Few Notes on Contemplative Practices Workshop

Theorising on Social and Embodied Aspects of Contemplative Practices Workshop was held in University of Tampere (Finland) during 13-14 July 2016. As an acupuncturist I considered the conference very important and thought provoking. The presentations were carefully planned, organized and very easy to follow. These short comments are thoughts risen during the presentations. Besides the commented speeches there were many other fantastic presentations. These few were selected as I felt them more “directly” related to my profession. For full program please refer to this page

 

Pessi Lyyra (University of Tampere): Obeservation of one’s own mental states in meditative practice

Postdoctoral researcher Pessi Lyyra presented, among other theories, how Global Workspace Theory of consciousness can be used to explain mind observing its wandering and content. He mainly focused the question what is consciousness and how we can become aware of our mind observing the contents and what makes the content. It led me to reflecting the theory to experiences during Daoist contemplation practices and the art of acupuncture.
One thing that has always been hard to explain and to really understand is how we make the diagnosis. One can always lean on theory of Chinese medicine and categorizing the signs and symptoms. But in reality when we take pulse and inspect facial colors and tongue and interview the patient, how we really draw the conclusions we make?
Many long time practitioners often note that we just know. It takes years of study to understand the theory, but in the end, more we are able to empty our minds during the practical work and just observe, more accurate our diagnosis becomes. Slowly we become aware of different states of mind where we can “recruit otherwise unconscious sources of knowledge”. This also makes it more understandable how and why the experience of empty mind still relies on solid theoretical background while making the diagnosis.
The way Pessi Lyyra explained the unconscious specialized processors, global availability, mentalizing and self-observation made lot more sense compared to other theories I have come across earlier. Especially when reflected with the experience of mindfulness practices during the studies and practical work. Sometimes during the diagnosis we become aware of how we perceive in our minds colors, symbols, feelings and how different associations give spark for the realization of the symptoms. With these partly unconscious initial clues we formulate the diagnosis fitting to the Chinese medicine theory. The theory seemed also fitting to describe how in certain states of meditative practices you become aware of thinking process and dream formulation. And it also sparked few questions about lucid dreaming phenomena and interest to read more about the theory. I have to admit that the Global Workspace Theory was previously completely unknown to me but it was explained with such clarity that the basic ideas could be easily understood. And so I already collected few published papers on subject for further reading.

 

Kristina Eichel (Brown University) & Hana Sysalova (Univesrity of Warwick): Critique on Measurements of “trait” Mindfulness

Kristina Eichel gave great and very entertaining speech about their research dealing with different testing methods and ways of measuring mindfulness. It was very refreshing critical overview of how “flawed” the testing and therefore the results can be. One of the examples was frequently used Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) which we also had possibility to take during the presentation. She demonstrated how some of the audience got better results than much more mindfulness oriented Thai monks and presented possible reasons why the test might have “failed”.
In her presentation she showed the facts why many of the conclusion made from the studies might be misleading. She did not delve much in to software bug recently found from fMRI software but focused mostly on critique of questions and definitions.
These same problems are of course relevant to many other fields than mindfulness. It is basic problem every field of science faces. It is not rare to see a acupuncture study which has clearly biased or very unclear questions. But this has also lot to do with clinical practice where we ask questions from the patients as part of the diagnosis. One of the basic questions many acupuncturist use is that if one wakes during the night to take a leak. The question is frequently used, among many other questions, to map functioning of the kidneys and also partly functioning of the nervous system. But it not that often that an acupuncturist really spends time thinking about why he/she was given the answer. For example it is not infrequent that nowadays a patient works in late shifts and return home late at night and eats and drinks something before the bed. Knowing this the answer would tell a different story than it would otherwise. Very similar example is bed wetting of child. The acupuncturist often just consider the traditional explanation of kidneys and/or feeling of insecurities in many cases. It is sometimes very easy to forget simple question of how much the child drinks before going to sleep.
As I also practice contemplation this kind of research also feel very relevant. I was truly “relieved” to hear how there is not even clear and generally agreed definition of what mindfulness truly is and therefore it is nearly impossible to really try to measure it. Her comments seem to corresponds to experiences of different types of mindful states.

 

Dr. Catherine Wikholm (National Health Service, UK): The Variety of Meditative Experiences: psychological effects we might not expect

