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Three Postmodern Values that make Mindfulness Countercultural: Embracing the Discrepancy

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Written by Dr Manju (USA), Photography by Flavio Emmanuel (Brazil)

In the past decade, mindfulness has been recognized as a growing legitimate field in psychology, coaching, business and self-development. As a psychologist and coach who does mindfulness training, I have seen a significant number of clients struggling to integrate mindfulness in their lives. The operative word is “struggling,” or similarly, “trying,” or “striving”. Often, the struggle would experientially increase because of their investment in “getting it right”. I noticed that most not only were penetrating through internal barriers as well as influences from our postmodern world as well.

A neglected topic of discussion is how mindfulness living principles counter some of the cultural expectations norms of postmodern societies. Once openly discussed however, many of my clients have more gracefully and gratifyingly integrated mindfulness in their lives. Expectations became more realistic. Normally, the goals for my clients in mindfulness practice were to help them recognize and meet their fullest potential within the context of their particular concerns. The goal was not to have them enlightened and live as spiritual monks — this has been a common misconception when the word “mindfulness” has been mentioned. The purpose of this article is to review postmodern cultural values and norms that counter mindful living and suggest tactics to help one integrate mindful principles. It is assumed that the reader has a general understanding of what mindfulness and postmodern cultural norms are. (Please note that clinical conditions that can involve dissociative states such as trauma or panic disorders might present as underlying barriers to mindful practice and must be discussed with the clinician before proceeding in mindfulness training.).

Judgment vs Compassion:

Judgment is a natural and essential human trait to make decisions and act on them. It enables us to survive, thrive , sustain and change our goals, such as selecting jobs, friends, clothing and food, etc. When misused, however, judgment causes unnecessary strife and a harsh mindset that reinforces “good and bad” or “winner vs. loser” that counter mindful living practices. For instance, how many of use have watched certain reality tv shows that exploit drama and interpersonal conflict to disqualify candidates until someone is chosen? How many of us have witnessed office, family, or community gossip firsthand, with the expectation that we participate? Distortions through drawn out animosity, tears and suffering are common for potential candidates to “win”. Tabloids on the personal lives of celebrities, athletes and politicians might engender intrigue. Many of our problems are humanized as they are detected and exposed publicly. Yet, healthy boundaries between the famous and public officials from the masses are blurred. The magnifying glass and spotlight begins to objectify those under intense scrutiny, placing excessive expectations, preconceived notions and judgments towards those we do not know on a personal, human level.

At the Stanford Compassion Training NYC program, they teach that compassion allows us to accept suffering as an integral part of the human condition. Rather than divide, it connects everyone. In so doing, we can identify the suffering of others and alleviate it through good wishes, kindness and caring. By exercising self-compassion, we can also identify our own suffering and empower ourselves to receive kindness and good wishes from others and participate in self-care. Compassion differs from empathy in that compassionate people do not necessarily internalize or absorb the suffering of others. In fact, compassion magnifies and replenishes on its own, shielding us from fatigue or “burn out”.

Despite the benevolence of compassion and self-compassion, they have mistakenly been equated with pity and self-pity, disabling feelings that make us believe the pitied are powerless for positive change. Environments or mindsets that energize hierarchical and unrelenting competitive approaches are most inclined to diminish compassion as a weakness. Common adages such as “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps”, “ be independent,” overlooks how interdependence works with individuality and one’s potential to survive and succeed. Money, labor, products and services are all circulated among us to help build and sustain our livelihood. We are all connected, and suffering is the universal denominator that is alleviated by compassion.

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Information vs. Wisdom

Information – Information has always been viewed as an asset to build knowledge, educate us and help us make the best-informed decisions. Advancement, however, has typically integrated information coherently to generate value. With Information technology growing worldwide, information on well-being is readily available for those with Internet access at the click of their fingertips. This is a major physical shift from the technology of using our human minds, such as meditation, as a source for well-being. Information comes at us from increasing multiple sources: . The quality and pace of the information that we absorb vary tremendously. Cohesion and clarity are mostly absent. Information is disjointed and becomes mindless, turning into noise with little internal regulation of what is available. As mentioned earlier in this article, distortions in information are not always apparent. We are still learning how to harness electronic information.

