“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.