Friday 29 June 2018

Mindfulness-inspired existential nihilism

I’ve been using the Headspace webpage to practice mindfulness meditation for the last 18 months or so. So far it has been with mixed success with respect to the reliability of any transformation of how I’m feeling but the ‘vocabulary’ of processes has become familiar: the sequence of forms of attention and its opposite.

I’ve pinched the picture from here. Which suggests that ‘Mindfulness to put it simply is being fully present in the moment. It means to be aware of our surroundings and to pay attention to what we are doing’.

Cycling up a lengthy hill in Cumbria a week ago, I realised that I wasn’t enjoying the experience very much. Or rather, I was finding it actively unpleasant. And so I tried some mindfulness techniques to identify the components of the experience. On reflection, it seemed that the bodily feeling of exertion, well short of pain, wasn’t in itself unpleasant: simply a feeling of bodily effort.

What made the general experience unpleasant was an overlying atmosphere of anxiety: not that that had a specific recognisable propositional content. It was not, for example, an anxiety of not being able to reach the top of the hill (what would it matter?). But there was a feeling ‘in the vicinity’ of anxiety that could nevertheless be neutralised just by focusing instead on what was in the bodily experience in the moment. What remained had no negative valence.

That seemed a quick victory for even my feeble skills in mindfulness meditation. But then it occurred to me that whilst that got rid of what is unpleasant about cycling consistently uphill, it also threatened to remove all the pleasure too. The pleasure, it seems to me, lies not in what is immediately bodily present but rather in the anticipation of the downhills to come, a memory of previous downhills but also uphills and the realisation that one is able to continue like this in ‘steady state’ over time. Further, it’s contributed to by a realisation that the activity on any one day will tend to sustain similar activity in the future. Hence also, the bodily tiredness and soreness to come is itself positive because of its history, what it means. The same bodily experiences imposed by drugs would not ‘in themselves’ be at all pleasant. But the knowledge that they result from a day in the saddle gives them a kind of satisfied pleasure.

But now what puzzles me about the virtues of this approach to bodily sensations – focusing on what is there ‘in the moment’ – is that subsequent retreat now seems impotent to re-establish previous pleasure. If the move that does the work of removing displeasure and pleasure is removal of a kind of temporal conceptual structure, a structure of habit, for example, simply adding back in past and future moments, also, presumably, stripped of positive (or negative) valence doesn’t seem able to re-establish the pre-meditative state.

It seems to me that mindfulness meditation, as I have no doubt misunderstood it, is a kind of equivalent of a form of philosophical scepticism, in this case promoting a kind of existential nihilism.