How many of us found our inner self critic was triggered by this headline?
When I first heard that long time mindfulness teacher and former Tibetan Buddhist monk, B. Alan Wallace who was ordained by the Dalai Lama, with degrees in physics, the philosophy of science and religious studies was leading a retreat on “getting mindfulness right” in my home town of Melbourne I immediately wondered — what was I doing wrong? Cue my self critic!
Mindfulness can often feel like a series of mistakes — people who try mindfulness for the first time can feel frustrated and give up, concluding that they are doing something wrong. More on that another time because I often help people understand where this challenge comes from and find ways to establish a mindfulness practice more easily and effectively. But that’s not really what Alan was talking about.
During the retreat, and when I interviewed Alan he explained:
“I am not going around saying that Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is a friend of mine, got it wrong. He got it right for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. There is nothing wrong. It’s not Buddhism, but there is nothing wrong. It’s just different. If MBSR and the kind of mindfulness we all know as moment to moment non judgmental awareness was not useful, not beneficial, we would not have tens of thousands of people practicing it. I don’t think that many people are stupid.
“Instead I would ask, are there limitations to that mode of mindfulness that might be overcome by having a richer, deeper, more textured and multi-layered understanding of mindfulness? Might that bring us more benefit?”
“MBSR is good entry level but I can practice a richer fuller kind of mindfulness at all times, whose definition is not 50 years old but 1500 years old.
If right now I practiced moment to moment non judgmental awareness of everything that comes up — I couldn’t hold a conversation!
You are the centre of my attention right now, as you should be, that’s what we are here for — for your questions and our dialogue.
“I think the nuances of understanding and practicing mindfulness this way, with introspection, with relaxation, with stability and clarity is much richer. It can be studied and it’s more applicable throughout the whole course of the day and in all kinds of activities. Moreover, it can shift the very way we have minds and attend to reality and not simply be a 20 minute practice we use to reduce the stress we have built up without addressing the underlying causes of that stress.
“MBSR doesn’t try to address underlying causes, nor does it have any connection to ethics — so it doesn’t challenge any materialistic beliefs, assumptions or priorities like consumerism, commercialism or commodification — it doesn’t question any of those.
“In which case I say it is limited and it is easily highjacked for more — more money, more this, more that — and becomes completely hedonic. (hedonic well-being is the pleasure focused variety in contrast to the more transformative eudomonic well being which is about deeper meaning and self-realization)
“This is where the ‘non-judgmental’ part can become flat out moral imbecility — as if every thought or notion that comes up is just fine. No it’s not.”
“I’m not being judgmental I’m just saying: THIS particular motivation and desire is very instructive, very helpful and healthy but not that one. There is no point in being judgmental – why bother? You are who you are, accept yourself as you are but as you would for an old friend when you noticed some behavior where there was room for improvement, … be discerning and give friendly advice.
This last point reminds me of something I heard Dr. Paul Gilbert, creator of Compassion Focussed Therapy say recently: That turning towards our own unhelpful behavior with compassion doesn’t mean letting ourselves off the hook, rather we support ourselves when we have made a mistake but through these practices, we develop the self acceptance that makes it possible to lean in to the behavior for insight and clarity about what we can do better next time. We are motivated to live with ethical intention.
So what is the 1500 year old definition of mindfulness Alan is referring to?
To bear in mind, to keep in mind, to recollect, to recall, to hold in mind. Non forgetting. Not straying.
“Not distracted, not forgetting what we are attending to — to our conversation in this instance — or whatever one chooses to attend to, including the presence of our ethical orientation. We may then turn our mindfulness to something else — to driving, to our breath, to our children.”
This also reminds me of something Rick Hanson mentioned in our interview — that a benefit of mindfulness is being able to choose where to place our attention and to keep it there — in the case of something helpful, like the blog I am writing right now — or to remove it from something unhelpful — like my craving for chocolate.
This way of defining mindfulness is active and involves choice and responsibility. It goes beyond simple awareness of what is present. It requires “with introspection, with relaxation, with stability and clarity.”
Alan is inviting us to take that next step deeper and train our minds so that we are in the drivers seat of our attention, where we place it and what wisdom, ethics or “wholesomeness” we bring to our attention.
That is what it means to “get mindfulness right”
Look out for part two of this blog where I share more of my interview and retreat with Alan Wallace and sign up here to get lifetime access to all the interviews and practices.