A Paradox of Mindfulness Meditation

It seems to me that the essence of Zen Buddhism is learning the art of controlling the mind through noncontrol. This skill can be learned through the practice of mindfulness meditation, which is usually performed by sitting upright and either  closing your eyes or staring at a wall without narratizing in thought.  Mindfulness meditation thus involves learning how to inhibit the neural triggers which initiate explicitly narratized thought routines; an art most of us are not adept at. Take a moment to test this yourself. Quiet yourself and focus purely on an intentional object, such as the wall in front of you, the objects making sound around you, or the rhythms of your own breathing. See how long you can go before a thought intrudes into your mindspace in the form of narrative commentary. Often, a meditator’s thoughts are metajudgements on hus progress, infinitely regressing:

meditative experience (bare intuition) <– [thought about success conditions of meditation] <– [thought about  [thought about success conditions of meditation]], etc.

As you can see, there is no way to mentally “check” if you are succeeding at meditation without breaking the thoughtless flow of meditative experience itself. Mindfulness meditation is something you either do or do not do. There is no in between. The instant you narratize about yourself meditating, you cease to meditate. This curious failure condition of meditation is central to the skill of controlling the mind through noncontrol. It is impossible to mentally force the success conditions of meditation through sheer willpower. No amount of brute thinking power will get you to the state of Zen mindfulness because the success conditions are constituted by a lack of narratized thought control. Curiously then, Zen is one of the few skills that cannot be mastered by force of will. The only way to successfully meditate is to learn how to turn off your narratizing mind. Obviously, if you try to do this through the power of thought, you will fail. One must master the art of control through noncontrol and inhibit the commentary of thought at the root source. Noncontrolling control or action by nonaction is difficult to describe in words precisely because it isn’t structured in terms of narrative control. The best I can say is that mindfulness is learned just like any other skill: through practice; the more you do it, the more automatic it becomes.



Filed under Philosophy, Psychology, Zen

12 responses to “A Paradox of Mindfulness Meditation

  1. Josh Meyer

    Interesting. This raises the possibility of a question about the factual existence of the state of mindfulness meditation. If you can’t think about it or else you’re not doing it, and like other internal mind processes, outside observers cannot verify that you’re doing it or not, then how can anyone ever verify that it exists at all? To check in an attempt to verify dispels the state and the state only returns if one stops checking to verify. I’m not suggesting it’s not there, but it does strike me as in the dangerous position of being beyond testability … or possibly even being beyond the establishment of its existence. Much like a dragon that’s there as long as you don’t look at it and no one is trying to see it … how can one even verify it’s there in the first place? Much less that it’s a dragon?

  2. Gary Williams


    You raise an interesting issue, but one I think can be addressed. First, meditative states have been distinguished from resting states with brain imaging and EGG studies. Second, and more important, the meditative experience allows for a non narrative confirmation. That is, the “verification” is confirmed by the qualitative experience itself. It isn’t as if your mind goes “blank” during meditation; you are fully aware of yourself, but through different neural means. There is a proprioceptive awareness that confirms the experience of yourself as a living body meditating. I guess it would be a prereflective confirmation beneath the level of rational monologue.

  3. It seems to me that the essence of Zen Buddhism is learning the art of controlling the mind through noncontrol.

    In Heideggerian terms isn’t it more reducing conscious control to the kind of control involved in background practices that withdrawal from us? For instance one of the main practices in Zen is breathing exercises when meditation (either in a zazen position as in Japan or a full or half lotus as in China). The point of breathing is that it is an example of a practice that can be conscious but also naturally move into the background. As one become proficient in breathing and this transition between the foreground and background one can then do this with other practices. (Say calligraphy, tea ceremonies, or various martial arts)

  4. Clark, sorry for the late response, but I think you make an excellent point. I have often felt that Heideggerian “thrown” or “transparent” coping is very similar to the kind of noncontrol emphasized in the Zen tradition wherein you are supposed to just “go with the flow”, as it were. I think the same phenomenon is also found in athletic “flow” where your body is reacting without any conscious thought (your example of martial arts is a good one). It would wager that there are many structural similarities between the mental taxonomies of Heideggerian phenomenology and Zen Buddhism.

