Secular mindfulness cannot escape the sacred
I have to say am not a fan of secular mindfulness, aka NHS or evidence-based mindfulness. It claims to capture the good bits of Buddhism, the useful essence, and surgically excise the oriental nonsense. It certainly has value, great value. It introduces people to the practical basics of one type of meditation in modern language. It presents the element of Buddhism to those who might be put off by its undoubted complexities (my critique of Buddhism today.) In our highly outward-oriented society, it’s indeed a breakthrough that people are being invited to look into themselves, In so far as it goes it is valuable to help people be less depressed, less anxious, cope more resiliently.
But Buddha’s proposition is something far, far more radical. Even at its best, by Buddha’s standards, NHS mindfulness doesn’t go far at all. It cuts out every essential thing that makes Buddha’s proposition, and what I’m calling radical meditation generally, so uniquely valuable. In this post I’m going to focus on one very specific, but to-me central, limitation: secular mindfulness is at war with the miraculous.
Watching a sunset, perhaps the word comes to the mind unbidden: this moment is sacred. Or in a certain moment of making love, the same: this moment is sacred. Yes, these moments truly are sacred, precious glimpses of the mystery of being.
Painfully, we live in a culture unfriendly to such experiences. They are permitted as private moments, but find no home in public thinking: “The Prime Minister announced increased funding to ensure all schoolchildren have experienced a sacred moment by Key Stage 4 …” The possibility that the sacred reflects truth is “unscientific”, that most inescapable derision.
I think of it like this, that we’re living our lives in a war zone. In the western world the swordsmen of logic, secularism, and scientific method have slaughtered an army consisting of belief-based religion, religious fanaticism and family-inherited religious practice. In every battle, from the sun going round the earth, to the age of the rocks under our feet, the myth told by belief-religion has been proved wrong.
And that’s a wonderful victory! It should fill everyone with joy! Sing and dance, shout it to the rooftops: nonsense, defended with intransigence and often with hateful fanaticism, has been rightfully defeated. The use of scientific method has freed much of humanity, and will free the rest, from the prison of belief-based thinking. It has freed the world from reliance of beliefs which are untested and indeed forbidden to be tested on pain of excommunication or death. It’s indeed a great victory.
But it is won at a cost, I’d say a terrible cost. Sacredness and the spiritual are collateral damage and we should feel bitter grief for the loss these blameless victims. They are innocent children of war. The flechettes of logic indifferently mow down fanaticism and mystery alike. Neither can be tested in the shared repeatable external experience of the laboratory, so the warriors of science kill both equally. Modern society is the scarred battleground of the war against belief-based fanaticism. It is rich indeed in scientific discovery, but it is still a war-zone, sterilised of the delicate flowers of the mysterious and the sacred.
Richard Dawkins, I’ll allow myself to say the dreadful Richard Dawkins, well knows this bloodbath has happened. He attempts to defend science with a ragbag of arguments. In essence he claims that the wonderment that science generates abundantly replaces what has been lost. His nonsense has a grain of a type of truth. Science in and of itself is wonderful. But that wonderfulness is intellectual. The sacredness and the mystery which has been lost is of a different nature. It is of the heart, not the mind.
What Gautam Buddha is proposing is that there is something utterly profound about the nature of reality and the nature of our own being, that we only discover when we leave behind all types of mental and physical activity and go on a journey in, inside our intrinsic aloneness. If people go on that journey, they will have experiences for which in English we have to use words like sacred, spiritual, mysterious. They just will.
“Post-war”, to continue my metaphor, words such as sacred are contaminated words. Though innocent thirds parties, they are splattered with the blood and gore of rightly-defeated rigid religious belief. We take them to relate to belief in a god or gods; to worship; or to higher powers outside ourself. Yet that sunset, that moment of sacred sex; there really is something special about those moments, some connection to the beyond. And they contain no reference to gods or worship or higher powers or beliefs of any kind. They’re just very special moments, part of our intrinsic nature, able to be felt by any human being.
Writers such as Dawkins assume there are two realms. There’s science – good. There’s the rest – bad. This is false. There are three realms.
- Science, good in its study of the inter-subjective external world.
- Second, and all utter rubbish, there are untested belief systems, belief-specific myths, inherited beliefs, untestable beliefs, fanaticism, emotionally-defended beliefs. This is the whole range of nonsense so happily defeated by empirical methodology in the inter-subjective external world.
- And third, there is an inward journey of self discovery that anyone can go on, but everyone goes on alone. This is the journey of what I term radical meditation. The wonderful thing about Buddha’s teaching as originally given is that there is no intention whatever of any kind to god or gods; of worship; of religious belief, untested belief, or any other kind of belief; or of higher powers of any kind. Poor Buddha is not responsible for the degenerate polytheism that human stupidity made long after his death.
What Buddha in his original expression, and other schools of radical meditation, are proposing is a kind of solitary science. It’s not an enquiry into the external world. External science you can do in company with others. In chemistry, biology, geology the others should get the same results as you do. It’s an enquiry into your inside world, which only you can observe. Buddha proposes that if you mindfully separate yourself from every mental content, starting with “I’m not likeable” (a very common psychological starting point) and ending with “This body is me and it must live,” then something wonderful, miraculous, mysterious happens. That full mysterious something, I’ve not had happen to me. But I trust that it is there, just as someone who sees the dawn trusts the sun will rise. I have experienced the truth of many steps of that journey. I’ve experienced many things that I’ve been amazed to find “Oh! That never was me.” And in that discovery, the winds of the miraculous, the mysterious, blow through my being. From that evidence, I’m convinced that Buddha’s proposition is valid, is wonderful, is utterly transformative. It is evidence based reality, but evidence that only I can see.
I guarantee, that despite any use of words like sacred, spiritual, the mystery, and so on, nothing in these posts refers in any way to the kind of religious beliefs, inherited mindsets, higher powers, or worship systems so wonderfully defeated by the liberating army of scientists.
I also guarantee, that if you look deeply into the possibilities opened up by meditation, nothing will save you from encountering the miraculous, the sacred and the spiritual. It is there inside you as much as your spine or your pelvis.
But, this is what is proudly excluded by secular “evidence based” mindfulness.
For you cannot prescribe this inner quest to the general public as a public health measure: “The Prime Minister promised funds to ensure that by Key Stage 5, all pupils will have entered deep meditation and answered the question “Who am I” by reference only to their own intrinsic self-nature and will have a keen sense that they have no enduring self. …” Secular, “research-based” “mindfulness” programmes attempt to take just the preliminary elements of Buddhism and present them as a psychological mass wellbeing prescription (Jon Kabat-Zinn article).
In no way was this Gautam Buddha’s intention. He wanted that people attain nirvana, or in modern language, find enlightenment: they germinate the seed of meditation, grow the tree, harvest the fruit. In no way was the purpose of Buddhism to point out to people their capacity for mindful awareness; in his age of the world, that was common understanding. The point of Buddhism was how to sail the ship of mindful awareness in, in, in to find inside our very own being inner oceans of unearthly peace; a peace so profound as to endure in all the hurricanes of life and of death.
Kabat-Zinn’s article (link above) pays lip service to “the ethical foundations of the meditative practices and traditions from which mindfulness has emerged, and … its profoundly transformative potential.” Sounds good. But have a look at the full-text link to the Song of Ashtavakra at the bottom of this page. You get to see, in a few compact chapters, one example of the real and actual “foundations of the meditative practices and traditions.” (The modern-day descendants of Ashtavakra are actually Raman Maharshi and the non-dualists, but this is not a million miles from distilled essence of Buddhist reality.) It must be obvious that these deep and radical understandings cannot find a welcome in “the mainstream of education, business, the legal profession, government, military training (in the USA), the criminal justice system, and more” as Kabat-Zinn claims. His the ambition to be accepted in the corporate world requires the work to lose all radicalism.
Secular mindfulness is a limited two-dimensional analogue of three-dimensional radical meditation. It is good as far as it goes. But compared to Buddha’s original vision, it goes almost no-where. One of my purpose of these posts, is to point out how much is being lost.