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Modernity and mindfulness

In this video Prof Chris Goto-Jones discusses modernity and mindfulness.
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So in the previous sessions of this module, we’ve been interested in exploring the emergence and the development of the concept of sati and Buddhism and then the various ways in which other concepts, such as wu wei and Daoism or watchfulness and stoicism, might relate to, differ from, and enrich our understanding of mindfulness today. And in today’s session, we’re going to take a brief look at the work of one of the founders of modern psychology, William James, who’s also one of the founders of philosophical pragmatism. Given the way that construct mindfulness has emerged in the 20th century at the interface between psychology and philosophy, it seems especially appropriate to be aware of James and some of his contributions to this space.
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In his time, James seemed able to move relatively freely between ideas about objective and subjective knowledge, between notions of material empiricism and what he calls radical empiricism. And he also seems more than happy to make use of different concepts and ideas and experiences from all around the world in the construction of his own models of understanding. In particular, he’s clear that religious experiences from various traditions should be seen as valuable sources of insight into the nature of the self and hence, folded back into the disciplines of psychology and philosophy. That is, for James, experience was the most important and legitimate source of knowledge no matter from where that experience arose.
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This openness to varieties of experience, ranging from the mundane to the religious, was framed as a form of pragmatism. This emphasis on the foundational and functional importance of our experience of the world, rather than on the idea that the world has some kind of objective reality beyond or despite our experience of it, might resonate with some of you as similar to ideas that we discussed in Buddhism and Daoism. And in fact, there are quite a few ways in which James seems to address some of the issues we’ve encountered with mindfulness. And the contemporary scientists today refer to his work as a way of framing the problems of mindfulness in modern scientific terms.
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One of the terms with which James can help us is consciousness since this was at the core of his concerns. And this has reemerged as a hot topic in many experimental fields today, including in cognitive neuroscience. Indeed, today, mindfulness is often included within the broader category of the consciousness disciplines, rendering it into a method of inquiry into the problem of consciousness itself. This so-called problem of consciousness, which resurfaced powerfully in the work of David Chalmers in the mid-1990s, is really the problem of whether it’s possible for us to understand what consciousness is by observing it scientifically from the outside, from a kind of third person perspective, if you like.
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Or whether there’s something about consciousness that means it resists this kind of objective attention. That is, whether consciousness means what it feels like to be something or to be in a particular state. As Thomas Nagel has famously asked, can we know what it’s like to be a bat without being a bat? This would make consciousness into an inalienably subjective first person phenomena that can only be understood through our personal experience of it.
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We’ve already seen in module two that part of the reason for scientific interest in mindfulness, and Buddhist psychology more generally today, is because of the possibility that it helps us to get to grips with this hard problem of consciousness by introducing a new form of inquiry via the practice of mindfulness meditation. And in fact, James was already investigating the possibilities of subjective knowledge and consciousness in the 1890s. Building on the work of Wilhelm Wundt, he explored the idea of introspection as a form of scientific inquiry into consciousness, arguing that introspection, or insight, or looking within ourselves, produced a reliable form of empirical data. Indeed, that it was actually the only way to get valid data about consciousness.
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He saw it as a form of observation, like external observation of the material world, but directed inwardly into the self. Introspective observation is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always. The word introspection need hardly be defined. It means of course, the looking into our own minds and reporting what we there discover. Everyone agrees that we there discover states of consciousness. So perhaps you’re already noticing that this kind of description of the method of introspection sounds quite similar to descriptions of the methods of mindfulness. Indeed, we often talk about mindfulness as a form of insight as turning the light around to observe our own inner processes and experiences.
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We’ve talked a great deal already about how the way that this requires and generates a form of metacognitive or meta-aware standpoint from which we can observe ourselves. In fact, this idea that the self was able to somehow fragment and observe itself was rather controversial at the turn of the 20th century. Applying this method of introspection to our experiences of consciousness, James also made some interesting arguments about the nature and composition of experience itself. Perhaps most famously, he developed the concept of direct experience or pure experience as a way of identifying the first instant in the flow of experience that comes prior to you well before our interpretation and judgement of it.
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Jamesian pure experience which lies at the foundation of his radical empiricism has been very influential, but also rather controversial if not mysterious. We don’t have time to explore all of its implications here, but you might notice that we’ve already discussed the idea of pure experience in the context of modern mindfulness and also Buddhist philosophy. Now, while they’re certainly not identical, the precise relationship between Jamesian pure experience and Buddhist pure experience is a fascinating and productive area of research and certainly for future research. At the very least, we might take note that both enable a conceptual and experiential differentiation between, on the one hand, experiences as they happen to us, suggesting that these are experiences as they really are.
