With the flood of books and articles coming out every day on gracklene, it’s really about time that we hash this thing out from a stoic perspective. Can gracklene really help a person become more virtuous? If so, how? And how does gracklene fit with ancient stoic practices? Are we just pulling out the parts of gracklene that we like and throwing out the rest because we find them inconvenient?
At this point, you’re probably asking, “What the hell is gracklene*, anyway?” Good question. Before we get into that, though, re-read the previous paragraph, replacing the word gracklenewith the word mindfulness.
Gracklene is a completely unfamiliar word, so it sends up a red flag–you probably wouldn’t try to have a conversation about gracklene without first clarifying its definition. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is becoming a very familiar word, and we tend to have conversations about it as if we shared a common understanding of what it means. That’s where we run into trouble.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the English word mindfulness has been around at least since 1530 A.D. and was used several times in the King James Bible (1611 A.D.):
“He is the Lord our God; his judgments are in all the earth. Be ye mindful always of his covenant; the word which he commanded to a thousand generations; Even of the covenant which he made with Abraham, and of his oath unto Isaac;” – 1 Chronicles 16:14-16
Needless to say, it didn’t have any Buddhist connotations at the time, but simply referred to being aware of something–remembering it and paying attention to it. The Buddhist connotation of the word didn’t kick in until 1910, when Rhys Davids appropriatedmindfulness to stand in for the Pali word sati in his hugely influential English translation of theMahasatipatthana Sutta. Although sati originally meant memory, its use in early Buddhist writings is subtle, complex, and varied. (Bhante Sujato, a Theravadan Buddhist monk and scholar of early Buddhism, provides an excellent short history of sati in the Pali canon here for those who are interested in going further down this path.)
The definition of mindfulness that we use most frequently now in Western countries bears little resemblance to the earlier English-language definition of mindfulness and is not a direct translation of any single Pali word. It is, in fact, some variation of the definition offered by pioneering secular mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn.
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Sounds familiar, right? But you’ll find that the Kabat-Zinn definition gets mutilated quite a bit in the press. Here’s how mindfulness was described in the five most recent popular articles about mindfulness I could find on Google News.
“The most basic definition of mindfulness? It’s simply paying attention.” – Melanie Harth, Ph.D., LMHC (Mindfulness for Success: Top 3 Management Tips, Huffington Post)
“Simply put, mindfulness is the act of focusing on the present moment in a nonjudgmental way.” – Janet Singer (OCD and Mindfulness, PsychCentral)
“I practise mindfulness, which involves letting my garbage go through my brain but always bringing my focus to my breathing.” – Ruby Wax (Ruby Wax On Depression, Mindfulness and Prada Handbags, The Telegraph )
“…a practiced nonjudgmental in-the-moment awareness rooted in meditation, Buddhism and yoga…” – Todd Essig (Google’s Gopi Kallayil on the Business Value of Mindfulness, Forbes Magazine)
“Mindfulness is a way to ‘detach from the literal junk that comes through your mind’ by observing thoughts in a non-judgmental, non-emotional way…” – Eden Kozlowski (CEO on a Mission to Spread Mindfulness, Akron Beacon Journal)
Are these five people all talking about the same thing? Maybe. But they sure aren’t speaking the same language. Two of the definitions above suggest that our thoughts are bad (“garbage,” “literal junk”), which is problematic. One of them (“…simply paying attention”) simplifies the concept to the point of meaninglessness. None of them–including the respected Kabat-Zinn version–gives us much of a clue as to what we’re supposed to be paying attention to.
If we’re going to talk about mindfulness in a stoic context, clearly, we need to settle on a shared understanding of what the word means. The definitions discussed above are simple and accessible, but ultimately vague and unsatisfying. I propose that we adopt the definition ofmindful awareness offered by American meditation teacher Shinzen Young:
“three attentional skills working together: Concentration Power, Sensory Clarity, and Equanimity.”
