I am going to do something often described as bad practice in philosophy. I will criticise mindfulness through one of its most extreme exponents – Eckhart Tolle. You might say that is not fair – you would be right. My excuse is that I want to bring out a tendency in the smooth discourse of the mindfulness trainers. This is the contrast that they make between being and thinking. In the iconography of mindfulness this contrast easily slides into a celebration of the simple, the solitary and the physical over the complex, collective and technologically mediated. While I agree that it is great to sniff the flowers in your garden – I also think it is great, for example, to put on a virtual reality headset and play complex games with other people around the world. Can collective virtual reality be mindful too? I want to find out.
Here is a slide from a standard introduction to mindfulness that gives the general idea:
Tolle is not part of the official mindfulness movement. However both Tolle and mindfulness draw on similar cultural sources and I think that they both often seem to make similar mistaken binary assumptions. Ego, bad: loss of ego, good. Ambition, bad: acceptance, good. Critical thinking, bad: dwelling with formless sensations, good. Anxiety and competition, bad: contentment and peace, good.
In some ways I like what Tolle is saying, it reminds us all of an important dimension of life that many seem to have forgotten, but there is a big problem for me. This begins with the way in which he says it. He claims that his book is not about thought but about prompting awakening. In so far as you understand him it is because you are awakened and in so far as you do not it is because you are not awakened.
This idea that writing is there not to inform but to prompt an altered state in the reader is not new even in western philosophy, it is a big theme in Nietzsche for example. Maybe this style has some value – it is poetic writing rather than academic writing - but I think it can be done in a way that empowers the reader or in a way that enslaves the reader. Nietzsche, for example, made it clear that his style was meant to spur his readers into becoming creators of meaning for themselves not slavish followers. (This did not stop him being treated as a guru by many – as we also see with the way people respond to his disciples, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and so on). Tolle does not seem to see this risk and simply assumes a voice of magisterial simplicity, telling the readers the truth of things, leaving no opening for critical engagement.
In my limited experience mindfulness training can take a similar approach. My questioning comments were met by one mindfulness teacher with the claim, ‘you will understand when you have done the practice, unless you do the practice you can’t understand’. I can see the point of this ‘suck it and see’ argument – but it is also dangerous. I remain suspicious that what we may have here is not part of a scientific inquiry, perhaps a phenomenological variant of design based research or 'suck it and see' research into how best to educate children but perhaps it is something closer to a cult that inducts children into seeing things their way.
Tolle talks about building a ‘new earth’ but there are no details. The implication is that all problems are personal mental problems and if we step back and be mindful they will all be solved. But of course, like the rest of us, he does have to think sometimes to address real practical problems and whenever he does this the limitations of his ‘awareness’ approach to problem solving are painfully obvious. There are many incidental claims in the book that reveal ignorance and a failure to think critically. Just to give one small example, he comments on the bad western medical approach of making ‘war on disease’ and how this is not as effective as more cooperative approaches like ‘homeopathy’ (page 75). But of course many scientific trials of homeopathy have found no evidence that it works.
So why does Tolle not engage with the best science when it comes to practical questions of how to cure diseases or in other ways build the new earth? I think that the problem here may lie with his understanding of ‘totality’. Eg page 69 ‘Only through awareness can you see the totality of the situation or person instead of adopting one limited perspective’. I think that this idea of seeing the totality is a common misinterpretation of what could be called ‘spiritual’ experience. Yes we can have experiences of liberation and clarity – ‘peak experiences’ as Maslow called them – when we seem to step out of our bodies and to see ourselves, usually metaphorically, as if from the outside. This can feel like an awakening as it expands the perspectives we bring to bear. This can bring insights and lead people to naively feel that they are ‘awakened’ and understand everything. But of course they don't see everything any more than Tolle knows that homeopathy works (it doesn't). There are very good philosophical arguments why we cannot actually step outside and experience the point of view of the totality. The ‘big other’ that many experience and that is referred to by Tolle as ‘Presence’ is not the point of view of a bounded totality – this would be impossible – it is the taste only of an unbounded infinity. In other words we never see from all possible points of view - there is always another point of view that we have missed [For more on this issue seem Levinas contra Heidegger in books such as Totality and Infinity - http://lust-for-life.org/Lust-For-Life/TotalityAndInfinity/TotalityAndInfinity.pdf].
The metaphor of dialogue can illuminate the problem with mindfulness and also the way forward. Accepting everything and not speaking in a dialogue is an easy way to avoid stress. Any position you take up will inevitably be limited and will die a death as it competes with other positions in the dialogue. So if you tend to over-identify with your words then dialogues can be tough and mindfulness as stepping back from engagement in dialogue can seem like a good idea. But this is only a good idea from an individual mental health point of view and only a temporary point of view at that. From a collective point of view this is not a good move. It kills the dialogue. Very mindful people like Tolle are not normally much fun to talk to. They don't gossip or play with voices. They just have one very serious voice that they claim is not really them at all since they have no ego. Knowledge is also important to education - it is not only about well-being - and knowledge only progresses if people have the courage to take up positions and fight for them.
Dialogic education teaches how to identify with the dialogue as well as with being a voice within the dialogue. Both together, not one or the other. Identifying with dialogue is not the same as identifying with the formless ground. It is identifying with the dynamic weaving process of taking on form and arguing a position while being prepared to listen to the responding voices and change one’s mind. Dialogue is a kind of hide and seek or lost and found or 'Fort'/'Da' kind of game where you have to take on different voices.
Being able to return from the focused foreground of thought to the formless background is an important move for creativity. I have meditated all my life and I love the feeling of 'stepping back' into the warm void of no-self and no-thing-ness. But creativity as a whole also requires the moment of ambition that sets goals and the moment of ruthless critical thinking that selects between alternatives weeding out the worst and pursuing only those that will best achieve the goal. Mindfulness is an important addition to the educational debate to be listened to with respect. But we do not need to buy it as a whole package. Instead we should investigate which bits work and why they work in order to integrate the best elements within a broader vision.
Unfortunately all this reminds me of a terrible old joke which I paraphrase:
Marx: to be is to do - most teachers seem to assume the primacy of education for doing over education for being)
Heidegger: to do is to be - Mindfulness attempts to redress this imbalance by stressing the primacy of education for being.
Sinatra: do be do be do - I tend to agree with Sinatra here, we need to educate for a dance between doing and being, between the foreground and background of thought, or between speaking and listening in the larger dialogue.