Thursday, 16 December 2010

Does mindfulness = escapism?

No - or at least, not necessarily, I think.

In Melvyn Bragg's "In Our Time," Radio 4 this a.m. they were talking about Lao Tzu and the Dao De Jing, the great classic of Daoism. (No, this isn't going to be a hippyesque ramble, promise.) Daoism was described as a teaching that involves recognising the way the universe works, and following that, rather than trying to force your way against nature. Water is a frequent symbol in the text - if you come across a boulder, then like water, flow round it, over, it under it - don't try and move it, just flow round it to get where you want to be. You won't smash the boulder, but it will in any case be worn away into a small pebble in a few thousand years. Seems a clear enough symbol to me. It wasn't originally, it seems, a god-following religion, more like a philosophy and a way of thinking and living.

Following the way of the universe is how to live in the world. The people ruled by the best rulers - those who follow the Dao - hardly notice they are being ruled and guided.

The contrast was then drawn with Buddhism, which teaches an escape from the world, from the cycle of birth, death and re-birth. (First off, you have to believe in re-incarnation, clearly, in order to escape from it!) Meditation is the technique through which this escape can be earned.

This all sounds clear and simple in outline, but of course things in human societies don't work out so simply. Buddhists have been known to be proud warriors and conquerors, (though perhaps a little less frequently than Christians and Moslems) and doubtless Daoists have retreated from the world rather than using their insights to live in it.

In any case, in our own lives, I can't see any particular conflict. Mindfulness meditation is derived from Buddhist meditation techniques. It is a training in how to live more of the time in the present moment. To achieve, or approach, a mindful awareness of the present moment and nothing but it, you do need to retreat, as it were, for an hour or so - or five minutes, even. So to this degree, a temporary escape is necessary. And mindfulness practitioners, like followers of traditional Zen Buddhist schools, often seem to favour occasional retreats, for a day or a weekend.

But the state of mind, this "presentmomentness" enables one to deal better with the world beyond the room you meditate in - to move through it a little more like the water round the boulder. It encourages tolerance, sharpens understanding of the situations of other people, helps one to keep things in perspective. It calms.

So occasional temporary bits of escapism emable one to emerge and deal with "the world" better. The little I know of the two great strands of East Asian religious philosophy and practice seem to me to work more as complementaries than opponents, if we want them to.

And in all this, there is no need (unless you want it) for god-centred religion, for dogma and scripture. No wonder a professor of religious studies sneered at mindfulness as "Buddhism-lite." He's right - and that's exactly the point. It sidesteps dogma-based argument, and says simply "if you do this, properly, your life will be better for it." You can do it and still follow a religion, you can follow it and be a nature-worshipping pagan, you can follow it and be a stroppy atheist (though if it works for you, you'll probably be a bit less stroppy, whatever your beliefs.)

So is it The Answer To Life? No, it's bloody hard work, and I don't do enough of it - but it certainly helps e.g. with the tensions, anxieties, uncertainties and sadnesses of funeral work. No, because it's part of life, not an alternative to life. We all know there's only one alternative to life, and facing that is also something mindfulness can help with.

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