So in our last session, we explored some of the reasons why people, like you and me, might become interested in mindfulness. In particular, we considered the popular contemporary image of mindfulness as a scientific technique or technology that is deployed in secular context and often for therapeutic purposes. And we associated this approach with the image of a scientist. In today’s session, as part of this little series of talks exploring different preconceptions about mindfulness and what it might mean to be a mindful person, we’re going to take some time to investigate one of the most popular and pervasive associations with mindfulness. And that is the image of the Buddhist monk.
As we discussed in the last session, the purpose of these little sketches is really to reveal some popular impressions about mindfulness. Before we start looking more seriously that where these impressions might have come from and what kind of value they might have. One of the things that’s fascinating about these images is that while they often contain a number of misperceptions and mistakes, even fabrications, they’re usually based on or at least come close to some genuine insights and associations. Hence, exploring these images is quite a good way to orient ourselves at a start of a course like this one.
We can learn quite a lot about what kind of assumptions we’re bringing with us and that’s what kind of work we need to do while we’re here. Now to some extend, the image of the Buddhist monk represents a classical aspirational image of spiritual development. It sits somewhere between the sage and the saint as what Robert Neville has called a spiritual model. It expresses our ideal of enlightenment and our emancipation from the confines of every day knowledge and wisdom. In other words, while expertise and understanding in every day life might make us good at our jobs, or successful at exams, or able to solve concrete, practical problems.
The wisdom of the sage seems more attuned to dealing with the grandest questions of meaning in life. The universe, and everything. So, it’s not technical knowledge, but rather it emerges from patience and experience and attunement with the world. Indeed, the figure of the sage often appears to lack basic factual knowledge and expertise about everyday tasks. Sages can be idiots. The wisdom of the sage is usually represented as somehow seeing through the everyday to the profound. As though the everyday world with which we’re so obsessed and in which we constantly strive for more accomplishments, more possessions, more money, and so on, is itself somehow debased or sullied or even illusionary.
Hence, the sage seems to embody an alternative moral order, in which worldly, or material success, is not only seen as trivial, but is also seen as essentially vacuous. It’s not only that we spend our time and energy on things that have little value, but it’s also that we should, with moral force, we should spend our time and energy on more elevated pursuits, instead. So what does this mean in practice? Well, in practice it means something a bit like this.
The model of the sage teaches us that instead of spending our time worrying about passing an exam, impressing someone at a job interview or earning enough money for a new iPhone, we should instead spend that time sitting in meditation on the nature of our self and the present moment. Sitting under a tree, instead of fretting about mistakes we made in the past, feeling unhappy about our weight or embarrassed about our clothing, or being angry about the injustice that an undeserving colleague got the promotion that we wanted at work.
We should instead spend our time appreciating beautiful patterns being made in the clouds in the sky or the delicate feeling of rain on our skin or the wonderful feeling of warmth that the sun leaves on our face. Now, this kind of sagacity involves a self-conscious and pretty deliberate re-orientation of our relationship with life itself. Because it involves moving against the prevailing norms and values of commercial societies, it requires others tremendous amounts of self discipline, practice, and cultivation. The sage is committed and dedicated, devoted, which also gives him or her an aura of purity and sacredness. We revere the sage precisely because she is better than us.
We could be like her had we the necessary discipline and awareness, but we don’t or we choose not to, so we’re not. And as this course develops, we see how this classical idea of the sage shares a number of the features with the environment of mindfulness today. And for some people, the association between the cultivation of mindfulness and the cultivation of wisdom or enlightenment is very strong. Indeed, as we’ll see in module three. These associations are basic to the concept of mindfulness in many traditions of philosophy around the world. One of the most immediate connections that many people make between mindfulness and the spiritual hero or the sage is mediated by this figure of the Buddhist monk.
As we’ve already seen in the last session and as we’ll see over and over again throughout this course. It is well known that there is a sense, actually quite a complicated sense in which mindfulness emerges from Buddhist traditions. And hence, for some, its practices always and already associated with this image of the monk. From these associations, we can recognize the following three popular preconceptions about mindfulness today. The first is that mindfulness is somehow Asian or Oriental, and so it’s not clear how it might fit in to Western societies and cultures. And we might identify this preconception as the Problem of Orientalism. Which can work to both attract people and repel people with different ideological dispositions as we’ll see.
The second is that the practice of mindfulness is essentially, so at root and deep down, a religious practice no matter what anyone tells you to the contrary. Its purpose is only therapeutic to the extent that the Buddha was the original therapist. And his teachings emancipate us from suffering by liberating us from ourselves. And we might identify this preconception as the Problem of Secularism, which like the Problem of Orientalism, acts to attracts some and repel other people. This problem can make people slightly nervous about the kind of ethical commitment, expected of those who decide to take up the practice of mindfulness.
However, it is also associated with the surprisingly common assertion these days that Buddhism is not really a religion at all. So the third preconception is that, to practice mindfulness properly, you have to sit in a particular way. Probably the lotus position, you have to hold your hands in a complicated pattern or mudra. You have to chant a mantra, you have to burn incense and shave off all your hair, and ideally you have to sit on top of a mountain next to a lake in a temple or under a tree.
Now we might identify this preconception as the Problem of Trappings which is closely related to both the problems of Orientalism and Secularism, and again, this preconception can attract or repel potential practitioners depending on their ideological standpoint. As we’ll see later, these trappings can be helpful for some people who find them helpful but they’re not basic to the practice of mindfulness. And they can also make practitioners anxious about what it means to be doing it right when they practice. So I hope this little sketch of the monk as a kind of spiritual hero has helped us to recognize some the popular preconceptions and some of the assumptions about mindfulness today.
Our little friend, the monk, will stick around with us to help out during the rest of this course. In the next session, we’re going to turn our attention to a different kind of spiritual model, the warrior. And in our case, the ninja.