Dr. Catherine Wikholm is co-author of The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You. Last year I had read news about her findings about darker side of meditation but her presentation brought the subject so much more touchable. Just like Kristina Eichel she criticized the way we measure happiness and relaxation and generalize the benefits of the mindfulness without willingness to see the downsides or even considering if there are enough evidence for claimed benefits.
The findings she brought to our attention were plain and simple – mindfulness or meditation is not always just relaxing and quick way to happiness. In worst case it might be a shortcut to asylum. At least 60% of practitioners have suffered at least one negative side effect even though these are rarely mentioned in modern mindfulness literature. Most of these are minor and short lived annoyances but it is still important that we are aware of them.
In a way I consider her speech one of the most relevant for clinical work. Partly because I have encountered people with mental problems, some of which have gotten worse through mindfulness. I am also aware of one Finnish man who was hospitalized after Vipassana retreat and few others whose panic attacks have become much more frequent after the practice. Different kind and degrees of dissociative experiences actually seem to be “quite common”. Even though we cannot compare acupuncture or other CAM-therapies directly to meditation, there is very real possibility to encounter the same phenomena in different CAM treatments. It is not just once when the patients have reported mood swings, slight dissociation, resurfacing of past traumas and psychosomatic reactions to these traumas after acupuncture or massage based therapies.
Beside acupuncture I find this topic to be extremely fascinating. As I have been “researching” roots of Daoist contemplative practices and their connection with Chinese medicine (values, ideals, language, teaching, conception of disease and idea of being human) I have come across with Daoist texts mentioning these same problems. For example in Dìngguānjīng 定觀經 mentions how trying to control mind too harshly results in disease and madness. It also explains how the possible visions of monsters and demons are all according ones own heart (=mind). For the same reason visions of immortals and gods were seen as good sign. Daoist writings outline experiences of detachment, hallucinations and other experiences that can be perceived in positive or negative way. In Daoist texts there are also different concepts of emptiness. In early literature there are for example kōng 空 and xū 虛. As words they both mean emptiness and they seem to got mixed later after Tang-dynasty. Kōng is used some times to denote emptiness and meaningless common in depersonalization-derealization syndrome. This can lead to high anxiousness or certain forms of nihilism where one loses interest in everything and becomes depressed. Xū on the other hand is seen as emptiness which is the goal of apophatic contemplation practices which were common in Proto-Daoism and early Daoism. While approaching the emptiness you still need to be able to maintain “light in your heart”. This also reminded me of experience of dark night of the soul that was well known in Christian forms apophatic prayer/meditation.
Catherine Wikholm pointed out how the mindfulness practices have their origins in the religious practices and how the practitioners knew to prepare for certain “rattling effects”. The idea was in a way to crush the ego and we should not think that it was easy thing for the ego to handle. This problem of losing the roots also came up in presentations of several other speakers especially in professor Ronald Pursers (San Francisco State University) speech Beyond Neoliberal Mindfulness: Towards a Critical-Contemplative Studies Agenda.

 

Professor Suvi Salmenniemi (University of Turku): Therapeutic technologies, politics and gender

The speech by Suvi Salmenniemi had the most direct focal connection to alternative and complementary medicines. Her research was about therapeutic discourse in Finnish politics. Even though the most of the patients using acupuncture in Finland are female, I hadn’t considered it in the connection with political aspect and gender studies. The speech gave me many insights to some of the discussion I have had with my patients.
In her presentation she gave us an overview how the gender and politics are connect in three fields of therapeutic technologies:
1. CAM-therapies & spiritual practices
2. Self management – self leadership
3. Empowerment & self-help groups for women
It was fascinating to see how she had decided to divide these as the mentioned fields are often highly interwoven. Especially in case of therapists, who often seems to fall in all the categories at the same time. Suvi Salmenniemi also highlighted the political values which were most prominent, some reasons for them and how they fits to larger political change in Finland.
It was fun to hear the research and thoughts about the same things one observes during patient interviews. Women often express two very contrasted ideas about femininity and ideal female. The other image is strong, independent woman who can stand up for her rights. The other one is soft, accepting, loving and fragile. In the clinic many women are balancing between this ideals and wish either to relax and not to be so demanding to them self, or they want to find courage to stand up and say no. Both are often speaking about womanhood.
Professor Suvi Salmenniemi spoke of these same images also in context of Finnish stories of strong and hard working woman and social norms. She also detailed discourse used in these connections and forms of modern political activism they implicate.

 

Associate Professor David Forbes (City University of New York): Critical Integral Contemplative Education

David Forbes gave striking commentary and critique for using Mindfulness in education (among other uses). He was not against the mindfulness itself but demanded attention for the much deeper issue. Why we really need it? For what ends? Is it good to become more productive and more open and accepting while our society would need great change? We are now trying to cope “all this shit” with mindfulness.
His presentation delved deep into how we make the studies, to which do the studies concentrate on and how we should expand the studies to include social change and context. He used integral theory by Ken Wilber and modified version from Jane Loevinger’s theory about stages of ego development to explain how we could go deeper into potential of using mindfulness and meditation research to understand and maybe even to promote the change. I found his speech to be highly needed.
Like many others pointed out that we have extracted a simple technique out of old traditions (and I am intentionally using plural here), poking it a bit and then calling it scientific. While, at the same time, being even unable to define it, we have sold it to masses for very different purpose. And the masses have converted it to a tool serving our current way of economy-centered consumerist lifestyle. This lifestyle, mentality, forgetting the past&future and our narrowing conception of time was also addressed by John R. Williams from Yale University in his wonderful speech Being Here Now and the End of Time.
As an acupuncturist I have to come across this same dilemma in professional life. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine has become more and more just a way to cope this society. Every year we get more scientific studies showing the effectiveness of our beloved art. But at the same time we are trying to use it just as a different kind of pill extracted from vast tradition and rich cultural context to serve our needs to cope all this. We no longer try to adhere the ideals and values of the traditional context. In the old philosophical tradition it was more about the way of life, not just healing of symptoms caused by losing the way.

Final Comment
Even as the philosophical sides of art of living from different medical and religious (be it Buddhist, Daoist, Christian etc.) traditions have been secularized away and from this solitary ingredient we have composed array of new Prozacs for this century, we still follow the tradition in a way. Even the most superficial and for-the-profit mindfulness courses have produced certain “awakenings” as their by-product. What was meant to produce more efficient and content worker sometimes flowers in resignations and delivers us an individual who incorporates new ideals and values which appeared in speeches of Suvi Salmenniemi and David Forbes. And in the end many contemplative traditions have asked us to throw away all the traditions and to just contemplate.

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