a replacement for actual engagement in the world, a rational justification for doing nothing by classifying “working on ourselves” as doing something for others.

It’s for good reason esoteric practices like yoga and meditation were historically closely-guarded secrets and carefully shared only in an intimate relationship between master and student. In some respects, heightened sensory and physical experiences of yoga and meditation parallel forms of what we today call schizophrenia; the world seems less solid and real, body parts feel separated, experiences become “out of the body”, thoughts and emotions are self-feeding, exuberance, fear and even paranoia arise. Bereft of proper context and guidance, sensations such as these are quickly and incorrectly re-classified as revelations, truth or wisdom.

As with most experiences, context is all-important, and the mindfulness movement’s trend of self-absorption is intrinsically devoid of its proper context as a path of deeper engagement with others and the world.

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