Monday, July 25, 2016

What’s wrong with practicing mindfulness to become better?

Hollywood actor Richard Gere visited Bangalore last year en route to a nearby monastery to meet Dalai Lama. He commented that he had been practicing meditation for more than 40 years and yet the wait in the immigration queue at Bangalore airport ticked him off1. He said, “I cannot claim to have had any breakthrough”. Forty years of meditation practice is a long time, isn’t it? But what if 40 years is not enough? Perhaps he is just joking? Or he may not be practicing it right? Or perhaps mindfulness involves something more than a practice? Perhaps this meditation stuff is a hoax? Any of these could be true. However, in this article I would like to explore the possibility that mindfulness involves something other than practice.
Let’s start from the first principle. Mindfulness is about seeing the reality as it is. But that definition is slippery because thought distorts perception and creates cognitive illusion. Hence, it is difficult to know if what I am perceiving is real or illusory. Suppose I see that my boss is stupid. Is it real or an illusion? I won’t know unless I investigate it further. Hence, an alternate view of mindfulness is – it is an investigation into potential illusions created by thought while thinking.
One name which is well known when it comes to investigation is Sherlock Holmes. Have you ever heard or read that Sherlock Holmes is practising something when he is investigating a case? I haven’t. Of course, he sometimes practices his violin. But we don’t say that violin practice solves mysteries. Investigation is a creative process. You can’t follow fixed steps in an investigation. However, you may build stamina by practicing various tools useful for investigation. Holmes practices in places like chemistry lab where he performs experiments to build diagnostic tools. Similarly, it may be useful to practice observing your train of thought when you are in a relatively undisturbed state perhaps seated with eyes closed in a corner of a room. That may build some stamina in retaining attention when it is needed most. Which is when?
Now, here is a hypothesis – every time there is a negative emotion – in the form of worry, anxiety, anger, guilt, blame etc., there is a cognitive illusion lurking behind it. Thus awareness of a negative emotion indicates the arrival of a case for investigation. Like Richard Gere, if I am in a queue and getting irritated of the wait and if I become aware of my irritation then that means in Sherlock Holmes’ language – a case has arrived.
One common reason why we become upset is when our self-image is under attack. For example, I may be mad at my boss because he has hurt my self-image. We value our self-image more than anything else and constantly seek to protect or enhance it. This process is sometimes referred to as the process of becoming. Becoming… a lean, wealthy, healthy, spiritual, famous, well-respected – pick your favorite adjective – person. Thus the original hypothesis leads to following – For every negative emotion there is a “process of becoming” lurking behind and in friction with the potential damage to the self-image. Hence, one can look at mindfulness as an investigation into the process of becoming.
In summary, we are saying that mindfulness is more of an investigation than a practice. Moreover, it is an investigation into the process of becoming. Hence, if you say you are doing it to become better, you are getting into a conflict of intent – kind of a paradox. How can you investigate the process of becoming to become better?


Richard Gere’s comment on the lack of breakthrough is mentioned in this article titled “Gere springs a surprise” from The Hindu, Dec 8, 2015.


  1. Nice one Vinay. The paradox is inescapable in this journey, e.g., the desire to give up desire. Liked the concept of mindfulness as an investigation. However, investigation is an intellectual exercise, and therein lies the danger. With our intellectual analysis of the case, we may rationalize why something happens. However, as you know, mindfulness is less intellectual and more experiential. It is not simply the observation of negative emotions, because we cannot observe emotions. We can only observe the tangible impact of abstract emotions on our body. The physical matter responds to emotional stimulus and the physical response arises and subsides. We can only experience this but we cannot intellectualize it. I liked the concept of the process of becoming lurking behind a negative emotion. However, I don’t think that becoming better is necessarily a paradox. The journey of the soul is to seek progress and change for the better. It is this process of becoming better that manifests into life, which gives the soul the opportunity to learn and make progress. So in my view, the problem is not so much with the process of becoming, but with the expectation of outcome associated with that becoming. The process of becoming is important part of progress if we go through it with a positive intent, but becomes a blocker if we attach ourselves to the outcome. So becoming better is good intent, but if we try to quantify and measure “better” with some yardstick, or to prove to anyone other than us that we are “better” than someone else, or better than our own past self, then we have become part of the outcome than the process. One can get ample evidence of becoming better if one builds the practice through experience than intellect. Enjoyed reading your article. You expose deep thoughts through simple writing style.

    1. Thanks Rahul. I agree that investigation is many times an intellectual exercise. And that is not helpful in this context. However, investigation can also happen through awareness or observation. Take an optical illusion like the Necker's cube and keep observing it till you see the other perspective. That's a simple example of investigating an illusion by observation and not by intellectual exercise.

      "The journey of the soul is to seek progress and change for the better" - Not sure what is the basis for this assumption. Don't know what soul is, whether such an entity exists as an independent entity or is it just a rainbow - an abstract representation created by thought process, I don't know. Taking a sentence like this as granted is where the paradox gets escapable :-)

      Thanks for taking time to read and comment. Appreciate it.