Mindfulness is pointless – and that’s the point

It seems that the focus of many bloggers and mindfulness advocates is to promote mindfulness as yet another miracle fix on the way to flat abs and a yacht. Mindfulness isn’t a shortcut to effortless positive thinking.

The fact that the 440×220 pixel Twitter platitudes with a stock sunset background and a quote from a Buddhist have become so popular reflects the growing misunderstanding surrounding mindfulness.

psychology of mindfulness

While mindfulness does help with depression, anxiety and other difficult mental states, achieving a certain mental state – or indeed happiness – isn’t the purpose of mindfulness. While it isn’t necessary to buy into the philosophy behind mindfulness to practice it, it’s important to understand what it is one’s getting themselves into.There’s nothing at all wrong with “secular” mindfulness, the kind pedalled by corporations, promoted to children, etc. Indeed, I am in no way a Buddhist. However, I believe that hiding from this philosophy and still expecting to get experience mindfulness to the full is futile. The philosophy states that…

At the root of all suffering is attachment.

Non-attachment is a key tenet of the Buddhism. Attachment is our attempt to deny the fact that everything is impermanent, hence is causes a dissonance between reality and perception ultimately resulting in suffering. The concept seems at odds with out common view of happiness that involves the strife to get through a checklist of experiences and things – and walk of into the sunset in permanent bliss. However, the concept of non-attachment is echoed in the philosophy of Stoicism, the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche and modern talking therapies such as CBT and REBT. Indeed, I struggle with the concept again and again. It seem that Buddhism advocates that we live our lives a bit like plants: accept everything that comes our way and adapt.

mindfulness philosophy psychology

Using mindfulness as some kind of trick to accomplish certain goals just doesn’t make sense.

Google, having a finger in virtually every pie, have a Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. It’s mission is stated as:

Born at Google and based on brain science, SIY uses the practices of mindfulness to train Emotional Intelligence skills, leading to resilience, positive mindset, and centred leadership. In the midst of complexity, it’s about finding the inner capacity to create, to thrive, to lead. And it’s surprisingly fun. Backed by some of the world’s leading experts in neuroscience and mindfulness, SIY is changing thousands of lives in over a dozen countries.

Here’s a book they propose. I haven’t seen the inside, but if I may judge by its cover, I find it wanting.

mindfulness isn't a positive psychology hack

Indirectly, insights into how to achieve goals may be precisely the result of the practice. However, a realisation of the irrelevance of those goals may also be the outcome. Being in the moment involves not knowing how it will all turn out. Barry Magid is an American psychiatrist who went against the current. He argued against using meditation as yet another vehicle en route to the conventional happiness prescription, i.e. maximum pleasant feelings and thoughts, minimum unpleasant feelings and thoughts.

Magid’s understanding of mindfulness is that it is a way to stop trying to “fix” ones’ experience of things.

His argument is somewhat routed in mythology: struggling to escape one’s demons is what gives them their power.

The fight for a vision of happiness is the cause of the problem, not the solution to it.

Freud’s seemingly basic idea of our psychology was that we seek pleasure and avoid pain (and we avoid pain much more than we seek pleasure). He argued that our subconscious was a big long list of everything we avoid. The Buddha confronted suffering, he didn’t move away – he moved into the pain – and that is how he became free.

As a doctor, I know that it’s very worrying when a patient doesn’t flinch away from a painful stimulus. I am starting to come around to the idea that for our higher cognition, the non-reflex, non-fight-or-flight, it is better to not flinch away from mental pain.

That’s how I understand mindfulness. It’s not sitting there thoughtless. In fact, trying hard to fix the busy mind is yet another trap. The way I understand it is that it is necessary to observe it without clinging or fleeing. Like I discussed with Bela,

For me the experience of mindfulness is a bit like being on a tight rope: the abyss of clinging to the left and of fleeing to the right. Sometimes of the past to the left and of the future to the right. Just like it takes a lot of awareness to remain on the tight rope, flexing the right muscles, adjusting to the wind, it takes the same kind of awareness to stay in the moment.

Seneca, Freud, the Buddha – and our new friend the living psychiatrist Magid all seem to think that flinching away from suffering is what makes it worse.