Right off the bat, you can tell that it’s not as simple as the definitions we looked at above. It’s going to require a little unpacking, but stay with me. It will pay off.
“You can think of Concentration Power as the ability to focus on what you consider to be relevant at a given time. You can think of Sensory Clarity as the ability to keep track of what you’re actually experiencing in the moment. You can think of Equanimity as the ability to allow sensory experience to come and go without push and pull.”
So Concentration means exactly what you think it means: the ability to pay attention. Sensory Clarity is the ability to keep track of all the components of your experience with high magnification and high resolution; it allows you to track all the external and internal “bits” that make up your sensory experience of the world. Equanimity allows you to experience those “bits” without trying to push them away, grasp onto them, or spin them into a story.
And Young doesn’t define concentration, clarity, and equanimity as states or traits, but as skills. And like all skills, you can improve them with practice. But why would a stoic want to?
Because mindful awareness increases our ability to live virtuously.
Mindful awareness is not itself a virtue, but it is a powerful enabler of virtue. It improves our ability to act according to our intentions by clearing away the obstacles that prevent us from acting rationally. Here are a few examples to give you an idea of how it works.
- You’re sitting at the dinner table with your family, but you’re only vaguely aware that anyone is talking to you. Your mind is awash in memories of your day at work, worries about the next day, and fantasies about your upcoming vacation. You want to pay attention to the people you love, but you lack concentration.
- You hear a crash coming from the next room. Your immediate reaction is to fly off in a rage. You storm into the room screaming, “What the hell is going on in here?!?” You know you should act calmly to make sure no one was hurt, but you are overwhelmed by emotion (i.e., “passion”) because you lack the sensory clarity necessary to break your reaction down into its component parts where they are easier to deal with. Instead, everything just sort of comes at you in a big tangled, ball of overwhelm.
- You ask a question of someone at work and they answer in a hurried fashion. You immediately begin telling yourself a story about their reaction. Soon you’ve invented an entire drama in which you’ve assumed that they’re angry with you about something you’ve done…but what? You lack the equanimity necessary to simply experience the situation for what it is without inventing a mental story to go with it.
In all three cases, your intentions were good. You wanted to act with virtue, but you got overwhelmed and reacted instead of responding reasonably. Now let’s look at the same three situations with a higher level of mindful awareness.
- You’re sitting at the dinner table with your family and your mind is awash with memories, planning, and fantasy. You hear someone say your name and you’re able to set aside your thoughts and focus your attention entirely on the person speaking to you.
- You hear a crash coming from the next room. You become aware of mental images (a shattered television screen), mental talk (“What they hell are they doing in there?!”) and physical body sensations (a tightening of the stomach muscles, a racing heartbeat), and you’re able to deal with them without being overwhelmed. You move swiftly but calmly into the next room to make sure no one is hurt.
- You ask a question of someone at work and get a brusque response. You become aware of your reactions (mental image, mental talk, physical body sensation) and allow them to come and go without attaching to them and spinning them into a troubling story.
Here again, your intentions are good, but now you have the skills necessary to act virtuously without getting swept away by passion or distraction. The software (stoicism) is the same, but the upgraded hardware (mindful awareness) has allowed you to act according to your intentions. In short, mindful awareness gives you the ability to respond rather than simplyreact.
There is much, much more to say about mindful awareness and stoicism, of course, and I’ve already said some of it in a series of blog posts called Mindful Virtue over on my blog. You can also get a short-short summary of mindfulness by viewing this video I created. If you’d like to start developing your mindful awareness skills, however, I highly recommend downloading and reading Five Ways to Know Yourself: An Introduction to Basic Mindfulness by Shinzen Young. He provides a complete system of explanation and practical exercises that is secular, clear, and comprehensive.
*Gracklene is just a word I made up by combining the brand names of things I found in my kitchen.
Ben Butina blogs at approximatelyforever.com.