Full Minds, Empty Hearts

'Reality damages your sight Close your eyes'

‘Reality damages your sight
Close your eyes’

By Estelle Birdy

Have you ever been at a series of quite enjoyable yoga workshops somewhere in the world and found yourself considering (however briefly) running over and doing a big shit in the middle of the teacher’s fancy yoga mat? Have you ever considered screaming “That’s not a fucking sentence! What are you even talking about? Do you even know? Lads, he’s saying nothing! This means nothing. Nothing at all”, if the teacher said one more time, “Open up to the higher” or “Mindfully attaining your highest”? I have.

Have you ever wanted to say to a Positivity Mentor/ Mindfulness Coach/Wanky-Wank-Wank-Wanker, “Really? You’re all about the positivity and positive vibes? Is that because you’re so damn mindful or is it because your nostrils are positively choc full of the finest Columbian White of a weekend?” I have.

Have you ever hankered to say, “Why don’t you go fuck your mindfulness instead of fucking your yoga students/yoga teacher trainees behind your partner’s back?” while listening to some tit telling you how enlightened they’ve become since washing their arse chakra or something? I have.

Have you ever wanted to ask, “How come you say you’d like to spend more time hugging your kids but you can’t because you’re stuck in the queue in the RDS to hug a sweaty woman called Amma? And Amma’s on the phone to her accountant siphoning funds out of the charitable foundation to which you donate, and into the fund to build another floor on her pink skyscraper in the Kerala jungle?” I have.

Have you ever pondered why someone doesn’t have the money to take their parents out for a meal and a chat and a bit of wise advice because they’re trying to repay the loan they took out to pay for their Life Coach? I have.

Have you ever thought you were descending into a dystopian nightmare when you read of yet another yoga/mindfulness organisation being involved in yet another  alleged sexual harassment/abuse case and find that the leader of that organisation describes complaining (about anything) as “more poisonous than ingesting a poisonous substance”? When the positivity nobility talk about complaining- about anything- needing to be stamped out of our lives? When the American DSM lists defiance of authority as a mental disorder? I have.

Have you ever felt that you’d finally died inside when you found yourself putting a ‘Corporate Wellness’ page up on your website, realising that now you had finally become everything you despise and just another cog in the wheel of blandness? Have you ever felt that if you wrote one more bouncy, smiley little description of your fairly ordinary yoga class, you’d puke? I have.

Have you ever heard anyone ever say, “I completed my mindfulness course and then I produced this amazing, earth- quake inducing, passionate piece of art/music/writing/dance that moved people to tears the world over”? No. Me neither.

In a basement bedsit on Lennox Street in 1990 or thereabouts, I sat and listened as a friend of the time, told me and a couple of other friends, about his amazing trip to the States to visit his mother.  His mother had got in with these ‘amazing people’ and specifically with one ‘amazing woman’ called J.Z. Knight. J.Z. was in the habit of ‘channelling’ a 35,000 year old Egyptian (I don’t think he’s Egyptian anymore) male entity called Ramtha. They’re always Egyptian or Native American and usually royal. No hod carriers or shit shovellers have the time to channel themselves into amazing American women, apparently.

So our friend, let’s call him James, got us to sit down and listen, huddled round a tape recorder, for the best part of an hour, to a recording of  this American woman clearly putting on a silly voice and repeating meaningless phrases over and over.  She or he (I’m sure gender is fluid in the world of really old entities) kept saying things like ‘that that is’ ‘if it were, that was and is’ ‘I’m J.Z. Knight putting on a silly pretend man’s voice and repeating meaningless phrases over and over in classic brainwashing technique style’. I made up that last one.  Completely devoid of meaning, Ramtha’s repetitive ramblings, were pure nonsense.  Listening to it made us soporific though, lulled us almost, but not quite, to sleep. At one point, there was a break when my now husband asked, without a hint of a smile, why Ramtha spoke in that strange staccato way and kept repeating stuff. “Is it because English isn’t his first language?” “Yes, I’m sure that’s why!” said James gleefully missing the hidden laughter in the question, “He’s only getting used to being channelled and he is 35,000 years old.” Fair enough, I suppose.  I didn’t openly laugh (Maybe I did. Perhaps I’m remembering myself as a much more respectful person than I actually was) but my belly hurt holding it in. Baz, the husband, nodded sagely and went back to drying the dishes.

