Friday, October 21, 2022

Mindfulness is a Mistake

As I have gotten older and have gained more mastery over my chosen profession (acupuncture and breath-centered exercise therapy), I have lately reflected on who and what I am within that profession. It turns out, I’m sort of unusual. A professor and an editor’s son, born and bred to be an intellectual, I rejected the Academy at 19 because it was plain to me that, although it would be an easy way for me to go through life, it would also be a life of inevitable addiction, sexual misbehavior and despair.* I couldn’t articulate why at the time, but I can now: the life of the Mind is incomplete, and leads, like all incomplete lives, to unseen bias, faulty assumptions and chronic frustration. 

When I was 19, my inchoate articulation of the quandary was, “What about sex?” By which I meant, sex is obviously, blatantly an enormous (yet mysterious) motivator of human behavior, yet other than studying D.H. Lawrence’s novels in Literature and the reproductive cycle of the fruitfly in Biology, sex was almost completely overlooked and devalued in the classroom. At the same time, sex ruled the campus every weekend and most weeknights, for faculty and staff as well as the students. “What about sex?” is still a decent starting place for questioning the life of the Mind, but sex is such an inflammatory topic that it is hard to stay on topic, or to draw universal conclusions from the intensely personal and intimate nature of sexual experience.** As time has gone on, sex and sexuality have become a much more central part of the Academy’s focus, but most of the current academic discussions about sex focus on sexual agency, gender expression and other attempts to direct, define and control sex and sexuality rather than to listen to and learn from sex. So although the subject is getting more attention, the human intellect’s tendency to attempt to fully control before fully understanding continues. 

When I quit college at 19 I became a professional dancer; that was also the year I began to practice yoga. Although I retired from dancing at 35, my yoga practice, idiosyncratic and self-centered, has continued, and continues to open my eyes at 62, 43 years after starting. When I stopped dancing I embarked upon a career in classical Chinese medicine, which is one of the most intellectually rigorous of the folk/traditional forms of medicine that exist, and I have gradually realized that this practice has allowed me to combine my natural, intellectual bent with my learned knowledge of the physical world. After spending ten or fifteen years learning Chinese medicine on its own terms, I have spent the last half dozen years seeking connections between Western and Eastern thought, as well as analyzing concepts that I think one approach or the other gets wrong. This is where I have recently understood that I’m in an unusual position among 21st century humankind – I was raised to be a rigorous, atheist intellectual, and although I am still a rigorous intellectual, due to my explorations of the Body I haven’t been an atheist for 35 years and I now take my prodigious intellect and its remarkable ability to make deductive leaps with a grain of salt. It turns out that very few people have undertaken a similar mind-body-spirit path through life. To be sure, a major part of my ability to pursue this path arises from my immense, unearned privilege as a straight white American male, but with privilege comes reponsibility, and I have tried (slowly, grudgingly, with much whining) to take my responsibilities seriously. As I continue to work with patients and continue my own self-cultivation it occurs to me more and more regularly that I have something to offer to the ongoing conversation about the nature of existence, and humankind’s place within Creation.

When I was younger, Kundalini yoga, with its sexual imagery and exploration of sexual energy was especially interesting and useful to me – it was a natural starting point. However, connecting that sexuality to breath, or in yogic terms moving on from Kundalini to Hatha, quickly became the most interesting and useful game in town, especially as I began to work more and more with other people in therapeutic settings. As the circumstances of my life, including my sex life, have changed (married to the same woman for 25 years; three mostly grown sons; serious illnesses and injuries for both my wife and me), the study of breath’s movements and feelings has become the central focus of my personal yoga practice, and also is the keystone of my professional exercise therapy practice. Among other things, I haven’t injured anyone doing exercise therapy in more than 30 years. Considering the age and frailty of most of my exercise clients, this is quite a statement, and would be the envy of any athletic trainer or physical therapist. It turns out, when you know how breath moves in a body under different circumstances, you can see when a person is about to hurt themselves and you can stop the movement before the injury occurs. Sounds like magic, but it’s just a different system than most people are aware of… or have given the time to figure out. Which brings me to the title of this article.

