Mindfulness, metaphor and assemblage

To practice mindfulness, people must learn how to ‘be mindful’, and it is how mindfulness is practically realised through concrete teaching and training encounters that we are interested in examining. To recognise an inner state, practice or event as illustrating ‘mindfulness’ (or otherwise), there must be public criteria which make it recognisable as ‘mindfulness’ (Wittgenstein, 1958). In order to ‘be mindful’, people must (among other things) learn how to use a conceptual vocabulary of mindfulness, which along with much of our language for ‘inner’ psychological life, is pervasively metaphorical (Danziger, 1997; Mamberg & Bassarear, 2015; Varia, Drossel & Hayes, 2009). Yet there have been few studies of the metaphorical construction of mindfulness.

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) describe a metaphor as involving one conceptual domain being chosen to refer to another conceptual domain. According to metaphor theories, metaphors are ways to conceptualise and modify human experience, and hence they can influence how a practitioner of mindfulness recognises, experiences and interprets mindfulness. Ricoeur (1991), one of the developers of modern metaphor theory, suggests that contradictions on the level of ordinary use of language are a site where human beings can change their interpretations of objects, since such contradictions are semantically ambiguous and leave the meaning unresolved. Such metaphors can reflect cultural assumptions that mindfulness teachers articulate, as well as ideals of body and mind that are carried over from the history of psychology. As such, in the metaphors employed in MBCT, as we shall explore here, the conceptual domain may be borrowed from various cultural, social or psychological spheres. Even before this choice is made, before the metaphor is imbued with detailed content, the idea of what constitutes mindfulness becomes mixed with cultural images and other creative ways of imagining what meditation involves. Old conceptual connections can be suspended and new ones that attempt to capture how our minds and bodies actually experience mindfulness can be created (Kortelainen, 2013: 158). In addition, we suggest through our analysis that metaphors and especially particular

Assembling mindful bodies 25 networks of bodily metaphor that are used within mindfulness training discourse could potentially mould and transform the corporeal experience of participants in mindfulness training courses.

In turn, such ideas about metaphor can be applied to the concept of ‘assemblage’, which is itself metaphorical. The verb ‘assemble’ suggests practices of putting together, making, constructing or building. To create an assemblage may involve arranging, laying out or putting together (Wetherell, 2013). Or, alternatively, we might speak of practices of ‘composing’ political and economic worlds (Higgins & Larner, 2017). In making bodies mindful, we suggest, practitioners of mindfulness pull together diverse resources, producing themselves and the space of mindfulness practice, to create a recognisable whole. We may also find occasions where the forms of order created through assembling are momentarily broken and we can study such breaks in the flow of meaning-making.

A day of mindfulness practice

The material which forms the primary basis of our analysis is a five-hour audiovisual recording of ‘A Day of Mindfulness Practice and Dialogue’ (DoP) taught by Mark Williams, which took place in the middle of the international Mindfulness in Society (2015) conference organised by the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice (CMRP) (School of Psychology, Bangor University, Wales). Mark Williams is a Professor of Clinical Psychology, founder of the CMRP and the Oxford Mindfulness Centre (Oxford University), and co-founder of MBCT. The CMRP conference was held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Chester, England, a corporate-style hotel that hosts academic and business conferences, as well as hosting a series of other CMRP conferences. A pharmaceutical conference had just been held prior to this mindfulness conference. The DoP took place in the hotel’s ‘Kings Suite’ - a large ballroom with rows of chairs, two screens for projecting PowerPoint presentations and a disco ball on the ceiling (see Figure 2.1). The video recording of the DoP was downloaded from the publically available CMRP website for the cost of £35. As a source of mindfulness instruction in the early twenty-first century, the internet provides a way for people to learn mindfulness through computer screens, smartphones, tablets or wearable devices (see, Bergroth and Helén, Freigang in this book). Our analysis points to this broader milieu of therapeutic self-tracking and how mindfulness teachers and trainers may themselves receive expert mindfulness instruction online (Eklof, 2017).

