Why mindfulness is not a “super-power”
Do you ever have wytai?
It is a noun (articulated in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows):
a feature of modern society that suddenly strikes you as absurd and grotesque—from zoos and milk-drinking to organ transplants and life insurance
I have wytai, when I hear about mindfulness as a “super-power” - a kind of tool for this or that.
Humans are obsessed by technology – by technique, method, procedures, skills.
This makes sense, as our capacity to represent experience as mental events which can be manipulated to create and test tools, is a remarkable part of how our brains work (and what has enabled a massive growth of population in the last few hundred years and also of an unprecedented amount of material comfort for just a few of those people.)
It is sad, and somehow missing the point when “mindfulness” is reduced to a “thing”
However, it is sad, and somehow missing the point when “mindfulness” is reduced to a “thing” which could be applied, and assumed to be able to “work” or “not work” – just like a pair of pliers or a hammer or a computer.
This especially doesn’t make sense when we become aware of the material that we are exploring - the nuanced, alive, open complex system that is a human being. A human being embedded within other systems of history, family, community, ecology and habitat, workplaces, economic forces and societal constraints and possibilities.
It is both over-promising and under-promising to offer mindfulness as a “tool”.
Certainly, there are many profoundly useful and instrumental uses of mindfulness – for anxiety, depression, pain. But I think that by inviting someone to embark on a mindfulness journey for these most common maladies, we are actually inviting them into a relationship with themselves and their inner life, rather than offering them a simple technique that if only they apply it correctly, will save the day. When we look inwards we are hopefully discovering the how our minds co-construct our reality and how our misapprehensions create many problems for ourselves and others. This takes time.
John O’ Donnaughe offered this recommendation when approaching an exploration of our inner lives:
“What you encounter, recognize or discover depends to a large degree on the quality of your approach. Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach. An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation. When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace.”
― John O'Donohue, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace
When we undertake mindfulness for big pains, we need to be open to the fact that we may be embodying and carrying and expressing very difficult experience in that painful condition. We need to be open to hearing about the context of that pain, and not just regard it as a symptom that can be “treated” separate from the whole person who has travelled a particular kind of life which has been caused by all sorts of causes and conditions.
Another fruitful metaphor for the practice of mindfulness, is listening.
Another perhaps more fruitful metaphor for the practice of mindfulness, is listening. If we are lucky and have a little space and time, this can emerge into a kind of deep listening that can unfold over time. Rachel Naomi Remen says:
Listening is the oldest and perhaps the most powerful tool of healing.
It is often through the quality of our listening and not the wisdom of our words that
we are able to effect the most profound changes within and around us.
When we listen, we offer with our attention an opportunity for wholeness.
Our listening creates sanctuary for the homeless parts within us.
That which has been denied, unloved, and devalued by ourselves and by others.
That which is hidden.
In this culture, the soul and the heart too often go homeless.
Listening creates a holy silence.
When you listen generously to your parts, they can hear the truth in themselves, often for the first time.
Our practice of mindfulness hopefully can help us deal with the massive ambiguities in the near future that humans will be navigating as our ecology is stressed beyond breaking point. We will need tools but we will also need a way of connecting and grounding and paying attention to our relationships with ourselves and with others in an intelligent and reverent way.