“Mindfulness” has been my bete noir since it came into the public consciousness a dozen or so years ago. Some of the promotion of the concept of “mindfulness” has come from long-time practictioners of meditation, qi gong or other breath-centered practices, and some has come from psychotherapists, physicians and academics. In the former case, experienced practitioners were trying to make these complex quasi-spiritual concepts accessible to a wider, secular audience, and in the latter case, busy providers were trying to toss a rope to some of their more desperate and stressed-out patients… or were trying to build their portfolio in order to qualify for tenure. Based on both my personal and professional experience, no matter the intention or the source of the concept, it is a colossal mistake. My 19 year-old self screams out, “It should be BODYfulness! We’re already too damn mindful!” My 62 year old self is a little more restrained, but only a little. In fact, I grow more and more impatient with humanity, that it won’t get over its childish resistance and learn something new about itself that will benefit all humanity and the planet.  

In the simplest body-mind-spirit terms, the great (and terrible) thing about the Mind is that it is quick, limitless, and can make jumps or shortcuts. So Newton and Einstein had their “Eureka!” moments and everyone can empathize, because we’ve all made those kinds of logical or deductive leaps. However, the great (and terrible) thing about the Body is that it has limits. People regularly interpret, “body-mind-spirit” as “mind over matter.” However, this is completely upside down – mind over matter is a lie, or is at least a very rare thing that only occasionally occurs. The actual point of a body-mind-spirit approach is that it is a three dimensional representation of reality that acknowledges that we are all intellectual, physical and spiritual beings, and somehow must reconcile all three aspects of existence to have an accurate view of the nature of reality. *** In the logical, rational, technophilic West, we recently gave up on the supremacy of the Spirit (who wouldn’t after watching the Catholic Church for a millennium?) after having previously given up on the ages-old dominance of the Body (except for, recently, sex, drugs and rock & roll) and went all-in on the Mind about 400 years ago. Since the Communist revolution in mid 20th century China, much of the East has followed suit. This has given us cool stuff like cars, rockets and the internet, but also led in a direct line to the unlimited exploitation and abuse of the planet and of any person deemed eligible for exploitation or abuse due to their gender, race, intellect, class, nationality, religion or sexual orientation.**** Unlimited exploitation and abuse lead directly to burn-out, of people and other complex systems, so climate change, chronic species-wide frustration, and political instability tending toward Fascism are all directly attributable to humanity’s reckless love affair with the Mind. 

The Mind assumes that all things start within itself – every movement, thought, flavor and emotion, for instance, is said to exist only because the Mind thinks it or interprets it, and all mainstream ideas about the nature of reality assume that things started at some central point and then expanded outward; i.e., The Big Bang. However, although this is mostly true it is incomplete, and the 15% or so of movement that is not from the inside-out but rather from the outside-in completely gives the lie to the Mind’s assumption. At the top of this list of “outside-in” movements is the inhale. 

Yes, I know that science tells us that the inhale is actually governed by the brainstem, but this is a piece of incomplete information. From an Eastern, energetic (and experiential) point of view, the inhale starts with the diaphragm, powered by the kidneys. As far as I know, no scientific study has investigated this possibility, perhaps because the all-mind-all-the-time assumption is so tidy and convenient. The inhale is also associated with smelling things; that is, taking things in through the nose and mouth, after which a reaction in the Mind takes place. So although the Mind is involved in telling us what the smell means (Yummy! Poison! Fire!), the physiological drawing in of air with scent molecules is the initial movement, making the inhale, itself, the physical act, the initiator. Scientists can (and will) quibble, but there are more pieces to this puzzle. The first is that, while the Mind can take shortcuts, the Body has no choice but to travel through every part of a movement. With breathing, this means that we have to inhale as well as exhale. There are tricks, to be sure, of breath-holding and circular breathing among free divers and saxophonists, but none of these tricks upsets the basic premise that to live, we have to inhale and exhale. There are also tricks, to be equally sure, of yogic breathing techniques to bring on certain states of mind or create an altered state of mind, but again, one must return to the basic mechanism of breathing in, then breathing out. This is one of the core characteristics and limitations of the living Body – it has to breathe in and out. 

Exhaling is an inside-out movement – it starts in your lungs and forces air outward. Exhaling is   the breath one does for more power, to continue a train of thought/speech and to control ones hands and mind for fine work. We can exhale for a long time while speaking a run on sentence, singing along to Meatloaf or sighing about the Mets. It is much more difficult to inhale for a long time – you can train yourself to take a long inhale, but it will never have the same easy strength, direction and focus of the exhale. On the other hand, even in the middle of a strong, directed and focused exhaling movement, we must pause to take an inhale. It is no surprise, therefore, that in our driven, focused and logical modern lives, most of the attention breath receives is given to the exhale. You can direct it, control it, and it makes you feel stronger. Much of “mindfulness” practice has to do with telling your breath what to do – inhale through one nostril, exhale out the other; inhale for a count of 2 and exhale for a count of four, etc. However, this focus on the exhale is in a way just a continuation of our species-wide focus on directing and controlling outward-moving energy, which brings with it exploitation, abuse and burn-out. To summarize with a metaphor, to make a fire burn hotter you blow on it.