None of us said anything of the order of, “Are you off your fucking head James, you fruitcake?” or “Brainwashing  much?”, although that’s what we were all thinking. No, we just left and laughed about it outside, talked about the weirdness in the pub, then forgot the whole episode.  I didn’t think about it again really, until recently, when J.Z. Knight cropped up in conversation.  A fella I know told me how he’d been upset to hear of the death of a former friend of his, who’d lived in the building where my yoga studio now was. She’d  got in tow with this one called J.Z. Knight, moved to the States to live in J.Z.’s compound and had wound up dead, seemingly by her own hand. Had I ever heard of this one, J.Z. Knight? Funnily enough, yes, I had. I’d heard her putting on a silly voice one afternoon on a tape recorder, 25 years ago. I looked J.Z.up when I heard about the Irish woman who had died. J.Z.’s very rich now. Her face is pinned back behind her ears, she’s expressionless.  J.Z. sued a woman who claimed to also be channelling Ramtha. J.Z. won.  Clearly, Ramtha’s familiar with intellectual property rights and J.Z. could prove legally that she was the only one channelling the real Ramtha. Or something. The other woman was a Life Coach and it was another Ramtha who was causing her silly voice. Obviously.  J.Z. gets caught on camera being drunk, abusive, threatening and racist. J.Z., (and Ramtha presumably) talk a lot about mindfulness these days.  Oh and J.Z.’s running a cult called Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment these days. American loons right?

And these days, I’m an insider in this world of mindfulness and yoga and whatever yer having yerself and lots and lots of things are beginning to look very much like Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment. I’m an insider with a vested interest in people believing in this stuff. It’s how I make my living, such as it is. I need some people to come to my classes, there’s no point in lying about it. Although, whether anyone will ever turn up again after this is debatable.  The fact that I am an insider, came about quite naturally, as it happens. I had always been interested in mysticism and weirdy stuff. I’ve had quite a few interesting experiences which, it seems, most people don’t have. So, since I’d been reading about and practicing a bit of yoga and meditation since my late teens, I decided to go and get it properly explained to me by some kids-in-the-know, in the Dublin Buddhist Centre, when I was in my late twenties. I did a meditation course. It was five weeks long. We were taught two simple meditations, Mindfulness of Breathing and Metta Bhavana. One is counting your breaths really and the other is just calling to mind various people you know and sending them good wishes. They’re easy, there’s no bullshit and they work. They work, as in; they help to clear your mind and eventually lift the veil from your eyes and help you to see reality. That’s the point of mindfulness see? It opens up your mind to reality, in all its beauty and ugliness, in all its joy and all its suffering. It was never, ever, intended to be something that propped up its bland lie of a cousin, positivity, or caused people to ignore what’s in front of them. But that’s what it has become.

A yoga and meditation teacher I admire and who taught me a lot, tells his story of delving deeply into meditation. He’s the real deal. He went hard core. Spent a long time on silent retreat meditating in Burma with only occasional interaction with his Buddhist teacher. He tells of the transformative nature of this mindfulness practice. He also tells of his return to the States and his complete emotional and mental breakdown after he got there. His shaking with anxiety, his fear, his anger. He tells of how this was painful and horrible at the time but also completely appropriate and natural as he was seeing reality for what it was. Being present rather than Being Present™. The fog had lifted and the picture that the reality of day- to- day American city life presented, was not an altogether pretty one. Mindfulness was meant to be about really seeing that reality.  If mindfulness is about was being in the present moment (and I believe it is) then sometimes that present moment has something really, really bad happening in it. Ignoring that bad thing isn’t being mindful or present or whatever the latest blah word is, it’s being ignorant. The reality of life was what mindfulness was about and still is for many great teachers and practitioners (even some of the ones who now call themselves Mindfulness Coaches) but they are drowned out by the Positive Mindfulness Cult.  You can a take a weekend course or a Masters in mindfulness, whichever you fancy, and you too can become a Mindfulness Coach. No need for the difficult slow stuff anymore. Do a correspondence course and Buddha’s your uncle. That’ll be €90 an hour, thanking you.  This is mindfulness as competitive sport and you’d better not get left behind in the race to the bottom of bland. You’ll need that Mindfulness Coach and you’ll probably need some expensive leggings and the iPhone Being Present™ app.