The Abhidhamma, a central text for Buddhism, teaches that the mind is a bit like a sense organ. Thoughts and feelings come in just like smells, sounds and tastes. Recently, I observed a thought that seemed completely extraneous to me: having relaxed after non-stop worrying about a sick animals, I found it strange how someone else would get so upset about a pet in hospital. Not every thought and emotion belongs to us. Why do certain songs cling to our minds? In what way are they ours?

We could consider the inescapable nature of the smell of cigarettes – or the taste of toothpaste every morning as a way to understand the presence of certain thoughts and feelings.

It gets a little bit “meta” – as we are more abstractly thinking (one may say observing non-judgementally) of regular thinking (to do list, he said, she said, itchy, hungry, Never mind I’ll find someone like you, and other assorted circular randomness) – and saying that regular thinking is just like an organ of perception. What does that say about abstract thinking? Is that the “real” thinking? Somewhat over-simplistically, I suspect that this abstract thinking is a process of the prefrontal cortex, while the regular thinking is carried out by more basic circuitry we share with many animals.

philosophy behind mindfulness
Observing the clouds pass by without chasing them

In this vein, not being able to get the motivation to do something because one’s sad doesn’t make sense. One needn’t feel pumped to do work. If thoughts and feelings are like smells and sounds, one can still muster the agency to do what needs to be done. The Stoics would argue like this also.

In a sense, this still means that mindfulness is a route to happiness, only I changed the goal posts of what happiness is. In a sense, mindfulness is a fight to stay on the tightrope of the present moment – and thus a fight for happiness. This is all difficult to state in words, but I think you all know what I mean.

Mindfulness doesn’t have a purpose, except perhaps to reconcile perception and reality – which is so obvious, it is a bit embarrassing to state as a purpose.

mindfulness non attachment

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30 Comments Add yours

  1. Steve Ruis says:

    To quote Oblio “She’s got a point there!”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jean-Pascal says:

    I wrote this and it’s a good illustration of the excesses of mindfulness at every sauce : https://afrenchtoolbox.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/21-ways-to-put-a-poo-but-mindfully-n17-is-gold-mindfullness/

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve seen it – it’s brilliant. The funny thing is that these articles spread like wild fire, so I also play the listicle game to connect with more readers. But yeah, a lot of the time it’s just too much. I guess people want concrete solutions to concrete problems, not to be challenged to think – and we are those people too.

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  3. Jeanne says:

    If I am understanding you this is my take away. I tried mindfulness as an escape from depression/anxiety. Anxiety was an easier state to enter in positive, mindful thoughts/grounding. Depression feels like your grounded already, albeit cemented in, so minding not necessary.

    Mindfulness was never achievable in the sense I felt nothingness or achieving happiness/relief. I feel nothingness when I run from myself, not when I entered myself to find bliss. My best solution to find escape from thoughts were smells. Aromatherapy should be used in counseling sessions. I plan on carrying a bottle of lavender water when I visit families in crisis. I think it will work. 😉

    True happiness is never close enough, found in distant yearnings approaching. Like the feel of wind or watching the snow falling…

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  4. While I love the thought-tracks you lead me along, I can’t accept that mindfulness is a fight for anything. It’s the opposite of fighting. Or did I misinterpret you by reading too fast?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it involves a kind of resistance. It’s not a fight in the sense that it’s violent, but it does require a conscious effort, what do you think?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I like this thought.Consciously resisting to have a negative perception of events and/or yourself. Rather accepting it for what it is and nothing more, and nothing less.

        Great read and take on meditation. I’m still learning, but I like this point of view.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you 🙂 We’re all on a journey together!

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      3. I think — a decision to meditate, then a series of decisions to let go of each thought. But each decision light and gentle and. On- judgemental. A series of

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      4. Oh dear, lost my reply when I went back to fix a typo. I will re-reply on my computer later. Big thumbs on a phone screen, as you doubtless guessed.

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      5. I think it’s more like a series of small gentle decisions. As if a friend phones when you are busy: you just say, hi darling, I’m busy, call back later. No resistance.

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      6. Such a marvellous analogy – makes perfect sense! Thank you Rachel! (I haven’t even attempted to use wordpress on the phone! Fair dues for trying!)