In fact, at this stage of human development, we started with the strongman form of self-governance, we then moved to the religious model of self-governance, and after that we tried reason and logic as the dominant model of self-governance. All are androcentric, starting with the human body, then the human spirit and subsequently the human mind, and moving outward from that point. Basing our understanding of the universe on our own restricted point of view is extremely limiting, but more than that it is incomplete. Nevertheless, we keep trying the same things, only more. For some people, that’s bigger muscles and more physical endurance. For other people, that’s bigger churches and more political influence of the congergation. For still other people, that’s an insistence on science, technology and math as the final word. All three approaches, plainly, are incomplete, and humans and the rest of the Earth-dwellers have suffered considerably from our incomplete philosophies of life. It turns out that the thing we haven’t tried as a species, that has only been tried by individuals, or by extremely small and uninfluential groups, is to listen before acting; specifically, to listen to our breath. Within breath, the listening part, the “taking in” part, is the inhale. Which, providentially, is called the “inspiration.” Keep in mind, the inhale will never be as powerful as the exhale, just as a hyper-extended spine will never have the same strength as a flexed spine. But with a flexed spine, all we can see is our navel, while with a hyper-extended spine we can see the sky and the universe. “Mindfulness,” with its Mind-centered  terminology and its navel-gazing tendencies, is not really much different than Existentialism or one of the other Western intellectual philosophies, only with directed exhaling added to the mix. A free-thinking Mind will ask, “Why 2 and not 3? Why 4 and not 7?” Quite right, too – breathing is under each of our individual controls, so it is a place where we can either be purposefully, intentionally and messily free, or allow ourselves to be hoodwinked and shackled in the name of order, even if it’s by well-meaning people. The problem is that listening takes time just as inhaling itself takes time. It so happens that the Covid 19 pandemic has given us a chance to see that we have more time than we think we do. The world shut down for several weeks in 2020, and ran at half-speed for another year or so, yet everything didn’t go to hell. In fact, the planet and its inhabitants benefited by the enforced reflection and days off – “the Great Resignation” is one of the signs that this is so. People had a chance to take a breath, to wake up and smell the coffee, to stop and smell the roses, and almost automatically received inspiration to pursue different paths. The ozone healed itself, air quality improved and animals were free to enjoy ancient skyways and other territories, in some cases returning from the brink of extinction.

And now that the pandemic is winding down… we’re back at humankind’s favorite state, based on the historical evidence: war. Russia with Ukraine, but also Red America vs. Blue America, and especially, humankind vs. Nature. Academics and qi gong masters with marketing degrees are not helping things with their bleating about “mindfulness.” They are helping Tom Brady find a way to play football until 50, but are not offering a way out of the morass our species finds itself in. The only problem is time. Listening to breath takes time; understanding the inspiration that is available in the inhale takes time; inhaling itself takes time. We’re almost out of time, but we keep trying the same things over and over – pushing, forcing our will on Nature rather than listening to what Nature might have in mind for us.  Now it must be said, a thoughtful person might be terrified to pause, open up and listen to what Nature has to say – there are plenty of misdeeds and guilt to go around. What if we carefully, thoughtfully inhale with an open Mind and smell… shit? Some other kind of offensive odor? B.O.? Why do you think people smoke? It gives them a moment of respite, lets them steal a minute of time from their-too busy day before they get back to the grind. BUT IT ALSO LETS THEM CONTROL WHAT THEY SMELL. Smoking is the physiological equivalent to the sophomoric mind trick of saying, “We’re all going to die anyway, so what’s the difference? Nothing matters.” By defining life thus, it takes the sting out of ones daily insults and frustrations, but also completely negates the possibility of improvement, progress or creativity. It’s no accident that smoking gives you cancer – not only are you taking in toxins and hot smoke, but you’re perverting a natural function in order to put up with things and get more out of yourself than maybe is good for you. If you’re going to smell the world, you don’t get that kind of control – you have to take what you get. But even if you don’t like what you get, at least now you have a more complete picture of the entirety of existence, WITH THE POSSIBILITY OF PROGRESS, and not just humankind’s self-centered and incomplete point of view. It may not be your personal preference, but smelling shit won’t give you cancer.