The idea of mindfulness of anything is not new. It’s very old and it’s fairly simple. Mindfulness as we knew it had its roots in Buddhism and Hinduism but really, if you’re doing anything contemplative, from chanting in Glenstal Abbey to sweeping the kitchen floor while being fully aware of what you’re doing, you’re practising mindfulness.  Meditation was a tool for profound personal and societal change, grounded, first and foremost, in a code of ethics. Simple ethics like non-greed, non-violence, truthfulness. It was not, as a far as I was aware, something with which to stupefy the masses and get them to accept just about anything because, you know, “this too will pass”.  Stripped of its ethical roots, its difficulties sanitised, mindfulness has become an empty word and a useful tool to blind the plebs and make them believe they’re “attaining their highest” or “that that is and was”. One of the things that underpinned all of these Eastern practices was personal discernment. You were meant to consider everything you were being told carefully, go slowly, check whether each thing you were being told made sense. Use your own judgement. Even the feckin Dalai Lama warns people to spy on any teacher they might consider going to, for years. He says to watch your proposed teacher carefully. Check out how they behave in their ordinary lives. Are their ethics in accord with your own? Does what they’re saying make sense? Not that I’m advocating stalking here but has everyone lost their bullshit radar? If it sounds like bullshit to you, be open and consider it carefully, but if it sounded like bullshit at the beginning, it’s most likely to be bullshit at the end too. You’ll find the Positive Mindfulness Cult leaders spouting about the negativity of ‘judgement’ or ‘complaining’ all over the internet. Feel yourself coming over all judgemental when a teacher tells you that as long as your root chakra’s in order, money will flow to you? Chant Om a bit louder and you’ll get over it.

Rather than opening our eyes to reality, mindfulness today, seems to be about ensuring a hum-drum flow of ‘positivity’ Far be it from me to diss positivity. I have even, on more than one occasion, been accused of being a glass- half- full person myself! It’s just this false positivity that makes me want to chuck up my happy food. Only positive emotions are allowed in the Cult of Positive Mindfulness and very few emotions qualify for the ‘positive’ title. Anger, grief, fear, sadness are all negative emotions, apparently. It seems to me, from what I know of basic fucking physics, for every positively charged thingy, there’s a negatively charged thingy and that keeps everything in balance in the world. It’s not so in the world of the Positive Mindfulness Cult though. No matter how appropriate those ‘negative’ emotions may be in any given situation, there’s no need for the individual discernment that Buddhism or yoga or any long standing practice worth its salt, called for. Nope. Everything is glamourous and beautiful and smiley. This is mindfulness with a capital M, Mindfulness™.

Happiness is the only emotion that really counts and even then, this happiness is bland and unexpressive.  A mere beatific smile that never reaches the eyes. If you act too happy, you’ve probably got a mental disorder. Feel too passionate about something? Pills or Mindfulness Class™, you choose. Last week, I read of a woman reprimanded by the teacher at a Vipassana meditation, for her grief and sorrow at the death of her child four months prior. She mentions this phobia of emotions in this world of Mindfulness™. I agree with her. The phobia is everywhere. Not least in the workplace where mindfulness is the new discounted gym membership. The workplace is a venue for logic, not emotion. A place for mindful automatons. And mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness Om. A place to subtly prop up the patriarchy because emotions that are deemed feminine have no place here. The Positive Mindfulness Cult has swamped the building and if you feel some unease around that, that’s your own damn fault. Take a pill or go to a Level 5 Positive Spirituality Mindfulness Coach and get them to feed you some spiritual oneness soup for the soul. Either way, bland wins.

As you drown in a sea of hashtags and only positive vibes, productivity goes up and you no longer see the people drowning in the Med. No longer are you chained to all those negative emotions like, “I feel sad and aggrieved that I am enslaved to a mortgage, chained to this job, forced to accept any wage. No more do I feel anger at being forced by my enslavement to debt, to accept that I am lucky to have a job. For now my corporate employers provide me with the most wonderful Mindfulness™ classes at lunchtime. Who needs a union? My rights are all in my mind anyway. It’s my own attitude to pain that’s causing me this pain.”. Not only do you get back to your work station in a much calmer frame of mind but you can never sue your employers for workplace stress because look what they’re doing for you…

You step over the homeless drug addicted man to get into your yoga class. If you even notice him, you wish him well and accept his situation for him. If only he’d been more mindful, he might not have become depressed or got addicted to heroin. You can see your own reflection in every single highly polished surface of the anti-street sleeper spikes in the doorway of your workplace. Like a hundred little selfies each morning.

