The application of mindfulness to the realm of everyday life involves an essential paradoxicality which we in the West tend very much to be oblivious to. In the West we see everything as being the ‘non-paradoxical application of our will’, which in more familiar terms would be better known as ‘purposefulness’ or ‘goal-orientated activity’. The outcome is unambiguously defined from the outset. For us paradoxes don’t come into the equation – we know what the result is we are looking for, we go all out to obtain it, and then we either succeed at this or we fail. Nothing paradoxical about this at all – there’s not the slightest sign of a paradox anywhere to be seen! When it comes down to it, we just don’t understand about paradoxes. We don’t see where they come into it.
The application of mindfulness is inescapably paradoxical however and this means that mindfulness cannot be seen as a technique or a tool, or some kind of intervention. Tools do what we want them to do, after all – what we get is what it says on the label. The practice of mindfulness can’t be like this however because being mindful means swapping purposefulness for spontaneity – we are essentially learning to leave to one side (however momentarily) the purposeful state of mind in which we do everything ‘on purpose’, because we ‘want to’, because we ‘intend to’, because we ‘plan to’, and so on. Straightaway the paradox becomes obvious because the idea that we can get to be spontaneous on purpose, because we want to, is clearly one hundred per cent contradictory. I can’t deliberately be spontaneous anymore than I can deliberately be sincere – that’s a contradiction in terms. We are going beyond the formal realm of our rule-based thoughts, which is not something that the formal realm of our thoughts is capable of acknowledging as being a possibility! As Krishnamurti says, there are no methods for this sort of thing – the ‘desired outcome’ of mindfulness is to have no more desired outcomes and this just isn’t going to work…
Leaving the purposeful state of mind – in which we do things because we want to do them – is very clearly a paradoxical proposition. I am wanting not to want, I am trying not to try, I am intending not to intend. My goal is to have no goals. If I generally do everything as a result of deliberate intention – because I first intend to do it, which is of course the normal way of things – then I’m stuck in a very effective trap because when I deliberately try to leave this state of mind I’m caught up in it all the more. If I only do stuff because I first will myself to do it, then how to I get out of this? If I’m ‘in control’ the whole time (if control is all I know) then how do I control myself not to be in control?
In one sense, it could of course be said that anyone who has even a limited amount of experience in practicing mindfulness, will already know this. We all know that mindfulness is all about cultivating a state of non-striving, non-trying, non-straining and that this is not as easy as it might sound to the novice. So from a strictly practical point of view, it could be said that we understand the difficulty. But what we’re actually touching on here goes much deeper than we might think. The paradoxicality that we are talking about here is a very profound kind of a thing – it turns everything on its head. It upsets all the apple-carts. It is as Krishnamurti says a revolution – it is ‘the only revolution’!
What this revolution comes down to is the overturning of our actual fundamental perception of who we are. It goes very much without saying that normally I think that I am this ‘self’. I’m ‘me’. I am the person in the driving seat, I am the doer – I’m the one who is sitting here doing my meditation practice! I am the one who is doing the eight week course. I am the one who is sitting here and who is engaged in the mindful practice of bringing my attention gently back to my breath every time it gets kidnapped by some random thought…
All of this is ‘purposeful’ stuff however. This is very much the positive self that we are talking about here – the focus of everything is the defined self, the emphasized self, the separate self, the concrete self, and so on. When I have the idea that there is something called ‘meditation’ and that I am doing it, that I am the meditator, that meditation is a valuable skill to learn, and so on, then these are all the concrete deliberations of the purposeful self. These are all the constructs of the purposeful self, the thoughts of the purposeful self, the projections of the purposeful self, and if I’m taking these constructs seriously then I’m not being mindful!
We could say that ‘meditation is when we stop taking the purposeful self and its constructs seriously’. As long as I think that I’m meditating, as long as I think that this is a thing that I can ‘do’, then I’m taking the purposeful self seriously. As Wei Wu Wei says,
As long as there is a ‘you’ doing or not-doing, thinking or not thinking, ‘meditating’ or ‘not meditating’ you are no closer to home than the day you were born.
