You do not need to leave your room.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
I have to confess that the increased interest in the practice of mindfulness worries me. This is due, primarily, to the fact that the Western influence on this ancient practice is beginning to show signs of a familiar transformation.
Predictably, meditative practices that arose from Eastern cultures had to go through a metamorphosis upon reaching the West. It was also a certainty that a technologically advanced culture would feel compelled to both understand the mechanics involved in meditative states and try to one-up natural processes. This is most evident in the field of neuroscience which has taken a great interest in meditation, which a mere decade ago was relegated to New Age stores, the back halls of Yoga studios and the occasional, post-hippie, Baby Boomer Retreat.
With the blessings of the Dalai Lama himself, neuroscientists have turned their inquisitive eyes toward the ancient art of learning to be still and observing one's thoughts with a nonobjective heart and mind. Studying real time scans of the brains of those engaging in these practices, researchers are putting an official stamp on their benefits and suggesting ways to fine tune the process. Daily we are greeted with tips on how to meditate our way to building brains that will resist aging, improve mental flexibility, sharpen our focus and, as one author has suggested, Learn to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.
Applying the scientific method to something that is essentially an art form is giving rise to something I call synthetic mindfulness. This mock version of mindfulness looks like the real thing, but, in fact, is a hollow shell made for mass consumption. Think the meditative version of the Happy Meal. Sure, it smells good, but what is the nutritional value?
Essential to the process of taking the rich creamy butter of the meditative arts (I must remember not to write when this hungry) and reducing it to the thinner, easier to digest, margarine of mind exercises is the removal of the spiritual roots of the practice. Mindfulness advocates themselves are guilty of the oft-spoken phrase, “This has nothing to do with spirituality,” in order not to send their new devotees scurrying for the doors. It is no surprise that once this vacuum was created, science would arrive to fill the void and give the fact driven mind something to chew on. This truth is even lost on many meditators, as they miss the irony of having to scientifically prove the benefits of trying to stop thinking, itself a misunderstanding of the meditative process, simply to satisfy the thought addicted mind. Eastern oriented gurus try to counter this misunderstanding with the phrase, “Meditation, it’s not what you think.”
The reason the West craves mindfulness-lite is due to our basic misunderstanding, promulgated as divine truth, about spirituality itself. The dualism inherent in Western thought is the division which these ancient practices seek to repair. Seeing through the illusion of separation from the oneness of all things, to include a material versus a spiritual realm, is at the heart of mindfulness practice. To make matters worse, the competing and often openly clashing teachings of religions serve to widen this gap. Intentionally or otherwise, they have created an imaginary journey from the material to spiritual planes. This journey, we are told, is a heart-rending, soul-scathing trek which only the few, the brave, and/or the chosen will ever complete. No wonder so many people will sit on the meditation cushion only after it is confirmed that there is not one whiff of the other-worldly, save the occasional incense, within arm’s length.
The good news is that even this leaner and meaner version of mindfulness is proving beneficial. This is due to the fact that even occasional forays into mindfulness states result in decreased stress and an increase in well-being. Regardless of the brain circuitry involved, removing the obstacles to the free flow of thoughts works like removing rocks and boulders from a moving stream; the white waters of chaos give way to deep pools of calm. There is no need to understand this process, any more than there is a need to understand the mechanics of digestion in order to enjoy a fine meal. As a matter of fact, if you want to ruin your gastronomical adventures, get in the way of this finely tuned process and indigestion will be your reward.
All meditative practices are, in their purest form, yoga. Not yoga in the twisting oneself into a pretzel sense, but in the true meaning of the word, which is union, as in a complete whole. The restoration of that which the mind has pulled apart is the real journey of mindfulness and there is nothing extraordinary about it. It is however, as Zen teachers point out, extra ordinary and inherently paradoxical. Thus the Zen riddle: “How do you find that which you never lost?”