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The Bitter-Sweet Fruits of Mindfulness : Hurdles on the Contemplative Path

Updated: 5 days ago

While I view the recent explosion of mindfulness into popular culture as a positive development, the simplistic ways in which it is being taught and used frequently ignore, or are unaware of, the profound implications of sustained mindfulness practice.

It is worth considering that popular mindfulness is traditional meditation rebranded and removed from its cultural context. In the effort to adapt this ancient practice to modern life, it has been divested of much of the essential philosophical and social structure that have historically supported and contained the individual through the deconstructive process that is catalysed by sustained contemplative practice.

Meditation, while undoubtedly beneficial, is by no means always entirely benevolent. Recent research* shows that it's utility for generating insight is a double-edged sword; it is also remarkably good at undermining defensive structures of the personality, for good and ill. Too much insight too soon is destabilizing, and can require extended periods of difficult integration work. This is as true for meditation as it is for the use of psychedelics. These powerful evolutionary practices need careful application, and most of all, our respect and an informed cultural context within which to thrive.

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Having made this qualification, I regularly recommend mindfulness techniques to clients and often explicitly use them in sessions because of their tremendous utility for grounding and establishing a useful degree of detachment.

At the most superficial level, mindfulness practices help us to disentangle ourselves from the endless chatter of the mind, and to recognize thoughts as simply thoughts. You might be thinking that this is an obvious statement to make, but the degree to which we are unconsciously identified with the conceptual objects of the mind is truly profound. This unconscious identification includes the stories we tell ourselves about the world and other people, and limiting and reinforcing ideas we have about who we are. Crucially, all of these conceptual objects are temporary, and so our unconscious identification with them leaves us feeling insecure, fragile and often with a sense of impending doom, which is actually a reasonable response to this state of affairs.

Through the application of mindfulness techniques, we can slowly develop a capacity to witness the play of thought and emotion without becoming lost in the labyrinthine caverns of the mind. Recognizing that one is the boundless sky of awareness and not the passing clouds provides tremendous relief in difficult moments. This ability to use detachment in a skilful way is the sweet fruit of mindfulness.

People can and do stop here, but if one has an appetite for self-enquiry, or just consistent practice, they will soon be confronted with the inevitable questions that emerge. This kind of practice asks that we discern who and what we are at the most fundamental level. With progressively deeper and clearer insight, the subtle mental and emotional objects that make up the sense of self are recognized as objects that come and go. The question emerges - if I'm nothing that I can witness, i.e. an object, then what am I?

This is usually a prolonged and deconstructive process that deflates much of our motivations for being in the world. Things that have given us meaning, like ambition, relationships, and religious/spiritual beliefs are undermined, leaving us adrift and facing a kind of flatness or nihilism. This is the shadow, or the bitter fruit of mindfulness. It is detachment that has become self-destructive and is referred to as the dark night of the soul in literature. It is a necessary, and ideally temporary, stage on the path of spiritual development. Without the right kind of support, people can unwittingly wander into these contemplative territories and find themselves lost. Modern mindfulness is of no help to these people, having long since discarded the cultural context and thus the roadmap that can point the way forward.

At this point, a shift in identity can happen, brought about by the realization that one's essential nature is awareness or pure subjectivity, without boundaries. One becomes rooted in a new dimension of being that does not come and go; they have found solid ground upon which to stand and there is no longer a need to intentionally practice mindfulness - it becomes a baseline function of attention. This is experienced as a profound and final liberation from the turbulence of the mind.

Because of the sense of finality that accompanies this shift, it feels complete by itself. Although it signifies the beginning of genuine ego-transcendence, the ego-self* at this stage has actually retreated into an identification with the most subtle of objects - empty awareness. The risk here is that one becomes lost or entrenched in a kind of spiritual narcissism. You might have encountered such people and had complex reactions to them. They are clearly in the world but, at the same time, not quite present or embodied. The shadow is still disowned and unconscious, but there is the conviction that it has finally been transcended. Referred to as 'spiritual bypassing' by John Welwood, it describes a dynamic whereby negative or instinctual energies such as anger, lust, jealousy and emotional needs are disowned and projected outward onto 'less-evolved' others. Such people can inspire devotion and frustration in equal measure. They are internally split, so express and inspire ambivalence. Prematurely believing themselves to be whole and complete, any attempts to point out the contrary are met with deflection and avoidance. If the individual, at this stage, is unfortunate enough to attract a following, they will be seduced and their entrenchment reinforced by the positive projections of their acolytes. A corruption of integrity is inevitable, and the archetypal story of the Guru’s fall from grace ensues.

In this dance of projection, the Guru and disciple create each other through a mutual and tacit agreement which reinforces the passion, or self-image, of each. The disciple eagerly holds the Guru's undigested feelings of shame and worthlessness, while the Guru gratefully drinks in the idealisation of the disciple. The Guru becomes dangerously inflated, and the disciple ever more deflated by self-loathing. What begins as a genuine wish for communion frequently devolves into a sado-masochistic drama where each party is pulled down by the powerful undercurrents of the unconscious. Paradoxically, this unfortunate end does not preclude the attainment of some genuine insight and spiritual growth for both parties.

*Ego here is defined simply as the identification with something - I am this and not that. It is not a thing but a process. It's function is to create separation between itself and everything else. Although this separation generates suffering, it is also essential for our survival.

Although the project of integrating one's shadow can be done at any point on the arc of development, it is, ironically, at the point when one is most fully dissociated that one is also most ripe for a radical integration of all that has been left behind in the ego's attempt to become eternal, solid or special. Having reached the zenith of apparent transcendence, there comes the predictable fall from grace - there is nowhere else to go but back to earth.

To one who has identified with perfection, this is the most humbling of passages, but also the beginning of authentic wholeness. Consciousness integrates with the body. Spirit/Father becomes one with Matter/Mother. There remains no- thing, subtle or gross, upon which to construct an identity. Being no - thing, there is only every - thing. Emptiness becomes fullness, and the circle closes.

I'll end with a quote from the wonderfully irreverent Tibetan Buddhist master, Chogyam Trungpa. While I don't whole-heartedly agree with this statement, I include it as an interesting counter-point to the secular mindfulness movement.

My advice to you is not to undertake the spiritual path. It is too difficult, too long, and is too demanding. I suggest you ask for your money back, and go home. This is not a picnic. It is really going to ask everything of you. So, it is best not to begin. However, if you do begin, it is best to finish.

"Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior".


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