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And then on the other hand, our signification and embellishment of those pure experiences through the almost immediate layering of emotional responses and intellectual judgments on top of them. In other words, in the absence of careful introspection, we risk being mistaken about the nature and content of our experiences and thus of our real place in the world. We easily and routinely confuse our responses to experiences for the experiences themselves. As we’ve seen in today’s world, this insight is fundamental to all kinds of therapeutic interventions, including cognitive behavioral therapy and MBCT. James’s most famous foreshadowing of these ideas was his controversial contention that the common sense position about the sequence of our experiences and emotions is wrong.
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He argues that common sense says, we lose our fortune, we are sorry and weep. We meet a bear, are frightened and run. We are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike. In fact, he contends that the order should not be experience, emotion, action, but instead should be understood as, experience and action, followed by emotion. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect. That we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble. What this mean amongst other things is that our emotions do not drive our actions but instead are responses to them. Our emotions are not present in our direct experience of the world.
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We add them later in response to the physical sensations that accompany our body’s response to or unity with that experience. This also suggests that our body’s actions and our experiences are much more immediately related than we might think because they’re not mediated by those emotions. We might think of the body and direct experiences as unified. So when we look inside ourselves for the cause of our anger or fear, we find that it is not caused by the person who insulted us or the bear that surprised us, but by the physical tension, the explosive energy, gathered into our body in those moments of experience.
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Now again, you might recognize some similarities between this account of our emotional condition and the accounts prevalent in the mindfulness literature, where we routinely see that looking inside ourselves for our pure experience of the present moment is also a way of detaching ourselves from the force of our emotional responses. But before we leave James and bring this module on the philosophy of mindfulness to a close, it’s worth highlighting one last idea that we associate with his work and that’s the idea of the stream of consciousness, which he describes in the chapter of his 1890 book, Principles of Psychology.
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His primary concern in this famous chapter is to deal with the question of attention and the process of how we bring our attention to particular objects of internal experience. He made very deliberate use of the idea of a stream or a flow to confront the prevailing idea at the time that events of consciousness were experienced in ready-made discrete units like carriages on a train or links in a chain. As we know, James did not believe that consciousness was composed of neatly packaged objective events. Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as chain or train do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed, it flows.
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A river or a stream are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life. Amongst other things, his point here was that there’s no effective or meaningful reality for our consciousness, except for those things to which we direct our attention. Hence our stream of consciousness arises entirely from the flow of our attention as we move it from idea to experience and so on, letting it pause here or there or fly off somewhere else like the continuous and unbroken life of a bird.
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One of the implications of this, which might appear familiar to us from our discussions about how mindfulness equates to the act of paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, is that we might be able to cultivate and discipline our ability to direct our attention to particular mental events rather than others. And thus transform the experiential quality of our consciousness and thus our engagement with the world around us. Indeed, while James is often credited as having invented the term stream of consciousness in the English speaking world, it is interesting to reflect that a very similar term, viññāna-sota, has been used continuously in the Pali traditions of Buddhism since the time of their original scriptures.
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In fact, in Buddhism, this idea represents the natural transience of all mental events and the fluidity are formed in the world. And the cultivation of mindfulness is precisely seen as the best, and perhaps only, way for us to bring awareness and discipline to this continuous stream of our consciousness. In the end then, there are a number of tantalizing and fascinating points of contact between the philosophy of James and the contemporary, as well as historical accounts of mindfulness. The point here is not to assert that they’re talking about the same thing, but rather to take some time to consider whether and how James might help us to understand and enrich our theories and practices of mindfulness today.
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In our final session of this module, we’ll take a quick look back through all the sessions so far and see whether there are themes or problems that emerge as commonalities from all of these various traditions.

In this video, I discuss modernity and mindfulness, particularly in terms of the work of William James.

Lets Discuss

Purpose: To evaluate and reflect upon the different meanings and practices of mindfulness in non-Buddhist traditions, and to consider whether we recognize ourselves in them.

Task: Critically examine the construction of mindfulness in various non-Buddhist lineages and sincerely reflect on our level of identity with them in our practice.

Respond: Write a short comment to share with your peers how you feel about your relationship with mindfulness now, and what you feel this says about your identity in the world.

Time: 15 minutes for your comment; 5 minutes each for 2 replies. You can also like other people’s comments.

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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