“I shall often speak of it [mind], with deliberate abusiveness, as ‘the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine’. I hope to prove that it is entirely false, and false not in detail but in principle. It is not merely an assemblage of particular mistakes. It is one big mistake and a mistake of a special kind. It is, namely, a category-mistake. It represents the facts of mental life as if they belonged to one logical type or category (or range of types or categories), when they actually belong to another. The dogma is therefore a philosopher’s myth.” Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind.
I argue that the practice of Mindfulness is a deepening of the Platonic-Cartesian-Newtonian mind-body Substance (separation) that is a major contributor of our mental health problems.
Here are a few definitions of Mindfulness:
“While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions… The Sutra of Mindfulness says, “When walking, the practitioner must be conscious that he is walking. When sitting, the practitioner must be conscious that he is sitting. When lying down, the practitioner must be conscious that he is lying down…No matter what position one’s body is in, the practitioner must be consciousness of that position. Practicing thus, the the practitioner lives in direct and constant mindfulness of the body…” The mindfulness of one’s body is not enough, however. We must be conscious of each breath, each movement, every thought and feeling, everything which has any relation to ourselves.” Nhāt Hanh, Thích (1987).
“The traditional basic exercises consist of focusing the mind on a single object – a stone, a candle flame, a syllable, or whatever – and not allowing it to wander… Within the Buddhist tradition, concentration is also highly valued. But a new element is added and more highly stressed: the element of awareness. All Buddhist meditation aims at the development of awareness, using concentration as a tool toward that end… Tantra seeks to obtain pure awareness by destroying this ego image. This is accomplished by a process of visualisation…. During the process, she is able to watch the way in which the ego is constructed and put in place. She comes to recognise the arbitrary nature of all egos, including her own, and she escapes the bondage of ego.” Gunaratana (2011).
“Mindfulness is the development of awareness of your inner and outer experiences, whatever they are, with a sense of kindness, curiosity and acceptance… In mindfulness, you can’t fail because you don’t have some experience you have to achieve. You simply practice paying attention to whatever your experience is, as best you can, and whatever happens, happens. You gain an understanding from your experience… Mindfulness is an opportunity to discover your true self… Your true nature, who you truly are, isn’t just a feeling. You are that witness, that observer, that which is aware of all that arises and passes away in your mind.” Alidina (2012).
“Mindfulness – awareness of present experience with acceptance – is a deceptively simple way of relating to the contents of our minds that has been successfully practiced to alleviate psychological suffering and enhance emotional well-being for over 2,500 years. Cutting edge scientific research and rapidly accumulating clinical experience are now validating what ancient wisdom traditions have long taught: that mindfulness practice is an efficient antidote to our hardwired propensity for psychological distress and is a reliable pathway to increased wisdom, compassion, and fulfilment… Mindfulness practices are moving into the mainstream of psychology, neuroscience, and medicine as their positive effects on the mind, the brain, and the whole body are being studied. Mindfulness practices keep important parts of the brain from withering with age. They also activate brain circuits associated with being happy, energised, and enthusiastically engaged in life. They even lengthen telomeres, the ends of chromosomes that get worn down with stress, resulting in cell death associated with ageing.” Siegel, R. D. (2014).
And two from Google:
“Mindfulness is a way of paying attention that originated in Eastern meditation practices. Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
“Mindfulness practices are often taught secularly, but their roots reach back to the early teachings of the Buddha. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn revealed that his MBSR program is based on a type of Buddhist meditation called Vipassana.”
The Background to my Argument
Before I unpack some of the words and statements made above I need to set the philosophical and scientific background to my argument. As I am always saying to those who know me, “I don’t have any models, concepts or theories.” What I do have, or trying to have, is an understanding of the history of science and philosophy. It’s this attempt to understand that allows me to see the repeated errors of those who have little or no understanding of the history of science and philosophy. This doesn’t make them stupid or ignorant just uninformed, subject to repeating mistakes and being led by others who also have little understanding. I will make this as brief as possible.
