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Avoiding Mindfulness

As I understand it, the reason mindfulness is difficult is that we have a habit of avoidance. Sleep, forgetting, addiction, obsessiveness, repression, ignoring, denial, projection (and others I haven't thought of) ...are the tools of our avoidance. Mindfulness is being consciously aware, being present; its opposite is shutting down, shutting out, zoning out.

In mainstream culture avoidance is understood to be the best response to many kinds of distress. "Don't cry. Don't let it bother you. Don't think about it." But the result of shutting down our awareness of any part of life, is that it shuts down our ability to be open to all of it. To be mindful.

For example Rachel Naomi Remen, in her wonderful book Kitchen Table Wisdom (Riverhead Books, NY, 97), talks about how doctors are taught in medical school that they must keep an emotional distance from their patients, that empathy will interfere with the doctor's ability to function. But the result for the doctor in fact is loneliness, woodenness, and bad health (which certainly interfere with ability to function). And empathy, as she and a few other doctors have begun teaching it to other doctors, improves healing beyond what medicine alone can accomplish.

In When Society Becomes an Addict, Anne Wilson Schaef analyzes how avoidance permeates our culture. For example, in the introduction, she mentions some major social, and ecological crises that are deteriorating, and then describes the usual reaction:

As a society, we are responding not with action but with a widespread malaise. The market for antidepressants has never been better. Apathy and depression have become synonymous with adjustment. Rather than looking for ways to change, to save ourselves, we are becomng more conservative, more defensive of the status quo. (Harper & Row, 1988, p.3.)

She also has suggestions on what to do about it. The first, absolutely essential thing to do, she says (without any Buddhist background), is to acknowledge what is happening, and to name it. Mindfulness.

Of course if the only way we know to respond to suffering — our own and others' — is avoidance, then we will be vulnerable to manipulation by the providers of avoidance: drugs (both recreational and medical), junk food, entertainment, consumerism & other materialist attachments, jingoistic nationalism, security-blanket religion (and many more I haven't thought of).... It's to the advantage of these providers to keep us dependent on their product.

It's tough, unlearning a lifetime of "don't think about it" — excruciatingly unpleasant, at times. But my experience has been, when I've gotten a taste of freedom from all those cultural mindsets, it's worth it!

©Copyright Catherine Holmes Clark 1998. Last updated 28 November 1998