21 April 2016

Mindfulness and misunderstanding the self

If you, my gentle readers, haven’t already watched this exquisite BigThink video by Harvard China historian and expert Dr Michael Puett on Asian philosophy and the mistakes of ‘mindfulness’ thinking and naturalistic fallacies, please do so now. It’s short but beautifully and sensibly done. Dr Puett attempts to give some psychological context to Confucian ideas of morality, showing that what we tend to think of by default as a natural or autonomous ‘self’ actually turns out to be quite ‘messy’. In doing so, he gives a healthily radical cast to Confucian thought, particularly of Xunzi and Confucius himself – and in the process gently calls into question the matrix of Western assumptions about ‘nature’ and even about the ‘self’ into which a lot of the ‘mindfulness’ thinking is made to fit, which renders it passive, pietistic, individualistic and based on acceptance of the status quo.

Even though Dr Puett affirms the idea that the Confucian ideal is one of self-cultivation, of actively making oneself a better ‘self’, he calls into question precisely what it is that is being cultivated, and in what way. He points out that Xunzi would deem dangerous the call to ‘look within’ and finding a ‘true’, ‘natural’, ‘sincere’ and ‘authentic’ self that ought to be expressed. The ‘messy stuff’ that Dr Puett ultimately refers to, when talking about Xunzi’s model of the psychological baggage that the ‘self’ irreducibly comes with, ultimately comes down to a non-individualistic, relational view; a ‘self’ conditioned by relationships and interactions with other people close to that ‘self’:
The fact is if we’re messy creatures, as many [Chinese philosophers] would say, what we perhaps are in our daily lives are simply people whose emotions are being pulled out all the time, by people we encounter, interactions we have… and over time those responses fall into kind of ruts and patterns, that can just be repeated endlessly. So: someone does something, it makes me angry, and not even because of what they immediately did, but because for some reason it brings back, say, you know, someone from my childhood yelling at me. And I just have a patterned response to a certain action being done in a certain way by anyone that brings out a certain response.
And Puett, in perfect form, finishes off by highlighting the potential dangers of relying on self-cultivation modelled on a disconnected withdrawal, or an acceptance of a personal or social status quo. If ‘mindfulness’ is simply telling yourself ‘I should be who I naturally am meant to be’, then, Puett says: ‘what you’re probably doing is simply continuing to follow a bunch of patterns probably destructive to yourself and almost assuredly destructive to those around you.’ Bravissimo!

To hammer home the point about Xunzi, I have highlighted before, actually, that Confucius bases his idea of ‘self-cultivation’ on what looks to modern Western eyes very much like a paradox: humaneness must be built within oneself and within one’s own relationships, with reference to rites. In order to ‘look within’ in an effective and meaningful way, one has to look without – or, rather, one has to not look at what is contrary to ritual propriety, and learn to do what is ritually-proper in one’s relationships with family and friends and loved ones. The Confucian approach to personal rectitude is emphatically not a Rawlsian one, in which one makes decisions from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ about one’s own situation and preferences – it is, instead, a means of navigating one’s own situated and non-negotiable relationships with other people (most notably, one’s parents)!


  1. I think that "mindfulness," like any concept that points to something true, can (and pretty much is always) made into something quite false. It's what might be called idolatry. Mindfulness as a "discovering who I am" can, as Puett indicates, become just another means for shoring up the ego, identifying a false self and worshiping at the altar of it. But if it's a way of discovering the various ideas about self and seeing through them, in a continous process, then that seems a good thing, a wonderful thing. And the process must also look without, as you say. That's probably a sign of authenticity. A looking inward that disregards one's fellow beings and the whole cosmos--as being occupied with something supposedly "better" is surely misguided.

  2. I like to practice mindfulness meditation sometimes. It's quite popular in substance misuse addiction treatment. However, I don't do it so often, as I spend too much time praying to fit in any secular meditation!

  3. There's some valid pushback against mindfulness as learned complacency in American corporate culture that usually focuses on the error of separating mindfulness practice from its roots as Vipassana. While I'm sure there has been significant interaction between Confucian and Buddhist thought, this is primarily coming from a Buddhist perspective and was never meant to be practiced outside the context of the dharma as a whole.

    I'm a lay Buddhist practitioner and not an expert, but as I understand it, mindfulness is meant as an aid to understanding pratityasamutpada more deeply as the nature of mind (and everything else) and to ground one not in a sense of self-justification, but in awareness of the causes of suffering and to cultivate a desire to end suffering in oneself and all sentient beings. Deep awareness of Śūnyatā is supposed to accompany mindfulness. As the west has taken it, people are largely missing the other 7 parts of the 8-fold path.