So to truly practice mindfulness is to lose the illusion that there is a ‘you’ there practicing it! It is to realize very clearly that there is no one who needs to be there doing anything, least of all meditating! In the purposeful realm there is the purpose and there is ‘the one who has the purpose’, there is the goal and there is ‘the one who wants to obtain the goal’. There is the doer and there is ‘what needs to be done’. There is the practioner and there is the practice. So the whole time we are shackled to these two illusions, these two heavy-duty obstacles – ‘the construct of the doer’ and ‘the construct of what is to be done’. Between the one and the other there is no freedom whatsoever – what freedom could there be between two apparently separate poles of one and the same illusion?
As long as I am busy trying to satisfy illusions, I am not going to get very far. I am simply caught up in my thinking process about ‘what is going on’ and in being caught up in this mechanical process there is no space, no freedom, at all. According to Krishnamurti (in The Flame of Attention) the perception that there is a self – a ‘centre’ – is the result of a lack of attention, the result of a type of mental ‘slackness’, or ‘neuroticism’. Krishnamurti states:
When there is total attention, there is no forming of a centre. It’s only inattention that creates the centre.
If we give total attention to what is going on then in this attention there is no perception of a centre, because, as Krishnamurti goes on to say,
Because when there is attention there is not a centre which is reacting.
An equivalent statement would be to say that when there is attention there is not a centre which compulsively (and formulaically) describes what is going on to itself, and then gets hopelessly trapped or enclosed in this formula. Strange as it may sound, the centre, the self, is its own description of what is going on – it is itself a part of the ongoing process by which it compulsively describes the world to itself. This means therefore that when I cease to describe the world to myself (which is a process that by its very nature has to function by taking all the perspective, all the relativity, all the open-endedness out of the picture) then at the same time I stop describing myself to myself, and so the whole automatic ‘enclosing’ process gets unzipped.
The conviction that ‘there is someone there doing this’ is therefore a type of stuckness that is caused by lack of perspective, the lack of space to see things clearly. We could also try to explain this by saying that the illusion of a doer is the result of is a type of stuckness that is caused by adhering slavishly to our own compulsive and formulaic descriptions of ‘what is going on’. Through describing the world to myself, therefore, it is as if I am drawing a hood over my own head. When the hood is over my head then everything is about the one who is doing this or doing that, the one who is to do this or do that, and so on. It’s all about ‘the doer’ even though there isn’t really ‘a doer’ in the process, and so in the everyday unconscious state the focus is continually being eaten up by something that doesn’t actually exist!
In this connection, Alan Watts talks somewhere about the part of the anatomy commonly known as ‘the lap’ – if we were to spend a lot of time sitting down then we would of course be likely to see our laps as being pretty central. Yet as soon as we stand up this so-called ‘lap’ vanishes without leaving the slightest trace behind it! Continuing with this analogy therefore, we can say that the paradox is that everything we think about in everyday life is from the perspective of ‘the lap’, and yet this lap is no more than a construct created by our lack of attention, by our mental slackness. This paradox stays with us – even when we get interested in meditation and start to talk about the state of ‘lap-lessness’, we are still doing so from the point of view of the lap…
The spontaneous self isn’t really any sort of a self at all. That’s a misnomer. In the spontaneous state everything just happens – there is no one who makes it happen, there is no one who is responsible for making it happen. Everything just happens. As Alan Watts says – it is ‘self so’, which is the Daoist concept of ziran. In order illustrate what ‘ziran’ means Watts quotes the Zenrin poem:
The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection,
The water has no mind to receive their image.
The purposeful self, on the other hand, claims responsibility for a lot and it is this sense of responsibility, this heavy sense of being the ‘responsible doer’, the controller, that creates and maintains the sense of being a self. Sometimes this sense of responsibility will allows us to feel good about ourselves, and at other times it will facilitate ourselves in feeling equivalently bad about ourselves. The one thing it will never do is to allow us to let go and freely enjoy what is really happening in life!
Whenever we do anything we always do it in order to benefit ourselves. We do it because we think it will be advantageous, because we have ‘a reason’ for doing it. This is what being ‘purposeful’ is all about – our purpose is to benefit ourselves, to find advantage. That’s what the ‘purpose’ is… This is normal – this is just the way things are. It’s the way things work in the mechanical realm, the formal realm – nothing happens without a concrete reason! When we practice mindfulness we do so in order to improve our situation in some way. I am practicing in order to be more compassionate, more peaceful, more insightful, more integrated as a person, more ‘at one’ with the universe, and so on. I practice because of certain ‘reasons’. The paradox is therefore that these reasons are the very thing that I need to lose in order to practice…
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.