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“Mindfulness” has become quite the buzzword in popular culture today. While we could argue that its vogue-like emergence is just another fashionable trend – embraced, paraded and glamorized by both health enthusiasts and socialites alike – I would suggest that what we are really seeing is something far more significant.
I would also suggest that the practice of mindfulness itself actually has some very important implications for where our civilization is going. This is partly because mindfulness, as a concept, carries a strange ramification for both religion and spirituality alike;
in some ways separating the two, while in other ways reconciling them all over again. It is an anthropological and developmental marker in our humanity, among other things; a verifiable stepping stone in our collective journey into the future of our destiny as a species.
But a caution, however. Mindfulness, like any other tool or cultural artifact that is newly-pressed into the hands of a curious tribal group, is something that begs for a certain spirit of maturity and responsibility in order to bring out its fuller beauty and purpose.
But what is mindfulness, really? What are we talking about?
Mindfulness is the act (or the art, really) of being attentive to the present, as opposed to the past or the future – which arguably do not even exist. In a mindful state, an individual is able to appreciate that they are not the same entity as their mere thoughts.
Rather, they are the observer of those thoughts. In the mindful state, the individual no longer has to judge the thoughts or emotions that come to the surface of their consciousness, but instead simply accepts them and regards them for what they are without any burden of being distracted by them.
Mindfulness means accepting the moment, the present, without any effort of pushing or forcing unwanted thoughts aside. In this way, mindfulness essentially releases us to the art of ‘experiencing life’ rather than fearing it, dreading it, regretting it, or wishing it was happening in some other form. It’s no surprise, then, that mindfulness can often be regarded as synonymous with meditation.
Mindfulness and meditation
Meditation is an ancient practice which has long since served to still the mind and facilitate higher evolution of thought and wisdom.
Today, our scientific discoveries have revealed that such mindful states play a central role in the calming (inhibiting) of our amygdala – the “storehouse” for our emotional memories and the trigger for our fight, flight and freeze responses, as well as the stimulating of our left prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain associated with pleasure and feelings of peace).
As Khusid and Vythilingam (2016) point out, “meditation changes the relationship to negative thoughts by making one more aware, yet more open and accepting of negative experiences, thereby decreasing their intensity” (p. 963).
To be sure, mindfulness, while at one time found primarily in closely-knit spiritual communities scattered throughout the world, is now being experienced in increasing measures across the globe.
Perhaps its most fascinating emergence has been in the Western world over the last little sliver of our history, more so because of the way that it stands out with such great contrast from the rest of our manic, “crush it”-oriented society.
While there could be many reasons for this new appearance of it, I think that there are two specific things that have led to the way in which mindfulness has reached such widespread popularity – particularly its Western variation of it.
Why is meditation so popular?
The first reason would simply be associated with the religious shift that began materializing during the latter part of the 20th century. For a long time now, many people have been identifying a decisive line between spirituality and religion; pointing out that these are often two very different themes and should therefore not be confused with one another.
Simultaneously, as we move even further into a post-feminist culture, with the subsequent waves of social awareness having been mercilessly thrust upon the archaic conventions of religion and many of its patriarchal associations, spirituality itself ultimately began experiencing a new birth, for lack of a better term. A new incarnation, as it were.
It’s become all but redundant in today’s world to make the distinction that one is “spiritual but not religious.” In fact, the very application of a religious label today can sometimes even be seen as an insult, resulting in a (curiously) terse assertion that one is not in the least bit religious, thank you very much.
With the added phenomenon that even the atheist can now ascribe a form of “spirituality” to him or herself that is void of any form of Higher Power whatsoever, we are essentially left with a society in which spirituality – as a concept – has become deeply more rooted into our collective human psyche.
If anything, we have reached a stage of social awareness in which spirituality is commonly being understood as an entrenched aspect of our humanity, and not necessarily something that we formally need to sign up for or commit ourselves to. It is simply there in our behavioral makeup, whether we have a religious background or not.
To this effect, mindfulness is now being seen simply as a way of being. And while it is often referred to as a ‘spiritual’ act, it is granted an existence that does not have to be exclusively perceived as being connected to the concept of God, necessarily.
Basically, spirituality can actually be adopted as a decidedly human enterprise altogether. A state of our organic composition that can be nurtured, developed, and even mastered. I
n addition, because we are becoming ever more aware of the fact that mindfulness is harvested through a practice of inner reflectivity – as well as a deeply-rooted awareness of wisdom and knowledge that, apparently, is not so external to us as we once thought – the thought of a literal “God” figure becomes less and less necessary to our well-being (as some would conclude).
With this in mind, I think it can be reasonable to say that to be ‘spiritual’ is to basically underscore the fact that we are truly the human beings of a modern epoch. Regardless of any particular moral ascriptions (one man’s spirituality can be another man’s hell), spirituality is increasingly being regarded as a “how” of being, and not so much the “what” of it.
In his famous book Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger’s portrayal of Zooey – a heavily cynical, acid-tongued, culturally-deviant young adult – reveals a stunning experience of spiritual awareness that takes the reader quite by surprise.
As we gradually get to know the character, we also see a fascinating picture of Zen-like ritual that emerges in the face of his tortured attempts to navigate the dysfunctions of his own family, choice of education and the questionable meaning of his career. While Salinger’s book has clearly been the subject of much attention and debate as to its specific message,
I personally see the story as a portrayal (among other things) of ancient wisdom beginning to merge with the modern world, and the clash that naturally comes out as a result; ultimately yielding, however, to a higher awareness of our place in the universe and our continued efforts to move forward in a very urgent world, with ancient knowledge.
