Home > Uncategorized > 1843 Essay Arguing the Against the Value of Mindfulness in a Pandemic Misses on Several Levels

1843 Essay Arguing the Against the Value of Mindfulness in a Pandemic Misses on Several Levels

December 4, 2020

As one who has practiced mindfulness mediation for 15+ years, the title of Catherine Nixey’s 1843 essay, “Mindfulness is Useless in a Pandemic“, got my attention. After reading her essay, it is evident that her understanding of mindfulness is shaky and her perspective is, consequently, skewed.

In two paragraphs near the middle of the piece, Ms. Nixey acknowledges her lack of clarity about mindfulness:

It isn’t always clear quite what mindfulness is. Despite its promise of mental clarity, its own origins are decidedly foggy. It seems to be a translation of a Buddhist term, sati, which itself is tricky to define – its meaning lies somewhere between memory and consciousness. The English version is neither a very good translation nor a particularly helpful word. The longer you think about it, the stranger the word “mindful” seems: that puzzling “-ful” feels odd when talking about emptying your thoughts. (And is its opposite “mindlessness”?)

If the definition of mindfulness is elusive, the practice is even more so. Its aim is to empty your mind by using your mind; to liberate it by restraining it. It is a puzzling and paradoxical thing, the mental equivalent of climbing up a ladder and removing it at the same time.

While I am not a Dharma teacher, as an avid student of Thich Nhat Hanh I will offer some clarity for Ms. Nixey. First: YES! The Mindlessness IS the opposite of Mindfulness.

The meditative teachings of the east focus on breathing because it is the ultimate example of mindlessness. We seldom think about our breathing. It is a part of our autonomic system that we take for granted yet we cannot live without. When I began to observe breathing while meditating, I began to notice that it varied depending on my state of mind and my physical state. Before I practiced meditation it was obvious that I breathed harder when I ran  or performed physical labor.  It was a revelation when I discovered that my breathing patterns changed when I was sitting still and thinking about the prompts of the meditation leader, more of a revelation when I discovered that my breathing patterns changed when I was sitting still and thinking about whatever came into my mind. But the practical revelation came when I discovered I could use my breathing to control my thinking. When I was confronted with a crisis at work or in a family situation and my mind was racing I could calm it by calming my breath which I now noticed was taken out of its normal, measured pattern because of my overactive mind.

As I read about Buddhism and other eastern traditions, practiced yoga, and attended meetings and retreats with other practitioners, I came to appreciate how much time I spent being mindless and how frequently that mindlessness led to problems. I daresay that every reader of this post has experienced driving from work and arriving home with no clear memory of the trip…. or been traveling with a companion who observes something that does not dent our consciousness. Since practicing mindfulness I find myself observing the many times I do repetitive tasks without paying attention to them— mowing the lawn, washing the dishes, making coffee, walking to the end of the driveway to get the mail.

Ms. Nixey is also right in her observation that mindfulness is a puzzling and paradoxical thing, the mental equivalent of climbing up a ladder and removing it at the same time. But  the value of mindfulness is that it helps us navigate the puzzling and paradoxical world we live in by becoming aware of the most damaging autonomic system of our bodies: our minds. After I began to appreciate how my breathing was linked to my thinking, I began to appreciate how my THINKING was linked to the information I took in and how I processed that information. I was using my thinking to climb up a ladder and simultaneously witnessing how that ladder might be leaning against the wrong building or that some of the rungs of that ladder were missing. I found myself appreciating the bumper sticker that reads: “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”.

After completing the essay, I came to the conclusion that Ms. Nixey’s thinking about the value of mindfulness is skewed by her belief that everyone shares her lifestyle and thinks the way she does. There are millions of Americans who don’t go out for meals at the restaurants she describes or travel the way she does…. and those millions do not feel a loss of yearning— they never HAD that level of yearning for future trips or dinners on the town. Their future was clouded by overdue rent checks, empty cupboards, and anger about the past and their prospects for the future.

Ms. Nixey’s concluding paragraphs actually work against her premise that mindfulness is of no value in a pandemic:

Philosophers and Silicon Valley mindfulness gurus are advocates for the present partly because they tend to have rather a nice one (Seneca was one of the richest men in Rome and regularly threw dinner parties for 1,000 guests). For most people, daily life is more dreary. Would it be so very bad to be absent when stacking the dishwasher, to imagine yourself swimming in the sea off Croatia instead?

When the present is crushing – when lives and economies are being ruined – our imagination offers us a welcome escape. The mind, as Milton put it, is its own place: it can make a hell of heaven, or a heaven of hell. Perhaps we should let it.

As one who loves to plan trips and does the dishes, I find that during the pandemic I’ve had to put my “planning mind” on hold and appreciate the joys of getting every dish wiped clean and placed carefully in the dishwasher or drying rack. I find myself despairing when I think about the late winter camping trips I have on hold to the Southwest and a reprise of our trip from Jasper to Glacier knowing that neither may come to pass. But I can make myself feel a sense of satisfaction for a job well done every time I wash the dishes.

Ms. Nixey’s quote from Milton is spot on… and it echoes a line from one the practice songs from Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s primary monastery in France:

“The realm of the mind is mine, I can choose. I can choose where I want to be. 

Both heaven and hell I know equally well; the choice is up to me”.

Mindfulness will help us choose our perspective: do we want to make ourselves suffer or do we want to accept the world as it is? During the pandemic, the ability to make that choice is more valuable than ever.

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