Mindfulness: A movement?

“Thirty years ago, ‘mindfulness’ was a Buddhist principle mostly obscure to the West,” Jeff Wilson writes in Mindful America. Today, however, it has managed to reach nearly every institution of American society (a tendency that is growing in Europe as well, although more slowly). How did this happen?

In Mindful America, Wilson explores the origin of the mindfulness movement. The book offers one of the first critical descriptions of the movement, which is focused on more that the movement’s practices. A key point is that mindfulness could only grow by distancing itself from Buddhism as a religion. This process took place in the 1980s through magazines, films, TV programs and, in particular, through bringing mindfulness into a medical context, where it later would open up a completely new field of research. Whether Buddhism really is a religion is something that has been debated before the era of mindfulness, but it is true that mindfulness (or the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR-program of Jon Kabat-Zinn) would probably not be a part of more than 700 medical schools, hospitals, and health care programs worldwide if it were “sold” as religion.

Wilson wants to be neutral in his study, but this is difficult for him. “I do happen to be a Buddhist but am drawn to study mindfulness because of its prominence in the United States,” he writes. Being a Buddhist is both an advantage and disadvantage in his work. Wilson knows what he writes about, but it colors his perception at times. For example, he can’t help but see mindfulness as a second-rate Buddhist practice. He sees the maneuver of bringing mindfulness from Buddhism into a non-Buddhist context as problematic—a purely business practice; he fails to notice the extent to which it actually has contributed to something such as wellbeing.

Wilson favors a certain kind of origin of mindfulness as if there were only one right way to practice Buddhism. A bit similar if one were to criticize contemporary American pragmatics like Robert B. Brandom or Cheryl Misak because they diverge from the founding fathers Charles Sander Peirce and William James. Evolution is creative. Furthermore, the Dalai Lama looks positively on the matter of how Buddhism or aspects of Buddhism may contribute to reducing suffering in the West.

Having said the above, I still believe that Wilson has written a book that was highly needed. As with all things when they become popular, mindfulness attracts people who are mindful for the sake of money, not for the potential liberation of one’s mind. For example, one so-called mindfulness author writes, “mindfulness helps you fall in love,” while another writes, “what can that moment-to-moment awareness do for our sex lives” and “another bonus of eating mindfully is that it improves self-esteem.” Of course, by targeting sex and food, mindfulness is stretched to fit a need among white middle-class people. In addition, the focus on self-esteem (and worse, on identity) is problematic since among the more serious teachers of mindfulness, the “self” is a process. After all everything changes; everything is impermanent.

The critique that Wilson raises can be raised for the majority of the self-help industry. It targets people who seem to be existentially frustrated, perhaps even bored, rather than those that suffer socially or financially. A title like The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, for example, tells us all we need to know about whom the book is targeting.

Mindful America does a very good job in exploring the mindfulness movement. In its transition from a Buddhist practice strictly for monks to a practice for mainstream Americans, it has had some ups—but mostly downs. The book is not an introduction to mindfulness; rather, it locates this transition in a sociological and cultural setting. It that sense, the need for mindfulness tells us more about the times we live in than about the actual practice itself. Sometimes it can be attractive to become what you’re not.

As Wilson says, “Today mindfulness is, quite simply, everywhere.” This assertion is both true and false. As a commercial concept it is indeed everywhere, but as a practice, it is not. If it were, the world would be a little bit more caring. Actually, if people were mindful then they wouldn’t buy books about mindfulness and sex and shopping and accounting, but simply be mindful.

This review was published in Metapsychology (Volume 19, Issue 32).

Move to Mars

In The Practice of the Wild, the poet Gary Snyder writes, ”The world is our conscious, and it surrounds us. There are more things in mind, in imagination, than ‘you’ can keep track of – thoughts, memories, images, angers, delights, rise unbidden.”

We are formed by the world. It resembles the mystery of our minds. Still, the world is suffering: Water shortage. Climate chaos. Mass poverty. Mass migration. Terrorism. Financial greed. And so forth.

What to do? In the same essay, Snyder stresses, ”An ethical life is one that is mindful.” Becoming mindful is the challenge.