A second reason that mindfulness has rocketed itself into mainstream culture probably has a lot to do with the pioneering work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and his development of Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in the 1970’s.
Kabat-Zinn’s work basically broke a substantial hole in the overly ‘crustified’ mainframe of psychotherapeutic treatment of the time, taking the incredible leap of introducing ancient Buddhist meditation techniques into Western-based treatment modalities.
This gave rise to a virtual movement in mainstream practice where more and more therapeutic professionals began incorporating the simple prescription of mindfulness into their work with clients, which basically led to a plethora of peer-reviewed studies that have given considerable praise to the profound power of mindfulness-based strategies in combating depression, anxiety and PTSD, among other things.
Poignant to the theme of this article, one of the interesting aspects of this newly-embraced cultural treasure of mindfulness is the way in which it has opened the door for a new expression of spirituality. Essentially, the last few decades of scientific and religious progression have allowed for an ancient
Buddhist influence to pave the way for a new way of looking at the universe; looking at our personal lives, more specifically. New ground has been broken in terms of asking questions about our place here on earth; ultimately turning our attention to the inner world of our own private thought process as opposed to the external, theoretical world that has traditionally been defined by doctrine, creed and community.
In many ways, a departure is taking place in the specific way in which our species is seeking to connect with the ultimate Source of creation. This is seen in the increasing number of individuals who are no longer afraid to venture deep within the inner recesses of their mind; gradually coming to the new understanding (yet age-old reality) that God is actually there waiting for you.
If we were to explore this little thread of discussion even further, I would say that this has amazing implications for the traditional ways in which Judeo-Christian believers have always looked to the mechanics of the laws and statutes that were revealed to them through the biblical prophets.
After all, it is certainly our tendency to want to look for easily-definable constructs in which to place God. We could argue that one of the great downfalls portrayed in the Biblical record was not necessarily a collective shunning of religion; but rather a crude obsession with ritual itself.
To the point where the masses were eventually driven towards a shallow idolatry that was so preoccupied with ‘works’ and rigid outward observances – altogether drowning out the quiet flame that was always at the heart of their relationship with God. From the very beginning, the point at which the breath of life was passed into the created being.
With this in mind, we can look to the mindful awareness of the bigger picture that is being slowly opened up for us, and embrace the reality that was never really hidden to begin with…
“I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jer. 31:33).
Essentially, while the practice of mindfulness itself is certainly nothing new by any stretch of civilization’s imagination, I see its current appearance in Western culture as a fascinating and thriving phenomenon.
I regard it as a necessary part of our development, though I remain guarded in terms of ascribing any kind of wholesale appraisal of it, mainly because of the fact that I see collective morality as being one of our most important values as a species – if not the THE most important value.
This needs to always be our guiding compass as we chart our mysterious way forward in the universe. After all, in the absence of a firm gravitational pull of love towards our fellow brother or sister, we are pretty much left to the cold, isolated, ‘inner worlds’ that could easily serve the sole vanity of our own interests.
Some people retreat to these dimensions as a way of bolstering their own agendas, while others journey through it in order to enhance the world at large, and to ultimately ‘meet with God.’
It may sound contradictory to talk about the practice this way, I know, especially since many would argue that mindfulness (or even the process of meditation) should be regarded as inherently ‘good’ and healthy for people. With this assumption in mind, I think what I’m saying is that mindfulness is a powerful gift which, similar to any tool that has the potential to transform lives, needs to be embraced with a certain mind of responsibility.
Meditative introspection, in my opinion, is very much the comrade of spiritual prayer, and therefore carries the propensity to save our world from all of its social ills and dysfunctions.
This is why it needs to begin through the individual’s willingness to openly regard their own personal ills and dysfunctions, and to keep himself consistently alerted to the fault lines in his or her own character that may be detracting from humanity, rather than actually serving it and building it up.
Our society is already replete with anxious obsessions, compulsions, and depressive thoughts, so I’m carefully trying to distinguish here between mindfully responding to our depression instead of merely just feeding it.
The object here is to work through it, and mindfulness is an incredible tool in this end. To me, these are two very polarized things. This is why mindfulness, when entered into with a simple openness towards development and change, can and will lead to a state of spiritual progression that our world really does need.
For millennia, a minority of human beings have been able to tap into this truth and use it for the anchoring of spiritual wisdom. Our species has always been occasioned by the independent thinkers who were willing to explore a new possibility, as well as discern the underlying reality that befuddled so much of society.
Unfortunately, some of these individuals were persecuted for it, while others were ridiculed.
Today, however, we are approaching an Age in which more cosmic information is being revealed – and the unfolding awareness of our mind is a startling and exciting symbol of this epoch. It’s almost like God is saying to the multitudes, “you’re ready for this, and I want to see where you’re going to take it.”
In some ways, we can look at it as the proverbial scales falling from the eyes of the masses, gradually bringing us into sharper focus of the truth that simply is.
Where will we take it? Will we fantasize about its power to serve our personal ambitions and use it to merely reinforce our private dysfunctional agendas? Or will we surrender ourselves to its ultimate healing potential for our lives, and ultimately for civilization as a whole?
With this in mind, I wish you the fullness of happiness in your exploration of the mindful heart.
Or if I can put it this way…may your meditation and prayer lead to my personal well-being.
Article by Brett Jordan Maletic, Guest Blogger for the BodyMind Institute