I read this article this morning on Elephant Journal about “Is Mindfulness First World Bullsh*t” (by Monica Careless). It was a great read and I agree with the sentiment fully: humility is a key to the practice of mindfulness. I certainly do not want to be perceived as disagreeing with anything in this article, but I do want to examine a different perspective. To do so, I’ll use my own life as an example.
I grew up “first-world poor”. I’ve never lived in a different culture. As such, I’m accustomed to surviving in a first world, but pressed hard against the edges, wholly unimportant to the culture in which I belong, and as such have rebelled against it (in many ways) in my lifetime. My culture is one of consumerism, where my worth is measured in what I can display. I am valued more if I have the nice car, big TV perfectly edged lawn. Growing up on the edge of my culture, I have learned a different way of looking at these things. I like to accumulate them when I can, but I have no real attachment to them. I see them as emergency savings… “pawnables” if you will.
Though in comparison to people surviving in third world countries, I live in riches, my concept of Maslow’s Hierarchy comes from the culture in which I grew up. So, while I struggle wondering how rent will get paid, or if the food bank will let me go again even though it has been less than a month since I was last there (maybe just some eggs?), or what I will do if my leaky car breaks down, or… None of this is to raise sympathy, but to point out the frame of reference I have to work from.
I have two stories to illustrate. The first is the biblical story of the Rich man and the kingdom of heaven in which Jesus tells a rich man that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). The second story is one I heard (but cannot find in any scriptures) about Buddha and his disciples. Invited to feast at a rich landowner’s house, where Buddha and his disciples were showered with gifts, one of his disciples condemned the rich man for his display of attachment to material. Buddha chastised his disciple by telling him that the rich man was closer to enlightenment at that moment than was the disciple. The rich man displayed vigorous generosity, where the disciple displayed only judgement.
The distinction here is attachment to the material world. That is where the first world (rich man) faces difficulties, and why it is easier to pass a camel through the eye of a needle. But I can develop attachments to beliefs as well as objects, which can be just as harmful. Mindfulness negates the frame of reference from which my perception originates. As Careless’s article pinpoints, humility is key. I can be mindful and practice mindfulness, no matter what my circumstances, but if humility escapes me, I am not actually being mindful. Without humility, I am being analytic (as I am doing now), which limits my perceptive capability to a narrow set of causes and conditions relevant only to perceivable stimuli existing in a moment. Mindfulness allows me to see events as they occur. Analysis picks out pieces for judgment. Compassion (aided by humility) allows me to see past the limits of mind and judgment. I can recount witnessing a car wreck in such a way that I am not adding any of my own personal bias to tell the story; I am not judging fault or cause of the wreck.
To bring this back to the beginning. Practicing mindfulness is first world bullshit, but it’s the vehicle we have to get us where we need to be. All mindfulness practice is bullshit while it seeks to penetrate the rebelliousness of ego. We of first world western culture flock through fads, this is true. Mindfulness helps us release judgment of what that means (sort of an Infernal Irony going on here). If you want to travel far, you may have to ride in a jalopy part of the way.