Of course, we all know it. The world — our planet — needs our care to survive. Yet, it seems as if the planet is wrapped more in sweet and symbolic words than actual concrete actions. Saving the planet has become a moralistic quest. We have forgotten, “the shared ground of our common biological being,” as Snyder writes, that is to say; you have more in common with a lion than what differentiates you from it.

Saving the planet is our responsibility, some say. Some even wants to save it, because they feel guilty. They are concerned about the fear of suffering from future guilt, as when our kids or our friends kids confront us, “Why didn’t you do anything?” However, guilt, fear, and responsibility … I am not sure that it works. At least it doesn’t seem like it’s working. Instead, I suggest that we save the planet out of love.

It’s that simple. We need the planet because we love the sun, the rain, and the wind. We need the planet because we love how we are connected with every being that breathes. We need the planet because we live here; our memories, love stories and miseries are embedded here. We don’t love the planet because we need it for something as vague as career, status or prestige.

Out of love. That’s the best intention for everything. Out of love we plant small seeds, then we nurture them, take care of them, and we do so because deep down we know that survival of the fittest doesn’t rule the world (only capitalism works that way). On the contrary, in life it’s compassion, care, and love that rules. It’s because I care that some life will go on living.

Do you care?

An ethical life is mindful, well, a mindful life is one that tries to live here and now in our bodies. Here and now is also how Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari defined utopia in What Is Philosophy?, ”Utopia does not split off from infinite movement: etymologica1ly it stands for absolute deterritorialization but always at the critical point at which it is connected with the present relative milieu, and espe­cially with the forces stifled by this milieu, Erewhon, the word used by Samuel Butler, refers not only to no-where but also to now-here.”

Utopia. Nowhere is always now and here. We don’t need more contemplation, not even higher ideals or moral categories. Rather we need to connect with the present. Becoming more mindful. Mindfulness of the body, for example, can be practiced by watching the breath when goes in and out, listening to the sounds, noticing the smells in the air, becoming aware of what we put in our mouth. Awareness is the key, not judgment. Mind and body are indistinguishable like Alberto Contador and his bike.

To love is not an intellectual project. Don’t your lips shiver when you kiss your lover? Do you love your kids out of responsibility? Out of guilt? No, because that’s not love. You love them because you love them.

Don’t you love the place where you live? If not … move to Mars.

For more on mindful philosophy, I have published the essay “Philosophy of Everyday Life” in the Journal of Philosophy of Life.

Kierkegaard’s Quest: How Not to Stop Seducing

I just published the paper “Kierkegaard’s Quest: How Not to Stop Seducing” in Philosophy of Management.

Abstract

Change has traditionally been perceived as something to be avoided in favor of stability. This can be witnessed in both individual and organizational approaches to change. In this paper, change as a process of becoming is analyzed. The author relates change to seduction to introduce new perspectives to the concept. The principal idea is that the process of change is a seductive experience. This assumption highlights the positive aspects of becoming, growing, and changing. In doing so, reference is made to the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, as well as the humanistic psychology of Carl Rogers, to analyze seduction, as presented in The Seducers Diary by the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. The qualification of this claim is based on this reading. Finally, a conclusion is offered through brief comments on the relationship between seduction, personal growth, and self-actualization.

Read the entire paper here: Kierkegaard’s Quest- How Not to Stop Seducing

Preface to …

From my book, The Happiness of Burnout:

PREFACE

A proper philosophical question is: Which life is worth living? The question invites a plurality of answers from different perspectives. This plurality leads toward an affirmative practice that asks: How might one live a flourishing and happy life without any transcendent guidance?

This book deals with these questions. It tells the case story of the Danish artist Jeppe Hein’s (JH) burnout.

The material for this book is based on more than 100 hours of interviews with JH. Most interviews were unstructured. In addition, I interviewed his family and some of his closest friends. Interviews with the latter were more structured in order to check for accuracy; however, I also left a part of these interviews open to see whether I could obtain new knowledge or perspectives on the process.

During the process of writing this book, some memories changed. This is normal. Memories are not static, but something that we recreate or reedit in light of present events and new knowledge. This emphasizes that a life is never organized in a static fashion. It’s constantly being organized. A life is changing.

