The Antidote to McMindfulness is Feeling What We Feel
Zen teachers Ron Purser and David Loy’s recent article in Huffington Post critiques the way in which modern mindfulness teachings, when broken away from their “Buddhist roots,” could be misused. They call this teaching “McMindfulness,” noting that it could help people to engage in more disconnected and even destructive purposes, far from its intended focus on selflessness and compassion. Loy and Purser’s critique is provocative and important. The depth and applicability of mindfulness goes beyond simply being able to focus on tasks at work. Purser should know how mindfulness is being sold in the business world — he is a professor of management at San Francisco State University, and author of such business texts as The Self-Managing Organization.
But Loy and Purser fail to mention that mindfulness meditation pre-dates Buddhism. It was the beginning of the historical Buddha’s exploration, but by no means the end. Put another way, the Buddha didn’t invent mindfulness — even if he was a master of it.
Mindfulness practice stretches back into time beyond documentation. Just as we know that humans existed before the traces left in the ceramic and bone of archeological digs, mindfulness leaves little behind to remember it by. Tibet’s indigenous Bon tradition claims humans were practicing mindfulness over 18,000 years ago. With such a simple activity, it’s not implausible to think that humans have just sat, paying attention in more and more subtle ways, across cultures and continents for eons.[cc_blockquote_right]it’s not implausible to think that humans have just sat, paying attention in more and more subtle ways, across cultures and continents for eons.[/cc_blockquote_right]
Was mindfulness always benign? In ancient times, warriors trained in mindfulness, including the future Buddha in the years before he discovered his spiritual path. His innate talent legendarily allowed him to shoot arrows more accurately, to counter brilliantly in a sword fight. This wasn’t unique to the Buddha, or to the ancients. Today, even the U.S. Marine Corps is studying the use of mindfulness to increase their effectiveness in winning wars.
In light of Purser and Loy’s article, one could ask — and should — how can mindfulness be used to cause harm? Don’t the traditions that highlight mindfulness also suggest a non-aggressive life? Doesn’t Mindful Communication promote a “we-first” approach? Could mindfulness really help someone plan vengeance? Scheme to manipulate others in the realms of politics or commerce? Can mindfulness ever really be “wrong?”
What I will propose is that while utilizing mindfulness to cause harm might seem like a misuse of mindfulness, as Purser and Loy are suggesting, the issue is actually much simpler than ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Mindfulness itself doesn’t hold to simplistic moralism. The real heart of mindful morality is the heart itself. And discovering this for ourselves is one of the most tender and challenging points of paying attention.
The Obstacle of ‘The Fix’
Most of us approach mindfulness out of a desire for more control over our life, and our mind. We’ve been confused and upset, anxious and stuck. Gradually, we’ve considered techniques that might help. We want “a fix.” Mindfulness seems like one of the most effective methods.
Neuroscientists are working hard in major academic labs to uncover the mystery of why mindfulness has been helpful in creating a happier, more effective human. This is understandable. The formal practice of mindfulness meditation is new to Western culture. To understand its value, we need to highlight how it can improve our lives, make us happier, help us get what we want.
But while “fixing” our lives can be pragmatic, it has a double edged quality that can, ironically, cause us harm. By constantly looking for “The Fix,” we can fall into an endless cycle of never feeling contented, never feeling connected. We’re always “living in our heads,” wishing for another life, the one that happens somewhere else, where we are someone else, doing something else — instead of being ourselves, where we are, right now.[cc_blockquote_right]this mistaken view of mindfulness can arise from trying to be ‘good’ instead of ‘bad,’ from being ‘spiritual’ instead of ‘degraded.’ While the intention is noble, there is a tendency to subtly fool ourselves, to ignore our actual, felt experience, to act in ways we’ve learned from books and movies.[/cc_blockquote_right]
Ironically, this mistaken view of mindfulness can arise from trying to be ‘good’ instead of ‘bad,’ from being ‘spiritual’ instead of ‘degraded.’ While the intention is noble, there is a tendency to subtly fool ourselves, to ignore our actual, felt experience, to act in ways we’ve learned from books and movies. We’re ‘acting the part.’ This is helpful to a basic degree. Not driving the car off the bridge when we feel like it is actually wise. This is true if we have the impulse to shoot someone — better to act in another way until the urge passes. But under more normal circumstances, ‘acting the part’ can shut down the natural awareness of what is happening within us. And because we ignore our living experience, these impulses may ironically gain the (subconscious) power to overcome our (conscious) moral impulses.
Then, out of the blue: we act out, falling into patterns of habit and reactivity that in Mindful Communication we call “the Red Light.” We shut down. By trying to be so ‘good,’ and closing out eyes to our complexity, we end up causing harm. By trying to be a permanent angel, we’ve become a temporary devil — and one that we never intended to become.
Feeling is Believing — why ignore what is already happening?
