The Metaphysics of Mindfulness – a response to the Sahanika Ratnayake’s article, The Problem of Mindfulness (Aeon – 25th July 2019) by Neill Bartlett
In her article entitled The Problem of Mindfulness, Sahanika Ratnayake makes some observations and criticisms of mindfulness practices and, importantly, of the claims made for mindfulness by some of its teachers. Her concerns run to a number of key points, principally that a) mindfulness is regarded by some as offering a panacea, that b) mindfulness-based practices rest on unacknowledged metaphysical claims and that c) the use of mindfulness techniques risks divorcing us from our political and social context and can result, as in her case, in d) a kind of rootless sense of mental confusion.
I am a psychotherapist and have been in practice since 2003, both privately and in the NHS. I currently work part time running an NHS pain management programme. I have practised mindfulness meditation since 2010. I often find it difficult and have come up against its limitations in my own life, although these have more often than not revolved around my own struggles to commit to the practice. I have taught meditation to the wider public as well as within the NHS where it forms a large part of the work I do in the context of a pain management clinic.
In what follows, I shall try to respond to Ratnayake’s key points. Whilst I think there is some truth to her claims, they nonetheless combine, in my view, to offer a flawed perspective.
Mindfulness is not an appropriate response to all of our personal – or indeed, societal – problems. It cannot help with everything, though there is a robust body of research that supports its use in some areas. The secular – if you like, psychological – use of mindfulness-based meditation is geared toward strengthening the ‘attention muscles’, cultivating an increasing awareness of habitual patterns of thinking and behaviour that can lead each of us to the repeated experience of personal difficulty. Mindfulness meditation can be of potential benefit to anyone, though by no means does everyone find it helpful.
The teaching of mindfulness meditation is usually group-based and in one of two contexts: either as part of a mindfulness-based stress reduction course (MBSR) for people struggling with what we might think of as ‘ordinary’ life stresses, be that workload, interpersonal problems, general feelings of unhappiness or stressful life events, or in a clinical setting, often as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which has a particular application in the repeated onset of depression, anxiety and other longer-term conditions such as chronic pain. Mindfulness-based techniques are used increasingly in one-to-one therapies also, though it is my experience that therapists sometimes lack sufficient exposure to the practices themselves in order to teach them well. Similarly – perhaps more worryingly – some meditation teachers offer MBCT without sufficient awareness or sensitivity to the additional needs of people with significant mental or physical health problems.
Meditation takes commitment. It takes patience. It takes a willingness to treat ourselves kindly when we inevitably get frustrated with the practice, just as, for instance, when we first learn to ride a bike. The unfortunate truth remains, nonetheless, that mindfulness-based meditation has been overclaimed for and over-marketed as offering an emotional and psychological detox or cleanse, as a tool to purge the mind of the inconvenience of being ourselves in the relentless pursuit of self-improvement. And the biggest problem facing the teaching of mindfulness is that increasing numbers of people seem to want what it might appear to be selling.
It is not transparently clear what Ratnayake’s expectations of mindfulness practices were, but her account of it is coloured by a number of misconceptions. After a ‘superficial’ exposure to Buddhist practices as a child, she gained an ‘arsenal of mindfulness techniques’ whilst in therapy as a postgraduate philosophy student in Cambridge. Her emphasis on technique and the overall combative stance toward personal difficulty that peppers her article offers us a cautionary note as to how mindfulness-based practices should best be held lightly – sceptically, even – not as a ‘tool’, certainly not as any kind of weapon.
Mindfulness is about being open toward experience on a moment-by-moment basis. It is about giving up our need for control over our thoughts, our feelings and the events going on around us, especially when more control proves to be an unworkable strategy. It asks us to approach any sense of difficulty we may have with curiosity rather than as a problem to be fixed. Mindfulness is first and foremost concerned with cultivating a bigger, more compassionate, more self-caring space within ourselves from which to approach the experience of pain – painful emotions, painful sensations, hated pasts, unknown or feared futures – without being overly reliant on our own mind for answers or on learned behaviours that can lead us down often familiar emotional cul-de-sacs.
Ratnayake seems in her essay quite simply to lack a sufficient sense of what mindfulness involves. For instance, the ‘raisin meditation’, a simple eating meditation which usually begins an MBSR course, is somewhat trivialised in her essay as a ‘popular activity’ and one she never tried. The intention of the practice of eating just one raisin, mindfully, with awareness, is to shed some light on our preconceptions and on our proneness to make swift judgements about experience as well as to help us to notice the preformed narratives we bring to our daily lives. Mindfulness is about knowing what we are experiencing as we experience it and from this greater sense of awareness being able to act more purposefully, more skilfully, more effectively and more compassionately.
The teaching of mindfulness practices seemed initially to help Ratnayake with the university stresses for which she entered therapy, though her greater feelings of calm were short lived, giving way to feelings of personal inadequacy and confusion. It has to be said that such difficulties and – pointedly – the ‘obsessive’ response Ratnayake makes to them, are not something that mindfulness practices, if well taught, over sufficient time, would instil in a student. Ratnayake seems less than curious and open to what is the frequent human experience of emotional chaos. Somewhat ironically, she does not treat this experience very mindfully, but instead seems very driven toward answers: answers which mindfulness certainly cannot provide.
Of course, as she rightly suggests, the historic and cultural roots of mindfulness involve many metaphysical assumptions. But I would strongly argue that this is hardly the root of her difficulty. After all, if it were, we might then also note that Socratic reasoning, the go-to of all cognitive therapies, takes us back to a historical figure who believed in a panoply of gods and who personally condoned slavery. The truth is that the metaphysical assumptions of mindfulness are to a large degree an irrelevance here.The common doubts and frustrations Ratnayake feels in response to mindfulness-based practices would have been managed better in the context of a formal group setting, something shared with others, where the experiential, present moment focus of the teaching would have enabled her, to some degree, to notice and engage with the habitual responses of a questioning mind and thus to cultivate a greater sense of acceptance in response to personal difficulty. She might have understood what mindfulness taught as a secular practice can offer, therefore, had she taken time to eat that one raisin instead of changing her life around to find the answer.