Mindfully Quiet: Musings on Mindfulness and Quietism

( The Three Brothers  | Pondocus) "You can rest when you reach the posts with the tips painted red."

(The Three Brothers | Pondocus) "You can rest when you reach the posts with the tips painted red."

A philosopher's journey from the philosophy of the mind to quieting the mind and moving on to the philosophy of feel.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

After launching this website, I received an email from my friend Poncho congratulating me on taking my thoughts to the web. To some, he's Alexander Ferguson — a Ph.D. in philosophy, an artist, a husband, a tea connoisseur, a corporate maven, and a mindfulness instructor — but to his friends he is Poncho. I forget the origins of his nickname, but he has remained the same lighthearted soul I've known since childhood. He has a natural calming effect on people and unlike other intellectuals I've known, has an easy way of speaking. He lives in New Zealand; however, we have kept in touch through long and rousing emails.

On this particular occasion, we talked about several topics, including his life before and after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake — the deadliest disaster in New Zealand history. Though I have read many academic works on philosophy and mindfulness, Poncho provided by far my favorite explanation of quietism, real mindfulness, boredom, and the simple joys of daily life. He has a poetry to his language that is part Homer and part Homer Simpson.

I consider many of my email conversations in the same vein as handwritten letters from the past: as a cache of eyewitness information, usually intended as a method of communicating personal experiences and considered thoughts. Then the conversations evolve over time, building on the last, as shared knowledge.

I enjoy conversations with Poncho for many soft and intangible reasons, and with his permission, I will share some of his observations. A philosopher's journey from the philosophy of the mind to quieting the mind and moving on to the philosophy of feel.

On the Internet

I enjoy reading what you are putting out there. I’m honestly fed up with about 99% of what is on offer online. Not that I have any real beef with it, I just don’t care about it. Which I think is a shame since the internet is so rad.

The Simple Joys of Life

Life, in general, is pretty sweet. I started rock climbing about a year ago and have been having a lot of fun with that. Made a couple serious changes to the way I eat, up on fats, protein, and veggies, down on carbs and processed chow. Not a chubby dude anymore, which is always good.

Been meditating a lot, teaching it to folks. Running thrice-weekly ... for about 2 years now... Can’t recommend that enough.

Things with the wife are good. She has quit her job to become a nurse. She is in year 2 of the 3-year nursing degree. It was definitely the right move. Way more happy, way less stress, actually doing something meaningful. She is all smiles.

On His Art

( The Death of Socratoad  | Pondocus) "Just messing around with the watercolors in the ol' sketchbook. Wondered what it would look like if Socrates was a toad."

(The Death of Socratoad | Pondocus) "Just messing around with the watercolors in the ol' sketchbook. Wondered what it would look like if Socrates was a toad."

I enjoy messing around with acrylics and cardboard, it is essentially free, and you can pick the size of your canvas as the mood strikes. It is nice to have a little artistic outlet in life, and working on cardboard also keeps you from taking yourself too seriously. Heh.

Education has only refined in him the gold that was already there.

Quieting the Mind: Limitations of Description vs. Described

Strangely enough, I have wandered off into quietism. That is to say, that on a personal level, I think the idea of capturing something like a philosophical truth or experience with language is essentially misguided, and destined to fail. A public language, like say English, just isn’t up to the task. ... I appreciate that philosophy exists as a body of work and that it is as accessible as it is. Philosophy is an excellent tool for learning to structure your thinking. But the limitations must be acknowledged.

From the Noise Into the Quiet

Religious Quietism: Quiet contemplation over meditation, intellectual stillness, and interior passivity for spiritual growth and union with God.

Philosophical Quietism: An approach to philosophy as broadly therapeutic or medicinal. Its value is in alleviating confusion in the linguistic and conceptual frameworks of supposed problems by reframing them in a way that brings clarity to misguided reasoning. The quietist hopes to put an end to man's confusion and help return them to a state of intellectual quietude.

At the base of it, there is a gulf between language and experience. Language is used to describe the world, but that description is not the same as what it describes. Obviously. The menu is not the meal; the map is not the terrain, and so on. So I guess I got more and more suspicious of how significant that gap really is. ... Not that I could point out any functional harm that I was suffering from — there was no way it was making my life worse, or that I foresaw some kind of danger that would emerge later if I continued to use language as an accurate representation of reality, it was just that it didn’t sit well with me. That was back at [the university] when I had a lot more time to sit around and be bothered by such issues.

Transitioning From Academic Theory Into the "Real" World

( Birthday Monkey  | Pondocus) "It was my buddy's birthday a couple days ago, so I figured I would do a speedy sketching of him as one o' them Japanese hot spring monkeys, smokin a pipe and relaxing, waiting for the spring thaw."

