After the Clouds Pass By

“Something about the mindfulness practice I’d cultivated, and the way it encouraged me to engage with my emotions, made me feel increasingly estranged from myself and my life.”

A few thoughts on this Aeon article:

I don’t agree with everything the article says, or, at least I don’t buy that the examples listed are *necessary* consequences of meditation (e.g., “After a certain point, mindfulness doesn’t allow you to take responsibility for and analyse your feelings”—this is circumstantial).

At the same time, there’s something to think about here. The author mentions, as I quoted above, that mindfulness led her to feel “estranged from myself and my life.” I can relate to this sense, but not because of meditation per se, but because I grew up dealing with depression.

Depression, funnily enough, offers for free some insights that are fairly close to the “observe the play of thoughts and emotions in my mind” capacities described as the goal of mindfulness practice—though you get this ability through the lowered affect that comes with depression.

My point is, depression can give you a kind of metacognitive distance from your own thoughts and feelings, but of course not in the way one would *like* to gain such distance. This to me means that there are, shall we say, metacognitive affects, feelings, and aesthetics.

And this has me thinking about the article—we don’t want from mindfulness simply the ability to be distant from our thoughts, feelings, and actions. This is just mild depersonalization and dissociation. We want also to *cultivate* a certain mode of being, not mere distance.

And I think this starts to happen by itself following the initial instructions to, for example, follow the breath, visualize your thoughts as clouds passing in an open sky, etc. I’ve noted many times that after following these instructions things start to happen, things emerge.

Sometimes what emerges is something like joy or peace or sublimity, but just as often what emerges is a range of moods I can’t quite put my finger on—subtle hues of temperament that are probably always there, I’m just to busy being myself to notice them.

In any case, it’s these moods—and certainly they’re not always positive ones, but leave that aside for a moment—which seem to engender a different attitude, one that I’d call something like moral virtue, or at least the awareness that moral virtue is an important thing to pursue.

So, it’s not just about “observing thoughts and feelings” it’s about what happens after following these instructions for a while, there’s a kind of fullness that emerges in that space which is quite different from the observational capacities I found (accidentally) in depression.

The feeling of fullness is I think linked to the idea that meditation is in an important sense about aiming at something like virtue. Now, the article also takes a swipe at meditation apps like @Headspace, and I get it: commodification, appropriation, marketization, etc. Not cool.

At the same time, these perspectives don’t do all that much for me. The @Headspace app, for example, is constantly encouraging me to think about meditation as something I do *for other people* not just myself, and I think this again links to something like morality and virtue.

My point is that there are risks and uncritical, inflated claims associated with meditation, but treating it as just this distanced, observational practice doesn’t go far enough. Meditation is linked for me indissolubly with a moral vector and with community. And this changes everything.

3 Comments

  1. good stuff thanks for this gets to how there are very few necessities in how we experience something like mindfulness meditations ( or music or a text or any thing) and how contingent our experiences are, how tied to the particularities of our psyches/umwelten, mindfulness practices are just style/way to try and assemble things not a Root way or a Necessary way, there are no steps to climb no levels to achieve.
    Part of why I think there isn’t any easy move from such phenomenological accounts to something like meta-physics or Imperatives. Some might feel alienation , some might feel called/connected to something More and these experiences may well shift even for the same person over time and place.
    There is a developmental/sociological way in which this “Meditation is linked for me indissolubly with a moral vector and with community.” is true for all of us * insomuch as we come to be able to do something like meditation only via a process of socialization but I guess you might mean more than that as noted by the empathetic tone of “And this changes everything.” it seems to me that nothing (short of say a major brain injury) changes everything so here perhaps when you have more time this is the kind of thing that could be spelled out more, perhaps in yer dissertation.
    ps the mood thing is vital we need an update on what Heidegger left us.

    *perhaps like: https://www.academia.edu/34952478/Culture_in_Mind_-An_Enactivist_Account_Not_Cognitive_Penetration_But_Cultural_Permeation)

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    • Yes, to updating Heidegger on mood. And you know, I actually first started thinking along the lines of this post a few years ago when the new rationalist / speculative realist types started talking about “alienation” as the condition of possibility for, what, I guess Kantian analysis and freedom / autonomy or something like that. I found it compelling, but also pretty one-sided from an emotional / aesthetic perspective. Still, there’s lots there, if we can just move the conversation beyond (but still talk about) anxiety, angst, alienation, etc.

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      • absolutely and we need something akin to an enactivist take on “animal” faith, been many years since I read it but Thinking in the Ruins: Wittgenstein and Santayana on Contingency comes to mind, I’ll see if I can track down a copy.
        If you get a chance check out: http://www.janushead.org/8-2/Lingis.pdf

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