This subtle self-deception arises largely from a simple fear of feeling what we feel. It’s easy to pretend that the practice of mindfulness will fix all our problems, including allowing us to never feel pain, never be surprised, never have our feelings hurt. This is a child’s vision of a fluffy world without complexity. We would like to pretend we’ll never have to grow up and discover ourselves. Our focus on “The Fix” makes us pretend that mindfulness will turn us into a ‘happy robot,’ never overly touched by our world, by our real experience. Here, we would cling to a “partial” mindfulness, where we open up one part of our awareness — our body and mind — only to ignore other important signals that our come through our emotions. Ignoring our heart.
[cc_blockquote_right]Professional therapists train by paying attention to Tender Heart, learning that their own emotions are antennae, reading what is happening in the room. Interpreting these signals can be challenging — this is where we must discern between ‘clear seeing’ and ‘projection.’ But the basic information is never to be dismissed.[/cc_blockquote_right]True mindfulness is always alive, rich and emotionally awake. In The Five Keys to Mindful Communication, Susan Chapman says, “This is when mindfulness [should] be recast as heartfulness.” “Tender Heart” is understood as a critical part of our “Natural Communication System.” It’s a fundamental way that we know what we know.
Professional therapists train by paying attention to Tender Heart, learning that their own emotions are antennae, reading what is happening in the room. Interpreting these signals can be challenging — this is where we must discern between ‘clear seeing’ and our ‘projections.’ But the basic information is never to be dismissed. As Susan says, “In mindful-communication training, we learn to pay attention to this energetic mixing zone, where the dividing line between ‘me’ and ‘you’ can’t be found.”
At a recent talk in Boulder, Colorado, my mindfulness teacher Sakyong Mipham, author of The Shambhala Principle, explained how human this mixing zone is. Even if we’re incredibly tough, a real survivor, he said, and have climbed Mt. Everest, there, standing on the summit, “if someone gives us a funny look, we spend the rest of the day thinking ‘What was that all about?'”
“But I Might Do Something Bad”
Feelings can stir us up. This is most of why we fear them in the first place. And if we feel what we’re feeling, what if it goes wrong? “I might do something bad.” This is quite sensible. We’ve experienced how feeling can build towards an explosion. At times, we’ve distracted ourselves, or ignored the feelings, and sometimes they do seem to pass away. At least for a moment. Or an hour. Or a whole day.
This basic approach is not to be entirely discounted. Sometimes, an hour can be crucial. When we run into Uncle Ted at a funeral, do we need to spend the whole event dwelling on all the ways he’s failed us? When we’re stuck in a car with Aunt Zelda, or our boss, do we have to launch into our true feelings about the decisions she made?
But the point of mindful communication is not to push towards an explosion — quite the opposite. Communication of real, honest, actual truth comes from the “green light” of a grounded, tender mind. Pushing ourselves to dwell on our most upsetting feelings when we’re teetering at the edge of reactivity, aggression, addiction or dissociation isn’t helpful. Instead, we need to feel our feelings in a protected space — inside a “Green Zone.”
Green Zones can be social — a carefully created space with friends, whom we can be vulnerable with without fear of judgement or reprisals. (One of the programs I teach with Susan Chapman is dedicated to how to create such relationships.) Or a Green Zone can be personal — going for a walk in a beautiful place, sitting meditation, a hot bath, going jogging. Whatever allows the Natural Communication System to open into the green light once again. These methods aren’t trivial, no matter how mundane they may seem. When we’re quaking at the edge of a drop off, we need to learn how to soothe ourselves using steady, methods (without the negative side effects that come with addictions, etc).
Without first creating a Green Zone, and soothing our Natural Communication System towards it’s natural state, feeling our feelings risks pushing ourselves into shut down, where we’ll be feeling anything but our true feelings. Instead, such a Red Light state locks us into the secondary emotions of self-hatred or hatred towards another, towards grasping at the imaginary object of our salvation, or going rag-doll limp in despair. In the shut down of the Red Light, true feelings — deep feelings — are farther and farther from our grasp.
Better to wait. To create a Green Zone. To have the space to really lean into the challenging emotions without falling into panic.
Conclusion: the Jewel of Feeling Protects Mindfulness
Can mindfulness be used to cause more and more harm? The answer is that true mindfulness cannot be used this way. McMindfulness — the intense focus on one part of experience while blurring out other parts, including our emotions — is only rudimentary mindfulness. If we can’t feel the emotional mixing zone where someone else is being harmed by our actions, we’re only paying partial attention. Carefully swinging the sword blade without thinking who we’re aiming it at is just McMindfulness in the right hand with mindlessness in the left.
Through actual, full mindfulness, we feel how we’re very tender. It’s painful to wake up to the fact that we’re been scattered, sad, overcome by anger, numb. And it is poignant. Important. Lively and real. We can actually reconnect with ourselves, with our life as it is. With who we are. We never have to be ashamed of waking to our confusion and shortcomings. Such realization is a natural place to envision a more honest, a more connected, indeed a better future for ourselves and others.