Note: Throughout these posts, I will frequently illustrate points with quotes from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, Kindle Version, Revised Edition 2013; Bantam Books, New York.
By way of quick review: In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James defines religion as “…the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (p.38), with the ‘divine’ being “such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest.” (p. 45). According to Clifford Geertz, religion creates “an aura of utter actuality. It is this sense of the ‘really real’ upon which the religious perspective rests” (Interpretation of Cultures, p. 112; my italics). Borrowing from Robert Jay Lifton and Willard S. Mullins, ideology is a relatively comprehensive and coherent set of convictions (a “vision”) about how humans and the world works, which is powerful enough to influence one’s thinking, feelings, evaluations, and actions.
Mindfulness is both an ideology and a religion. In this commentary, I will often refer to the mindfulness as one or the other, but I don’t intend to use awkward compound words like “religio-ideological”.
In mindfulness discourse, “non-judgmental awareness” is a way of experiencing the world that reveals its true nature. Using the terminology of James and Geertz, non-judgmental awareness is a kind of religious experience that reveals the really real. To be mindful is to be aware is to know the truth. From Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living (FCL):
“I define mindfulness operationally as the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Introduction to the Second Edition, Kindle page 394
“This feeling, this apprehending, is another way of knowing for us, beyond merely thought-based knowing. We have a word for it in English: awareness. Making use of this innate capacity for knowing, we can investigate, inquire, and apprehend what is so for us in profoundly liberating ways.” Introduction to the Second Edition, Kindle page 387
“Knowing what you are doing while you are doing it is the essence of mindfulness practice. The knowing is a non-conceptual knowing, or a bigger than conceptual knowing. It is awareness itself.” Chapter 1, Kindle page 1120
“…how difficult it is just to listen to the body or attend to our thoughts simply as events in the field of awareness. …As we have seen, the great delusion of separateness that we indulge in, coupled with our deeply conditioned habits of mind, the scars we carry, and our general level of unawareness, can result in particularly toxic and disregulating consequences for both our body and our mind.” Chapter 16, Kindle page 5102
In the discourse of mindfulness, it is through mindful awareness that we catch glimpses of the true interconnectedness of everything in the world (as opposed to the “great delusion of separateness”). This is the world of the really real – the realm of religion.
For those who believe in this particular vision of an interconnected world, awareness is not just a way of experiencing things – it’s a “way of being”. In fact, mindfulness practitioners may find the idea of “experience” too small to capture the profound liberation and the deep “non-conceptual knowing” that awareness is considered to bring. According to this perspective, the standard sense of “experience” reflects a sort of alienated subjectivity (“the great delusion of separateness”), in which we live and suffer alone. In contrast, moments of mindful awareness are “true moments of wholeness” where we are being with the interconnected world (FCL Chapter 4, Kindle page 1964).
Nor, according to FCL, is “awareness” the same as “paying attention”. True awareness arises by paying attention in a particular way (non-judgmentally, in the moment, with acceptance, etc.). But it is much more than a type of attention. Awareness is transformative; awareness can lead to wisdom; awareness reveals and begets harmony, interconnectedness and being. Paying attention alone is or does none of these things.
As a form of religious experience, “awareness” isn’t just any old experience – it is a portal to the really real. To quote and paraphrase Geertz, as religious experience, mindful awareness reveals “a general order of existence” clothed with “an aura of factuality” (The Interpretation of Cultures, p.90).
Footnote: Without being too fancy about it, my definition of “experience” is from wiktionary.org: event(s) of which one is cognizant. These events may include all sorts of things: actions, thoughts, feelings, intuitions, perceptions (at various levels of integration and binding), sensations, proprioception, spatial relations, etc. Some within the mindfulness world might take exception to the assumption of awareness in this definition (“cognizant”) given the “half sleep of unawareness” in which the unmindful masses are thought to be habitually immersed (FCL, Chapter 27, Kindle page 8047).