This last day of the year seems a good time to wrap up the current set of posts dealing with mindfulness. By looking at both its meaning and its practice there is now a working definition for what the term means for this blog project. All that remains at this stage is to place it in context, which for our society means examining mindfulness’ association with psychology.
There are therapeutic uses of mindfulness proving to be effective treatment for a number of painful psychic disorders for which we should all be grateful. The cognitive psychologists in particular are able to combine their work with traditional techniques of mindfulness for the express purpose of relieving the suffering of others. All of this is powerful stuff. My crystal ball tells me as tough times continue to squeeze, more and more people will find their way to practicing these very practical techniques for monitoring and rationally confronting paranoia, obsessions and a whole host of neuroses.
Also, it can be said that from the point of view that considers all consciousness the proper subject of psychology the states and insights that accompany samadhi, nirvana and enlightenment are all proper subjects for it to study.
That said, it is my opinion that what the mindfulness and contemplative practice as found in the wisdom traditions is all about is far beyond anything typically considered within the realm of western psychological science. It needs to be said that our society’s intellectual climate has no place beyond psychology in which to frame an understanding of something like the contemplative practices and their results. The natural way for a modern mind to approach such things is to consider that in some way they will lead to a healthier, saner, more well-balanced and well-adjusted individual. We expect the addition of wisdom to adorn our fairly modest ego desires and are ready to be satisfied with such milk toast.
The enlightenment I understand is much more dangerous than that. Those expectations are born from a culture that has been thoroughly psychologized. Our vision of ultimate human potential is shaped by a conformity to capitalistic norms, molded by the goal of psychology, namely, to aid the client in adjusting to the roles and responsibilities of the dominate consumer culture. There is a vast poverty of imagination revealed in this psychic characteristic of our time.
I do not want to be misunderstood as advocating that these adaptations are anything but good things, worth working for, even required to empower us to carry out our duties to ourselves and others. There is an ancient teaching among the Hindus that explains that for most people there are natural and proper stages in a life. The young are to gain their education, the middle years see us marry, raise families and work while the last stage in life is for turning inward and taking up the ways of yoga. There is a wholesome welcoming of each aspect of a full human life in this approach to things. Proper respect is paid for the skillful means displayed by adapting to your cultural norms. This is not the same as selling out. In every stage the contemplative does well to practice mindfully. Nor are the stages as black and white as the teaching might make them seem; there are phases within every stage of life where one element or another play a stronger role.
To return to our subject psychology, consider interpretations of a mandala. In depth psychology this is considered the central motif of the greater Self, that which is beyond ego at the core of the psyche, that which we experience as god. In therapy guided by depth psychology the client might make mandalas in sand or by painting, they watch for the appearance of mandalas in dreams and generally try to allow them to exist in their own space and take their own good time in revealing their healing message. All of this is great advice and the best we are able to do given the psychological context from which we think.
The traditional interpretation of a mandala differs in a number of respects. First in how they are used. They are detailed targets for intricate visualization practices giving a workout to the powers of the imagination’s inner eye. Instead of symbols of the individuation of the psyche they are gateways to the sacred world that is said to be around us right now though we are blind to it. Mandalas are the palace home for deities, yet in the center-most point is enthroned emptiness – there is a fundamental type of atheism in the traditions that use them. The last point of difference I would like to illustrate is a bit more of a stretch. The mandala in depth psychology is a manifestation of a psychic reality and while synchronicity might entangle the material world, its manifestation remains focused on an individual’s psychological states. The mandala in traditional thought is a manifestation of a transcendent reality that is neither all psychic nor all material.
In the center of the mandala is the central mountain of earth. It corresponds to the nervous system housed in the spine inside the body and to a specific mountain in the Himalayas. Or the center of the mandala is said to be a sacred tree; the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha became enlightened, which is a tree in India you can visit today. That same tree is also the nervous system branching through the spine within the inner body. These are the kinds of traditional teachings that accompany mandala images. They are clear statements of non-dual awareness and this places it beyond the reaches of most of what the west understands as psychology. These mandalas come from a world that is filled with magic.
In this worldview there are special trees, special mountains. The earth is alive with expressions of intelligence in form and flow, ceaselessly churning the dances of the ten-million things. In this worldview it is a precious, temporary condition to be experiencing a human life surrounded on all sides by clouds that dance, flowers that breathe, and waters that laugh.
Our psychologies are our containers; they are not the be-all and end-all of the contemplative path. They should not provide us with our final, ultimate sense of identity. We work with our neuroses as best we are able but shouldn’t confuse that with the great work: to seek enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is not navel gazing. This is real work. It works with consciousness and the world. It is needed now, right in the middle of this maelstrom of the sixth extinction event.
All of this is to warn us against a too romantic version of Buddhism, a subject that is even addressed in the Wikipedia article on Buddhism and Psychology where this fine diagram can be found.