(Birthday Monkey | Pondocus) "It was my buddy's birthday a couple days ago, so I figured I would do a speedy sketching of him as one o' them Japanese hot spring monkeys, smokin a pipe and relaxing, waiting for the spring thaw."

I eventually emerged from the sweet embrace of the university and got myself a job. I mean a real one, not like the many part-time jobs I’d had putting stickers on boxes, or helping out at the paintball place... I had been told for years by my elders, working peers, and sundry that when I finally finished my studies, I would have to join the real world, and that it would come as a shock. ‘No more goofing around!’ Well, it turns out the real world was shocking, but not for the reasons mentioned. It turns out that money was way easier to come by, and you had to work way less hard, and the deadlines were very easy, compared to being a student. So, in that way, I was surprised at how easy everything was. But that wasn’t the shocking part. The thing that really startled me was how absurd and ridiculous everything was. ... The ones that really disturbed me were the absurdities that would roll out of people’s mouths. ... Folks saying how much they hated their jobs ... but you see them at that same office next month, next year. People who complain all day about being so busy ... then you watch them sitting at the desk surfing Facebook all day. It was bizarre man.

There was this disconnect between what people said, and what was actually happening. I got had an inkling that this whole thing might trace back to the gulf between description and what is described, but I didn’t have much more than a hunch. Then the earthquake hit.

The False Perception of Permanence

( Baby's First Grenade  | Pondocus) "What is more dangerous than a monkey with a gun? A baby with a grenade. Reminds me of my first grenade. Of course, back in my day, we only got those Russian pineapple grenades. No cutesy pink heart pull-pins either."

(Baby's First Grenade | Pondocus) "What is more dangerous than a monkey with a gun? A baby with a grenade. Reminds me of my first grenade. Of course, back in my day, we only got those Russian pineapple grenades. No cutesy pink heart pull-pins either."

An earthquake not only jars the body, but it also jars the mind.

There are a bunch of things you learn from an event like that. ... First, everything is temporary, and nothing is permanent. That is pretty obvious right. I mean, you don’t need to be in the middle of a city as it falls over to figure that one out. But people are really good at making categories and using those to make things much more comfortable. So, things like sandwiches or puddles fell into the ‘not permanent, soon to be gone’ category, and things like cities or loved ones got a comfortable residence in ‘pretty much permanent, might change just a tiny bit but don’t worry’ category. Well, the change from the quake was immediate and broad in terms of scope. It knocked a lot of things out of the ‘pretty much permanent’ category and a huge percentage of things wound up in the ‘state of flux, could be gone at any time’ category.

Useless Conventional Advice

Lesson two from the quake was that stress is a real thing. Having never been a particularly stressed guy, and having a life that, although there were some tough times, could basically be described as easy and lucky, I never really encountered chronic stress. I thought that folks who complained about stress-related illnesses were hypochondriacs or neurotics who just couldn’t handle life.

Even during the quake and aftermath, I remained a happy-go-lucky kinda guy, not a lot of stress and no real complaints from it. But I saw a ton of folks get crushed under the stress of the whole situation. Health falling apart, relationships falling apart, mental health issues — the whole shebang. It was pretty grim. On top of that, my employer sent everyone in the office on a mandatory workshop to teach us how to deal with stress. Dude came in, spent about 50 minutes going over in detail the many ways in which chronic stress can wreck you mentally and physically. All kinds of pictures, graphs, and diagrams showing the danger of stress. Finished up the last ten minutes on healthy ways to cope with stress which was, and I am not exaggerating, ‘Breath deeply and count to ten or go for a 15-minute walk.’ ... For people who were stressed, the ‘deal with stress’ advice on offer was a joke.

Part of Tragedy Is a Choice to Give Back

( Odaiba Gundam  | Pondocus) "My gundam looks a little wonky, his legs are kinda strange, melty or blobby."

(Odaiba Gundam | Pondocus) "My gundam looks a little wonky, his legs are kinda strange, melty or blobby."

Lesson three was that I really enjoyed doing stuff to help out. There were a couple of weeks stretching into a couple of months where I was working from home because there was no office. The rest of the organization had stepped up to handle our work, and really there was very little for me to do — job wise. So, I spent some time watching daytime TV and some time baking several hundred loaves of bread for folks who were homeless or who had a house but no working kitchen. I got pretty tired of Oprah and Dr. Phil, but I really enjoyed the baking bread and helping out. It was a very distinct and noticeable difference, the way I felt when I was doing something that made life better for people, and the way I felt when I wasn’t.