Thus, it can be tempting to see burnout as something that marks everything as either being before or after, at least for compositional reasons. Still, the relationship between the cause and effect is not something solid. Sometimes an effect can cause new causes to emerge. This stresses that ethic is a compositional capacity that uses narrative elements in order to tell, retell, or invent a room where various experiences can be expressed.

While I tell the story of JH, I will constantly mix it with other thoughts and ideas related to burnout. For example, I will present burnout as illustrated in Graham Greene’s novel A Burnt-Out Case. I will relate the story of JH to Greene’s thoughts. Also, I will add perspective by conversing with theories and thoughts from both psychology and philosophy—most notably the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. Finally, I will relate JH’s story to his art.

The purpose of this is to create a broad site where certain experiences can fold, unfold, and refold in order to share thoughts related to how one might overcome the various setbacks that all lives encounter.

Finally, I might add that this book doesn’t aim to outline one roadmap to accomplish a life worth living. Basically, it does not believe that there is one truth regarding a happy life (or that any unchangeable certainties exist), nor that one path will be suitable for all. Rather, it offers different perspectives, addresses various challenges, and poses questions and ideas that some might find inspirational in his or her quest toward living a happier and flourishing life.

You can read more here.

The Spirit of Meditation

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in Buddhism and mindfulness meditation as well as some new-age philosophies that are often nothing more than pale imitations of Buddhist techniques. The interest is obvious. We live in an achievement-orientated, performance based culture and we are constantly forced, and even force ourselves to do something, and to set new goals and so forth. The result is that we become less aware and experience more narcissism, stress and depression.

In Sarah Shaw’s The Spirit of Buddhist Meditation we are told “When the mind is restless, that it is time to develop the factor of awakening that is tranquility, the factor of awakening that is concentration and the factor of awakening that is equanimity.”

Meditation can in other words, help us to become more mindful. “Mindfulness is the true refuge of the mind, mindfulness is manifested as protection, and there is no exerting or restraining of the mind without mindfulness.”

After I finished reading this book I didn’t know whether I should be impressed by or doubtful of all those people who claim to be mindful, because it requires diligence and self-control. It’s certainly hard work.

For those who are interested in Buddhism it can — especially for newcomers — be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff (such as much of New Age thinking). As Shaw stresses, “a good tradition, teacher and friends, along with text, are the best ways of finding out about meditation for oneself.” Shaw is a knowledgeable teacher and a caring friend.

She deals solely with the Buddhist tradition, although that doesn’t mean that she is critical towards the important contribution to mindfulness made by Jon Kabat-Zinn and others, it is simply that her focus lies elsewhere. Shaw wants to show us how the texts have always been an important part of sharing Buddhist practices. In addition, she attempts to illustrate that Buddhism compared to other religions is less dogmatic. Rather it consists of good advice that comes from experience, or to put it differently: if one wants to wake up, then it is not enough to believe, one must act, and for example, meditate.

The Spirit of Buddhist Meditation can, therefore, be viewed as a rich introduction to the multiplicity of Buddhism, but also — and perhaps more likely — as a thorough guide for the more experienced meditators, or those who are already familiar with the philosophy of Buddhism. The book is littered with illuminating phrases, such as “What is required is that we try to live here and now ‘in our bodies'” — “You breathe in and out all day and night, but you are never mindful of it, you never for a second concentrate your mind on it. Now you are going to do just this” — “if we cannot control our minds, it will be impossible to control our actions and speech.”

A wide range of Buddhist writings on meditation are investigated and those already familiar with reading original Buddhist texts will appreciate the mixture of anecdotes, practical tips and endless repetitions within the same text. Sometimes this repetition can become a little boring unless, of course, one really pays attention to the minor differences that the text unfolds. Perhaps, the texts are written like that on purpose to cultivate our awareness.

Another reason for the repetition is that many of the texts come from an oral culture where the teacher would chant aloud. This of course explains why the reading can, at times, be a challenge. It is like listening to a love song on the stereo. Without the instruments, the rhythm and pauses, the experience can often seem more flat.

The Spirit of Buddhist Meditation explains the eight fold path of meditation, how meditation is practiced (sitting, standing, walking) and provides instructions on how to breathe, explaining why breathing is the foundation of a spiritual practice. (I may add that the word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, which is a translation of the Greek pneuma, meaning breath). We also learn why there is no sane reason for clinging on to anything. The goal of Buddhism is to release one from the cycle of existence (Nibbána) and here the meditator enters a sphere of nothingness where, if you believe it, birth is caused by death. However, if you don’t believe in reincarnation, and I am skeptical; then you can still be open-minded and admit that we do not know for sure what happens when we die. For most meditators though, the experience of death may be beyond reach unless a life lived in retreats is desired. Despite this, with some practice and guidance it may be possible to experience that “space is infinite”, even though this concept can make most people feel dizzy thinking about it. If this is possible, then we may also understand that “consciousness is infinite.”

Everything is interconnected but this is not only a Buddhist idea as it can also be found in ecological thinking, or in the works of Spinoza or Deleuze. We may cultivate an experience through meditations. Again, the point of Shaw’s study is not the engage with other philosophies or psychological traditions, but to show the richness within the Buddhist tradition.

The Spirit of Buddhist Meditation will most likely attract people who already meditate, or those who would like to do so. However, it can also serve as a useful introduction to Buddhism in general, as well as act as an inspiration for people who work in the growing service industry, helping people recover from the negative effects of modern day capitalism.

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Published in Metapsychology (Volume 19, Issue 23).

Which dish of noodles is your life worth?

Depression is a narcissistic sickness – Byung-Chul Han, Agonie des Eros

“We no longer live in a disciplinary society controlled by prohibitions or commands, but rather in an achievement-orientated society that is allegedly free,” says philosopher Byung-Chul Han in the documentary film Müdigkeitsgesellschaft–Byung-Chul Han in Seoul/Berlin. He continues, “Yes, we presume ourselves to be free, but in reality we voluntarily and passionately exploit ourselves until we collapse.”

German video artist Isabella Greeser directed this poetic documentary film about Han. The first part reflects upon the film Der Himmel über Berlin, directed by Wim Wenders and written by Peter Handke, perhaps because it’s Byung-Chul Han’s favorite film. Müdigkeitsgesellschaft–Byung-Chul Han in Seoul/Berlin had its world premiere on February 9 at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB). A few hundred people attended the show.

Byung-Chul Han is popular not only in Germany, but also in Spain, where five of his books have been lated into Spanish. Han’s thesis is that today’s neoliberalism has made politics psychological, or mental. The logic of neoliberalism has invaded our minds. This is sad, since our mind is all we have. It’s our ability to be present in our life, to think, and to love that is threatened by this invasion. We shrink mentally. More and more is said and done in the same, almost hypnotic and uncritical fashion. All that is strange, secret, or negative—in other words, all that passes through our thoughts—disappears, due to the ongoing repetition of sameness. It seems like all aspects of life suffer from the idea of “best practice,” so popular in business organizations. We lack a critical yet creative approach to overcome this confinement.

In the documentary film, we follow Byung-Chul Han as he wanders the streets of Berlin. He talks about his passion for antiquarian shops, and at least here, time seems to endure. As he passes by the tomb of philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel, he says that he is “the most important philosopher for me.” One quickly realizes that Byung-Chul Han is in no hurry, although he publishes with the speed of Usain Bolt. Still, he doesn’t seem too motivated by performance as such. On the contrary, he stops. He sits down. He reads. He closes his eyes. He pauses. All of these are forms of resistance towards today’s positivity. Luckily, he is not part of what elsewhere he has called “the terror of positivity.”

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Philosophy is an intervening time, he notes in Müdigkeitsgesellschaft (Eng. Fatigue Society). Philosophy can be understood as the time of “non-doing,” “a peace time,” as he calls it, in reference to Peter Handke. The concept of “non-doing” also resembles elements of mindfulness in that it stresses that we don’t need to be doing things constantly. Non-doing allows things to unfold at their own pace.

Halfway through the film, Byung-Chul Han flies to Seoul, in South Korea. He was born there in 1959. In this part of the world, the relevance of the philosopher’s thesis and analysis becomes even more evident. People are exhausted. They sleep on the metro, on the busses, behind the cash register. It seems tragicomic. Those who are not sleeping live through the gleaming light of the ever-present cellphones. Do the cellphones work as pacemakers?

