Mindfulness is very often misunderstood and whilst there are many benefits that come with taking it out of its religious doctrine, there are also some potential pitfalls.
The benefits of secular mindfulness are huge. The activity of simply noticing what you notice is an incredibly powerful tool to liberate ourselves from suffering and therefore of much of the suffering we inadvertently cause others. It helps us get a clearer grasp on reality as it is. It helps us not be puppets to our inner world or the world around us. It can give us increased intellectual clarity and therefore increased ethical clarity. And most of all, the benefit is that it is intrinsically equal and inclusive to all no matter who they are and where they’re from. The translation to secularism is one in the direction towards universal inclusion which many claim was actually where its roots were in its original ancient tradition.
But sometimes I have a sense something is lacking and recently I’ve been thinking about this more and more as I listen and read a few interviews with Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter. Now a note: Dorsey is an avid meditator and seems to practice very consistently even going on longer silent retreats, meditating for up to 10 hours per day. He was recently, quite unfairly I think, criticised for having gone on a meditation retreat to Myanmar where the government is accused of genocide. In these interviews Dorsey as the CEO of Twitter is mostly quizzed about the pitfalls of the platform and its potentially detrimental effect to democracy. To give him his dues, at least he speaks where other ’Tech Titans’ like Mark Zuckerberg cower. But listening and reading to these interviews with Jack is weird. I’m left feeling. Well. Nothing. Like he’s not there. He skirts and dodges around issues with such calmness, composure and ‘equanimity’ (a positive term in mindfulness for having a balanced and neutral attitude towards ones own internal world) that it’s just a bit weird. He comes across not just unphased by the situation which could be a strength, but like he simply just doesn’t care…
The beauty of secular mindfulness is that it takes ‘observing reality as it is’ a step further than the original buddhist context in a way because it strips it of stories about karma and rebirth and all sorts of stuff and simply focusses on noticing what is. The problem though is that it can also strip it of a social conscience and sometimes strip it so far that it leaves itself open to new stories. And here is I think where Silicon Valley culture has added its classic story of ‘upgrading’ to mindfulness.
The tech world is full of memes about ‘upgrading operating systems' (which I’ve been guilty of time and time again too) and the self is no exception to this which is where a potential irony lies. The underlying religious fervour for trans humanism (whether knowingly or not) is the platform (tech pun intended) for a culture which sees the human as a machine ripe for upgrading, bug fixing and constant optimisation to the point of becoming super human. Whilst the ultimate goal technologies of reversing ageing, nano-technology and uploading consciousness to the cloud (all explicit aspirations of this movement) may feel futuristic, the low-fi ’technologies’ for upgrading the self are nootropic stacks, cold water therapy, weird powdered drinks and… wait for it… meditation.
Meditation has been adopted as a ’technology’ for self-optimisation and for upgrading the self which is where this first irony lies. The greatest insight that is core to mindfulness meditation and philosophy is that the concept of ’the self’ doesn’t survive scrutiny and yet here is a capitalist system on digital steroids adopting it as a part of its ’stack’ towards self-optimisation rather than self-transcendence. In doing so there is a huge social implication. Rather than liberation from the concept of self (a buddhist philosophy) which is purported to lead us to the realisations that we are all connected and that selflessness and service to others are the reasons why we meditate, we actually have the amplification of the self to becoming high performing machines in the name of whatever goal we are pursuing, social or not (in this case market cap is the goal, so it fits in the ’not’ category).
I can attest to these benefits having only glimpsed them for the shortest of moments. Last year, I had a period of really developing my meditation practice and found the benefits for my productivity to be extreme. Way better work, in higher quantities, done in half the time. When I would be working it would be like watching my self work with a meta level of awareness. I was able to notice myself crave distractions like social media and merely observe those sensations, let them pass and stay focussed on the job at hand, never falling into any of the traps the designers had laid for me. A days work done in half a day and then I’d have the rest of the day with my family.
Whilst for me this phase was all too brief and limited to perhaps a month or two at most, through practice and focus it’s clear that the benefits accumulate and stick overtime. This isn’t a bad thing. This kind of focus put to good use is a super power for improving the world. But where the focus is, matters. This is perhaps the reason why some buddhist traditions and even secular derivatives such as the Vipasanna movement include mindfulness in a slightly broader context which also includes: some form of basic ethical framework which essential asks us to cause no harm and do good; and also to practice something called ‘Meta’ (which means ‘Loving Kindness’ in the ancient Pali language) which is a practice focussing on cultivating compassion for others no matter who they are.
So back to Jack or perhaps just more broadly to secular mindfulness. It might be a very positive thing for it to be opened up to all, to be inclusive, to help many people not matter their beliefs. It might be in many ways a great thing to strip it of its context or at least to translate to others contexts, but what must not be lost in translation is the inherently social goal of this project. Mindfulness should at its core be an examination of the self, an increase in our ability to notice our experience in the present moment and a huge nurturing of our propensity for compassion in order to better serve ourselves so we can better serve others.
When that is lost and replaced with Silicon Valley self-optimising talk of the upgrading ourselves what have is a dude dressed all in black on stage playing the part of a cyborg monk whose voice carries little emotion or seeming care for the disaster his platform could well be causing for democracy, that is for others. Mindfulness without compassion can (not always) be a recipe for the development of a mind that functions much like an AI, that is super-intelligent but with no faculty for emotion or kindness.
May all beings well.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be free from suffering.
May all beings experience inner peace and harmony.
May all beings have lives filled with love and compassion.
Care and take care,
This article was prompted by the following articles: