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Rethinking Mindfulness

Is meditation a "Song of Myself," or does it expand our commitment to others?

Key points

  • Like Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” mindfulness teaches us to focus on the moments of life, respect the natural world, and integrate mind and body.
  • Surely valuable, those practices may overemphasize themes of self-management and private well-being, which American culture already idealizes.
  • An equally important focus for meditation is the renewal of relationships with others, to support their security and happiness as well as ours.

“I think I could turn and live with animals. They are so placid and self-contain’d.” So writes Walt Whitman in his poem “Song of Myself.” He continues:

“They do not sweat and whine about their condition. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God. Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things. Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago. Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”

First published in 1855, Whitman’s writing is a criticism of the industrial civilization he saw rising around him. The mid-19th century was a time of burgeoning cities, steam engines, factories, and smokestacks. Peaceful rural landscapes were changing. Business people became the new elite, while millions of others lived in slums. There were sharp ideological, religious, and regional divides. A great war was coming.

It is not surprising then that Whitman looked to the beasts of the field, and especially farm animals, as models for contented living. To be sure, their days are measured; they live as captives. Still, they do not whine about their “condition” but seem to embrace the moments of their lives. That is the gift of their nature and indeed of nature itself. It is for such reasons that he writes, “I watch them long and long.”

Doubtless, Whitman’s longing romanticizes animals. After all, they have their urges and surges. They rage and fear, and fight for life as well as they can. However, his lesson is for the humans who live in their midst and who claim superiority over them. We humans, or so it seems, are losing the ability to appreciate the gift of life itself, which is the chance to experience the wonders of a world that vastly transfigures our existence. Profoundly, each day—and each moment of that day—is an opportunity for self-realization. There is so much beauty in the world, if only we would attend to it.

A century and a half later, Whitman’s concerns are not less but more pertinent. Most of us, or so I believe, are engaged in hectic coming and going. We yearn to “get ahead”; failing that, we try to “keep up.” We long for high positions and for property, believing that these will give us feelings of security. There is never enough money in the bank account; two cars—or two houses—are better than one. Like Whitman’s generation, we are noisy in our declarations, including our political beliefs. We are suspicious of other people, worrying that they are trying to take what we have. Less religious than those ancestors, we believe ourselves to be the center of the world.

All this puts inordinate pressure on individuals to maintain a certain life trajectory, what we sometimes think of as a “lifestyle.” Believing that we are personally responsible for that trajectory, we see time in linear terms. As Whitman notes, we spend some of our present moments, ruing (and perhaps rewriting) misadventures of the past. We spend even more time dreaming and scheming, plotting our next moves. In either case, the present is largely an occasion to redirect our course, to get to places different from our current location. Worse yet, we spend many of our present moments in activities that seem imposed or onerous—completing assignments at work, taking the car for servicing, going to the dentist. In such circumstances, days become instrumentalities, means to achieve pre-established goals. Stretches of time, even years, “get away from us.”

In this context, I bring up the topic of “mindfulness,” which has become popular in recent years. Is it possible for modern people to slow, even pause, the pace of their lives by attending more fully to the intimacies of the passing moments? Can we notice—and attune ourselves to—processes of the natural world, not only those of the environment that swirls around us but also that physicality coursing through our bodies? What should we make of the ideas and images that flitter across our minds; can we arrest their progress and rob them of their ability to distract and disable us?

Addressing such issues, mindfulness practitioners try to re-contextualize their lives. As in other forms of meditation, that means acknowledging one’s place in grander realms of order, letting those placements come to consciousness, accepting without judgment various thoughts and sensations, and then steering oneself toward habits that seem more peaceful and integrative. To be mindful is to be quiet, attentive, focused, and disciplined.

Although mindfulness has origins in Eastern, especially Buddhist, meditation, practitioners have adapted it to a Western, secular mentality. In its Eastern context, mindfulness stills the influences of societies steeped in tradition, ritual, social hierarchy, and familial duty. To meditate is to set oneself apart from the obligations of daily life, to ponder what is eternal.

In Western societies, which celebrate activist individualism, mindfulness plays a different role. Consultations with psychological and physiological processes reinforce rather than counter our society’s emphasis on personal responsibility and self-management. In much the same way, people retreat to solitary experiences with unspoiled nature. Privacy of consciousness, already a cultural theme, is exalted. The ideal setting, or so it seems, is an oceanfront home on a secluded beach. No other people are in view.

In a recent post for Psychology Today, Christopher Bergland argues that mindfulness may actually decrease prosociality, or fellow feeling, in people with individualistic tendencies. Citing experimental studies, he reports findings that subjects trained in mindfulness were less likely to support volunteerism if they were primed by the experimenter to think of themselves in individualistic (rather than collectivist) terms. More than that, self-focus may heighten rather than reduce sensitivity to many nagging issues that impinge on privately conceived life.

As he concludes, and as I have stressed in many previous posts for this publication, it may be that a more healthful course is to balance our individualistic tendencies with recognition of our interdependence with others.

Those concerns do not suggest a wholesale rejection of mindfulness, as currently practiced. Most of us would confess to bouts of anxiety and stress. We may have trouble sleeping at night. We find ourselves trapped by personal habits we know to be destructive. Many of our daily routines feel grim; we counter them by fleeing to internet sites, especially social media. We sometimes feel our life is out of control. Moments of quiet reflection are attempts to stop the incoherence and distraction.

Still, are we trying to heal ourselves in the wrong ways? If self-centeredness is a cultural illness, does it make sense to invigorate our capacities for introspection and social escape? Do periods of meditative re-creation (minutes, hours, or days) achieve the desired ends if we immediately return to the same routines that produce our stress and anxiety?

All of us want a certain stability of self, at least enough to fortify us for our ventures in change-making and other forms of personal development. We want a “home base.” However, that sense of stability and home arises best from experiences of prosocial involvement with other people—friends, family, workmates, and community—who share our circumstances and who pledge themselves to mutual betterment. An important challenge for the meditator then is to re-appreciate those relationships and to ponder ways to strengthen them.

As in traditional societies where relationships of the above sorts are sometimes overwhelming, we may find our close contacts with other people to be the very reasons we are feeling stress. Nevertheless, cultural withdrawal, in the fashion of the Buddhist monk, is not an option for most of us. The better prospect of fulfilled living is re-engagement with others, cultivating relationships we care about and supporting their members. Well-being is a collective matter, not a private one. So is peacemaking.


C. Bergland (2021). "Does MIndfulness Make Me-Centric People More Selfish?" www.psychology

W. Whitman, 1892. "Song of Myself" in Leaves of Grass.