Monday, January 02, 2023

Enlightenment, Habituation, and Renewal - Or, Mindfulness as the opiate of the thinking classes?

This New Year’s post is directed to the small number of MindBlog readers who might be sympathetic to some of my private random rants. Perhaps I should keep them to myself, but here goes…..

All enlightenment traditions - such as Abrahamic, Buddhist, Hindu, or other schools of meditative insight - have a common issue. How can the central canon or dogma of the way things are be renewed and kept fresh? The usual practice is to repeat a liturgy set down by gurus of a given tradition, but with each repetition by a particular vendor the gospel begins to loose its force. The transforming clarity of the initial enlightenment fades as the habituation and desensitization associated with all repetitive activities begins to set in. ‘Reset buttons’ that are temporarily effective can sometimes be found by turning to different vendors of the central message, who in this smartphone age can each package and deliver their respective theory or practice sessions in a sonorous and calming voices. This frequently is done in 10-30 min chunks that better accommodate our modern diminished attention spans, as well as in longer lectures from workshops or retreats. This approach can be seen in aggregator Apps such as Sam Harris’ “Waking Up,” which delivers the messages of many different teachers. (I wonder if generation Alpha,  born in this century, exists in even more transient states of tik-tok mind, twitter mind, or instagram mind that preclude even this level of engagement?)

I would guess that over the past year or two I have listened to ~150 such lectures. As I see the same basic points reframed in many different ways, I begin to think “Y’know, it seems that the fundamental axioms of enlightenment that are expressible in language are being repetitively rediscovered throughout history and repeatedly archived.  I feel like their verbal messages are as ingrained in my consciousness as the language of the mathematical and chemical structures I have known most of my life.”

My flippant ‘mindfulness as the opiate of the thinking classes’ phrase in the title of this post is meaning to point to the fact that the market for vendors of enlightenment is a distinctive one. Existential angst, or worrying about value, purpose, and meaning seem most pressing to a relatively small number of highly urbanized and literate humans. I can’t imagine that my two Abyssinian cats, who I sometimes takes to be my best role models, spend a significant fraction of their time worrying about the meeting of it all, or pondering the subtleties of epistemology and ontology. 

So….what beyond words? A space or perspective that doesn’t contain them can only be pointed at by using them in the dualistic context of a sender and receiver. I can, for example, try to use words to give a crude voice to the mute homeostatic generative visceral organic axes of valence and arousal that underlie and generate everything that I am and experience right now: “Dude, get a grip, I (the visceral one) am the one who is actually running this show, deciding where it goes and whether it works or shuts down, the sooner the “I” you imagine yourself to be realizes this and lets go, the sooner some kind of sane space is attained. All of the surface behaviors acted out for others to see - the family man, the professor, the pianist - are shadow play shimmering on the surface of this basic organic substrate, like water insects skittering around on the surface of a pond. What is writing these words is just another one of the contents of consciousness flitting past. Just turn yourself around to look quickly for the writer…what do you see? What do you see as you imagine being first born into this world? The brief glimpses of expanded naive awareness sometimes elicited by questions such as these have the potential of permitting a scrubbing, refreshing, or renewal of consciousness in a way that permits more choice in selecting which prior individual selves and self habits rise to compose current self conscious life. 

Different iterations of these sentiments, different vendings of the sort mentioned in the first paragraph above, can be found in two previous MindBlog posts. One from Nov. 25:  

Perhaps an increasing number of people who engage techniques for facilitating non-dual awareness find themselves seeing and experiencing the "I" or self that feels threatened by our anxious times from a more useful perspective - an inclusive expanded awareness that includes the reporting "I" or self as just one of its many contents that include passing thoughts, perceptions, actions, and feelings.  A calm can be found in this expanded awareness that permits a  dis-association of the experienced breathing visceral center of gravity of our animal body from the emotional and linguistic veneer of politics and conflict. This does not remove the necessity of facing various societal dysfunctions, but offers the prospect of doing so without debilitating the organic physiological core from which everything we experience rises.  

And the other from Oct. 26, passing on a masterful exposition from James Low that I can not improve on.

If you want stability, if you want real peace, you already have that in the nature of awareness. But if you look to manifestation, to patterning of yourself, to thinking you could establish a stable personalty, to live a life in which you were happy all the time, or in which you were your own person, that way madness lies. To find our original face, to find the ground of our primordial being, we need to release our fixation on the dialogic movement of subject and object, and allow ourselves to be the space within which the movement of experience is occurring. Awareness means being aware that we are present without being something as such. This is a great mystery. When we look at phenomena the world, things exist as something. A car is not a cow, an apple is not an orange, compare and contrast, category allocation. That’s how our cognition, our conceptual elaboration functions to give a seemingly enduring structure to identifications. But awareness can’t be caught. It’s not a thing. You can’t pin a tail on the donkey, there is no donkey there. The mind is not an object for itself, it is self luminous awareness, but you can’t catch it. You can never know your mind but you can be your mind. We are awareness and that’s a very important distinction.


  1. Hi Deric, Happy New Year!

    That's a brilliant post you put up.

    I am still pondering it, and will add more comments in a day. (Always astonished at the paucity of comments!)