Sunday, February 02, 2014

Tony Schwartz article in NY Times

Tony Schwartz wrote an article in the New York Times entitled "More Mindfulness, Less Meditation". His conclusion that with the law of diminishing returns, and because meditation is so hard, maybe you don't have to do it so much:

"I’ve also found that it’s more practical to truly focus and relax for a minute or two several times a day than to meditate for a long period and constantly battle with distraction along the way."

He's meditating to get the most out of meditation, and as the years have gone by, he's not getting as much from it, so he's adjusted his practice.

I'm all for "practical mindfulness". What actually happens matters, and putting mindfulness into practice is very important. I was on retreat and someone asked me how I thought I would do that. My answer was that just being aware of the issue of putting mindfulness into practice, is a kind of mindfulness itself. You have to live the questions.

I think what Mr. Schwarts is really saying in a secular meditation has it's limits and that for all the people who pick it up and wants specific results, it's not that easy. The practice divorced from it's religious roots, traditions and community, is perhaps of limited value.

He writes:

"What I haven’t seen is much evidence that meditating leads people to behave better, improves their relationships or makes them happier."

Meditating is unpredictable. You sit and tune into yourself. People find all kinds of different things when they tune into themselves. Maybe just underneath the surface they are deeply unhappy and they have been hiding that from themselves. I would argue that it's better to confront that fact, and dig deeper into it, and gain insight from that. But there's no guarantee you're going to gain insight, it's quite possible you get swamped and don't have the resources to dig yourself out. You risk getting to a place of resourcelessness. That is why it's so important to meditate in the context of a community. The community often has advice, suggestions and sometimes it might be to take the foot off the petal, and not try as hard. There's a kind of go for it mentality, and there are communities that really focus on that.

To move towards enlightenment in the context of a Buddhist spiritual community is another things. Getting past the dark night of the soul means you push past when it doesn't seem to be giving back. There is a context of ethics, meditation and insight. The Buddhist practice isn't just about meditation. The Pure Land tradition de-emphasizes meditation.

Maybe Schwartz is connected to a spiritual community and maybe he has spiritual friendships and at certain stages others things are emphasized. In a way he's giving himself permission to explore other routes of developing mindfulness beyond meditation.

I suppose the thing I'm reacting to is pulling away from dogging it out. The truth is I'm not meditating much these days, but that's because I'm avoiding something. I know I will get better and better at facing something and that it's in my own best interest to face things. He quotes Kornfield saying that meditation doesn't cure everything, and I'm not sure if anyone said it would. Sometimes you have to do other kinds of work. Meditation isn't for everyone, nor is it for everyone their entire lives. And intense practice is hard to maintain.

The other thing I have feelings about is my fantasy that in a deep spiritual community there will be people around to advice when practice is stale or stuck. I've overheard comments to the effect that that is a real issue in the spiritual life, and negotiating that is pretty important.

I resist taking the foot off the petal, slowing down, and yet that is exactly what I have done and what I have seen others do. I've know people who are in it for the long haul and things wax and wane. I have the belief that meditation is good, and more is better, but like everything there's no one answer.

Finally, so sell mindfulness in connection with happiness. I the lesson of insight is that basing happiness on conditionality makes you unhappy, and it's quite possible you will experience the first noble truth more acutely, and thus be aware of dukkha. I think people sell Buddhism by suggesting you will be more happy, but the happiness comes from enlightenment. So what do you do if you don't get there? The answer for me is that progressing on the path feels right for me, and that, you know, what spiritual ideals work for you is important, and you should really look into whether things are working for you or not.

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