It all begins with Plato and Aristotle. Plato decided that the experiences we have are chaotic and unstable. He proposed that direct experience and Appearance of anything as an object or imagination was just an Opinion. As such it was not to be trusted as reality. True knowledge was in another world behind the personal experience. This world of Knowledge was stable and consistent making it true and real. To reach this Knowledge you had to separate the thinking subject from the object of thought. Separating the two, a dualism, allowed you to stand back and use language and mathematics to re-present (represent) the experience in an orderly static linear fashion. This is known as Plato’s Two World Metaphysics.
Aristotle disagreed. He proposed that the world was not separate at any time but was a dynamic moving experience of which we are participants. All Aristotle’s work is dynamic and for 2,000 years until the Enlightenment (18th century) was the way of seeing the world.
Before the Enlightenment, in the 16th century, was the Copernican Revolution when Natural Philosophers began to realise that the earth was not the centre of the solar system. This threatened the religious “wisdom” that the earth was not the centre of the universe as written in the bible. To a greater degree these philosophers were still seeing the world from an Aristotelian point of view. As the time of the Enlightenment approached these “scientific” philosophers were still taking direct experience as the main source of truth. Interpretation of their cosmic findings were increasingly being interpreted from a mathematical point of view: Platonic. One particular incident was the works of Galileo who was told by the Church that his work could only be published if he made it clear that it was “just an idea.” In a fit of despair he exclaimed, “that the senses should not be trusted as they deceive us.” This was the beginning of the rise of Platonic separation into subject and object and the decline of Aristotle’s dynamic participation.
Other Natural Philosophers, notably René Descartes (Cartesian) and Issac Newton, furthered the mind-body separation and mathematical approach. But, and here’s the thing, all science was still God’s work. From here on we have mind-body Substance (separation), the onlooker consciousness (you are outside that which you witness), cause and effect (the “and” leaves room for the Prime Mover, God), we are “at” that which we observe not “with,” and all experience is a series of static bundles of information to be re-presented and not presented. As far as judgment, intuition, imagination and direct experience are concerned these are all attributes of God the great mathematician and we do mathematical science to try and reach God’s level of wisdom.
Enter Spinoza, Kant and Goethe who proposed that personal experience was everything. Not only was it everything but there was deeper reality, not Plato’s deep reality. This deeper reality was the experiencing of the experience you are having. To attend to the experience is too late! To be aware is to be aware of some thing or thought, too late. The experiencing is to coming to awareness as a dynamic movement towards the end awareness as a dynamic being. It is this experiencing that never ends where experience is an end product finality: Too late. Experiencing never starts or finishes.
Appearance (how something is; not what something is) arises out of experiencing the differences in the world. Plato’s dualism dismisses differences which are dynamic qualities of being. The late Henri Bortoft wrote:
“The key to Platonism is that difference is excluded from being – and consequently also from genuine knowledge. Difference belongs only to the realm of appearance – which is separate from being. Because there is no ‘difference’ in being – it is always self-identical, the self-same – there cannot be any movement in being, which is therefore static.”
Bortoft goes on to say:
“Phenomenology is a shift of attention within experience, which draws attention back from what is experienced in the experiencing of what is experienced… This takes us to the heart of phenomenology: the phenomenon is not only something which appears, but which appears as appearing. So the phenomenon is not merely the appearance as we usually think – the appearance. Once we recognise this, we get a sense of the phenomenon as something ‘coming into being’ – not in the metaphysical sense of coming into existence, but in the phenomenological sense of being as the appearance of what-is.” Bortoft, (2012).
It was Martin Heidegger who published the first text on mindfulness founded on Goethe’s dynamic approach to experiencing.
True mindfulness involves us as a participant in experiencing as appearance of any experience we are having. Todays mindfulness furthers the Platonic-Cartesian-Newtonian dualism of the outside observer looking at; separateness. We are comfortable with mindfulness as we are already doing it in this Platonic based philosophy. Being aware of something, thoughts and actions, conscious of what i’m doing, being in relation (outside) to ourselves, visualisation not visualising, being an observer and witness, down grading feeling, present experience (too late), and mind, brain and body are all forms of separateness. Mindfulness deepens your separation between you and the world, subject-object, which in the long term results in a deeper anxiety, lack of participation, control and judgment as the source of intuition; immediate knowledge as presentation rather than re-presentation (representation).