This thing I’m saying makes instant, obvious sense, but is unlikely to reach any influential ear because those ears are too busy and don’t have time to even listen to a fellow human being with experience, education and sensitivity, much less their own breath or the breath of the Universe. We’re missing out on transcending our current miserable state because we’re not willing to take the time out of our busy schedules to take a few breaths. Our loss. The world will breathe on without us – it has before and can again.

By the way, the Big Bang..? That should be called the Big Sniff.

*I can’t honestly say that my life HASN’T been one of addiction, sexual misbehavior and despair, but those things haven’t been inevitable, and especially I have been able to learn from my experience, do better and hope to do better still in the future.


**Although from a Tantric point of view all of the highest, most sophisticated sexual practices are rooted in sharing breath, literally. A squeamish or standoffish partner may turn their head or otherwise attempt to avoid this sharing, but they are fooling themselves. They are already sharing fluids and intimate friction, and turning their head away is not only fruitless, but is a rejection of a potentially deeper intimacy. This attempt to ignore reality by imposing ones will to hold oneself (pointlessly) apart also turns sex from a shared thing to an adversarial thing. Much as filling wetlands and swamps in order to avoid the stink and the mess, it turns out, turns our relationship with the Earth into an adversarial thing. The specific thing that both acts have in common is that you have to be willing to INHALE your partner’s/planet’s breath, and you have to allow your partner/planet to inhale your breath. Wetlands and swamps may exhale some pretty stinky gases, but they also, crucially, inhale all kinds of carbon that would otherwise go to destroying the climate. Human beings exhale some pretty stinky stuff, too, but if your guilt about the booze or smoke or squeamishness about the garlic stops you from sharing, you are both missing out and depriving your partner of the chance to know you in your entirety. In both cases, the human need to control, direct and avoid “stink” leads to alienation, dissociation and the unintended destruction of life-giving interaction; i.e., “breathing.”

***Because I am a body-mind-spirit practitioner I’m always considering all three of these existential legs when diagnosing a problem – there’s always a spiritual issue attached to a physical or mental issue, there’s always a mental issue with a spiritual or physical issue, and there’s always a physical issue associated with a mental or spiritual issue. This triangulation is very useful because it allows one to test and confirm ones initial impression. One of the clear spiritual hang-ups that contributes to the seductiveness of the “mindfulness” paradigm is that thoughtful people tend to be afraid of anger – their own or others. Many religions, including Christianity, the dominant religion in the rational West, and Buddhism, the driving force behind ”mindfulness,” seem to frown on anger – Buddhism specifically (along with all other earthly passions), and Christianity selectively (thoughtful Christians tend to downplay the part where Jesus drove the moneylenders from the Temple). However, meek intellectuals aren’t the only ones with spiritual issues – thoughtLESS people tend to be afraid of change. Thoughtless people’s motivations are completely different from thoughtful people’s motivations, but they are all products of the same society, and ironically (or cosmically, depending on your point of view), both anger and change are associated with the liver, from a classical Chinese perspective. Furthering the cosmic joke, thoughtful people tend to be fine with change, while thoughtless people are fine with anger. In fact, each tends to fetishize their own particular preference and aversion, so anger is the active enemy for some, while change is the active enemy for the other. The liver has many other associations in Chinese medicine, but the salient feature here is that it is associated with springtime and, by association, youth and new beginnings. In a historical sense, the “rational West” is still a new construct, and America is one of its most youthful practitioners. The simplest, most brutal suggestion for people who are suffering from these particular liver ailments is to grow the fuck up…

****Curiously, due to lingering philosophical ideas or assumptions of the Body and Spirit eras (tribalism; dominion over the Earth) combined with simple human laziness and cupidity, the Mind has tended to go along with these abusive definitions and has maintained these abusive practices, even though there is no intellectual justification for them. Western medicine is sometimes guilty of the same sort of casual disdain for what it doesn’t know and over-confidence in its own ethics. Kind of like the practice of white male supremacy – if it is handed to you at birth and you don’t question it, it is easiest to just continue to practice and maintain it. This is one of the main, obvious drawbacks of the Intellect – it is very, very easy to lie with the Mind, including to oneself.