Many people who learn mindfulness on courses such as MBCT and MBSR derive sufficient benefits to continue practising long after their basic training. Some go more deeply into phenomenological enquiry through meditation. Some channel mindfulness into creative and compassionate engagement with the world. Some do both. But others do neither, instead getting stuck in cul-de-sacs of aloof passivity and self-absorption.
Research and anecdote suggest this latter group is sizeable in number, which troubles trainers and advocates of mindfulness. Why is it, they wonder, that meditation has the unintended effect of making some people more selfish when it’s supposed to do the opposite?
The answer lies in basic misunderstandings of ‘mindfulness’, a term that is more slippery in meaning than is often appreciated. The word itself can refer to a mental quality, a psychological process, a broad set of contemplative practices, a cultivation of the mind, or a careful and considerate approach to life. It defies easy explanation and application. This is not a problem, but it becomes one when ignorant enthusiasts, including teachers, claim otherwise.
A classic over-simplification of mindfulness is it’s all about “being in the here-and-now.” This suggests, absurdly enough, that it’s somehow possible to be someplace else. Another common misconception is that mindfulness pertains to immaculate states of serenity or cognitive emptiness. This tends to rouse mental resistance to less pleasant states, which is ironic considering that the skilful diminishing of mental resistance is what courses like MBCT and MBSR aim to teach.
What connects these and other misconceptions of mindfulness is a paradigm of progress relating to the self in time. In a nutshell, that there is an unchanging self which, through practising mindfulness, will obtain certain benefits for itself that will feel good. This paradigm has the potential to undermine the true benefits of mindfulness practice, which are actually ego-quieting and self-effacing. But taught badly and/or misapprehended by practitioners, mind-body practices such as meditation can lead to an increase in what psychologists call ‘self-enhancement’ whereby a person develops an inflated self-image, often at the expense of others.
A research study in 2018 found precisely this: participants became more focussed on themselves over time and increasingly viewed themselves as skilful practitioners who were, by extension, better than other people. It’s a pitfall many seasoned meditators and yogis will know – the tendency to get caught in subtle forms of pride or, even worse, a smug sense of self-satisfaction that makes others appear to be comparatively less adept at living than you.
The ‘Dynamic Neutral’
A first step out of this trap would be a refresher on some of the basics of mindfulness, and a place to start would be to better understand its nature and function as a mental quality. Mindfulness is what recollects continuously, without distraction or forgetfulness, whilst maintaining attention on an object. Put more succinctly, mindfulness ‘bears in mind’. It is the ongoing conscious awareness of what is happening. But for mindfulness practice to flourish, another mental quality that complements mindfulness is essential: equanimity.
It is equanimity that allows mindful awareness to be undisturbed by biases and preferences, and so facilitates non-attachment and non-resistance. Such even-mindedness is what empowers the kind of skilful responding that is the primary rationale for secular mindfulness trainings.
Equanimity contributes the necessary balance to one’s practice. It confers an attitude of openness, impartiality and warm-heartedness. It treats joy and unhappiness, pleasure and pain, success and failure all the same. It is the ‘dynamic neutral’ that enables total engagement with something without wanting it to be different or wanting it to stay the same. In this way it allows the undistracted ‘gaze’ of mindfulness to be non-interfering, non-grasping and to flow between objects. Without equanimity, one’s meditation practice would lean into over- or under-involvement with whatever is arising, lapse into indifference, or slide into egoic conceit.
An illustrative example of how these two qualities interrelate is when a meditator notices the presence of a strong emotion, such as fear or anger. If mindfulness is well established, there will also be an awareness of thoughts, impulses, bodily sensations and feeling tones. But without sufficient equanimity, a non-judging attitude to this cascade will be fleeting or absent. The emotions may then feel overwhelming and push the meditator into unconscious suppression or avoidance of feelings. Left with increased awareness of a disruptive pattern and a compounded desire to not experience it can easily lead to frustration on the part of the meditator and the persistence of the pattern.
In contrast, if equanimity is well established then the meditator will have the experience of being able to observe, feel and stay open to the emotion as it unfolds and passes of its own accord. A full and flexible engagement with attendant sensations, thoughts and impulses will be possible. Clear discernment of this entire process – insight – will happen by itself. The flavour of the experience will be, for want of a better word, acceptance. That is, the meditator will have an abiding sense of “this is ok.”
This example hints at how the interplay of mindfulness and equanimity release the meditator from the kinds of mental fixation that contribute to selfishness. Their beneficial effect on a person's life, however, is not confined to meditation practice. Their joint field of operation extends beyond this. See Part 2.