One benefit often mentioned for mindfulness is the value of shaking up one’s complacent perspective on life. Jon Kabat-Zinn explained that “we lock ourselves into a personal fiction that we already know who we are, that we already know where we are and where we are going, that we know what is happening – all the while remaining shrouded in thoughts, fantasies, and impulses…” (Wherever You Go There You Are, pp. xiv-xv). Or, more succinctly put in a journal article called, “Mechanisms of Mindfulness,”by Shauna Shapiro and colleagues, “Rather than being immersed in the drama of our personal narrative or life story, we are able to stand back and simply witness it.”
I’ll just note as an aside here, that not everyone thinks of themselves as living inside a life-story. There are lots of ways that we might structure our thinking about our lives, such as following the social rules for the roles we have, or checking off life-achievements from a personal master list, or even just floating along from one set of sensations to another. The point is that we all think of ourselves as living in one or more contexts, which give our lives a sense of at least minimal order, and sometimes meaning and purpose.
One useful way to think about these life contexts is the idea of “secondary worlds.” J.R.R. Tolkien made up this term for talking about the imaginative act of immersing ourselves in a story-world, but it works just as well for talking about all of the other “worlds” or “stages” or “settings” that we encounter that go beyond our day-to-day life experiences. In essence, it’s a conceptual model we create in our minds for understanding some social context – a mental model of some possible sphere of action. Whenever we think about national or world politics, for example, we’re conjuring in our imaginations a “world” that has its own actors and events, causes and effects. We have beliefs about how it works, and it influences our own choices and perceptions, but for most of us, it’s separate from our immediate experiences. We can certainly let it color our immediate experiences – we can make connections between the dinner on our table and the big picture of world politics – but we can also simply eat whatever food is before us without reference to these other actors, that is, mindfully.
Here are some other examples of secondary worlds: situations from one’s past, or possible future; any social context when we’re not there in the middle of it (work, school, family); similar aspects of other people’s lives; other commonly understood spheres of functioning, like Wall Street or Hollywood or the Vatican; games and sporting events; ecosystems; the mental models we use to think about the inner workings of one’s body; the ongoing “conversations” of science and philosophy. Pretty much every time we’re thinking or talking about something other than our current immediate experience, we’re referring to some secondary world.
Secondary worlds can create the contexts for our actions. Secondary worlds can also provide us with the social constructions that allow us to interpret everything we perceive – if we notice a bodily sensation, we then usually resort to socially created interpretations to help us make sense of it.
This means that mindfulness is a technique for turning off our automatic interpretations – our automatic recourse to secondary worlds – which can leave us free to try out new interpretations, or simply to notice and then move on, but which can also leave us feeling adrift. Context (which can include sense of identity) is perhaps the primary source of meaning-in-life.
As I explained in the last post, active immersion in one context means a lack of openness in other contexts, because your attention is already taken up. But there’s also a more passive type of immersion, the sets of beliefs and involvements you take for granted, the world(s) you’re immersed in without trying, and sometimes even without giving them more than occasional bits of attention. Examples might be your identity in terms of roles you find yourself in, or affiliations from your past that you don’t need to think about.
Letting go of our customary contexts can definitely be a good thing: Vacations, travel, catching up with old friends, moving to a new city, and changing jobs are all examples of times when we step out of our usual patterns and expectations and put our attention elsewhere. We’re out of our “comfort zone,” and that can lead to new discoveries, new energy, new perspectives.
Mindfulness can do this too. When you’re practicing mindfulness and its openness, your passive immersion in other contexts is weakened. You find yourself living more in the immediate present, without these more automatic filters and expectations. In Buddhism, they encourage this as “beginner’s mind.” This can be a good thing when it leads you to step outside the life-stories you take for granted, if they’re ones that aren’t consistent with your values. But when your observing self isn’t yet strong, or when you’re feeling doubts about yourself or dismissed by others, these right-here-in-the-present experiences can make you feel alarmingly unmoored. Remember, it is only in connection that we find meaning.
And this brings us to Caveat Three:
Mindfulness can set us adrift.
If we succeed in letting go of our usual life-context, and we aren’t replacing it with another, deliberately chosen context, this can be emotionally stressful. Fully experiencing the present moment can give us the illusion that there is no context for our lives. Experiencing this no-context and the kind of detachment that mindfulness teaches can be depersonalizing, and this can be frightening.
Now, the thing is, when mindfulness is taught as a part of Buddhism, this experience isn’t something a beginner would normally encounter. Mindfulness traditionally is learned in the context of one’s cultural values – a Buddhist in Asia, for example, is not stepping out of his usual belief systems when he practices meditation. At a minimum, a Buddhist student learns mindfulness and other meditative practices in the context of an ongoing dialogue with his teacher. All beginning Buddhists, in Asia or the West, are expected to work with a skilled teacher and to learn in the context of this relationship. When mindfulness is integrated into a Western clinical practice, like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, it likewise is taught in a context. In this case, the person focuses on identifying her deepest values and committing to live accordingly. Depersonalization doesn’t occur in the context of meaningful action.
If you’re practicing mindfulness on your own, however, there can be problems. If the context you find yourself in is denying the value of your beliefs and experiences (shaming, gaslighting, or otherwise debasing you), or if you’re going through a life transition that involve experiencing a loss of your customary identity (such as losing your job or an intimate relationship), then “beginner’s mind” can set you adrift and lead to panic as you vividly experience a sense of loss of self. You will then have to reassert that “observing self” along with a sense of fundamental “okayness,” and this becomes harder if you’re simultaneously experiencing a loss of connectedness. At times like these, you’re probably much better off if you focus more on your values and strengthening your other connections.
A famous American Buddhist author and teacher, Jack Kornfield, recently told the New York Times (1/31/14) that even as an experienced practitioner, mindfulness and other forms of meditation didn’t always help. As he put it, “There were major areas of difficulty in my life, such as loneliness, intimate relationships, work, childhood wounds, and patterns of fear that even very deep meditation didn’t touch.” He added,“Meditation and spiritual practice can easily be used to suppress and avoid feeling or to escape from difficult areas of our lives.”
Meditation, including mindfulness, is not about meaning and connection. We are more likely to find meaning and connection in immersion, particularly in that “reflective immersion” I described in the last post, when we’re aware not only of what we’re encountering but how we ourselves relate to it. Participating in “secondary worlds” is the “big picture” for our lives. It’s how we give our actions a bigger significance. It’s how we get things done. Mindfulness can help us be focused and appreciative, but it’s only part of the story.
Tomorrow, Caveat Four: Mindfulness and Making Choices
This post is one in a four-part series: