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Preconception- Mindlessness

Prof Chris Goto-Jones investigates the negative considerations in people's mindsets about mindfulness, and that includes the image of the zombie.
In the last few sessions, we spent quite some time exploring some of the ways in which mindfulness is represented in popular culture and in contemporary societies. In particular, we’ve considered the images of the scientist, the monk and then the Ninja as archetypes that illustrate some of the associations and preconceptions that are prevalent around mindfulness today. In each case, we’ve seen how the image corresponds to a specific model of aspiration and spiritual development. And rather than being or perhaps as well as being slightly ridiculous, we’ve seen that each of these models provides us with some insight into how mindfulness is perceived and motivated, and also what it might actually be in practice.
In today’s session we’re going to consider briefly the reverse of these ostensibly positive representations. In other words, when we talk about mindfulness today, what are the negative preconceptions or images of nightmares that occupy people’s thoughts? As it happens, some of the introductory literature of mindfulness today makes explicit reference to a number of fears in order to reassure new practitioners that their preconceptions are essentially groundless. One of the most famous of these is probably this passage from Jon Kabat-Zinn who says, “When we speak of meditation, it is important for you to know that this is not some weird cryptic activity as our popular culture might have it. It does not involve becoming some kind of zombie.”
In fact the image of the zombie is really quite helpful for us in our quest to understand what frightens people about mindfulness, and we’ll be returning to it quite frequently in the rest of this course, especially when we talk about politics later on. Of course, the zombie is an icon of horror for all kinds of reasons. Most importantly perhaps is the image of what happens to a human being when he or she has lost his sense of self or perhaps lost his self entirely. The zombie is what humans look like after their self or their ego or their personality has died, and coincidentally also what they look like after they have literally died.
The zombie is a nightmare of what the post-human condition might look like. What’s more, we think of zombies as forms of mindless automatan slowly going through the movements and motions of life but without meaningful emotional engagement and without the application of discriminatory or instrumental reason. And it’s because of this that zombies emerge as a type of slave, unable to act for their own benefit. Indeed, unable even to conceive of what this might entail. They are a vision of the human body that has shed its humanity leaving only a kind of zero level of unreflective craving non-life.
Hence, when we talk about mindfulness and the fear of zombies, what we’re really talking about is something like the following three preconceptions about mindfulness. First, is that the practice of mindfulness is really about learning to dissemble and eradicate our ego, our personality and ultimately our sense of self itself. It involves shedding our emotional attachments and avolitional imperatives, leaving us as the equivalent of empty husks or shells of bare consciousness. Now, we might identify this preconception as the negative variant on the problem of the self that we also saw in the last sessions, where the idea of shedding aspects of ourselves was seen as a form of liberation or self-transformation. But here it resembles a kind of retardation or even death.
Second preconception is that the practice of mindfulness is basically about trying not to think about anything in any way recognizable as thinking. It involves abandoning rationality and instrumental reason and critical judgment. It’s about sitting in a space of vacuity or void in which we can no longer think properly or proactively, but instead we merely respond instinctively to whatever happens around us. Instead of acting positively in a driven way towards a goal or accomplishment, mindfulness encourages us to stagger around slowly and aimlessly simply feeling the direct and unprocessed sensations of our bodies as we move.
We might identify this preconception as the problem of irrationality, in which stepping outside goal-oriented and discrepancy-based thinking is not seen as a means of emancipation from the iron cage of reason as it might have been in our last two sessions, but is instead seen as the collapse of thinking per se. The third preconception is that the practice of mindfulness is really about internalizing a repressive ideological vision of the meaning of being human which prevents us from resisting authority or challenging the status quo. In other words, mindfulness is about reducing ourselves to a kind of zero level of consciousness because it confuses the treatment or eradication of stress for the eradication of our humanity itself.
Being human means that we are stressed about the need to change things. So being without stress means that we’re no longer fully human. We might identify this preconception as the problem of humanity since it reveals a fundamental concern about the kinds of lives that human beings are supposed to lead and the kind of lives that we are not supposed to lead. That is the lives that are not appropriate to human dignity. Rather than representing an enhancement or a purification of human life as we saw in the last sessions, the fear here is that mindfulness is a form of humiliation. These kinds of fears about mindfulness have a long pedigree throughout history as we’ll see later in the course.
In general, commentators are keen to see them as indications of our fears about ourselves rather than fears about mindfulness per se. However, something that does emerge very clearly from this nightmarish model of the zombie is the common and pervasive idea that mindfulness is a powerfully transformative practice. Indeed to some extent, the zombie might be seen as representing the opposite evaluation of some of the same transformations identified in the models of the monk and the ninja; where they were positively evaluated. In any case, our friend the zombie will stick around with us to help us during the rest of this course.
But before we wrap up this first module with a summary in the next session, I would also like to introduce our final mindfulness model - the hippie - who emerges as a similar but much less extreme figure to the zombie. One of the fascinating aspects of the hippie as a model is that there is much less consensus about whether he or she is a positive or a negative model in terms of their association with mindfulness. For instance, the hippie is often represented as a counter-cultural radical embodying political protest against the rampant materialism and ambition of capitalist society through practices of self-transformation.
And he or she is represented at the same time as having dropped out of human society by giving up one instrumental reason and conventional conceptions of self-hood. So the hippie is a model of coping with modernity and of failing to cope with it all at once. The hippie is both the dream for some and the nightmare for others. When it comes to mindfulness then, the model of the hippie expresses all kinds of often conflicting preconceptions about the psychological and social significance of the practices involved. So our friend the hippie will join us throughout the rest of this course to help out as we navigate all of these issues, and after she wakes up.

In this video, I discuss a negative preconception of mindfulness, represented by the image of the zombie.

What frightens or concerns you when you think of mindfulness? Would you want to live in a mindful society?

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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