In Transparenzgesellschaft (Eng. The Transparency Society), Han notes that we are forced or coerced into participating in ongoing positive communication: declaring, “I like,” over and over, again and again. However, we don’t have to like everything. Social media forces people to communicate more. No pause. Perhaps because updates and news drop down quickly, one needs to keep adding new communications in order to remain visible. A non-visible person is like a non-existent person. It is exhausting.

This reminds me of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who once said that “art is not communicative, art is not reflexive. Art, science, philosophy are neither contemplative, neither reflexive, nor communicative. They are creative, that’s all.” However, in order to be creative, one needs to stop, allow oneself to be formed or touched by what is happening as it happens, without judging it according to some predefined ideal. Actually, I think that Han’s philosophy, like most forms of Buddhist meditation, tries to free us from the conventional illusion of having a self. Furthermore, unlike his German collegians at the Frankfurter School, Han is not normative in his critique, but immanent. This makes his approach more creative. Most of his critique is realized as practice. To stay with the vocabulary of Deleuze, then he points out liberating lines of flight that can change our relation to the world, for example, that it is ok not to do anything.

Byung-Chul Han claims in Agonie des Eros (Eng. The Agony of Eros) that we (far too many of us, at least) have become narcissistic. I find it difficult not to agree with him. Like Narcissus, more and more people fall into the water and drown. Or life vanishes while people are Googling their own name. Or they jump off a bridge. South Corea is on the top of the list of countries with the highest suicide rate. In the film Han passes by a bridge in Seoul that is a popular site for suicides. Apparently, no one attempts to understand the depression that leads many to commit suicide. Rather, the sadness is covered up with quotes from poems alongside colorful pictures of delicious noodle dishes. Which dish of noodles is your life worth?

Neoliberal capitalism has gone mad. Freedom has turned itself into a voluntary constraint on performance or achievement. Capitalism is like a train without brakes. We are exhausted; perhaps we need to embrace a tired society where it is okay to do nothing for a while. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote to his fiancé Regine Olsen that freedom is the element of love. If we follow Han, then today we are not free. Instead of love and compassion, we have stress, burnout, and depression. I guess it is time to take a break. Pause. Close your eyes. Breathe.

Byung-Chul Han’s voice is both original and needed, and not just in Spanish and German. The documentary is a harmonic introduction to some of his thoughts and also provides some biographical information. Though it doesn’t add anything new regarding his ideas, it can serve as a supplement for those who still can’t find the time to sit down and read one of his short but stimulating books.

For more about Buying-Chul Han, please, see here.

The Happiness of Burnout

I just released a new book. It’s called The Happiness of Burnout.

A proper philosophical question is: Which life is worth living? The questions invites a plurality of answers from different perspectives. This plurality leads towards an affirmative practice that asks: How might one live a flourishing and happy life without any transcendent guidance?

The Happiness of Burnout deals with these questions. It tells the case story of the Danish artist Jeppe Hein’s burnout. The material for this book is based on more than 100 hours of interviews with Jeppe Hein.

A book launch will take place the 4th of June in Berlin. For more info see Press Release.

theHappinessofBurnout

Posthumanism

Once upon a time the human was at the center of the universe. Now, the unified and autonomous human subject is a myth. “There is no more a sovereign subject,” Pramod K. Nayer writes in Posthumanism. Humanism has reached its end. A new era has emerged. It’s called posthumanism. It has to do with coexistence, that is, the relationship between human and nonhumans … Read the rest of the review  here.

True Detective

I have published the essay, True Detective: Pessimism, Buddhism or Philosophy?
The aim of this essay is to raise two questions. The first question is: How is pessimism related to Buddhism (and vice versa)? The second question is: What relation does an immanent philosophy have to pessimism and Buddhism, if any? Using True Detective, an American television crime drama, as my point of departure, first I will outline some of the likenesses between Buddhism and pessimism. At the same time, I will show how the conduct of one of the main characters in True Detective resembles the paths of Buddhism and pessimism, even though he is ethical in a strictly non-pessimistic and non-Buddhist fashion. Last, I will try to place these findings in perspective through the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s thoughts. Hereby, I hope to illustrate that joy, not suffering, is basic to human existence, and how human beings may overcome a spiritual pessimism.
Read more here.