Editor’s Notebook: As within, so without
With a busy world and a busy mind, it’s natural for people to look for stillness internally and externally. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
Technology is the mind made external.
From sensors to computer memory to artificial intelligence, human beings have dedicated their very existence to shifting the inner world to the outer, with dreams of duplicating or even surpassing the organism itself. Look around you right now, and whatever you see should make it clear that the mind has created a world in its own image.
There are countless positive attributes of the thinking brain, with problem-solving at the very top of the list. We are a species of survivors and achievers, and we have the mind to thank for that. But with all of that spectacular mental mining comes the detritus of mental noise and negative thought patterns, reproduced technologically as social media. That’s not to say X, Facebook, and Instagram are pure noise and dysfunction, but to scroll through a string of posts is to experience the opposite of peace.
A few minutes on the app formerly known as Twitter can feel like the observation of a spiraling mind.
It’s no surprise, then, that this rise of the external mind has created a corresponding embrace of “mindfulness.” When peace in the outer environment cannot be found, the search is inevitably redirected inward. But the very nature of our thoughts – each one masquerading as the authentic whole within a splintered self – makes poking around in the mind feel a bit like wandering in a hall of mirrors. “Spiritual teachers” offer themselves as guides, and if they are legitimate simply point to that in each of us that is false – our mistaken sense of self. And then there are the “spiritual entrepreneurs,” the self-helpers who have somehow managed to commodify stillness of the mind.
Despite the branding of “mindfulness” as a “personal growth” category or retreat activity, it is at its heart the effort by the mind to eliminate its own confusion. But it is like trying to untangle a chain necklace of infinite length, and it’s easy to get lost in the knots.
A piece published by Big Think last week illustrates the difficulty even as it promises to reveal “The 3 myths of mindfulness.”
The writer – former Oxford philosophy professor Jonny Thomson – outlines a few scenarios meant to question the efficacy of mindfulness: a dinner companion with the “dead eyes of a Halloween mannequin” while “mindful eating”; the disengagement of a Danish citizen from an important policy debate because thoughts are dismissed like “passing clouds”; and the impossibility of “seizing the day” because “now” isn’t how we actually experience the world.
In the end, Thomson acknowledges that there are plenty of uses for mindfulness but his last line is one of caution: “As with almost all philosophy and self-help fads, moderation and sensible application is key.”
“Mindfulness” as a marketing term creates the sense that it is a fad. But in practice and essentially, and for all of our history, it is how we have tried to penetrate the veil of thought in search of what it truly means to be human. Awareness – of what’s happening internally and externally – does not turn somebody into a social zombie, nor does it make them politically apathetic or averse to planning for the future. Only a thought, posing as the mindful self, can do those things. Wu Hsin (a Chinese sage who likely never existed) boiled down the puzzling nature of self to one simple question: “When you become upset with yourself, who is upset with whom?”
“The 3 myths of mindfulness” doesn’t so much unearth the “shaky foundations” of mindfulness as punctuate the self improvement conundrum inherent in Wu Hsin’s question and echoed by Alan Watts, who said: “In this question – ‘Can I improve me?’ – there is the obvious difficulty that if I am in need of improvement, the person who’s going to do the improving is the one who needs to be improved. And there, immediately, we have a vicious circle.”
It’s no wonder confusion reigns.
The human mind is the greatest tool in existence and also the primary instrument of human suffering. Our march of progress toward recreating the mind externally has led us to technological breakthroughs that have pushed us beyond the imagination and at the same time mired us in the false belief that we are separate from each other. This not only negatively influences the way we treat our neighbors near and far but also compromises our ability to recognize and advocate for paths and policies that truly serve the universal good.
More than a fad, mindfulness is our best and perhaps only shot at creating, by degrees, the external world we long for within.
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