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Escape from the city

Prof Chris Goto-Jones explores if an escape from the city, or seeking tranquility, is necessary.
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Hello again, and welcome back to the forest. In earlier modules of this course, we showed you some photographs of potential practice spots, places where you might perform your daily meditation. There are a range of possibilities including a kitchen table, a busy city scape, and a peaceful natural vista. While many participants on this course accepted that their most regular sit spot is likely to resemble a kitchen, or an office, or bedroom, probably with the noise of traffic outside, and perhaps the commotion of family members, or pets rampaging around in the room next door, very many of you showed a clear preference for practicing out in nature if you could. I have to be honest, that’s my preference too.
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It’s not difficult to understand though why we might identify sites that appear tranquil to us, as being more conducive for a practice like mindfulness. After all, it’s rather commonplace for people to speak of mindfulness as a means to attain something like mental peace and tranquility. The mass media and various mindfulness vendors today flood the market with aspirational images of beautiful people sitting in serine contemplation on the bank of a pristine mountain lake or a soft beach before a calm ocean at sunrise. Nature, whatever that might turn out to mean in practice, seems to be part of the aspirational mindfulness lifestyle.
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Many mindfulness practitioners will have discovered and read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s beautiful and seminal book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, 1994, which really helped open the doors of mindfulness to a whole new audience of people in the 1990s. Earlier in this course, we’ve already seen how Kabat-Zinn’s earlier work, Full Catastrophe Living, was very deliberate about avoiding any indications that mindfulness might be, say, connected to Buddhism. Indeed, in his 2005 introduction to Wherever You Go, There You Are, Kabat-Zinn is very clear that, “I tried to make the path of mindfulness accessible to mainstream Americans so that it would not feel Buddhist or mystical as much as sensible.”
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While the implication that Buddhism isn’t sensible or wouldn’t be seen as sensible seems rather out of touch today in the context of increasing scientific research into various forms of Buddhist meditation, Kabat-Zinn’s strategic move might have been needed in the 1980s in order to get his vision of mindfulness into the mainstream. Part of the realization of this strategy involved making use of American literature rather than Buddhist sources to explain the meaning and practices of mindfulness. Hence, Wherever You Go, There You Are, is also a meditation on the rural idealism of Henry James Thoreau, especially in his famous Walden or Life in the Woods from 1854. This is a book that celebrates the contemplated virtues of living simply in natural surroundings.
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These early texts in the establishment of what we’ve called construct mindfulness have contributed powerfully to the tone and the static of mindfulness today. But other tendencies in the field also support this trend. For example, as we know from earlier modules in this course, very many people are attracted to the practice of mindfulness as a way to escape what Kabat-Zinn and others have called the ADD Society. Which is a popular diagnosis of the condition of technologically advanced industrial and post-industrial societies. That is, urban life today is often presented as the problem that mindfulness is supposed to help us cure or at least escape.
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For instance, in his 2005, book Coming to Our Senses, Kabat-Zinn suggests that our entire society suffers from attention deficit disorder, and from its most prevalent variant, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and it’s getting worse day by day. Given these cultural threads, it’s easy to see how mindfulness has become associated with curing the urban or the city, and returning to the rural or to nature, at least aesthetically.
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In fact, where literal escape into a rural setting might be impossible, as it may well be for you or for anyone involved in life in one of the thousands of ever growing cities in the world, there are a number of popular meditation practices that are designed to facilitate our imaginal escape into nature even while we sit at our kitchen tables or facing a concrete wall in the street. If you’re not familiar with practices like the mountain meditation or the lake meditation, which invite practitioners to imagine themselves in such rural settings, and then sometimes also invite us to become those settings, then we’ll add some audio guidance for the practices into this module and you can try them for yourself.
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One of the intriguing questions for you to play with when you try them is this, to what extent are imaginal practices like these really mindfulness practices? To put this another way, well, it’s clear that they are forms of meditation, is it also clear that we can helpfully call the kind of meditation that they are mindfulness? If mindfulness is on some basic level that cultivating deliberate attentional awareness of the here and now with compassion, how does this square with deliberately imagining that you’re somewhere else entirely. You don’t need to answer that question now. But we can return to this intriguing question in our meditation lab later after you’ve tried the practices.
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Before you go and do that, let’s pause just for a moment to recall some of the relevant materials from earlier in this course. While construct mindfulness does seem to emphasize a particular kind of aesthetic or sense of beauty, including the return to nature, other traditions of mindfulness are very often clear that it doesn’t matter where you practice, it just matters that you practice. Practicing in a burnt-out building, in an abandoned swimming pool, in a bunker, on a golf course, a remote mountain hut, or in the middle of a traffic circle, it’s all the same. Just sit, just practice.
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Indeed, there are teachings in some Buddhist traditions that emphasize how it may be easier to quiet in your mind when you isolate yourself from distractions. For instance, by leaving the city to sit in a tranquil forest or by leaving civilian life to become a recluse. But that it’s not necessarily good to make the practice easier. After all, the heart of the practice of mindfulness is the constant effort required to bring back our wandering attention, back from where it is gone, where it’s being pulled away, back from distractions, be those within us or without us. The more we practice in the midst of turmoil, the more effort we exert and the more valuable our practice might be.
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Just as when we work out our bodies at the gym, the greater resistance with which we work within reason, the greater the benefit to our muscles. We might imagine the same thing with mindfulness. If there’s nothing to distract you, then not being distracted might still feel nice, but it seems like you’re not practicing the work itself. Perhaps you’re just sitting somewhere being relaxed. In the Mahayana Buddhist traditions, in particular, the path of the bodhisattva, who attains to enlightenment but chooses to continue living in the midst of society, speaks directly to this issue.
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In addition, the bodhisattva ideal also points to another potential benefit of practicing in the cities and in the quagmire as a suffering rather than seeking pristine environments or isolation. When we practice in the midst of turmoil, this is not only of greater benefit to our practice, but it’s also of benefit to the people around us who all benefit from the ways in which these practices transform our behavior, and our tone, and our presence in the world. On this account, practicing in the heart of cities is a meritorious act of social engagement.
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As we bring this session to a close, it’s possible for us to see that it might not be necessary to paint an intimate connection between the practice of mindfulness and being in nature, or even imagining being in nature. Indeed, there might be a good case to be made that being in cities could be equally or even more beneficial for practitioners, even if these are more stressful and demanding environment. In our next session, we’re going to move a little deeper into the question of what the benefits of practicing in nature might actually be.
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We’ll take a look at the science of forest bathing and perhaps practicing in a forest, or amongst trees in a park may be better for our health, even if the practice of mindfulness itself doesn’t advocate that very simply. Following that, we’ll have a session that looks more carefully at the place of nature and forests in Buddhist conceptions of mindfulness. We’ll see that the story of the Buddha is intimately interwoven with images of trees, and we’ll also see that the crucial text, the Satipatthana, the foundations of mindfulness, contains clear guidance on the place of nature in our practice of mindfulness, which is nearly always emitted from construct programs like MBSR and MBCT.

I explore how people equate nature with peace of mind and tranquility, and therefor link it to Mindfulness.

Do you practice in Nature? Do you seek to escape the urban setting even while in the city? Is this really mindful?

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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