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Mindfulness Practice vs Psychoanalysis

A Personal Perspective: What if meditation cultivated self-effacing irony?

Key points

  • Psychoanalysis is expensive but can turn our attention from "what's wrong with me?" to "what's up with us?"
  • "Mindfulness" sounds serious and purifying, but could be used to relax us into ironic humor.
  • At best, introspection can corner us with our ambivalences in ways that make us accept them.
  • We need better ways to help people understand human nature and the way it plays out in all of us.

Mindfulness practice is fine, but I wish it wasn’t so humorless. I don’t practice it. I’m too restless. I figure I’ll meditate when I’m dead. Still, I do plenty of things that make me be-here-now-ish. For one, I play music.

If the goal is to visit your inner life, I do a lot of that, too. Many folks tell me my life is way too examined. I’m in my head and have been since I was a troubled 8-year-old in four-day-a-week, on-the-couch psychoanalysis for five years. I’d lie on the couch and talk about what was going on inside me. My analyst sat out of sight, behind, saying little but prompting me occasionally to examine what I was saying. It was so much spelunking around in my heart and mind, which I followed up with five more years on the couch starting at age 32.

Pricey. Time-consuming.

I didn’t come away purged, pure, living in the present moment. Instead, I came away contented with my discontent, OK with who I ended up being.

Not just OK with me, but with all of us, content with the world I’ve got and all my human company here, muddling our way through uncertainty, trying to do right but often getting it wrong anyway, trying to be consistent when we are inherently inconsistent.

My deepest introspection exposes me to our inescapable ambivalence, the ways in which we want opposite things. How could we be otherwise, juggling so many factors, trying to find the ever-shifting middle path through opposite perils, trying to avoid being too much or not enough on so many dimensions, trying to read right the ambiguous writing on the walls through the lens of our own interpretive limitations, trying to be hopeful and realistic when they’re practically opposite virtues?

It made me the ironist I am today. Humanity is a horror show and a hoot. I wish we could all just admit it and stop romanticizing humanity as though our powers of reason make us paragons of virtue.

Getting there through psychoanalysis is time-consuming, often with a different goal, like finding the ultimate explanation for why you’re a nervous wreck.

I wish there were a faster, cheaper path, that machete’d its way through our thicket of defenses, out into the clearing where we could all meet in the muddle of being human.

Maybe if “mindful” didn’t have such humorless connotations. Maybe if its goal wasn’t emptying the mind —which sounds more like mindlessness. Maybe if it wasn’t so aspirational and just settled for studying and embracing the congested clusterflux of being human.

Maybe if it wasn’t so ambivalent about what it’s for—eliminating thought or becoming more thoughtful; self-improvement or self-acceptance; the spiritual path to higher consciousness or accepting our lowly nature; paying attention to everything, nothing, one thing,or the right things.

What if the goal wasn’t to quiet the monkey mind but accept monkey mind as human nature? Make friends with it. Accept that this is what we turned out to be, mid-sized mammals weathering the din of dysfunction common to us all, voices in our heads pitted against each other in a world accelerating into mind-boggling complexity and all up in our faces about it all the time.

What if instead of aiming for enlightenment we accepted just being normal and made our meditation a study of what normal really is? Us modern humans with our high expectations and aspirations trying to be good or at least feel good about ourselves as we navigate too much world, too many winding, trafficky roads all at once. Laugh about it. Laugh about our internal inconsistencies. Own them, recognizing that there is no escape from the other than death, which, for the living, is the very thing we’re trying most to avoid.

Mindfulness practice often seems to be about trying to land in simplicity. Animal envy, a bovine state of mindless presence, or, worse, robot envy, as if we could ever become the perfect tool, an algorithm with no emotions, regrets, or mistakes. Instead, mindfulness practice could be about admitting that we’re multi-level-headed, zooming our perspectives in and out, trying to find the context from which to best make the decisions at hand, inescapably iffy guesswork.

I never graduated from psychoanalysis—not at 13, not at 37. Both times, my psychoanalysts told me I wasn’t done yet. Rather, I broke from it once and for all after hearing the guru Ram Das say something like “I had 10 years of psychoanalysis. I taught psychology at Harvard. I studied with the greatest gurus in India and took every psychedelic drug there is. Still, I haven’t lost a single neurosis. They’ve just gotten smaller. They used to be so daunting. Now when they show up like gremlins, I invite them in for tea.”

Maybe I was ready to leave psychoanalysis anyway. My attention was turning from what’s wrong with me to what’s up with us. But there was something about him saying it that made me recognize the value of all that earnest introspection I’d done and be done with it.

In analysis, I visited all the phases of grief about who I am: denial, anger, bargaining, depression (I’d sleep through pricey sessions when I couldn’t bear looking at my grubby motives), and, in the end, some kind of motley acceptance.

Ever since then, I’ve wondered whether there’s a cheaper, less time-consuming way to get through that grieving process about who we turn out to be. I don’t bet it’s mindfulness meditation as it’s currently promoted.

A one-minute video on what mindfulness could help us recognize and embrace.

This article as a video:

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