I know someone who is a “supertaster.” (Yes, that is a real thing.) With one spoonful of a complex dish, he can identify every ingredient in the dish. His taste buds are so discerning – they have such an advanced state of awareness -- that he can gauge the approximate proportional contribution of each ingredient’s taste to the flavour of the whole. Unwitting experimental disasters do not happen in his kitchen, and neither do accidental delights. He makes a masterpiece, on purpose, every time he cooks.
When I look out at the world of modern spirituality, I see a baffling number of practices. Other than a few nebulous catchphrases and vague, feel-good promises, people seem generally unclear as to what, exactly, many of them are designed to do. A whole lot has been thrown into the pot, without much understanding of any single ingredient’s purpose or effect. We may be hoping for an accidental masterpiece, but we’ve more likely created a bad goulash.
Take for example, mindfulness and yoga. Though often lumped together as a spiritual practice, they are ultimately very different practices with very different goals. Knowing some of the distinctions increases your chances of choosing the practice that suits your personality (which means you are more likely to actually do it) and supports your aspirations – of cultivating, on purpose, the life you aspire to live. In this post, we'll take a look at mindfulness, and we’ll examine yoga in later posts.
Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It’s about knowing what is on your mind.
Mindfulness helps awaken us to our current experience (and the thoughts and feelings it generates), so we don't fritter away our lives dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. It’s a “be here now” practice. Being present has a whole host of benefits -- it actually changes your brain -- which read like the antidote to the woes of modern life. Since these benefits are in the realm of the body, brain, and emotions, science is capable of proving many of them, and this validation is one way (in addition to the benefits themselves) of accounting for the explosion in popularity of mindfulness practices: we know they work.
The efficacy of mindfulness is so clear that it has begun to invade the corporate world. Employers have begun to offer mindfulness practices to employees, because the benefits of the practice translate into greater productivity and an enhanced bottom line.
Almost any form of watching without judgment can be called “mindfulness.” The formal practice generally involves meditation, often concentrating on an anchor like the breath, while observing the ebb and flow of thoughts and feelings without judgment. Informally, it involves paying attention to almost anything that’s happening in the moment, with equanimity, so all of life provides an opportunity for practice.
As it is so very much of the mind, mindfulness is by nature more of a psychological than a spiritual practice. It is primarily self-referential, focusing on individual experience and responses to it rather than some form of pervasive underlying reality. Whether or not that appeals to you depends in large part on your beliefs about consciousness and what you seek to achieve in life. If you equate consciousness with the mind, and your goal is to be more clear-sighted about your interactions with the world and less dominated by thoughts and feelings that seem beyond your control, then mindfulness offers proven benefits.
While the rationalist may love it, mindfulness can feel incomplete to the mystic. If you believe there is a consciousness bigger than (above, behind, or beyond) the human mind, something called “mindfulness” probably won’t prove satisfying to you. If you are drawn to concepts such as spirit, soul, or Divinity, or if you are seeking a "capital T" Truth beyond the realm of everyday experience, then your ultimate inquiry probably won't be, “What is happening in front of me right now, and what is my response to it?” Mindfulness may still be part of a broader practice, but it won’t necessarily address the questions you are asking, and it probably won’t offer the experience you are seeking.
At this point in my life, I am pretty unimpressed with the mind, and I don’t want it guiding my existence (though I do appreciate its input). I don’t view the mind as an instrument of truth, nor do I believe it is the ultimate consciousness. It has access to very limited information through the five senses (all the knowledge we have at our fingertips is still, in the grand scheme of things, very little). Those senses are demonstrably unreliable, and the brain processes this limited, unreliable information through the distorted lens of its own experience, interpreting information in a way that reinforces its biases, opinions and beliefs. While a mindfulness practice may refine the mind’s skills, it feels, to me, like something of an incomplete victory because of human intelligence's inherent flaws. So, I am more drawn to practices that may include the mind, but are actively engaged with cultivating levels of consciousness beyond the mental.
That doesn’t mean I am right, but being clear on my current perspective helps me make my perfect – for me – goulash. Hearing the perspective of others helps me evolve my recipe over time, so mindfulness practitioners, please offer your perspectives in the comments section below.