The Present Breath
by Jenny Diski
It’s getting increasingly uncanny to see the way in which the present neoliberal plot to reduce the state purely to an enabler of private profit, clicks as neatly as a jigsaw piece into the attempts of the children of the new age of Aquarius in the late 1960s to explore their own inner space. We could never have imagined it.
We baby-boomers – as we are better remembered – took the idea of our minds seriously, and, as well as getting stoned out of them, sought to learn more about them, to see what minds were capable of and how minds in other cultures had developed differently because of other social practices and assumptions. We took drugs and read the Bhagavad Gita and the Tibetan Book of the Dead; we fell hook line if not sinker for the Marharishi Marhesh Yoga and admired Alan Watts, we listened intently to sitar ragas as well as to the Doors. We investigated other cultures, as we thought, with humility, to discover what our discarded materialistic upbringing had forgotten about the human condition. What we didn’t notice was how much like our colonial forebears we were in our assumptions that we could just wander around the world, or leaf through the writings of other societies and take what we thought they were saying as our own. We weren’t humble, we were naïve and arrogant. We supposed we could just charge around the world, by foot or by book, and just understand what we read and saw. We imagined we could take on the habits of a society different from our own for thousands of years, just as we slipped into jellabahs and kaftans. Nevertheless, we were seekers. For that I still salute us. We looked for ways to expand the mind; and for all our arrogance, we guessed that there was more to mind than our western colonial heritage had led us to believe.
Now, almost every week, I open a paper, or click on an article onscreen, to be told by some government body or representative that it would benefit our society greatly if we were to meditate every day. Not long ago, I read that 95 members of parliament had completed mindfulness meditation courses. The day before an article headlined ‘Why we will come to see mindfulness as mandatory’, was written by Guardian writer, Madeleine Bunting, who is part of a university group supporting ‘an all-party parliamentary group on mindfulness.’ What interests them, she says, ‘ is the potential for public policy. What role could mindfulness play in schools, in the NHS or in the criminal justice system?’1
This is beyond the wildest dreams of the 1960s counter-culture. While we charged at other cultures like bulls in china shops, and tried to insert ourselves into religions and practices that we had no preparation for, this modern push to mindfulness has moved in a different direction and more or less stripped the oriental and transcendental out of the practice. It asks little more than that a person should sit for between fifteen minutes and an hour a day concentrating on the in-and-out of their breathing. Once the Buddhism and technical precepts have been disposed of, what emerges is the common sense of paying attention to the present moment and not worrying about and fearing the past and future. ‘Close your eyes, bring your attention into your body, to the sensation of your feet on the ground; the movements of your breath, the expansion of your rib cage. Stay with these tiny physical sensations.’ The obscure texts we struggled with have been replaced with extremely simple practical instruction. No difficult postures or sanskrit terms. None of the severe warnings that a lifetime of work would only put the aspiring meditator on the first step to the road of enlightenment. Just sit, pay attention, breath. Then go to work, or get back to the children. This is all it takes, academic studies have found, to achieve a 20% reduction in symptoms of stress and depression. It is good for us to meditate, and if it prevents people from taking time off from work and needing the services of doctors and medicines, it is good for the country. So good that even business and the military are providing courses in it. The message is that meditation is no longer to be considered quirky or foreign, it is to be thought of as keeping the mind well, just as jogging keeps the body in good condition. Never mind any other reasons why people practice meditation. Western capitalism has finally been convinced that ancient techniques can save them money, and what is more, the onus is on the individual, not the state, to ensure that they maintain a sound mind in a healthy body and get to work 20% more often than they are managing to do now.
I am not mocking, or at least, I’m not mocking the benefits of meditation. I know for a fact that there are immediate benefits. For some years I have been practicing the modern sort of mindfulness, to help me cope with chronic pain that strong drugs only partly help, after I discovered the CDs of Jon Kabat-Zinn who ran the prestigious Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts. His guided breathing meditations and explanations are compelling and I use them whenever the pain is too strong. I try to do it every day, but I don’t have the sort of personality that allows me to succeed very well at that. But by concentrating on my breathing, then focussing on the area of pain and breathing in and out of it, I’ve found it is possible to make it seem to disperse, almost as if it were a cloud breaking up into harmless droplets. By breathing into pain and thinking of it not as pain, but unemotively as sensation, I can tolerate and moderate it to some extent in my mind. It is a real help, even if, when I stop, the pain returns. I don’t need a guru, I just need silence and a certain amount of energy to get it going.
But although I do appreciate how much this pared down meditation can help pain and stress, there is something about it that troubles me, just as there was something about the more Buddhist version I tried to practice long ago. The key phrase in mindfulness is ‘the present moment’. The point is to exist in the here and now. In that immediate space where nothing was and nothing will be, there is relief from all manner of ills. The mind is relieved of its restlessness and the restlessness of the world. Yet living in the present moment, as Buddhism and now the British parliament is exhorting us to do, means that we are not to trouble ourselves with what has gone before or what is to come. It is precisely not how a writer can exist. And how convenient such a state of mind is for governments, businesses, the military, the financial sectors, to have a populace and workforce who, if distressed physically or mentally by state and corporate acts of greed, incompetence and ideology, can slip into meditating on the mild and uneventful eternal now. We have discovered with our modern scienctific measuring devices that such meditating actually changes our metabolism so that the wellbeing we feel as a result can be explained by actual chemical processes in our brain. Whenever Jon Kabat-Zinn intones ‘Bring your mind to the present breath, because that is all that exists’, I find myself fighting the rush of pleasurable endorphins in my brain to remind myself as a member of society and as a writer, that the present is not all there is. It’s OK for an hour a day, but without the narrative of the past and present, cause and effect, we risk becoming contented sheep. You can see how attractive a population of meditators might be to those who get their wealth and power from manipulating the material world.
Piece crossposted with This and That Continued. Originally published in Swedish in Goteborgs-Posten