The Flawed Premise of Mindfulness
Mark at AnimusEmpire makes very astute observations about how Sam Harris’s kind of mindfulness makes a grave mistake in its assertion that a “thought is just a thought, see where it comes from, see it where it goes”. This goes for most of these mindfulness proponents, another famous one is the app headspace. I have Sam’s app though, here’s is how SH explains a thought on the day 34 of the WakingUP course.
“Reflect on the state of your mind, what are you worried about and what have you been busy doing, what feels unresolved. And without going into details, take this whole constellation of thought and reflect for a moment that it is all (just) thought. That’s the only way you can (wait! aren’t they automatic?) invoke the past or the future.”
“And for the next ten minutes simply put it all down..”
“And the moment you notice a thought has risen, look into the thought itself. Where does it go, where is it even while it persists and then come back to the breath.”
“If you find any particular thought arising, again and again, you might take moment to consciously think the thought, invoke it on purpose, visualize what it is or reiterate the language in your mind but in doing that focus on it as an object in consciousness very much like the breath or sound and see if you can exhaust its energy this way, notice too any emotions that arise along with it and feel these purely as energy in the body whether its anxiety or pleasure, feel these states too as appearances in consciousness and leave your mind wide open…”
— Sam Harris on the WakingUP app.
*My comments in brackets ().
Mark criticizes this as a form of suppression. That Sam’s entire idea that a thought is just thought is absurd. That the thoughts in consciousness just come and just go. They could be about your past, future or present but are just thoughts and hence can just be observed as energy in the body or objects of the mind. But according to Mark thoughts have a place in reality and a reason for existence and the way they exist.
You can’t simply exhaust a thought by invoking it consciously like Sam tries to do it. If you are in your thirties and trying to date and find a partner to get married to or wondering if you have to spend the rest of your days alone, this thought has a very strong basis in reality and cannot simply be exhausted and nor does it simply exists because “that’s what the mind does” as these mindfulness gurus put it.
If your relationship with your spouse is horrible and a burden on your existence so much so you would rather spend time working in the office every chance you get than be home with him, then the “obsessive thoughts” about divorce, about separation, the anxiety about finding someone new or being alone all don’t just exist in consciousness — they exist in your reality. And you must deal with them as such by fixing your reality.
A person who is struggling 15 hours a day or has 3 jobs to feed his 3 unplanned kids is bound to feel the full force of obsessive thoughts in the form of mental language of “need money” and “pay bills” and it’s not just his consciousness chatting away or “running an engine of anxiety” as SH puts it often.
Don’t want to misrepresent SH here, it’s quite possible his understanding is one in which he simply says these things or tries to explain them in such a way so as to make the idea of thoughts and “objects of consciousness” more clearer to the listeners while practicing.
However, his other ideas like free will when looked together with his ideas of mindfulness, it does look like SH just believes that thoughts are just a mental chatter with no basis in reality and all the emotions and anxiety they generate can simply be eroded by just observing the thought and not identifying with it. He seems to miss the point that, that would just mean not identifying with reality.
While discussing free will he has made a point about succeeding at going to the gym. How on some days you just succeed and on others you don’t. And that’s it, the end. Either the thoughts of going to the gym win or the ones about not going win but nothing else can be said about the underlying reality of why this happens.
It’s like SH closes the doors on exploring thoughts very soon, and we will look at that in another post on free will.
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