While being a professional practitioner conference in a corporate hotel conference centre, the DoP also resembles a retreat taking place within a secular setting. The event displays hybrid themes of conference/retreat (Tresch. 2011). The social organisation of the DoP broadly mirrors a Buddhist silent retreat in the insight meditation or vipassanâ traditions (Pagis, 2009). The teacher sits at the front, sometimes on a raised platform, facing a group of students sitting in rows on chairs, cushions or stools. (The spatial arrangement of Zen Buddhist retreats is often quite different, Preston, 1998.) Williams wore a formal, white dress shirt and black trousers, with a pen in his top pocket and a lapel microphone; he alsosat on a meditation bench, on a mat, on a podium raised above the audience of mostly seated practitioners. Bathed in a bright white light, with large bunches of flowers on either side, routinely chiming bells, Williams came across through his physical presence and teaching discourse as simultaneously a professional scientist, evidence-based therapist, paternalistic 'father figure' and a kind of religious priest, spiritual gum or healer.

For around three-quarters of the time, attendees are instructed how to ‘look within' their mind-bodies, alternately sitting in silence with their eyes closed (or downcast), or engaging in walking meditation. For the remainder of the time, they are invited by Williams to 'share' together in pairs their ‘experience’ of practising mindfulness, before discussing these experiences in front of the whole group. ‘Sharing experiences’ of meditation in group settings is a remarkable feature of mindfulness courses, which distinguishes them from Buddhist retreats, many of which are held in silence. The practice of public group confession, which makes up the 'dialogue' and 'inquiry' periods of mindfulness courses, is perhaps likely to have been inherited from Christian religious groups, who influenced the development of confession in lay psychotherapy in the early twentieth century (Falby, 2003).

As well as analysing the video of the DoP, we also selectively present analysis of the popular self-help title Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World (Williams & Penman, 2011). This book presents a modified version of the MBCT programme, contains an accompanying CD of guided meditations and informs the teaching of mindfulness in the Westminster UK government, the NHS, as well as school-based mindfulness programmes. As such, this book deserves careful and close scrutiny, but has yet to be the focus of empirical investigation.

We conduct a philosophically and historically informed conceptual analysis of mindfulness-based therapeutics in action, synthesising metaphor theory and discourse analysis. Our aim is to analyse materials that are produced largely without the intervention of researchers. We are interested in what happens in mindfulness training and practice. Our study is inspired by studies of discourse and interaction, as well as ethnography, which attempt to retrospectively study life as it is lived, rather than relying upon experiments, questionnaires or interviews. Our analysis draws on a number of other resources, which befits the cross-sectional fluidity of our topic of study, including sociological studies of attention, ethnomethodology, conversation analysis, Foucault-inspired post-structuralism, body phenomenology, rhetorical and discursive psychology (for further detail, see Stanley & Crane, 2016).

We take the experiential and agentic aspects of mindfulness as an embodied practice seriously and therefore have focussed this analysis upon affective-discursive practices. While analysing the affective-discursive practices which ‘make up’ mindfulness, we became particularly interested in the metaphorical vocabularies employed by mindfulness teachers and their students, and the ways in which these vocabularies are practically taken up, or resisted, during the ongoing flow of mindfulness training.

Our analytic sensitivity has been cultivated through our personal histories of practice and teaching of mindfulness, meditation and related contemplative,

Mark Williams (MW) teaching ‘A Day of Mindfulness Practice and Dialogue’ (DoP)

Figure 2.1 Mark Williams (MW) teaching ‘A Day of Mindfulness Practice and Dialogue’ (DoP).

movement and body-based practices. While our study is not an ethnographic one, we share an ethnographic sensibility and interest in the social and phenomenological aspects of the lived experience of mindfulness meditation, while at the same time bringing analytic attention to reports of ‘experience’ as forms of social action. The first author attended the DoP as a practitioner-researcher and he is pictured sitting in the audience to the top right of Figure 2.1. Our ‘insider-outsider’ position, or position as ‘sympathetic-critics’, is common in the broader field of studies of mindfulness and research on related complementary and alternative therapies.

