Friday, 6 July 2012

Mindfulness: not a belief system

It seems to be difficult to avoid polarizing people by belief. A particularly crude question is the one asked of a family by some undertakers: do you want a religious or a non-religious funeral?

They should, in my view, be asking about the kind of ceremony that’s wanted, and the sort of person, if any, they want to help them create it. Many funerals that are not taken by an ordained Christian minister, but by people like me, have some element of belief, or spirituality. And some Christian ministers will reduce to their essential minimum the amount of Christian doctrine in a funeral, if that’s what the family wants.

That’s just one example of the inaccurately polarizing effect of dividing the world into believers and non-believers. It ignores the realities around us, in our society at least.

There is another way of thinking that simply side-steps polarisations along the lines of belief/unbelief.

I started off this exciting mini-series by writing about paradox, and its value. This middle state of being could allow one to be both a believer and a nonbeliever. It can tolerate paradox; that’s because it could be categorised as a state of mind, a state of being, rather than a set of beliefs. It doesn’t need to have a defining attitude towards truth, absolute or relative.

I think that many of us have a feeling, at an almost instinctive rather than rational level, for a sense of unity with the natural world. It might be the powers and cycles of nature in my garden, or on a storm-driven shore in Ireland, or looking at a distant galaxy through a telescope. It can generate a sense of wonder and humility (galaxy) or comfortable at-oneness (my garden.) But chiefly what seems to happen is that the ego is calmed by a sense of being part of something, neatly symbolised for me by the picture above borrowed with thanks from the website.

This sense of unity, of losing for a while the sense of a self standing apart from the world, can perhaps be approached through some rational realisations. For example, we are not one “me,” we are complex collections of micro-organisms and systems that interact with the world in ways well beyond the usual reach of our five senses. However rational we may feel ourselves to be, the forces of nature work on us in ways we are unaware of, day-to-day.  We feel at home on the planet because we evolved in it, with it in us – the planet grew us; our components came from the stars, etc etc.

But ultimately, there may be a sense of unity we cannot approach through reason or factual argument or concepts. This ego-calming, this presentmomentness, can’t be created by chains of words and conceptual thoughts such as these.

This sense of unity, this state of mind is usually called “mystical,” and an ancient route to it was and is meditation. Meditation involves bringing about states of mind other than those we use to cook the dinner or get to work or plan tomorrow or regret yesterday.

These states of mind involve living as far as possible, in the present moment. Entirely. Let go of the narrative chain of thoughts, stop writing little scripts about what you are going to do or should have done, and just be. You’ll fail, and then succeed, and then fail, and then succeed. When you succeed for a little while, you may feel strange to yourself, a little outside your usual self.

I remember the first few times I felt this, way back in boyhood. It was slightly disconcerting, and nothing to do with meditation, it just happened, but for some reason I was able to revisit it sometimes. Mindfulness meditation brings it back and helps me retain it for a while. The effect is very calming, at a deeper level than just “relaxing.” It spills over into the times that I am not meditating, or not even consciously relaxing.

It doesn’t matter what you believe the ultimate truth to be about Buddha, or Jesus, or Mohammed, or Krishna - or Charles Darwin. It’s not about your beliefs. They needn’t get in the way at all. (Some belief systems may help you get there, but that’s another story.)
The techniques derive from Buddhist meditation. The experience may be similar to some states of union with the world, or with God, described by religious mystics, whether Sufi, Christian or Hindu. The state of mind may be what the Tao Te Ching is talking about:

A mind free of thought
         merged within itself,
         beholds the essence of Tao (“the Way”)
A mind filled with thought,
         identified with its own perceptions,
         beholds the mere forms of this world.

So mindfulness takes us to an essence, an essen-tial mental state. Most of the time, quite naturally and necessarily, our minds are filled by their own perceptions, the chatter of thoughts flowing along….

But if you are a rationalist who thinks such things as the Tao are mystifying twaddle rather than mystical union, no matter. You can still encourage this state of mind with simple enough techniques that are in themselves “non-religious.”

Mindfulness meditation, to relieve stress or depression, or simply to place yourself in a better relation with your existence, is a beliefs-free set of techniques. It can, I think, help you get to that state of being at one that is ultimately impossible to describe. You just know when you’re there.

It’s not about belief; it’s experiential, not conceptual. Its benefits are very great, and as pragmatic as you like, or as spiritual as you want to make it. Either way, why not spend a little time each day entirely in the present moment? You’ll feel better for it, and: so will those close to you.

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