Professor Bradley Lewis
Mindfulness and Mysticism
November 8, 2016
Mindfulness and Mysticism
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is a six-week program founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn that teaches one “how to cope with stress, pain, and illness” (Kabat-Zinn) with a meditation practice Kabat-Zinn refers to as mindfulness. Along with this program, Kabat-Zinn released a book titled Full Catastrophe Living—a mindfulness manual, which gives not only the basis for mindfulness, but explains what it is, why it works, and how it works with countless testimonials and unlimited scientific reasoning. Although Kabat-Zinn denies the existence of “mystical hocus-pocus” (Kabat-Zinn 7) in MBSR, he actually reinforces many of the elements presented in mystical texts. From the perspective of participatory spirituality, mystical writings from Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian traditions may be used to enhance MBSR and deepen what Kabat-Zinn calls “glimpses of wholeness, delusions of separateness.”
Not only does Kabat-Zinn harness many of the same ideologies that are presented in mystical texts, but also the practice. Kabat-Zinn teaches us about the practice of mindful meditation, which he qualifies as “actively tuning in to each moment in an effort to remain awake and aware from one moment to the next” (Kabat-Zinn 6) with one’s “eyes closed, sitting quietly, or lying motionless on the floor” (Kabat-Zinn 6). Interestingly enough, in the Christian mystical texts, this is referred to as “contemplative prayer” (Consiglio 7) where we “make ourselves aware of the fact that we are breathing” (Consiglio 18), and “being present to the Spirit who is already present to us” (Consiglio 18). Even Thomas Merton encourages meditation through silence and prayer, but is quick to distinguish what type of silence is beneficial for our growth. “Positive silence pulls us together and makes us realize who we are, who we might be, and the distance between these two” (Merton 73). All around the world, we see a call for meditation and inner peace; not to mention, Thich Nhat Hahn who praises “the full awareness of breathing” (Hahn 10) and refers to it as the practice of “The Four Establishments of Mindfulness” (Hahn 10).
All of these authors define meditation as a practice of breathing and awareness of the present moment and are sure to differentiate that from that of “a chronic state of unawareness” (Kabat-Zinn 12) where “considerable amounts of your time and energy are expended in clinging to memories, being absorbed in reverie, and regretting things that have already happened and are over” (Kabat-Zinn 10), an “inner busyness” (Kabat-Zinn 10). This is actually referenced in The Cloud of Knowing as “its [contemplative prayer] counterfeits such as daydreaming, fantasizing, or subtle reasoning” (McGinn 265).
Synthesizing all these texts, it is clear to see that meditation is a common practice around the world. Although, it is titled differently by different religions and cultures, the practice remains the same. It is a quieting of the mind and a presence of the moment—something that is cherished across cultures. Personally, I’ve found with the help of my own personal practice and studies that a quiet mind leads to success and inner peace; a quality promoted by Kabat-Zinn and enhanced by the mystical texts. While Kabat-Zinn focuses on the psychological improvements, authors like Merton and Hahn open the door for mystical experiences and connection with the Divine. Although Kabat-Zinn shies away from this aspect of mindfulness to capture his readers, reading these mystical texts heightens where one can take themselves in such a state.
To successfully practice mindfulness, one must be able to accept and let go. Kabat-Zinn states that “healing is coming to terms with things as they are” (Kabat-Zinn 27) and “letting go is a way of letting things be, of accepting things as they are” (Kabat-Zinn 30)—two of the “seven foundational attitudinal elements of mindfulness practice” (Kabat-Zinn 30). Merton refers to this as “self-abandonment […] that continual forgetfulness of self which leaves the soul free to eternally love God, untroubled by those fears, reflections, regrets, and anxieties which the care of one’s own perfection and salvation gives” (Merton 68). In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna countlessly notes the importance of “detachment” (Mitchell 95) stating “[Arjuna’s] sorrow is sheer delusion. Wise men do not grieve for the dead or for the living” (Mitchell 47). In The Cloud of Unknowing, there is mention of “the cloud of forgetting” (McGinn 266) that tells us “to concern yourself with no creature whether material or spiritual nor with their situation and doings whether good or ill” (McGinn 266). All of these texts remain consistent in the belief that inner peace cannot exist, if one is still holding onto the past or anticipating the future. Although it is common for people to get lost in their thinking, that is the exact opposite of mindfulness. Mindfulness asks that we let go of all our anxieties, and simply be.