        Liked by 1 person

  5. aviottjohn says:

    I like the way Eckart Tolle describes it all in the pithy title of his book “The Power of Now.” I was influenced by American critical thinker Werner Erhard several decades ago, whose label for mindfulness was “living in the gap” i.e. living in the present moment, the instant that lies between the past and the future. Since Werner Erhard is rather 1970s, here’s a recent FT interview for those who don’t know of him. https://www.ft.com/content/feb214a8-8f88-11e1-98b1-00144feab49a

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I keep hearing about Tolle. He really ruined his reputation as far as I am concerned by appearing on Oprah… I better get over that and have a read of his book! Love FT interviews – thanks for the link and the comment

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  6. Patrick says:

    I have learned first hand that in the midst of our most trying trials (ex-wife’s cancer followed by her filing for a divorce) we can find moments of happiness. The most helpful mindfulness illustration was to view her storm at Point A while I watch from a safe distance at Point B. Mindfulness is not a skill that comes from completing a class.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Patrick says:

      Continued…
      Mindfulness is a realization that we can choose how we respond to stressful events. I know that it will take the rest of my life to master this skill. Choosing to be happy is the first step.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sorry to hear – it all sounds very challenging. Thanks for the comment, Patrick, I am still learning too!

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  7. wonderingfirefly says:

    I think you’ve made a good point here – ‘mindfulness’ is becoming kind of a fashion. But I’ll say I do enjoy reading some quotes on pretty pictures 🙂

    I’ll note that the Buddhist basis is only one approach to mindfulness. Ideas and techniques I saw presented in a workshop on conflict resolution, based on modern psychology, seemed to have much overlap with many ideas from traditional mindfulness. For instance, they talked about handling overcharged emotions by taking deep breaths, pausing and observing yourself, body checks, really slowing it down, etc.

    What I’ve currently settled on is this – I look at mindfulness as a practice to avoid your mind getting hijacked by the emotional component of your brain. So you may enjoy a pleasant moment instead of dwelling on an unpleasant event from the past (i.e. avoid compulsive, useless replay) and you may keep your head on our shoulders and react effectively in an intense situation, instead of getting overwhelmed by emotion.

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  8. Rivenrod says:

    Too many words on pretty pictures, they have become wallpaper. Just a part of the noise the modern world is prone to.

    I’m impressed by the clarity of your writing, I can understand more readily than with most others.

    RR

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow thank you RR. I enjoyed your piece on Meryl Streep – you were looking into the future!

      Like

  9. Great post!!! Simplistically put, mindfulness is also just thinking without distraction. If we stop, step back, think, analyze and reflect, we come to different (better) conclusions than when just acting without thinking, and avoid the many cognitive and affective biases there are in our mental functioning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the dream! Thanks Mathias!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. GM Wallace says:

    “the intuitive recognition of the instant, thus reality… is the highest act of wisdom”
    ― D.T. Suzuki
    Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki wrote many excellent, scholarly books about Zen Buddhism. There is a very clear and significant resonance between Zen psychology and mindfulness, which remains amenable to psychological or therapeutic interpretation but requires no spiritual investment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Completely agree. I will look into him – thanks for the tip off GM!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Dear Martina,

    I think of Mindfulness along the vein that Jon- Kabat-Zinn describes as:

    “The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”

    For me, mindfulness starts with awareness. The awareness of recognising what is going on in the present moment. The mind gets too wrapped up in its own thoughts and dialogue – so called self talk. This self talk can be highly dangerous for some. The elements of nonjudging are much more difficult to achieve.

    The images and phrases are just that. Nothing more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know, I find it so perplexing. Complete non-judgement would mean that you don’t really do anything in life other than meditation. Where is the cut off? How do we fit our goal directed pleasure-seeking pain-avoiding lives with mindfulness? I’ve yet to understand that. For the moment, mindfulness is the equivalent of having a mental shower before I go back out and get sweaty again!

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  12. Mindfulness does require being present. However, during this era, mindfulness, should also incorporate…distorting one’s truth. Very difficult to be in the here and now; without the ambiance of maybe.

    Liked by 1 person

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