  5. brian

    Hey Gary, cool blog. I like this post on Zen.

    In Taoism and Chinese thought more generally, this idea is called “wu wei”, or acting-without-acting. Indeed it’s hard to talk about, as the whole point is to kill the monologue, as well as any conceptualization, and especially any intention-to-act or think (perhaps such intentions could take on a form that is non-linguistic and non-conceptual). If done properly, not only should the monologue cease, but the sense/experience of self-as-actor (or agent) should also drop out of the picture. It’s not clear to me that the sense of self-as-agent is part of an inner monologue, and indeed I suspect that it is non-linguistic and non-conceptual. Not that I’m an authority on such matters.. I really don’t know much about Buddhism or meditation; I’m just pathologically mindful.

    The worry about learning this skill by an effort of will seems serious. Perhaps this is why Zen sometimes emphasizes ‘instant enlightenment’, as opposed to a more structured approach via regimented meditation routines, study of texts and so forth. This is one of the things that distinguishes Zen from other schools; right??

    Relatedly, I’m worried about how one might learn this skill through willful practice, if one can’t monitor for success/failure in the normal way. You mention “non-narrative confirmation” and “pre-reflective confirmation”, but I don’t really know what this means or how it might help to provide the feedback that is apparently required for learning.

    It seems to me that sometimes, it just takes a smack to the back of the head (or whatever) to show you how to get into ‘the zone’… but once you’re there, there is only the stick. It’s not like you’re aware of being in the zone _in_addition_to_ the stick, pre-reflectively or not. Anyway like I said, I’m no Buddhist scholar, but this is my gut reaction to the issue.

    • Hey Brian, thanks for the insightful comment; I think you are on the right track for thinking about this issue.

      As for “instant enlightenment” however, I think a distinction needs to be made for the classic Zen Buddhism of wordless Dharma transmission and the modern Zen Buddhism which does emphasize a more “structured” approach. While I am not Zen scholar, from my understanding modern Zen masters try and get their students to struggle with this success/failure paradox and actively encourage the student to willfully fight against the control of his ego and the sharp subject/object distinction. I believe this is supposed to get the student to ultimately realize first-hand his attempts at forcing the success conditions are futile. This is something that likely needs to be experienced directly. When the student finally realizes the futility of forcing oneself into a state of mindfulness, he will sort of slip out of the self-as-actor mode as you nicely put it. But I think you are right to emphasize a sort of “smack” because I would think that there is an instantaneous internal shift within the student from ego-control to “wu wei”. This might operate according to some sort of a phase-shift wherein the dynamic tensions reach a tipping point and the mind is able to slip into a mindful flow.

  6. Very interesting blog. David Loy’s Nonduality, especially chapter 4, has some juicy stuff on philosophical aspects of this practice. I think your comments above may overemphasize one aspect of mindfulness practice (in both Zen traditions and Vipassana traditions) at the expense of the other. Mindfulness practice embraces Samatha or concentration practice, which aims to stabilize the mind through awareness of breath (or some other object), but also investigation or insight — nonjudgmental awareness of mental states, sensations, etc. as they arise and pass away. In neither sense of mindfulness does one aim to be without thoughts; rather one strives for a more supple awareness of thoughts, especially their afflictive properties — hatred, greed and delusion. Deeper states of such awareness may be free of thoughts qua narratives, but much of the benefit of practice (aside from serenity) derives from becoming aware of and letting go (= ceasing to actively ruminate on, returning to the breath) such narrative thoughts, at subtler and sutler levels. Cheers!

  7. Kevin

    Not a very “Zen” question (or perhaps, under the surface, it is), but I am just curious: Have you ever met an infinitive that you didn’t want to split?

  8. Gary Williams (I am a Strange Loop)

    Sensing without sense=zen

  9. Pingback: Day 3: Morning meditation | 30 days of meditation

  10. If you haven’t heard of it, check out [u]Zen and the Brain[/u] by James Austin (neuroscientist and Zen practitioner.)

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