Thursday, 15 January 2015

Mindfulness Question

Now and then certain spiritual concepts and/or practices rise up into public awareness and become popular. But does this indicate a real spiritual hunger or is it simply symptomatic of a number of worldly people jumping on a bandwagon and seeking to add a bit of spirituality to their other possessions? Can it lead to a genuine opportunity for awakening, at least for some, or is it just superficial, the fad of the moment, with no more significance than the latest diet or yoga craze? The following enquiry addresses this question.

Q. What do you think of the recent spread of mindfulness practices with teachers springing up all over the place and even apps that are supposed to help you meditate? Do you see it as a positive development that might lead to a greater spiritual awareness in the general public or is it just the latest fashion that will blow over when another one comes along? I must confess that I view it as another example of the desacralisation of proper spirituality and so of not much long term value, but I appreciate that could be seen as a rather intolerant attitude so I thought I'd ask you your opinion.

A. Well, I wouldn't bet on a mass spiritual awakening but anything that suggests there is a spiritual component to human beings has the potential to progress some people, even if it's only a few, further along the path. It's easy to dismiss the whole thing as no more than a passing craze that attracts those seeking a little spiritual spice in their lives with its novelty value, and for some people it may well be that. But for others it can be a valid initial approach to meditation which is the bedrock of any spiritual practice. No doubt many of its adherents are simply looking for a space in which to find a measure of peace amidst the hurly burly of modern life, and there is nothing wrong with that. But there may be others who are inspired to search more deeply, to go further into the whole matter of what a human being really is and how best to conform oneself to that.

Having said that, there is always a danger when bona fide spiritual practices are separated from their religious sources and taken out of context. In the case of mindfulness that source is Buddhism, of course, and within Buddhism mindfulness finds its place as part of a wider practice and within the framework of a strong ethical foundation. To practise it without a sense of true spiritual values will not take one very far, spiritually speaking, and might even lead to a parody of spirituality as it replaces the real with a shallow imitation of it. That is the risk when spiritual means are divorced from spiritual ethics and proper metaphysical understanding. It can be just another road to egoic inflation.

So, if mindfulness is coupled with attempts to purify the lower self of greed, anger, attachment, ignorance and so on, all of which distort perception both of the world and of oneself, and if the practitioner does not fall into the common modern trap of neglecting the transcendent on discovering the immanent (recollection of the simple formula 'Remember the Creator' would save spiritual seekers a great deal of misapprehension and trouble), then it can be a useful approach to the spiritual path. But if practised out of context and without an ethical foundation or a real sense of dedication to truth as well as the understanding that the purpose of spirituality is not to benefit the ego, its effects will be superficial at best. 

I would say that what your question really amounts to is this. Is the current popularity of mindfulness just a trivialisation of proper spirituality or does it represent a real chance for some people to step onto the spiritual path?  And the answer is both, potentially. It all depends on how each individual reacts, on the depth and sincerity of their approach and whether they are prepared to dig more deeply into spiritual practice than simple exercises to establish peace in the mind or direct attention to the present moment. And on that note, let me draw attention to a common misunderstanding of the day, one which falls into the category of confusion of levels. In this case spiritual or pertaining to the soul (formlessness), and psychological or pertaining to the mind (the phenomenal world). Don’t mistake the present moment for the Eternal Now. The present moment is still a passing moment in time. It is not the deep immutable state of timelessness beyond the flow of time. It is good to live from moment to moment as a means of detaching yourself from identification with past and future, but don’t confuse that mental fixing on the present with transcendent awareness of timelessness. That is like mistaking ordinary, everyday awareness with establishment in Divine Presence.


Robert said...

Nice post. I agree with everything. I would add a few points on the topic. I think there is a fad element to mindfulness but the very fact that it became a fad is a good sign for the industrialized world. It will help people differently depending how they use it like you suggested.
Chogyam Trungpa's concept of spiritual materialism comes to mind after reading one of your paragraphs; The dangers of spiritual practice/technique becoming ego building. Yes, mindfulness can become another ego trap just like any spiritual practice. But we are inherently selfish so I've come to accept that spiritual materialism is always going to take place. Humans just aren't that spiritual yet. I think the key is being honest with oneself and seeing the dark sides at times. Then we can reduce more and more the spiritual materialism that we do. I have a feeling lots of people joining the mindfulness bandwagon are not doing this but they probably are getting some limited benefit and the alternative would be outright materialism which is worse.

William Wildblood said...

I think the essential thing is that people use this as a springboard to search beyond themselves rather than just indulge in a bit of spiritual sunbathing.