It was when a friend suggested I take up knitting that I wondered how I had sunk so low. The suggestion was well intentioned; an attempt to make me feel better, to help me overcome my respective problem(s). Yet such an idea left me feeling a great deal of inadequacy. As my friend was providing me with these suggestions – knitting, jogging, all things I would never consider – I questioned why I lacked the ability to resolve my various unnamed ‘problems’ by undertaking these simple activities. I had planned to write a critique of the popularity of mindfulness describing it as a form of brainwashing, but as I considered the part I played in the construction of my own difficulties I questioned whether I could even attempt to criticize something that perhaps I should be undertaking myself.
Mindfulness is currently the popular answer to achieving a sense of well-being. Even the Guardian with its ‘Start Happy‘ campaign is producing mindfulness podcasts and tips on how to incorporate mindfulness in your life. Mindfulness, is in essence a form of meditation. It is as the many new proponents claim, a way to slow down and take a moment out from the fast paced lives we are apparently all consumed in and acknowledge our thoughts, our bodies, our emotions. The mindfulness approach can assist in cultivating an objective stance to our thoughts, identifying the irrational thoughts from the rational which can help ease anxiety and stress.
Anxiety is viewed as an increasing concern blighting the population. Anxiety, a response to danger, has become a futile emotion in our contemporary lives where (generally speaking) there is little threat of danger. Anxiety is only experienced as a result of imagined threats rather than being a reasonable reaction. Mindfulness is thus considered a useful technique for anxious, stressed souls, allowing them to acknowledge the unreality of their thoughts.
Yet mindfulness soon begins to wade muddy waters. Mindfulness, similarly to cognitive behavioural therapy posits that all thoughts are just thoughts. Though if we say thoughts are just thoughts what are we saying? Thoughts do not do things? Thoughts are somehow not true? Or less true than a reality we can see and touch? If a thought is not acted upon, spoken, performed, does it not matter/exist in the same way? Further to be mindful is to recognize thoughts without judgement, yet it also involves the ability to be judicious in distinguishing between distorted thoughts and logical thoughts. But by which criteria are we judging the rationality of these thoughts?
This is a question of abnormality or normality, a question determined by the criterion established by the particular historical and social epoch in which we live. It is the societal discourses and norms that deem behaviours and thoughts as abnormal or pathological; a thought can not be inherently “wrong”. These behaviours and thoughts I have always contended would be better considered simply as part of the human condition, and not something that requires a resolution.
Whether it be mindfulness or knitting I have always considered these suggestions as a way to escape, as opposed to exploring problems. Furthermore my feelings of frustration at being given these suggestions is the implied comment of, ‘Look at all these things you can do, you have no excuse!’. The onus is always on the individual, on the individual’s actions and behaviours and incorrect thoughts. But what if the fault is not with individual but with a society that frames their behaviours as illogical. What if anxiety was not an imaginary, useless pattern of behaviour but it was a form of resistance against some deeper discontent. Anxiety may be the symptom for an issue that can not be belittled or avoided but seeks understanding.
In principle meditation allows this exploration. I would also agree to an extent mindfulness is proposing this, particularly through the idea of decentring the self. Decentring the self in mindfulness practice enables the development of an objective perspective on ones own life. Yet would it not be best to reject objectivity and subjectivity in the process of decentralization. Decentring the self is a critical standpoint. A vigilance. It allows enquiry. It is a coming undone. It is an uncomfortable and an unhappy process – even proponents of mindfulness I am sure would agree with me on this point.
If we develop vigilance to our own thoughts and tendencies and explore their origins, many things can emerge. Mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy seem to assume a superficial understanding of the human psyche paying little attention to the concept of the subconscious. But how can we interpret the rationality of the ingrained nature of memories, or of our often bizarre and mysterious dreams? These cannot be glossed over by changing behaviours or smothered with new thoughts. These quick-fix methods argue they are evidence based but as the rates of depression, anxiety and stress increase it is hard to see whether the effectiveness of these approaches are sustainable.
In some respects this is beside the point for the problem is not the apparent increase of these disorders but the categorizing (and creation) of these disorders. In mindfulness we can only learn how to accept things as they are but not question them. Until we realize ‘no recovery’ as a possibility – and not only as another strategy on the road to recovery – but as an absolute outcome, we risk fostering a false ideal of happiness. As Jacques Lacan stated in discussion of the therapy situation:
To make oneself the guarantor of the possibility that a subject will in some way be able to find happiness even in analysis is a form a fraud. (The ethics of psychoanalysis, 1992, p303)
Perhaps we will always hope for and desire happiness, but we must also accept our possible failure in the pursuit. The obligation to recover, to be well, to be happy, is the normative framework in contemporary society but it has come at the expense of the possibility of alternative ways. The question is not whether one sees the glass half full or half empty, but to reject having to choose one possibility that destroys the possibility of the other.
Instead if we accept the possibility of both, a possibility that is not necessarily always equal but contingent and haphazard, we can start to embrace the significance of irrational thoughts; of anxiety with no direct aim; of uncontrollable emotions; of mourning that goes on and on. With no quick fixes, no guarantees and without berating ourselves for failing or for our inadequacies, perhaps we can begin to explore ourselves and others; form resistance; find other ways of being, and realize knitting will not assist in the continual striving to transcend the double-bind.
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