Last post, I began a gentle critique of a definition of mindfulness that comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
I realize that critiquing an utterance from Kabat-Zinn is comparable to heresy in some circles, but something worth remembering is that Kabat-Zinn’s approach is, itself, a very conscious invention and adaptation as described in this interesting and thorough article here. In essence, Kabat-Zinn’s secularization of mindfulness comes with it’s own biases and agendas. Those aren’t necessarily negative biases and agendas, but they are, nevertheless, there. And part of my own agenda is to broaden the conversation about what it means to be mindful and what it means to practice mindfulness – or simply to emphasize aspects of the practice that are already there, but potentially obscured.
Jason Siff, a teacher who has influenced my understanding of practice, shared this in his recent newsletter: When you read my critiques and innovations side by side, you will hopefully see that I am indebted to the practices I no longer do for the very reason that they moved me far enough along to where I could uncover their flaws and understand their limitations. My willingness to critique helped me drop a practice when it was no longer serving me, while many of my innovations occurred once I went past my limiting beliefs and fears.
A Slippery Present Moment
In this vein, I would like to consider the next clause of Kabat-Zinn’s definition: “in the present moment.” On the face of it, this seems clear enough: the present moment is what’s happening now. When you’re in the present, your mind is here, not somewhere else.
In workshops, if I ask students whether they are in the present moment when they are aware of their breath, or of bodily sensations, or of sounds, they will nod their heads in confident agreement. And if I ask them if they are in the present moment when they are thinking about yesterday’s lunch, or remembering a school vacation twenty years ago, or anticipating next week’s meeting, they will shake their heads indicating that these patterns of thought do not fall under the classification of present moment experience.So far, so good.
The meditative instructions for handling such thoughts are “to become of aware of them, to let them go, and to gently return to the breath.” Or some variation of that theme. And to some degree such instructions feel empowering and possibly comforting. “As a conscientious mediator, I will assert agency and control over my thoughts. Thoughts aren’t gonna be the bully of me!! I’ll become aware of them… I’ll let them go. I’ll come to peace by returning to the breath.”
And while it may seem like these instructions describe what is happening, the more I practice, the less I observe this to be the case. Maybe I start out with the breath. And then after a few moments, without any clear intention or awareness of it happening, my mind drifts into a dream about something. During much of that “drifting,” I don’t have any clear sense of “being aware.”
And then, at some stage, something randomly jostles me from the dream. It might be a tension in the neck or back, or perhaps some vague sense of the breath, or an itch, or the trash truck outside, or maybe I don’t even know what brought me back. But immediately, this new awareness is followed by a conscious acknowledgment that I had been thinking about something, and this is immediately followed by the impulse to apply the meditation instructions: “be aware of the thoughts”… Ok, but where are they? The thoughts I was entranced by are no longer happening in real time. The drifting thoughts are now relics of the past. And this reflection is soon followed by a question about the feasibility of being aware of thinking while, simultaneously, allowing the process of thinking. But soon again, the instructions re-assert themselves: “Let them go.” Ok, but let what go? Whatever they were, the thoughts that had me are already long gone, if only three seconds later.So, what to do?
Granted these basic instructions might be useful in the beginning, just as training wheels serve a purpose in the learning curve of riding a bike. But — after some practice — they start to reveal their own limitations. It becomes obvious how clunky and heavy-handed the instructions can be, how they impede the free flow and natural observation of moment to moment experience.
Trying to implement this type of instruction doesn’t feel all that different from being told to jog freely while at the same time having one’s shoelaces tied to one another. Tripping, stumbling and bruising result. And I wonder if there isn’t an easier way with meditation, too.
Present Moment Reductionism
But before that, I need to address to the second issue of the popular notion of mindfulness: reductionism. In this model of mindfulness, present moment experience is often implicitly defined as sensory experiences that are happening now, ie. physical sensations, sounds, smells, images, tastes, etc. And non-present-moment experiences generally include thoughts about the future and past.
But not so fast. Stop right there.Where or when do thoughts about the future or past actually occur? That’s right: all thoughts occur in the experiential present, in the proverbial Now.
To exclude the process of thinking from present moment experience reduces the present moment to a sanitized stream of sensory input. Not only does this instill a sense of tension and frustration in the meditator when they inevitably become aware of thinking (for this goes against the implied definition of what it means to be mindful), but this approach also does’t teach the meditator very much about the nature of thought and how thinking conditions experience. For that to happen one needs to allow thoughts into the present moment in order to gain insight into their effects and behavior.
I know. I hear the rebuttal. I anticipate the objection. “The purpose of mindfulness isn’t to stop thinking but to be aware of it. To not be lost in thinking.”
Ok, but then I return to the previous reflection and ask if it is even possible to be fully aware that you are thinking, in real time. Careful scrutiny tells me that it isn’t. As soon as I’m aware that I’m aware of thinking, the process of thinking either becomes interrupted, begins to lurch, or ceases altogether. Thinking flourishes in the dim light of awareness. Turn up the light some, and the thinking vanishes, rapidly. More importantly, any reflection on the content and process of those thoughts must occur in hindsight, and not in real time. In other words, to be aware of thinking — not just awareness of thought fragments, but awareness of drawn out streams of thought — requires a process of remembering and reviewing.
And that’s ok.It turns out, sati, the Pali word from which mindfulness is translated literally means “to be able to remember.”
So if we unlock the present moment from a narrowly defined and reductionistic parameter of sensory input and include a reflective (retrospective) awareness of thinking in what Siff calls the ‘multilinear present moment,’ (more on this later) then it follows that we should also update our approach to formal meditation practice and refashion a definition of mindfulness that fits with this expanded approach.
I’ll continue to formulate a working definition of mindfulness that reflects this development, but in the meantime, my main intention is to generate reflection in your own practice and to possibly shed new light on some long-held assumptions.
In the next post, I’ll tackle the problem of “non-judging,” but for now, I encourage you to allow thoughts into your meditation.
And lastly, I just want to mention that this series of posts is not so much a critique of Kabat-Zinn, per se, as much as a critique of how I see his definition being received.
Originally published on March 4, 2015