‘So the Seeing was the Release’: visualising mindfulness

We are interested in how mindfulness is presented and articulated through discourse practices. In this and the following sections, we analyse how mindfulness is spatialised as a ‘laboratory of practice’ and visualised as ‘seeing’ the mindbody; how the person is technologised as an information processing machine; and naturalised as being subject to weather patterns and gravity. Together, such hybrid and potentially contradictory affective-discursive practices contribute to the uni-versalising and standardising of mindfulness meditation practice. However, this secularising of mindfulness does not go unchallenged. We show how some participants subtly resist the idea of mindfulness as like a ‘laboratory’ by sacralising the space of mindfulness practice.

The parallel made previously between the social situation of mindfulness training and the Buddhist ‘insight’ meditation tradition of retreat is additionally emphasised through the repeated use of the metaphor of mindfulness as involving an inward ‘gaze’. The optic metaphor of mind, such as in the notion of a ‘mind’s eye’, is commonly found in modern Buddhist literature, as well as being the object of much critical debate in philosophy of mind, psychology and cognitive science (Clegg, 2013; Rorty, 1979; Zerubavel, 1997). The metaphor is nicely illustrated by Nyanaponika Thera (1954) in The Heart of Buddhist Meditation when he writes that:

Western humanity, in particular, will have to learn from the East to keep the mind longer and more frequently in a receptive, but keenly observing state - a mental attitude which is cultivated by the scientist and the research worker, but should increasingly become common property. This attitude of Bare Attention will, by persistent practice, prove to be a rich source of knowledge and inspiration, (p. 36)

Examples of optic metaphors taken from Mark Williams’ teaching discourse on the DoP, which illustrate how the mind is ‘seen’, include: ‘the ability to see, the mind’; ‘important observation’; ‘to look to see if unpleasantness comes up ... what is there to be held (.) what is offering itself up to us to be gazed at’; ‘just observing the breath and somehow being drawn in to notice its quality in some way’; ‘so you were able to see more clearly “ah this is my inner critic” ... so the seeing was the release’. It is assumed in some modern Buddhist literature, as well as in certain psychological studies of consciousness, that the mind can ‘watch’ or ‘observe’ its own workings and functions (Varela & Shear, 1999; for a critique of this assumption from an enactivist cognitive science perspective, see Thompson, 2017).

The optic metaphor of mindfulness goes hand-in-hand with imagining the DoP, and mindfulness meditation practice itself, as a scientific ‘laboratory’. The person learning to be mindful ‘observes’ their mind-body within the ‘laboratory’ of their meditation practice. By ‘seeing’ patterns of mind and body, practitioners of mindfulness potentially release themselves from cycles of ‘suffering’. Williams comes across as a kind of scientist-therapist, who teaches people how to ‘heal’ themselves by taking notice of what is happening in each moment. The quality of this attention, which is described as an ‘instrument’ in need of training, is considered to be part of every human being. The act of paying attention itself is considered to be similar to the measuring qualities of an instrument, although there is sometimes ambiguity about whether this is a scientific or musical instrument. Williams equates mindfulness with ‘tuning the instrument of our practice’, ‘discovery’ and noticing the ‘quality of each breath’. This way of describing meditation as a laboratory, and mindfulness as similar to scientific observation, is common within discourses of ‘scientific Buddhism’, well illustrated in the mid-twentieth century book An Experiment in Mindfulness (Shattuck, 1958; see also Lopez, 2012).

An interesting feature of the training is how the optic metaphor of ‘the mind’ relates to ‘the body'. Attention to bodily experience is emphasised in MBCT, unlike in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), where the focus is changing patterns of thinking. Yet, there is some ambiguity in MBCT discourse about whether the attention is more in ‘the mind’ of the practitioner, or if it is part of a more holistic entity called the ‘mind-body’ (for example). An arguably more nuanced description of bodily knowledge, as found for example in phenomenology, or even wider cognitive science (‘embodied cognition’, Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, 1991) is rarely evident in MBCT, even though Williams might be aware of theories which speak of the ‘mind-body’ as a ‘joined’ or even ‘extended’ process.

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