The Problem with Secular Mindfulness
8th February 2018
All plants and trees are healthier and stronger when they have healthy roots, they have more stability if those roots reach deep into the earth.
If we take a plant out of the earth and lay it on the ground it doesn’t take long before it withers and dies.
Mindfulness is like a tree, it too has roots, and its roots go very deep into the Buddhist tradition. Roots which go back 2500 years.
The roots of mindfulness give it a dimension which it misses when taught in a more secular setting without reference and understanding of those roots.
The Buddha discovered a path to a life free from suffering. Not free from pain, as it is good to distinguish between the two. Pain is what happens to us, suffering in the way I speak of it, is what we do in our head. It is our judgements, opinions, and views about life that is our problem.
Mindfulness has its roots in what we call the Four Noble Truths.
1, The truth of dukkha and its existence in each of our lives (Suffering or Dissatisfaction)
2, The cause of dukkha
3, The end of dukkha
4, The path to the end of dukkha
Let us look a little closer.
1, The truth of dukkha
The word dukkha is translated as suffering or even better a sense of dissatisfaction. Dukkha is often described as referring to an ill-fitting chariot wheel – life at best is a bumpy ride. This dissatisfaction is not just the dissatisfaction of a rainy day, or of breaking your new iPhone or even feeling resentful or angry. This truth of dukkha points to existential suffering or dissatisfaction.
The western secular mindfulness movement has taken this profound teaching and psychologised it. Dukkha or suffering is seen as a mental or emotional state. This is mostly referred to as stress, anxiety, worry, fear. Now mindfulness can help with this, no doubt about that. But when dukkha is seen in this way then practice is about overcoming these psychological states. If we view it this way then it is a partial explanation of dukkha and not what the Buddha was pointing too.
2, The cause of dukkha – clinging
The Buddha discovered that the cause of our dissatisfaction is caused by a form of clinging or grasping. We can see this ourselves in our own lives. We cling to people, things, jobs and other external things. We can all see this in our lives. Even when we know it would be a good thing to let go, we find it very difficult to do just that.
We also cling on another level. We cling to ideas, we cling to beliefs, we cling to judgements about other others and ourselves. We go to war, not because of our views, but because we cling to them. We cling to being right, we cling to an idea of ourself as being a certain way. We cling to be seen in a certain light.
We can overcome stress and all the other psychological states we experience, and I think it is obviously worthwhile, and I endeavour to do this myself. However, we will still be dissatisfied at the end of it. This is because we have not got to the root of the human problem.
The Buddha said the reason we suffer is not because of stress, anxiety etc, as these are a manifestation of a deeper problem. We suffer because we cling, but we cling because we don’t ‘see’ life clearly.
We see our selves as a distinct, fixed individual and somehow separate from the rest of life, and all that clinging to things, ideas, our persona is a desperate way of trying to reinforce, to validate this separate sense of self. We also swing to the opposite. If anything threatens our fragile sense of self we desperately to defend ourselves against that. I don’t mean physically here as that, of course, is absolutely appropriate.
We suffer from an existential thirst, we are thirsty for something, but we don’t know what, but we exhaust ourselves trying to get it. What we are really thirsty for is to know ourselves so deeply that we don’t need the things, and ideas we have clung to for so long, we deeply relax and realise we are part of the river of life as much as a leaf and a bird. This does not mean we don’t and cannot enjoy the things of life but we no longer expect something from them which they cannot deliver.
3, The end of dukkha
The Buddha here says that although there is suffering in life if we live wisely and practice well we can bring suffering to an end. This does not mean we won’t feel physical pain or that we will never feel sadness again, but we won’t create suffering out of the natural ways life presents itself.
The best way I have found to describe this is that of the parable of the two daggers. To cut a long parable short. Life ‘stabs’ us with the first dagger, we get criticised, we get fired from our job, we get ill, sometimes seriously and we realise we are going to die. This is all natural. However, we pick up the second dagger and ‘stab’ ourselves with it. We do this by our responses, “I hate this”, ‘why does this happen to me?” “nobody understands how hard my life is”, so on and so on. It is our refusal to accept that life is king, that we suffer in this way.
This is how mindfulness developed. It takes us to the root of the whole problem of what it is to be human.
However, there is a 4th Noble Truth.
4, The path to the end of suffering (dukkha)…in other words how we do it.
Let us suppose we are sitting in a meeting and all is going well. We have laid out our plan for the project and it was well received. Then somebody criticises it. We then don’t feel so good. In fact, we notice how we begin to feel irritated, even angry. We have angry thoughts about that person rushing through our head and we feel the tension in the body. We may notice our shoulders are tense, our jaw tight, or whatever, it is different for each of us.
Now, when I give this scenario in my classes I always ask the same question. What is the cause of dukkha, in the form of anger, in this case? Most people if they have not worked with me before say that the other person or the criticism is the cause of dukkha.
However, that is not correct. Our own wanting/clinging to how we want things to be is the cause. The other side of wanting is not-wanting. We do not want that criticism. As a consequence, we get irritated and angry. We want to ‘attack’ the critical person, or we attack ourself.
This comes down to the fact that there is an ideal we are clinging to, and if you don’t think you do this then you don’t know yourself very well. The ideal we cling to is…this should not be happening.
Now I am not saying that we should just agree with the person who criticises our work, but if we get angry and hateful then we are clinging. It doesn’t mean that we don’t get back to them and say what we think. We may even say it in a very strong way. But if we are lost in anger and hatred we have lost it. We are suffering.
Now how do we bring this to an end? Well, we need to identify what is going on. We need to be honest with ourselves that we are clinging to our thoughts about the situation and our ideas of how things should be.
Then we come out of the storyline and into the energy of anger in the body. We can do this whilst in the midst of living our life. We don’t need to be sitting on our meditation cushion, though a regular sitting practice is priceless.
If we can do this then what happens is the anger begins to melt away. However, we are creatures of habit and our tendency is to go back into the storyline in the head and get lost in over thinking about it. This kind of over-thinking is very different from reflectively thinking about what happened and what to do about it. This is functional thinking and very useful and necessary.
Clinging always leads to suffering. It doesn’t matter what we cling too, it will lead to dukkha. This was the Buddha’s insight into the cause of suffering.
It is good to know what other things we cling to. We cling to people, we cling to jobs, to possessions. We cling to ideas and ideals, we cling to having life our own way. If we cling hard enough we will even go to war on other people who don’t agree with us.
The Buddha said that mindfulness or awareness is absolutely necessary to end or even alleviate our suffering. But he also highlighted other matters which we can split into 3 categories.
Ethical conduct – how we speak and act in the world
Meditation – he suggested that we need to approach meditation the correct way. This includes the practice of mindfulness
A wise understanding – of the teaching but also of the 4 noble truths
I am not going to go into these in this blog but please do contact me if you need guidance here.
Hope you enjoyed the read.
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