Moving From Christchurch to Auckland

I had submitted my Ph.D., I was kicking around ‘working from home,’ and Girly was having a tough time of it. Turns out working in the insurance industry at such a time was pretty hellish, who would have guessed right? So, with nothing holding us down, we moved to Auckland.

In a new town, I found myself with no real social circle and little to do. I had a lot of time on my hands basically, and I was interested in effective stress relief. So, I got interested in mindfulness. I was suspicious; it had a strong fad feel to it with a bunch of people yelling about how great it was. But, it was also free, didn’t have a requirement for me to turn up to a cult compound or give a portion of my salary to a church or glorious leader, and didn’t ask me to accept any strange philosophy or dogma. On top of everything else, there were people doing rigorous scientific studies on efficacy, which flim-flam artists have a serious allergy to, so I thought I’d take a look.

Mindfulness vs. Description

Description: A spoken or written representation or account of a person, object, feeling, thought, or event.

Mindfulness: Quiet-Stillness-Awareness. A thing that cannot be described but you know it when you have it.

After practicing mindfulness for a few months, I noticed a few things. I don’t get caught up in patterns of thought as easily. I don’t get swept along into reactions, and there is a very clear distinction forming between thinking about the world/ making plans/ remembering things and what is happening right now. Thinking about mindful breathing is not the same animal as actually mindfully breathing. This harkens back to that earlier bugbear about the gap between description and described, but it is a different way of making the point. The difference between reading a book on how to swim, and taking swimming lessons in the pool. I also get a nice reduction in the amount of stress I have, but for me, that was a secondary benefit. Like finding out that your iPad can be used as a paperweight.

Mindfulness vs. the Philosophy of Mind

( Teapot slumber  | Pondocus) "Popiah dog features again, napping next to a yixing teapot."

(Teapot slumber | Pondocus) "Popiah dog features again, napping next to a yixing teapot."

Mindfulness was like switching from fiction to nonfiction. Philosophy is great, but it’s permanently divorced from reality. That language gap means that philosophy is not a discussion about experience or life, it is the construction of abstract theoretical frameworks and debate about the pros and cons of those frameworks. To be clear here, you are as likely to see a red dragon or a unicorn as you are to see Truth, Mind, Reality, or Morality. That in itself is not a problem. In fact, please don’t take any of what I have said or will say here as prescriptive. I’m not saying people shouldn’t do philosophy or take it seriously, or anything like that. All I am saying is that if you compare a practice where you are paying attention to the present moment with a practice where you are focused on constructing a framework of thought within a scaffolding of language, the difference between the two is obvious.

I had done several years worth of study in the philosophy of mind. Read all kinds of books on cognitive science, and so on. But it was obvious that I had no idea how my mind really worked. That was clear from the get-go when you sit down and try to calm your thoughts and focus on breathing, and you cannot stop thinking. You would have to be pretty dense to continue to believe that you had control over your thoughts after that. ... I saw a kind of basis for the absurdity that had so shocked me when I finally joined the ‘real’ world.

Wandering Into Quietism

( Lantern Festival  | Pondocus) "Painted up some lanterns I saw hanging in a tree at the lantern festival to celebrate the year of the tiger."

(Lantern Festival | Pondocus) "Painted up some lanterns I saw hanging in a tree at the lantern festival to celebrate the year of the tiger."

Wander: To ramble without a definite purpose or objective.

I had wandered into quietism. Thankfully, without discovering Jesus and becoming born again. My belief in disbelief remains firm. The decision to teach mindfulness came pretty quickly after that. If you find something that positively changes your life, I think it is a natural inclination to want to share that. So, I started up a group at work, just a sitting group where we spend 25 minutes doing breathing meditation. Last year I went over to Australia and did a course on teaching mindfulness.

From Good to Bad, Mindfulness Runs the Gamut

It is indeed a low barrier to entry field. Heck, you don’t need any qualifications, anyone can become a mindfulness instructor this afternoon if they want. It is what it is, though, I’m not about to start an International Institute of Certified Mindfulness Teachers that sets criteria about who can teach and who cannot. There are all kinds of teachers, and there are all kinds of students. There does seem to be a bunch of people who teach that take things far too seriously, or get all caught up in trying to be totally serene. The emulation of the Eastern mystic or sage gets a little bit much. Especially when it is done in an almost cargo cult style, where just adopting the accouterments (ink wash paintings, robes, incense, poetry, shaved head) will somehow magically bestow legitimacy. I think that the huge influx of various kind of teacher is a good thing, overall. Certainly not without downsides, obviously. It sucks that your acquaintance got suckered out of 400 bucks, though, that is rough.