Michael Harris, author of “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Lost Connection”, maintained that with the Internet, information is communicated all day, everyday. Thus, people have a stronger tendency to seek information out of fear that they may have “missed something” . What strikes me as odd is that years ago, certain types information that was reserved for the elite, such as spiritual practices and wisdom, has been made readily accessible at no or little cost. Yet, the interest for connection with self and others still remain a daunting task to the masses.

In managing the vast array of disjointed information, multitasking has been a prized skill across roles, whether as employee, parent or student. How many parents beam as they say that they can take care of their duties because they can “multitask?” Descriptions for many jobs in the Help Wanted section note that they are looking for candidates who can “multitask”. However, mindfulness underscores the principle of focusing on one task at a time. In addition, neuroscientist Shonte Jovan Taylor of the Optimind Neuroscience Coaching Institute teaches her clients that the Pre Frontal Cortex, the most sophisticated part of the brain, is geared to focus on one thing at a time for optimum performance. In fact, studies have shown that Harvard students who multitask demonstrate IQ levels within the normal range of eight year olds. Of course, this is circumstantial and due to stress from multitasking, not their actual IQ. Thus, Jovan Taylor offers the concept of “uni-task”, which includes focusing on one endeavor at a time in depth for 60-90 minutes, then taking a break, and focusing on another task. Unitasking is prized in mindful living, but runs contrary to the interest of a constantly busy, packed lifestyle that promote distractions, depletion and deprivation in the long run.

Wisdom entails using information to gain knowledge and making insightful, intuitive, life-enhancing choices through experience, or learning from others, such as elders, mentors, teachers, friends and students. Wise choices are conducive to sustainability for one’s livelihood. Immediate gratification is often suspended.

Carl Jung asserted that, “Where wisdom reigns, there is no conflict between thinking and feeling.” Working towards little or no conflict, as Jung highlighted, is a value and skill that is not mainly facilitated by postmodern society. Conflict in an increasingly fast past society is encouraged to continue, arguably for excess consumerism. Please note that conflict is not always negative; it is inevitable because suffering is inevitable and can enable growth for positive change. However, a cultural hyperfocus on conflict without supporting a skill set to manage it for positive change is unhealthy, and fragmenting on many levels. Without glamourizing conflict as a cultural norm, what would we do? How would we be entertained? How would we compete in a challenging job market and make sure our jobs were safe? How would we treat others and ourselves in difficult relationships in which people push our buttons? How would we ensure that we were taking care of our health in the optimum way?

Marcia Linehan PhD, developed Dialectical Behavior Therapy in the psychology domain, which comprised of mindfulness exercises to increase tolerance for distress. Specifically, she described three states of mind to make decisions: rational mind (logical processing without emotions), emotional mind (raw, reactive feelings, devoid of logic) and finally, wise mind, which harmoniously fuses and intersect with aspects of our rational and emotional minds to accept and manage distress. Integration of rational and emotional minds requires time to reflect that may not be prioritized in postmodern. Excess busy-ness contributes to mindlessness.

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Doing vs. Being

Doing is glorified in Western and man made technologically advanced cultures. It has been emphasized in the pursuit of self-actualization, productivity, reaching our fullest potential, reaching our peak in business matters as well. Action. Creation. Physical engagement. The Nike commercial saying, “Just DO it!” Look at your productivity score at work weekly; the look of dismay of people when disappointed, shocked or even appalled at someone’s lack of activity; “What are you doing? Get off that fat chair!” Doing is important, critical to survival, sustenance and success, but it must be integrated with being.

In overdrive, our glamourizing of doing can be a constant, creating imbalance in our inner self and relationship with nature for harmony. To reset out circadian rhythm, it has been suggested that we sleep in darkness out in nature for two weeks. Meditation and sleep can reset our nervous system to minimize excess and counterproductive stress, increase our immune system and think more clearly. Being speaks to the subtle mind and body, often neglected because of its imperceptibility in our material world. Although intangible, it is a potent pulse to our health and overall well-being. A conscious presence to oneself and the outside world while engaging in any activity is often drowned with “noisy” distraction. Work, which is necessary to pay the bills and can contribute to humanity with benevolent intentions, in excess can be a distraction from checking in with ourselves.

Postmodern values that have made our lives easier can deter us from metaphysical wisdom of the sages that must be revisited to sustain ourselves and continue the trajectory toward an individual and collective evolution through conscious and compassionate living. Thank you for reading. Please let me know your thoughts!

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