I’ve been meaning to write about Suzanne Moore’s thought-provoking article in the Guardian last month.
You can often spot the speed at which columnists write their offerings by the bagginess of their style and this article is no different. Bouncing about as it does between a critique of the practice of secular mindfulness, Marina Abramovic and the corporate hue of Adriana Huffington. Nevertheless, Moore poses several key questions which I think are crucial for practitioners to ponder.
Why is mindfulness so popular now in this particular historical moment? Characterised as it is in Europe and America by grim austerity in the wake of financial collapse, regressive political tides and a seemingly bleak Middle East meltdown?
How mindful are we of the creep of ‘MacMindfulness’? The neutering of this radical practice into a sort of dissociated safe-space from the aforementioned bleakness? Moore calls this the “commodifying of blankness”
If we are wary of mindfulness being co-opted by late capitalism as an efficient ‘pill’ that allows us to blank-out the excesses of exploitation, degradation and impoverishment that are being carried out around us. How can we ensure that mindfulness stays connected to the very radical potential of its original Buddhist roots?
What is that radical potential and how much do we have to subscribe to the Buddhist belief that suffering comes from greed, hatred and ignorance to unlock it? How can we answer Moore’s central critique: “ This neutered, apolitical [mindfulness] … lets go of the idea we can change the world; it merely helps us function better in it”.
These are chunky questions but are more necessary than ever.
At the very heart of Buddhist thinking is the link between suffering and greed, hatred and ignorance
The historical Buddha was a radical social critic. He undermined the Brahamic caste system in North India, critiqued and counselled kings and peasants alike, (eventually) granted parity to female practitioners. Buddhism like all world religions has, over cycles of time, hardened into conservative, socially-embedded forms. Only for everything to be refreshed with radical reinterpretations like Zen or Thai Forest Buddhism. But at the very heart of Buddhist thinking is the link between suffering (i.e. all that is wrong in our personal world and the macroscopic world of society and the environment) and greed, hatred and ignorance.
From a Buddhist point of view, these three underpin all our problems. All states of happiness are undone by the desire to have more (greed or raga in the Pali). To get rid of what we don’t like (hatred or dvesha). Or an unawareness of what is going on (delusion or moha.) If we spin them around into their positives: happiness is a state of acceptance and enjoyment of what we have and a clear-sighted appreciation and gratitude for it.
Such happiness, of course, would be the death knell for the global consumer market. If we weren’t fired up with inexhaustible appetites, furious competition and gullible credulity then the system would stutter and collapse. The great multinationals and world markets are 100% premised on the idea of greedy demand for new products. Competitive anxiety about limited resources and an unquestioning belief in the desirability of permanent growth and consumption. In a nutshell, greed, hatred and delusion are all sewn unashamedly into the fabric of the 21st century’s globalised economy.
We replicate these patterns of greed, aversion and delusion over and over in our lives
The carefully manufactured illusion that we need new cars, new iPads, and new houses drives the market. Which in its turn, has to fight and bully and colonise natural and human resources to feed that insatiable (but completely unnecessary) appetite. As gulled consumers, we are hypnotised into believing that this is the way things are. That there is no other way of living: we must have more; protect – with violence if necessary – what we have; and not question the status quo.
Rather than see mindfulness as a tonic to aid our delusional accord with this nutty and unsustainable system, we should rather go deeper into the practice. Realise that it offers a quite radical space of opposition, in the form of our own bodies and minds. At the heart of vipassana practice (the Buddhist practice from which mindfulness comes) is a recognition of how we ourselves replicate these patterns of greed, aversion and delusion over and over in our lives. Thinking and that by recognising and stopping these patterns of subcutaneous grasping and reactivity in ourselves we can create a personal site of resistance. A micro-rebellion – that en masse will bring down the whole system.
The fragile legacy of the Occupy movements was the idea that change doesn’t have to mean the violent overthrow of the government. Change can be individual and then communal. Then networked and then perhaps social and then perhaps national and finally international.
A lucid and delightful awareness that your emotions, thoughts and bodily sensations are valid
Although the Occupations were routed and their ideas ridiculed by a triumphalist press, that notion of joined-up resistance I believe is still 100% valid. True and sustained mindfulness can, I believe, offer a more potent resistance to blanket consumerism. The core of the mindfulness experience is that vivid and astonishing moment when you realise that it’s OK to be yourself as you are. A lucid and delightful awareness that your emotions, thoughts and bodily sensations are valid. That you don’t need to constantly update, re-model and upgrade yourself according to some consumer advertiser’s dictat.
The comedian Francesca Martinez says that “self-acceptance is a form of civil disobedience.” It’s this Kryptonite that will frazzle the guzzling monsters of global finance. When I see myself as I am – wobbly belly, ageing face, thinning circle of friends. And I accept it, then I am disentangling myself from the consumer forces that make me think that I have to have a washboard stomach, a 20-year-old face and the sort of friends that drink Barcardi in their speedos in St. Kitts. When I find myself criticising myself and wishing I was other, I can step back and wonder who is planting this discontent in my mind? Of course, there may be moments when I use my judgement to make changes. Self-acceptance doesn’t imply passivity – but I’ll start from the juiciest place to start: where I am. Regular meditation practice can engender a really tender awareness of who you are and what your strengths are right now. Gratitude for what you have as opposed to a longing for what some advertiser tells you you should have.
Once we have practised then being unstimulated for a few seconds without an iPhone ceases to terrify us
I think that is our social hope as meditators. People who take up mindfulness in one of Moore’s banking institutions in order to survive those toxic environments more efficiently are not going to be immune to the consequences of the practice. Disentangling oneself from the tentacles of constant stress, from ambient anxiety and cooked-up ‘needs’. Even ten minutes in a busy schedule might sow the seed that destroys the building. (I’m referring to the lovely story from Krishna Das about the handful of seeds that land on the mud-clay tiles of an Indian house, sprout and germinate in the wet. Push their roots through the tiles, through the walls and destroy the house but create … a forest).
Once we have practised and tasted the strangely simple, and completely free pleasure of sitting in the sunshine and breathing in and out. Then the prospect of being unstimulated for a few seconds without an iPhone ceases to terrify us. Freed of that compulsion to watch the small screen in my pocket, I might be less inclined to buy a new iPhone. I might even downgrade to a ‘grandma’ phone that only makes telephone calls – yes, voice calls… When I call people I might notice how little I have spoken to them before. How unthinkingly selfish and exploitative a lot of my contacts have become. I might feel a little less afraid of human contact unmediated by social networks and dating apps. Reading less mass media but sniffing the actual air around me in my community. I might talk to people, see things communality, notice there are things that can be done. And in that way, I become less powerless, less passive.
Mindfulness should not be used to build security fences around our experience
Ultimately, I think Moore is entirely right too. I think there is probably much more outreach and social incentive from the Christian communities of this country than from the Buddhist ones. This is a real issue for us Buddhists. Mindfulness should not be used to build security fences around our experience. The actual goal of vipassana or insight meditation is explicitly the opposite. To break down the illusion of separation between us and the other. Be it our partner, our family, our co-workers, the government or the biosphere. And if our practice is making us deaf to the suffering of others and the crazy injustices of the world then it is not practice. It is a delusion.
I’d love to know your thoughts about Suzanne Moores article. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!
Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.