Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What is Mindfulness?

Because I purposely detached myself from news about the fiscal cliff, the Rose Bowl, and New Year's hoopla, my year began very peacefully; even though I attended a Jan. 1 open house, I was totally relaxed, a good omen as I start 2013.

How can this peaceful spirit be maintained?  One clear way is by attention to the here-and-now in the daily practice of meditation. It is called mindfulness: knowing that I am in the present moment, aware of only one thing at a time.

Maria Konnikova in her new book Mastermind uses Sherlock Holmes as an example of mindful thought. I found her article "The Power of Concentration" in the New York Times last month.  She says the famous fictional detective, by silently concentrating on one problem at a time, is a master of unitasking or what "cognitive psychologists mean when they say mindfulness."

I like her comments about the folly of multitasking, which (she rightly observes) is a myth: in "multitasking," we really shift our focus rapidly as we move from one task to the next. We don't devote as much attention as we should to any one thing.  But the single-minded concentration on an issue is not really mindfulness, as conventionally understood.

The type of spiritual mindfulness found in the Buddhist tradition as well as in contemplative prayer in the Christian West has nothing to do with thinking and analyzing, as Holmes does; the mind is not active but passive. The goal is no-think: the absence of ideas so that the person who meditates clears the busy mind and is fully in the present moment. He or she might be, as I was yesterday, able to transcend possible stress and tension by an awareness of one's surroundings.

There can be, in mindfulness, a sense of the timeless present, the goal of prayerful meditation. Thomas Merton wrote, "Eternity is in the present. Eternity is in the palm of the hand."

So I don't think mindful meditation, though it might produce cognitive improvements, including an increase in happiness, is really mindfulness at all.  And the estimable Mr. Holmes is not a model of how to find inner peace, though he may be helpful in the concentration required of focused thinking.

But let's please not let such thinking be called mindfulness.

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