Awareness and Wholeness
Awareness seems to be a big issue in mindfulness. Awareness is awareness of objects and yourself; the ‘I’ as in ‘I know’. I will refer back to Bortoft:
“Looked at from the side of things which is where we stand in self-awareness, the whole is absent. The whole is absent to awareness because it is not a thing among other things… But the whole does not stand before us; we are not its spectator… Thus from the side of awareness, the whole is no-thing… To awareness, no-thing is nothing… This taking of the whole which is no-thing to be mere nothing is the origin of nihilism. We can say that the origin of nihilism is that it takes nothing to be nothing, and having already prepared the ground for this we can see immediately the deep truth of this apparent triviality… The other side of the choice is to take the whole to be no-thing but not nothing… Our active awareness will be taken up by parts, and we will be aware of ourselves there with the parts… Western psychology today, which is nihilistic, has no place for the whole…” Bortoft, (1971)
The opposite to wholeness is parts or reductionism. We become a spectator outside of the situation rather than a participant. Mindfulness can’t be wholistic when promoting self-awareness. If we say ‘I’ as in ‘I am aware’ we are aware of ourselves as one thing amongst other things making our activity fragmented and distancing; the very cause of our feeling of separateness. Leading to a lack of empathy and loneliness. Wholeness is not the sum of the parts, mindfulness is the sum of its parts. A car is the sum of its parts. Wholeness can’t be the sum of its parts; this is a contradiction. To be a participant we have to mindless. In the words of William James, “we feel our way through the world; we don’t think.”
Let’s go back and look at some of the key words and sentences used in the description of mindfulness. I have highlighted some of the key words and phrases:
“…while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”
“I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions…”
“When sitting, the practitioner must be conscious that he is sitting. When lying down, the practitioner must be conscious that he is lying down…”
“…each movement, every thought and feeling, everything which has any relation to ourselves.”
“… focusing the mind on a single object..”
“…concentration is also highly valued.”
“…the element of awareness.”
“…using concentration as a tool toward that end.”
“This is accomplished by a process of visualisation.”
“… the ego is constructed and put in place.”
“…the arbitrary nature of all egos, including her own.”
“…the development of awareness of your inner and outer experiences…”
“…practice paying attention to whatever your experience is…”
“understanding from your experience.”
“…who you truly are, isn’t just a feeling.”
“You are that witness, that observer, that which is aware of all that arises and passes away in your mind.”
“… awareness of present experience.”
“Mindfulness practices keep important parts of the brain from withering with age.”
“…mindfulness practice is an efficient antidote to our hardwired propensity for psychological distress…”
“…positive effects on the mind, the brain, and the whole body are being studied.”
“They also activate brain circuits associated with being happy…”
Mindfulness deepens your separation between you and the world, subject-object, which in the long term results in a deeper anxiety, lack of participation, control and judgment as the source of intuition; immediate knowledge as presentation rather than re-presentation (representation). The use of computational (mechanical-computer) terms like circuits and hardwired reduces us to machines that are passive beings driven by some underlying substance; God.
I have tried to keep this short and I am not saying that I have the answers. Having the answers was not my objective. My argument was simple: Mindfulness is making the problem of anxiety, depression and other “psychological” problems worse by deeply embedding in us the same Neo-Platonic approach that got us where we are!
Alidina, S. (2012) Mindfulness for Dummies. John Wiley and Sons, Chichester.
Bortoft, H. (1971) The Whole: Counterfeit and Authentic. The Journal of the Institute for the Comparative Study of History, Philosophy and the Sciences, Vol. 9. No. 2 September.
Bortoft, H. (2012) Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought. Floris Books, Edinburgh.
Gunaratana, B, H. (2011) Mindfulness in Plain English. Wisdom Publications, Boston.
Heidegger, M. (2006) Mindfulness. Continuum, London.
Nhāt Hanh, Thích (1987) The Miracle of Mindfulness. Boston Press, Massachusetts.
Ryle, G. (1988) The Concept of Mind. Penguin Books, London.
Siegel, R. D. (2014) The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being. The Great Courses, Virginia.