However, one cannot truly let go until they have “transcended all kinds of fear” (Hahn 47) and become “content with whatever happens, unattached to pleasure or pain, success or failure” (Mitchell 76). This is highly important as Kabat-Zinn asserts that “our reactions to things are usually clouded by fear, hopelessness, or anger” (Kabat-Zinn 295). “Only the Spirit acts in pure Love” (Merton 66), spoken excellently by Thomas Merton who notes that “our true Self” (Merton 23) exists in the “depths of our being” (Merton 23) and that we cannot operate from our Spirit if we are still concerned with earthly affairs and anxieties. “Perfect Nirvana is the state of non-fear” (Hahn 47). Clearly, there is a divide between love and fear. Tranquility and compassion cannot arise where there is fear, because fear breeds anger, jealousy, and hatred; whereas love invites feelings of compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance.
Nonetheless, one of the most important factors is “interconnectedness” (Kabat-Zinn 187). Kabat-Zinn quotes Einstein saying, “a human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space” (Kabat-Zinn 190). It is important to “recognize that nothing occurs in isolation” (Kabat-Zinn 192) and it is necessary to “perceive the intrinsic web of interconnectedness” (Kabat-Zinn 192). Thich Nhat Hahn refers to this notion as “interbeing” (Hahn 3), expressing that “’to be’ is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing” (Hahn 4). Inter-being almost serves as a synonym, if not definition for interconnectedness and wholeness. Merton enhances this idea by saying that “God manifests Himself everywhere, in everything” (Merton 70); while Cyprian Consiglio says “God is within all things” (Consiglio 3). Clearly, not only we are all connected, but we are all linked by this inner Spirit that exists within everyone and everything. Krishna states, “he who is rooted in oneness realizes that I am in every being” (Mitchell 94).
Lastly, there is this sense of eternity that lies within all these texts—a sense that while we do live and die, our Spirit lives on forever. Krishna does a magnificent job of identifying this, “These bodies come to an end; but that vast embodied Self is ageless, fathomless, eternal” (Mitchell 49). Thich Nhat Hahn asks that we “transcend the fear of birth and death” (Hahn 51) reassuring us that “I am only the continuation” (23), quoting French scientist Lavoisier “’Nothing is created and nothing is destroyed’”( 23), therefore “one form of energy can only become another form of energy” (23). Similarly, Kabat-Zinn quotes Einstein saying, “we all come into and go out of this world as quickly passing gatherings of energy” (191), and we lose sight of the bigger picture when we are so focused on what’s mine and not ours. As human beings, who are born and die, it is easy to forget that we possess a greater depth than our flesh. Flesh is what separates us, but the Spirit unites us.
As Kabat-Zinn takes a secular approach to mindfulness, he states many of the same ideas as those said in these mystical writings—he just speaks in a different language. Better yet, they enhance each other. While Kabat-Zinn says, “If there is magic anywhere, it is in you” (7), Cyprain Consiglio quotes the Bible saying, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1). Both authors are alluding to the idea of divinity existing within our Selves, and not as something external that needs to be sought out. Consiglio even goes as far to refer to humans as “vessels of divinity” (1). All of these texts seem to correspond in a beautiful manner. While one author refers to a practice as meditation and mindfulness, the other calls it contemplative prayer; but we know that they are talking about the same thing because they the same thing of us—to be aware of our breathing and focus our attention on the present moment. While Kabat-Zinn calls it “interconnectedness” (187), Hahn calls it “interbeing” (3). While Kabat-Zinn is able to coincide with all of these mystical texts in Full Catastrophe Living, he shies away from mysticism as a means of captivating his audience—secular America. However, Kabat-Zinn is able to use scientific reasoning to explain mysticism; which does more than just capture secular America, but connects mindfulness to mysticism showing that they are no different.
Consiglio, Cyprian. Prayer in the Cave of the Heart: The Universal Call to Contemplation. Collegeville: Liturgical, 2010. Print.
Hahn, Thich Nhat. The Heart of Understanding. Jorbagh Lane: Full Circle, 2014. Print.
Mitchell, Stephen. Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation. New York: Harmony, 2000. Print.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living: How to Cope with Stress, Pain and Illness Using Mindfulness Meditation. London: Piatkus, 2013. Print.
Hahn, Thich Nhat. Awakening of the Heart. Berkeley: Parallax, 2012. Print.
McGinn, Bernard. The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. New York: Modern Library, 2006. Print.
Merton, Thomas. Thomas Merton: Essential Writings. New York: Orbis, 2000. Print.