Mindful or Mindless: Spirituality by Expansion or Subtraction - Blog#5 - 9 February 2019
By now, we’ve all heard about mindfulness, and we’ve been warned as children about mindlessness, but how can they each add to our spirituality? Both meditation practices, and “higher” spiritual practices, can be categorized in different ways, and understood from different perspectives. One such perspective is whether they expand our consciousness, as in mindfulness, or whether they narrow our consciousness, as in concentrative meditation. Meditation is one gateway to higher spiritual experiences. The distinction between concentrative meditation and mindfulness meditation can be understood by examining the difference between introvertive and extravertive spirituality. Introductory meditation typically narrows our conscious focus, concentrating on our breathing, or a single external object, such as a candle flame. We attempt to gently dismiss distracting and intrusive thoughts that could hijack our focus and take our minds elsewhere. Concentrative meditations aim to suspend thinking, to turn off language-based verbal linear thinking, and thereby restrict awareness, while developing concentration. Likewise, the Buddhist goal of “nonattachment” seeks to temporarily suspend desire, to reduce craving. In contrast, mindfulness seeks to increase awareness. Mindfulness meditations emphasize an awareness of oneself in the present, in the process of openly observing and non-judgmentally accepting the objects of one's consciousness (thoughts, feelings, impulses, and external phenomena). Concentrative meditation uses a telephoto lens to narrow attention, while mindfulness uses a wide-angle lens to broaden awareness, though both cultivate acceptance. Concentrative meditations are a more introvertive practice seeking mindlessness via subtraction, while extravertive practices increase awareness and invite mindfulness.
Walter Stace (1960) distinguished between introvertive and extravertive mysticism. Extravertive mysticism looks outward, and finds unity with the world, an “all is one” experience, whereas introvertive mysticism looks inward, experiencing pure empty consciousness, singularity in the absence of perceived objects, no-thing-ness, or union with an abstract God. At first glance, extravertive spirituality seems more accessible, easier to manufacture on a day-to-day basis. That is, it seems easier to find unity with the world, in an “all-is-one” experience, than it is to access pure empty consciousness. We are more familiar with being than nothingness, more practiced, at least informally, in mindfulness than mindlessness. We become casual extravertive mystics when we access awe and contemplate the puzzles of infinity and existence by gazing into the universe on a starry night, or when we experience, at sunset or sunrise, the magic of light and heat from our own star 93 million miles distant. This spiritual experience is more robust if we allow ourselves to feel gratitude in these moments for our gifts, of nature, life, love, and consciousness. It is amazing how things are, but even more amazing that things are. Spirituality is about connectedness, both external and internal, and about consciousness, particularly the emotions we experience as we contemplate consciousness. Thus, we can access ordinary extravertive spirituality by deliberately connecting to nature, to people, or ourselves, and to our emotions as we contemplate consciousness. The existence, beauty, and complexity of the material universe, and the incredible internal landscape of consciousness, both leave us dumbfounded and awestruck, inviting humility, and existential joy as well. The further we get from the self, and the more we “lose our self” in the All, the higher we travel spiritually. We become more connected to the universe, less connected to our own separate identity, more ego-transcendent, more spiritual.
While extrovertive mysticism utilizes sensory input and conceptual awareness, targeting an “all-is-one” experience, introvertive mysticism seeks a different form of unitary consciousness, whereby sensory data and ideas have been transcended/eliminated, leaving nothing but a void or empty consciousness. Both types of spirituality aim to transcend ego boundaries to the point where, temporarily, the self no longer exists, either by joining everything, or by retreating into nothingness. Extrovertive spirituality is more pantheistic and finds oneness amidst the multiplicity and connectedness of the universe, while introvertive practices seek oneness in and with the void. Introvertive spirituality seeks nothingness rather than unity, by subtraction rather than addition, minimizing awareness rather than seeking heightened awareness of being and connectedness. It is more mindlessness than mindfulness, more nonbeing than being, more unknowing than knowing, yet it is formless awareness, “pure consciousness” rather than unconsciousness. It is also more difficult to attain, and thus to some, like Stace, it is considered a more developed, higher form of spirituality. This is, of course, a value judgment, which you are entitled to make for yourself, if you are able to develop such spiritual states sufficiently to compare them. There is a fair amount of controversy as to whether “PCEs” (pure conscious events) even exist, though discussions of such introvertive emptying experiences can be found in both Buddhist and Christian literature.
If you are unfamiliar with meditation and mindfulness practices, Ronald Siegel’s The Mindfulness Solution (2010, Guilford) is a good starting point. You can also check out Chapters 12 (Meditation, Mindfulness, and Control of Thinking) and 13 (Spiritual Awakening) in my forthcoming book, Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices, available via Amazon late next week. I’m very excited that publication is finally just around the corner. Thanks for listening, and for sharing your perspectives on meditation and mindfulness, if you care to add to the discussion below.
Siegel, Ronald. (2010). The mindfulness solution: Everyday practices for everyday problems. New York, NY: Guilford.
Stace, Walter. (1960). Mysticism and philosophy. London, England: MacMillan.
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