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Summary of week 1 Theory

Prof Chris Goto-Jones summarizes the pre-conceptions of mindfulness and looks forward to week 2.
So you’ve made it through to the end of the first module of this course, and I’m wondering how you’re doing. To some extent this module has been atypical, at least, insofar as the material in this lesson has focused more than usually on self-reflection for you. Instead of working our way through scientific research on the neurophysiological correlates of mindfulness meditation, which we’ll do in the next module. Or the conceptual underpinnings of mindfulness in different philosophical traditions, which we will do in module three, or even the ideological and political significance of mindfulness in contemporary societies, which we’ll do in module four. This module has required you to reflect on your own motivations and preconceptions about mindfulness.
In other words, at least in a very particular sense, you have been the subject material for this first module. And I hope you’ve managed to give yourself some space to inquire into yourself here. It’s not always an easy thing to do. And it goes against nearly everything we’re usually told at school and in university, where the idea that knowledge might be importantly dependent upon the knower is generally frowned upon. In today’s educational environments, in general, we quest relentlessly for a form of objective, instrumental knowledge, on which we have no effect other than simply to bring it into our possession.
So it’s not always easy or comfortable for us to engage with a more subjective, formative sense of knowledge, which not only relates to us, but also relies upon us. In some ways though, despite its slightly unusual focus on our own motivations, preconceptions, and reflections, this first module provides a model for the rest of this course. As a field, mindfulness requires us to be open to experiential learning, and to take ourselves seriously as our first, best, and most reliable source of such learning. Indeed, this is one of the primary motivations for including in this course the meditation labs, which you’re also experiencing for the first time in lesson two of this module.
They will appear in lesson two of all the subsequent modules as well. I’m really interested to know how you get on with the meditation practices in this module, especially in the context of the reflections we’ve been working on in the rest of the lessons in the module. I’m looking forward to seeing your posts about all of this. Your insights are not only valuable to you and to me but also to your colleagues and your friends in this course, so please share them. When it comes to our motivations and preconceptions about mindfulness, the real point of this first module has been to reveal the breadth and richness of the various different understandings of it.
It is one of the most immediately troubling things about mindfulness, at least, when we first approach it, that there is so much ambiguity, doubt, and uncertainty about what it really means. And there are so many voices and movements in contemporary societies attempting to claim it or to appropriate it or control it as a concept of practice in a movement. For some of us, this can make approaching this field confusing. And given its apparently transformative nature, it can also make us feel vulnerable in the face of such confusion, as though we’re exposing ourselves to something potentially toxic or subversive. However, in this module, we’ve sought to embrace the diversity of this field, as part of its richness and potential.
We’ve explored a number of popular conceptions, preconceptions, and misconceptions about mindfulness today, accepting that they form part of a landscape. By mapping out some of these ideas using some archetypes and models, like our new friends the scientist, the monk, the ninja, the zombie, and the hippie, we’ve gained a pretty good sense of how flexible and elastic this thing called mindfulness is today. One of the things that emerges from all this material is the need to be a little sensitive and accommodating the range of claims made in the name of mindfulness today.
Rather than taking a hardline from the start and claiming that everyone else is wrong about mindfulness and that only I, or perhaps only you, really know what it is, one of the things we learn from all this is that mindfulness today has developed as a social and cultural construct. It is constantly assembling and reassembling itself in response to social changes and needs, as researchers, practitioners, and businesses discover new possibilities for its development and perhaps also for its monetization. This idea of a flexible, evolving, and always contemporary construct mindfulness will be essential to the work we do in the rest of this course.
We’ve seen that the landscape of construct mindfulness involves, amongst other things, inquiry and insight into orientalism, secularism, materialism, discipline, magic, selfhood, intuition, rationality, and humanity. It seems to be characterized by an emphasis on self-transformation through practice of various kinds, where such practices focus on the cultivation of a particular form of present focused awareness and attention. And where the transformation in question might be towards enhanced well-being, diminished suffering, better psychological adaptation to the world or even simply towards being better in the grandest sense. We also learn from this module that this complicated culture of construct mindfulness today variously relies upon different historical traditions and associations.
Each of which makes some kind of claim about their legitimate ownership of the concept and practice of mindfulness. That is, we can see the possibility of a politics of knowledge in which individuals and traditions dispute the meaning of real mindfulness or original mindfulness. This idea of traditions of mindfulness will be a strong feature of the work we do in the rest of this course as we explore how different senses of this complicated term interact historically, conceptually, and practically. For instance, in the next module, we’ll consider how Buddhist mindfulness relates to an instrumentalized, clinical sense of mindfulness. Given that they are clearly not exactly the same things, can we really say that only one of them is really mindfulness?
And come to that, why would we want to say such a thing? In general, this course rests upon the belief that unearthing all these different stand points, perspectives, instruments, and practices and traditions is the best and perhaps the only way to clarify what this thing called mindfulness actually is. This is the demystification of mindfulness, if you like. And yet, this process makes no claims to even attempting to establish a single, exclusive meaning for the term. Rather, we’re interested in seeing the landscape of possibilities. And then really importantly, I hope that you will make some choices for yourself about where, if anywhere, in this landscape you would like to live.
As we’ve seen already, and we’ll see over and over again, one of the basic qualities of mindfulness that is retained in nearly every examination of it, we might think of it as the ground on which the landscape is being built, is its dependence upon the experiences and intentionality of its practitioners. So what you think and feel and experience while you’re investigating mindfulness really matters for you. In some ways, you’re forging your own contribution to this landscape as we go along. So if you decide that mindfulness is going to be part of your life, you need to know that your mindfulness is your own and that you’ve discovered it in a mindful way that embodies your own integrity.
Now this means, amongst other things, that I’m not going to tell you what mindfulness really is. Indeed, it means I can’t. Although I am going to do my best to guide you through the relevant material and to help you with some of the formative experiences. I’m also going to explain some things about myself and my own experiences of mindfulness. Not because your experiences need to be the same as mine, but simply because it might be helpful for you to know that I am sharing this adventure with you.
So with that, let’s bring lesson one to a close. If you want to head over to the Meditation Lab, we can make a start over there too. And I’d really recommend that you give yourself at least a week to work on the labs. And then in module two, we’ll make the leap into the psychological and neuroscientific constructions of mindfulness.

This week has required you to consider your own motivations and preconceptions of mindfulness. In this video I will summarize this weeks lectures and then take a brief look forward to week 2.

In order to help you digest and process the material from this module, we’ve prepared a reading that integrates modified versions of the scripts into coherent readings for you. Our intention is to develop these readings into chapters for a forthcoming open-access textbook, which will be used to support this course and will be available to all students for free. Hence, this is a work in progress – it is far from perfect (our apologies!). If you have comments or suggestions for improvements, they might be very valuable as we move forward with this project. Many thanks for your help, and good luck with the material – we hope it’s helpful.

A bibliography will be available in the upcoming e-textbook.

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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