Focus On (More Than) Your Breathing

Mindfulness is one of the most popular meditation practices in the West and it is very secular by nature.
(Giovanni Dienstmann: Practical Meditation)

Mindfulness is acceptance
(Padraig O’Morain: Mindfulness on the Go)

Our lives are like a film, and we are the stars of the story.
(Terri Kozlowski: Practical Ways to be More Present and Aware to Live a Powerful Life)

Increasingly, since about the middle of the twentieth century, many people in the West have been appropriating prayer practices from the faith traditions of Asia, de-religioning them, and repurposing them as therapeutic techniques. It is argued that the methods themselves result in great reductions in stress, anxiety, sleeplessness and many other of the problems that plague life in the contemporary Western world, and that the only way to make them accessible to all is to strip out the specific belief-forms that are attached to them in their original, non-Western, state. In her book ‘Beat Stress’ the author Alice Muir put it like this ‘The techniques here draw on the basics of meditation, with any associations with religions or philosophies stripped away, leaving it in its purest form.

There are several problems with all of this. A practice involving the human psyche which avoids ‘religions and philosophies’ necessarily avoids ethics. An arms-dealer can use mindfulness as a means to become more relaxed and thus more effective in dealing arms. A torturer can de-stress after one torture session as preparation for the next one. That is, mindfulness, being non-judgemental, can facilitate evil in the world. Similarly, by avoiding metaphysics mindfulness does not encourage its practitioners to encounter eternity in the present moment (the only place where it can be encountered), yet this encounter by giving us a sense of proportion about our problems, which a purely temporal awareness cannot give, will effectively lessen them. Additionally, the risk that we will end up feeling that “it’s all about Me” is greatly increased if the only thing that you are permitted to bring to the present moment is, in fact, Me.

There is nothing complicated about the technique of Western Mindfulness (which doesn’t mean that it can’t be difficult to do well). Essentially it is about focussing on the breath as an anchor point, being aware of the present, observing the thoughts that flow through the mind without judging them or holding on to them. Normally we are too caught up in the busy affairs of our busy lives to notice the extent to which we do not inhabit the present moment with our minds, because they are engaged in remembering the past, preparing for or imagining the future, and cycling through the same small sequences of recurrent thoughts and emotions. Being mindful detaches my current awareness from all those surging thoughts and feelings. And if detached from we cannot be captive to them. And hence we experience a blessed sense of relief and rest. Which refreshes and renews us at many levels, and thus makes mindfulness a useful tool in the therapy kit.

So, why not stop there? Humans are social creatures, we live together, what each one of us does affect numerous other humans. So ethics are important. If an arms-dealer or a torturer was, instead of mindfulness, to practice remembrance of the compassion of Buddha or of the Seven Sorrows of Mary (about which see here) then we would expect them to become worse and worse at, and more troubled by, selling weapons or torturing people. Eventually they would give those occupations up. And then they could become happier and more relaxed people. Likewise there is nothing innate to the practice of Western mindfulness which would make racists less racist, sexists less sexist or homophobes less homophobic. But uniting that practice with an essential ethic might in fact have that effect.

Since ancient times there has been an assumption that happiness and virtue are linked. The less virtue you practice the more you will be absorbed in seeking personal pleasure through using people and things about you as objects. Yet happiness cannot come through such behaviours because the condition for personal flourishing is mutual flourishing. Making others unhappy makes us insecure, cruel and selfish. So a therapeutic regime which has to do with the psyche (as opposed to simply the body’s limbs or organs) but not with virtue may offer us as individuals temporary relief but it will not offer us ultimate fulfilment, nor will it offer the society we inhabit an increase in the social goods that flow from a virtuous people.

An interesting thing about the present moment when we become aware of it is that it does not come into being and it does not pass away. The present moment just is, and we can only perceive it because we just are. Why is that significant? Everything which belongs to time comes into being and passes away; it is only eternity that is continually present. So, the current moment is a part not of time but of eternity, and the part of you which is capable of perceiving this present moment is also a part of eternity. And if a part of you belongs to eternity then you should not allow yourself to be drowned in the things of time because, at the least, that is not your only home. The awareness that you hold dual citizenship in both time and eternity can be a life-changing one if you allow it to soak into you, and part of the practice of being mindful should necessarily include all the dimensions of the thing you are being mindful of i.e. now.

If mindfulness leads us to think that life is a film of which we are the stars then it is badly misguiding us and ill-serving society at large. And similarly if mindfulness ‘in its purest form‘ is just about me then it’s not a great form. The original forms of prayer from which Western mindfulness has been derived were and are never just individual. Prayer is practised by the family together, by the community together, by friends and colleagues together, sometimes by a whole country together. That doesn’t weaken the individual private practice, it strengthens it, it unites it to principles of love, service and sharing. It makes, not me, but non-possessive love the star of the film. And if mindfulness is to be useful to every aspect of the humanity of its practitioners then it needs to find ways of uniting their practice in harmony with that of others, not ways of accentuating their autonomy and their isolation.

Another feature of traditional meditation/contemplation practices both East and West is what might be called ‘bridging prayers.’ Before beginning the central practice, whatever it may be, the practitioner recites some well known form of words, Catholics, for example, may say an Our Father, an Hail Mary and a Glory Be (as recommended here, for instance.) This serves the useful function of redirecting your mind from what it was just doing and towards what it is just about to do. Even saying such prayers mechanically is not necessarily a bad thing because it indicates that your mind has got into the habit of effecting such a transition and habit often has more power to direct our mind than consciousness has. In this case we are using habit not being used by it. It also means that we bring specific things to the specific moment so the ‘I’ who is aware of the present is subtly different from the ‘I’ who existed before saying the bridging prayers.

If the ‘I’ who enters a period of mindfulness is holding in her mind the thoughts contained in the words she has just spoken then the moment of which she is becoming aware will include something of what those word pointed towards. If that awareness sees in the present moment the presence of the compassion of Buddha or of the self-giving love of Christ then it will become not only a therapeutic exercise in a purely personal sense but also a step towards the transformation of the personal relationships of the meditator towards a greater interpersonal selflessness. Stories are the way we tell ourselves essential truths so if we want to get the transformational and social benefits I have talked about here but do not want to buy into any religious belief then we might, perhaps, carry around with us a brief story, the parable of the Good Samaritan maybe, and before beginning our practice we read it or say it aloud to ourselves. Then, in being aware of our breath and of now we also see that we are immersed in a world where Good Samaritans exist and are needed and that they are non-different from me.

A technique does not determine its own outcome. It is the person who uses the technique who has the greatest effect on what flows from it. The things that make for human happiness include virtue and sociability. If we infuse into whatever therapies for the mind and soul we use the intention to be virtuous and to be useful to others, and if we pay attention to the whole of the wisdom of the past and not just attenuated slivers of it, then there is some chance the we can not only be less stressed but that we can also be more good.

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My other blog is thoughtfully catholic

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