Mindfulness, Schmindfulness

Michael McAlister Blog 2 Comments

Judith Warner has some interesting critique of mindfulness in today’s New York Times.

As I was reading her words, it became apparent that she had made some significant missteps in her practice, leaving it largely ego-driven, escapist and out-of-balance. This is a common mistake that I see students make all the time, especially as they start settling into stillness.

This process of falling into the deep silence of Being is profoundly threatening to the ego since its existence is predicated on the noise and movement of life. Without movement, especially the movement of time, the ego is adrift in what it perceives as a meaningless void. Of course, once practice is deepened the emptiness that the ego sees is revealed to be an effulgent expanse that is beyond the ego’s grasp as well as its managerial skills. Once an ego catches its first glimpse of this expansive perspective, it will panic and do everything it can to sabotage, either covertly or overtly, the entire process of awakening to the truth that lies beyond name and form; the very truth that all the mystics, both contemporary and ancient have spoken about so often.

This might explain why Ms. Warner says:

It has dawned on me lately, meditating on the Metro, thoughts silenced so completely that I can hear every page being turned by passengers up and down the car (I am above reading — I am present to myself) that being fully in the moment, all senses turned on, feeling your hands in your lap and the ground under your feet, is a very good way of not being there at all.

How very true. And this is exactly where I see students begin to balk at the heavy-lifting of a serious, transformative spiritual work. It’s where otherwise strong people buckle under the weight of deep, resonant, white-hot fire of truth. This fire gets the kitchen so hot, so to speak, that the familiar egoic markers fade into the oblivion offered by the Infinite’s wet kiss of freedom. Indeed, our small, contracted sense of who we are can’t show up as a complete picture any longer.

Ironically, this is the whole point of practice: to recognize that you can’t get any closer to God than you already are. You can neither be above reading nor present to yourself since you are neither your thoughts nor your feelings. You are much more than anything you might imagine.

But integrating this realization can get tricky. So here’s my two-cents on how to avoid the pitfall that Ms. Warner has made.

First, find a teacher that you trust. Get a sense of who they are by what they’ve written, or said. Do you feel in your bones that they might help you navigate the rough sees of the process? What are they like in the flesh? Are you taken by their charismatic flair or is it something deeper that attracts you? Most importantly, what are their senior students like. Are they living examples of what it means to be a good person who is committed to a spiritual path and yet doesn’t seem too stuck.

Second, find a teaching that you can relate to that relentlessly points you in the direction of quieting the body and the mind. It doesn’t matter if it’s orientation is Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, or something else. As long as the teaching points you toward the uncovering of everyday stillness you will most likely find yourself on the right track. The good news is that even atheists and scientific materialists can explore stillness without ever having to believe or have faith in anything at all.

Third, find a group of spiritual friends. They need not be people that you want to hang out with all the time, although that doesn’t hurt. What’s most important is that their practice can support and inspire your own. This is what keeps the fire burning when the nights are long, dark and cold, and you feel lost to all that you’ve known to be true.

My sense is that this dark disconnect is exactly what started to happen with Ms. Warner when she says:

It is selfish, undoubtedly, to want to hold onto the ragged edges that make me feel genuinely connected, not perhaps to humanity, but to the people I love. But then, the fact is, I can probably beat Mary Pipher hands down at being the worst Buddhist in the world.

Truth is, I just don’t want to let go.

If only someone could tell her that the “I” never will want to let go. More often than not, the process is long, drawn-out, and bloody. It often shows up as an internal war of attrition that gives way over time to a clear dawn of mysterious grace and joy. Still, my wish is that she and the rest of us uncover this mystery in each moment, no matter what circumstances arise.

Comments 2

  1. E Nicol

    So glad you commented on this, Michael. I read the article and the comments online – I’m a fan of Ms. Warner’s and can relate to not wanting to let go. Can’t we all? Your gentle and concise response is appreciated.

  2. Mark

    judith also seems to miss the fact that being present is only one step. i remember a podcast of yours where you discuss that there are not enlightened people, only enlightened action. she seems to be confused in her understanding of mindfulness with regards to your response to a given moment. i think an authentic, enlightened response to a situation can be a sharp rebuke, a good rant, or a simple “hang in there” depending on the situation. presence is not bliss, peace and kumbaya 24-7.

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