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Being Well-Adjusted is Not the Goal

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.

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Comments (8)

  • Melissa

    “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.”


    Yes. This is so important.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Who or what has an unconstructed and non-illusory awareness?

    In other words, what permits an awareness that serves as a, so to speak, “witnessing presence that is unified, unbroken and yet elusive to direct observation,” a consciousness “completely unconstructed by the content of any perspectivally ownable objects such as thoughts, emotions, or perceptions?” Could such an awareness be what we inchoately and intuitively experience as a “sense of self?” Is not this awareness what allows us to make sense of the notion of “an appearance,” including the “appearance-vehicle for an illusion?”
    The person who is fooled by the contents of consciousness (i.e., able to conclude that they are illusory in character) must

    “have a perspective through which the content is consciously apprehended, regardless of the mode of apprehension. He is always able to tell, moreover, the mode of apprehension (e.g., visual, auditory or cognitive) in which an illusion is being presented. But this mode-neutral conscious apprehension from a perspective adds up to none other than a subject, namely, to witnessing-from-a-perspective.”

    Such witnessing, in other words, is not equivalent to any illusory content, indeed, it is what allows us to make such a determination. In the words of Miri Albahari,

    “Given that witnessing is necessary for the possibility of an illusion-vehicle, and that its qualifying features imply (through their felt limitations) a subjective sense of presence, it follows that awareness—witnessing presence conceptually characterised as elusive, unified, unbroken, invariable and unconstructed—is also the necessary condition for the possibility of an illusion-vehicle. [….] All the features that awareness intrinsically brings to the sense of self will thus be non-illusory.”*

    Nonetheless, such awareness can be confused, because identified, with a “bounded self,” such that a

    “subject’s awareness comes ‘dressed to the party of life’ as a specific identity with boundaries—as this very self that is ontologically unique, separate from the rest of the world. Each co-defining feature of the witnessing presence seems to partake of this ‘dressing-up’ such that the features seem to qualify not merely the bare, impersonal witnessing presence, but the bounded self as a whole. [….] It is not, hence, bare awareness, but a personalised bounded self that seems to view the world from a unique first-person perspective. The perspective of the witnessing presence thus appears to be the self’s perspective.”

    Buddhists account for this sense of a “bounded self” as the source of awareness through the role played by ignorance, emotions, and tanhā (or trsnā [complete diacritics unavailable]). One basic illusion arises from the belief that our awareness (the nature of which is unbounded) is circumscribed by a bounded (first-person) self. This constructed and bounded self attributes to itself capacities and powers that truly belong to, are features of, an unconstructed and unbounded awareness.

    I’m inclined to call this unbounded awareness (or consciousness), the “true” self, analogous if not identical to what is meant by (nirguna) Brahman in Advaita Vedānta, the complete philosophical elaboration of which came after the Buddha’s Dharma. For an introductory explication of the former, see here:

    * For the source of this quote, see the reference to her book at the end of the above post prior to the “basic reading guide.”

  • Murray Reiss

    I’m puzzled by the statement “Mindfulness can sometimes fall into this trap as we try to develop equanimity towards the world as it is.” Towards what can we develop equanimity if not the world as it is?

  • Katie Loncke

    Murray, I could be wrong, but I think Kenji agrees with you that we are trying to develop equanimity toward the world as it is, but that social pressures to accept the status quo can co-opt this process toward complacency, if we’re not careful. That’s my reading of it, anyway! What do you think?

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    The quote below from the Dalai Lama reminds me that sometimes with regard to the mass media or “history” it helps to stand back and put things in proper perspective (without taking anything away from the significance or salience of current events or the dire socioeconomic and political reality that we’ve helped to create and sustain), and I think the cultivation of mindfulness that leads to equanimity does indeed help us do that. This does not mean we ignore or lessen the reality of suffering caused, say, by exploitation or violence, indeed, it may help us discover the means to counter if not eliminate such suffering. For instance, I recall during the Velvet Revolution in East-Central Europe the Hungarian writer Georgy Konrad saying something like, “History takes no note of the baby at the mother’s breast….” And perhaps for the same or similar reasons, M.K. Gandhi wrote that “History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul…. History, then, is a record of an interruption in the course of nature. Soul-force, being natural, is not noted in history.” And both Gandhi and Konrad appear to be echoing Hegel’s idea of “History as the slaughter-bench” (Geschichte Als Schlachtbank), at least that kind of recorded history that for so long has been told from the point of view of the “victors.” In other words, equanimity (as mindfulness, one part of the triune Eightfold path that also involves ethics and ‘proper’ philosophical and psychological views or the wisdom of the Dharma) should not, as Kenji warns us (thus I agree with Katie’s reading above), lead to passivity or indifference to, or emotional distance, from the everyday suffering that suffuses societies around the globe, but it can help us place such suffering in that sort of proper perspective whereby we don’t, on the one hand, become despondent or depressed, or on the other, passive and indifferent (to be sure, the former may often result in the latter).

    “While murder, bullying, exploitation and scandal regularly make news, when thousands of children receive their mother’s care and affection every day it isn’t reported because we take it for granted. We may be subject to negative emotions, but it’s possible to keep them under control, to cultivate a sense of emotional hygiene, on the basis of human values that are rooted in that affection – what I call secular ethics.” (From the Dalai Lama’s FB page today)

  • Kenji

    Hi Murray, Katie is right in her interpretation. I’m pointing out that mindfulness as a practice can be diverted and co-opted by many different delusions. One such delusion can be that we might use mindfulness to accommodate and fit in to dominant norms that are not necessarily in our best interest, because we are attached to those norms. It might be worthwhile to accept that these norms exist, but acceptance doesn’t have to mean passivity or inaction.

  • Murray Reiss

    hi Kenji, hi Katie — I think it’s also a question of scale. Equanimity, like many Buddhist practices, can be valuable in one’s personal life when facing the inevitable losses that accompany being alive. It can be less than valuable when transposed to the public realm where one faces the less than inevitable practices of oppression and injustice.

  • Katie Loncke

    Murray, I think that’s a lovely way of putting it, and resonates with how I try to approach things. Thanks for giving words to it!

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