You’re glad of your amazing workplace. They froze your eggs for you, after all, so you can have a little baby when your career allows. No need to be mindful of the body clock or of fostering deep relationships. That’s all in a frozen canister somewhere.  You do your Mindfulness™ of a lunchtime and you should see your productivity! It’s through the roof man! In the background, maybe you know that you’re working to increase the profits of an organization that has investments in weapons that kill thousands of children, just like your own, currently frozen, future kids. Perhaps this fills you with a sense of ambient fear because you’re a human being and no matter how mindful you’ve become you can’t stop feeling connected to other human beings. Never mind. Work harder at your Mindfulness™ and flourish! If the uncontrollable shaking in your hands or your palpitations get the better of you, take another pill. The legal sort. You’ll get more out of your mindfulness class if your teeth aren’t chattering anyway. And sure the pills are made in Cork, so you’re helping the all- important economy. Any unease you have with any of this is your fault. Get a self-help book with a meaningless pseudo-scientific name that includes the word quantum and is filled up with phrases that take you round in meaningless circles until you don’t know your arse from your elbow.

Maybe you work for a nice big employer that produces stuff to paralyse, almost invariably, women’s faces. Keep on keeping on ladies. Soon you won’t have the burden of showing those negative emotions at all. Be mindful of the fact that by paralysing your face, not only are you reducing your ability to show emotion but you’re also reducing your ability to empathise with anyone else too! Soon that junkie you stepped over won’t bother you in the least and while you’re at it, your expressionless face is also helping the economy. The man on RTE said so, with a chuckle.

Eventually, we might all really believe that companies who go out of their way to avoid paying even the laughable 12.5% corporation tax in a country where hundreds of people lie on trollies in our two-tier health system, give a continental about the health, mental or physical, of their employees, other than to keep them at their stations beavering away to increase those untaxed profits? Eventually, when we all become mindful enough.

Of course, I could be completely wrong here. I know lots of people who are great teachers. I go and learn from them myself. I know lots of people who have done mindfulness courses and have found that it really helped them in their daily lives. I don’t want to hurt or insult any of these people (although I fear, I already have). It’s just that with the ever greater numbers of people doing this stuff, I just don’t see any great effects. Where’s the clear thinking? Where’s the change from a patently unequal world of violence and suffering for the many and riches and comfort for the few? Where are the societies based upon compassion and care? People are literally shaking with fear and anxiety all around me. Good people. Caring people. People say they’re depressed and they’re told it’s their fault, work harder at your mindfulness, take a few more pills. Teenagers feel something other than buoyant glitzy-selfie joy and they think they’ve got an illness. Whatever you do don’t consider that your depression might be utterly appropriate given the meaninglessness of your work, the burden of your debt, the poverty of your life and that of others.  Don’t ever think or feel something that messes with the positivity façade. While we hum and chant, the numbers of homeless people mount. We talk about the interconnectedness of all living beings but the child who dies in the dust of a collapsed Haitian sweatshop while making our brightly coloured yoga leggings, isn’t feeling too connected at all to Denis O’Brien’s sixty-million euro jet in Dublin.  If all this Mindfulness™ is so great, why is nothing getting any better?

I do hope I’m proved wrong. It might very well be that I’m just shit at Mindfulness™ and I’m bitter about that. I just see a world of drones being created. A world where everyone stays within their little box. No passion, no difference, just one long mindful blandness and then you die. No one’s grieving when you do, because that’d be negative, and you’ll come back anyway. Hopefully, if you’ve been extra good, as a Google employee. Om Fucking Shanti.

1 Comment

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One response to “Full Minds, Empty Hearts

  1. Sue Hassett

    Estelle, yes I have thought similar thoughts and felt similar things about it all – different on some points but close enough.. One buddhist teaching I believe is solid is that at the heart of anger is compassion – anger is there if you care, because you care. Keep it up, call the b.s., be good to yourself and Namaste.

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