A friend who self-describes herself as "spiritual," called a mindfulness coach who offers a 30-minute psychic-nutrition/ weight-loss phone consultation for 400 dollars. (Trying to describe the absurd only makes the description even more absurd. [Refer to Poncho.]) 

She didn't lose any weight from taking the nutritionist's "intuitive advice" and to be frank, my friend didn't have any weight to lose, as she was already lean. If anything, this mindfulness coach could have helped her with self-acceptance, embracing the present moment, letting go of constructed expectations, and ultimately, living a more mindful life. But, instead, she reinforced the idea that my friend was lacking, that she must attain her desires, and that the lack of achievement only leads to unhappiness. That, without weight loss or being traditionally attractive, she was a failure.

Playing on fear and vanity is an easy way to sell products. The mindfulness coach tried to upsell her on more sessions, but luckily, my friend ran out of money.

From my own observations living in the "spiritual" mecca known as Hollywood, California, I am sorry to say, for many, "spirituality" is seen as a license for greed, narcissism, and self-interests. As many flock to spirituality, they are shepherded to spiritual hedonism, mistaking it for mindfulness. (A wolf in mindfulness clothing.) So they come out believing the universe exists only to serve them, and not the other way around.

Ethical Business Practices

The reward for helping people is found in the action itself. I don’t want people to miss out on learning something that can improve their lives because they don’t have enough money to take a class. That is a common tragedy, and I don’t want to add to it. Eventually, I would like to leave my job and become a full-time instructor. When that happens, I will have to change my tune, but I am going to keep my costs very low and offer that sliding scale for folks who really are broke or struggling. ... In the meantime, I will keep practicing and teaching.

Fruitful & Mundane

I practice and teach the ‘come and see’ style. Show up, try it out, and if the rewards are obvious, then you will stick with it and develop a practice. If you don’t get anything worthwhile from meditation, then don’t do it. I don’t want you wasting your time because you think meditation is something you ought to do. I don’t want you wasting your time because you paid me for lessons and want to get your money’s worth.

Mindfulness is a heck of a buzzword and very vague. I see it as actively paying attention to experience, without evaluation. That is a broad tent. I start out with breathing meditation. It is an excellent place to start. The breath is always available; it better be anyway, or you got serious problems. It also introduces people to the depth of experience available in the very mundane, the everyday stuff. Something as bland as breathing is actually this deep and rich broth of sensation.

I want people to get used to being bored, to get interested in the sensations of boredom. Resistance to meditation is one of the finest things to meditate on. I tell people who are having the most trouble with sitting that they are actually very lucky, if meditation always comes easily to you then you will never get to sit with resistance. Resistance to meditation, the ‘I don’t want to! I would rather watch TV or eat a snack!’ inner monologue is really why you are practicing meditation anyway — at least in the beginning. There is a reason that people come to learn mindfulness, and it is that they don’t have control of their mind. That comes in many different flavors, but the underlying recipe is the same. You don’t have control of your mind, so you get caught up in all these thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. When you pay attention to your mind, particularly when the resistance comes up, you are about to get a great lesson in exactly what has brought you to learn mindfulness.

Poncho's Definition of Mindfulness

People often think that the goal of mindfulness is to drift off into a trance or to have a completely blank mind. It is actually the opposite. When you are being mindful, you are paying full attention to what you are experiencing right now, in this very moment. So rather than entering into a dream-like trance and disconnecting from reality, mindfulness is about connecting with reality.

There is nothing mystical or magical about mindfulness. It is not a religious or spiritual practice. There are no strict postures or tricky poses, so it does not require physical fitness or flexibility. Anyone can practice mindfulness. If you can count to ten and are currently breathing, then you are able to learn mindfulness.

Mindfulness Off the Cushion

( Popcorn Elephant  | Pondocus)

(Popcorn Elephant | Pondocus)

So, I start with breathing meditation. Then I look to develop mindfulness practices that occur ‘off the cushion.’ Walking meditation, eating meditation, body sense. All still just paying attention to what is happening right now. The formula is the same, but you get to bring this attention to the rest of your life. So you don’t get that strange idea that you only meditate for 30 minutes or an hour a day. Ideally, a practice should develop into something much richer than that. Every second is new, offering something you have never experienced before. You can decide to pay attention to it, or not. That is what mindfulness is to me, and why I find it so engaging and worthwhile.

Like anything worthwhile, the benefits occur as a transfer, from your practice into your daily life. There are big moments to come, but the real transformations happen when practice trickles into all the boring and mundane cracks that inhabit your world.

Stuff Poncho Wants You to Read: