Being Well-Adjusted is Not the Goal
Unexpected things happen in your brain when you’re on an extended silent meditation retreat. For example, sometimes I see issues about sexuality and body image rise in my mind. I’ve realized over time that what mindfulness helps with is practicing a new approach to the self, one that doesn’t surveil for conformity to dominant norms. In other posts I’ve called mindfulness a decolonization practice.
Michel Foucault talks about certain technologies of the self, techniques of the self, that we in what’s generally known as the West have inherited. Many of these techniques of self have developed and evolved over centuries. To make a complex and nuanced body of scholarship painfully short, in his three-part History of Sexuality, Foucault discusses techniques that emerged alongside Christianity, ones that assumed the existence of a capital “t” Truth deep inside every person that could be discovered and modified (the soul). Sometimes the person might not know what that Truth was since they might be deluded or tricked by evil forces (Satan). So along with this came techniques to hunt down the unwanted qualities, to give voice to the sin, confess, and become “good.” Churches became the institutional promulgators of these techniques of self.
In later centuries, these techniques were secularized through the new science of psychology. No longer would people confess to a priest, but to a doctor. The doctor-priest could help a person distinguish the inner voices and determine what was good or bad, normal or abnormal, healthy or unhealthy. In our psychologized, medicalized society, we measure ourselves against the dominant norm of health, and we try to learn every technique possible to become a happy, healthy, productive, and well-adjusted individual. The problem is we are trying to become well-adjusted to a sick society, to paraphrase the well-known Krishnamurti quote. This isn’t to say that being able to function well in our everyday lives and relationships is a bad thing. But at what point do we cross over into trying to be well-adjusted to the thing that makes us ill, in order to be better people, when we should be aiming at larger targets? At what point do we stop trying to be the good worker bee within the capitalist hive?
Mindfulness can sometimes fall into this trap as we try to develop equanimity towards the world as it is, or psychologize the practice, thinking it’s a technique for healing our individual wounds and making us happy. Buddhist practice has only one purpose — to end suffering everywhere. Which means even our conceptions about what we think we’re doing with mindfulness will be called into question if they get in the way.
The interesting thing about Buddhism is that there is no true self. There is no good, healthy, whole, happy self underneath everything else just waiting to be discovered or grown. There is no solid Truth to get to inside if we strip away enough layers.
But there are plenty of things happening in this thing we call self. We’ve internalized so many messages about what constitutes happy, healthy, productive, and normal. So when fears arise, for example, that my body isn’t quite right, or my sexuality isn’t the right kind, or my skin color is too dark, or my gender expression is abnormal, recognize these for what they are — internalized, individualized, psychologized suggestions for fitting into an unhealthy society. Then, work for freedom for everyone.