One spiritual term embraced by many people interested in self-knowledge - including me - is the Buddhist notion of “mindfulness”. Particularly in the Theravada Buddhism, mindfulness encourages noticing everything you experience - actions, thoughts, emotions, plans, physical sensations, etc. - with “soft attention”, neutrality, and precision. The idea behind this and other witnessing practices is to be more aware but less impulsive, to “dis-identify” from what is noticed, and to more easily recognize the consequences of the identifications a person embraces.
Dis-identification practices are powerful tools in altering perspectives, quieting the limbic system, and assisting a person to see what he thinks or does differently. As many reading this post will already know, such practices are also regularly employed in therapy environments. Narrative Therapy, for example, generates client conversations intended to “deconstruct” the narratives a person assumes is unchangeable in his life. Deconstruction allows that person, quite simply, to separate himself from the “problem-saturated narrative” to other stories he might prefer. The underlying idea is to recognize that the realities each of us lives is largely constructed in the first place, via our conversations with others. None of those realities represents an absolute truth - just ways in which each of us organizes experience, ways we use words to build stories about our lives.
The power of mindfulness practice, however, is threatened by virtue of a number of contextual factors on the rise in society generally: greater speed of life, more people, and the high value placed on continuous stimulation. The important part of this last category is the word continuous: on-going stimulation has been so thoroughly normalized now that constructing a life that is a string of never-ending stimulation goes unquestioned - work, hobbies, entertainment, parenting, activism, internet surfing, etc. That normalization means it’s increasingly easy to lose sight of the need for reflection, for integration, for incubation of ideas that can take us to creative new arenas. It also means that if mindfulness is to continue to have an impact in the lives of those who practice it, then it will be necessary to take it to another level.
That level begins with recognizing that even though a person may realize his mindfulness is under siege, he frequently contributes to that siege by priding himself on his adaptability. This may be done by bragging (internally or externally) on his multi-tasking skills, or about a dairy so full of appointments that he can’t see his best friend for another month, or by attending so many social causes that he becomes captured by the admiration directed his way for his commitment to social change. Tirelessly working for things that seem honorable and good, in other words, can have the same impact as endlessly distracting one’s self via entertainment, drugs, or menial tasks. Unless....
Unless a person can deepen his mindfulness to a level where psychological factors such as external approval, conflict avoidance, and the comfortable world of habitual response is also witnessed. This is harder these days for the reasons mentioned above, and the fact that the continuous stimulation in everyday life is not just a matter of individual control. Yes, a person can carve out more space for reflective practices: but that space is pretty limited if the activities he’s putting to the side lead to food on the table and/or money towards the mortgage. In today’s world, the protection needed to ensure that mindfulness continues to irrigate a person’s life is more likely to require him to change his attitude towards the contexts he’s in, rather than just remove himself from those contexts. That includes the speed at which he is functioning: mindfulness can be practiced at any speed. In other words, moving against contextual, cultural, and psychological factors can be less skillful in the long run than pointing one’s mindfulness towards those factors and seeing if a greater awareness can be accessed in whatever crazy moment a person finds himself in. Of course this doesn’t mean eliminating retreats, isolation, or group environments where mindfulness is being deliberately practiced and strengthened.
Recently I attended a teleconference with Stephen and Ondrea Levine on being present with people who were in the process of dying. One of the points Stephen Levine made is that people who have meditated for years expect that they will calmly center themselves, dis-identify, and embrace their own deaths with equanimity when their own time comes. But how likely is that, really? Especially if pain is involved, or medication, or family emotions about your situation? Rather than expect to be in such a state, then, another way mindfulness can be deepened is to recognize that it is indeed an practice. This is where another Buddhist (and Hindu) notion really gets in the way: the idea of enlightenment, which carries within it some permanent notion of a final state. Embracing utopian notions such as enlightenment sets a person up to condemn himself when he inevitably acts in non-mindful ways, as we all do. Far better to let go of that ideological strait jacket and focus instead on stringing together moments of mindfulness in the midst of the ever-increasing stimulation surrounding us. That has an impact not just on an individual’s life, but on the broader context. It is also one of the most powerful actions a person can take to ensure that there is no "death of mindfulness"; that instead, mindfulness becomes more valued and practiced in our society.