Mindfulness or Mind Control?


“Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them (as) good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.” That’s the definition (and a commentary) that you’ll get from the website of “Psychology Today.”

Wikipedia puts it this way: “The practice of mindfulness means being aware, moment-to-moment, of one’s subjective conscious experience from a first-person perspective.” That’s an interesting way to put it, don’t you think? “Being aware, moment-to-moment, of one’s subjective conscious experience from a first-person perspective.”

The University of California, Berkeley, sponsors a webpage called “Greater Good, the Science of a Meaningful Life.” It’s introduction to the subject of mindfulness begins this way: “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-to-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.

“Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them– without believing, for instance, that there’s a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it most simply of all “Mindfulness… is presence of heart.”

The roots of mindfulness are in Buddhist meditation. As I’m sure you are aware, mindfulness has infiltrated the West in a secular form– or, perhaps, many secular forms. One of the ways it has come to have such a pronounced presence in this country, in particular, is through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) “which he launched at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979.”

One of the reasons I talk about mindfulness as often as I do is because it has helped me tremendously in my own life. It allows me to slow down, to be aware when my sense of responsibility overtakes my ability to make the think deliberately in order to make responsible and mature decisions. It allows me to be aware of the stirrings of anxiety that get in the way of my enjoying the present moments that make up my own life.

Another reason that I place so much importance on mindfulness is that I care about the people I share a spiritual community with and want them, as much as possible, to enjoy a life that has emotional stability at its heart. I don’t want to see them– that’s you– so engulfed by emotions that you cannot be aware of how runaway emotions impact your ability to enjoy your lives.

A third reason why I place so much importance on this practice is because I care about our spiritual community, our church community, as a whole, and want us, as much as possible, to live in the harmony that comes from emotional maturity– knowing our emotions, taking responsibility for our emotions, managing our emotions, and acting from the heart of our shared convictions as Unitarian Universalists.

This last stated reason, our shared convictions as UUs, leads to the fourth reason I place importance on mindfulness– by being aware of and taking responsibility for and managing our emotions, we can take actions in the larger world that truly impact the circles of acquaintances that make up the community that we live in. We can, in our own modest way, change the world we live in. Nancy Garret will expand upon this theme next week when she talks about injustice, poverty and discrimination, among other things, in her talk called “The Faces on Money.” I will also address that topic on December 6 when I talk about the controversy about taking in refugees in light of the recent violence in the streets of Paris.

You might have noticed that the definitions that I quoted to begin today’s sermon talked about awareness of our “thoughts and feelings.” There was no mention of emotions, explicitly. One definition went beyond “thoughts and feelings” to include “bodily sensations and surrounding environment.” Again, no mention of emotions. (“Feelings” are not exactly the same as emotions. You might have a “feeling” that something is about to happen. You might have a feeling about a certain movie after you’ve seen it. You might have feelings about certain persons when you think of them. Emotions are related, but more encompassing. Feelings, maybe, are best understood as indicators of emotions.) So, let me say that the definition that comes closest to capturing the essence of mindfulness is the one that includes all the elements listed in the “Greater Good” definition, “thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment,” and emotions, as well.

Last week, I spoke to you about “emotional intelligence.” There were aspects of that talk that were quite technical, explaining how emotions arise in the mind, the section of the brain called the amygdala” and how they travel to the neocortex and are mitigated (or assessed and processed) by the frontal lobes. I talked about how there are two separate pathways in the brain by which experience is translated, one based on a sheer emotional response, the other on a more sophisticated process of cognition that sorts out the emotions so as to make a measured and thoughtful response. The practice of mindfulness is one way that allows for this process of discernment to take place.

From time to time, in last week’s talk and in other talks or sermons that I’ve delivered here, I’ve sounded our bell of mindfulness to allow us to stop and better process what we’ve heard. I have to say that I often feel self-conscious when I do that. It feels like I’m telling you what to do– UUs don’t like to be told what to do, I can assure you of that. Secondly, it feels as if I’m telling you what’s important, as if you can’t figure that out for yourself. Well, that’s not my intention, though I do intend to invite you to experience with me what I think is important. But, what happens in that period after the bell has been sounded? Do you ponder what has been said, think it over, and make a decision about whether or not you agree with it? Or do you just sit in the silence and allow not just your thoughts, but your feelings to be present in a way that is not judgmental, but which just sits with the words and the feelings engendered by the words? It’s up to you, of course. In one case, we deliberate in the way our Western-trained minds have been taught to deliberate, in the other, we “go with the flow” in the Eastern experience of active awareness. As a member of an action-oriented society, we have a resistance, I think, to just sitting with something, whether it be a thought or a feeling or an emotion or an awareness of the body or an awareness of the environment. We have been conditioned to think that if we don’t act, we’re being passive and passivity makes us vulnerable (open to attack) and we don’t want to allow ourselves to be attacked, so we resist passivity. But, active awareness is not the same as passivity.

[sounding the bell of mindfulness]

Where are you now? Who are you now? Can you answer that question without resorting to words?

[sounding the bell of mindfulness]

As many of you know, I was away from the church for four months, first on vacation and then on sabbatical. I returned on the 1st of November. While I was away, I did not keep as close an eye on the news as I usually do, so some days had passed before I learned of the death of Dr. Wayne Dyer, who was well known as an author of self-help books and a motivational speaker. When I read his obituary, I was more than surprised, I was stunned to read that his first book, Your Erroneous Zones, has sold over 35 million copies. Thirty-five million! This is more than Gone with the Wind or To Kill a Mockingbird or The Valley of the Dolls! It’s in the company of War and Peace and even Pinocchio. Your Erroneous Zones has sold more copies than Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. Well, clearly, this was something worth looking into. So, instead of choosing for my morning devotional reading a book by the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hahn or Achaan Chah, I picked up Your Erroneous Zones and read it over a three-week period.

The basic premise of the book is that much of our thinking is maladaptive. It adapts us to something, usually, the prevailing view on a subject, which may prevail without actually being right or helpful. An “erroneous zone” is an area in your thinking in which you conform to a social more or prevailing belief system without making independent judgments of your own. The book is an extended analysis of the various areas in our thinking in which this tends to occur and prescriptions for avoiding these errors. The author uses insights from cognitive-based therapy, Abraham Maslow’s concept of self-actualization, and the rational emotive therapy (RET) of psychologist Albert Ellis.

I found a lot in this book that was helpful, especially helpful for the weeks during which I read it, which were difficult weeks, so I want to give credit where credit is due. At the same time, there are some basic assumptions that I have to take issue with and I would encourage you to question, if it’s a book whose teachings you’ve incorporated into your life.

One statement that Dr. Dyer makes at the outset struck me as consonant with the Buddhist teachings about mindfulness, “Virtually all self-defeating behaviors (erroneous zones) are efforts at living in a moment other than the current one” (YEZ, p. 14). How does one address this? “New thinking,” he says, “requires awareness of the old thinking. You have become habituated in mental patterns that identify the causes of your feelings as outside of yourself. You have put thousands of hours of reinforcement for such thinking, and you’ll need to balance the scale with thousands of hours of new thinking, thinking that assumes responsibility for your own feelings” (p. 25) and “your brain is yours to use as you so determine” (p. 22). So far, so good. But here’s where I have trouble with the thesis:

“You cannot have a feeling (emotion) [he uses the two terms interchangeably] without first having experienced a thought. Take away your brain and your ability to “feel” is wiped out. A feeling is a physical reaction to a thought” (p. 22).

Now, this did not strike me as right, but I paid particular attention to my thoughts and feelings and emotions over the next few days and I found out that very often, more often than not, it seemed, I was aware of a certain feeling emerging that felt dissettling or disturbing without any particular thought accompanying it. So, I stayed with the feeling and I found that, usually, at least, there was a thought associated with it, but not preceding it or engendering it. This may seem like a minor point. What does it matter, really, whether our feelings come first or thinking comes first? It depends. It depends upon the response that you choose.

The word that Dr. Dyer uses when he talks about the presence of unwanted feelings and self-negating thoughts is the word “control.”
MAJOR PREMISE: I can control my thoughts.
MINOR PREMISE: My feelings come from my thoughts.
CONCLUSION: I can control my feelings.

The Buddhist asks the question, “Who is it that controls?” and leaves the answer empty because there is certainly no “self” which is in control, no real “self,” anyway, just an imaginary entity made up of thoughts, images and projections. There is a non-personal self, but this is the self that seeks understanding rather than control. A matter of semantics? I think not. Spend some time with someone who is obsessed with controlling things and see if it is the same as spending time with someone who patiently seeks understanding. The feelings that arise will guide your thoughts on the subject. And you’ll be experiencing the phenomenon as something real, rather than something theoretical. Theory has a damn hard time when confronted with reality, sometimes. (Ah! I noted quite a bit of feeling associated with that thought just now. Maybe it’s time to take a moment and allow all that to just sit in our awareness.)

[sounding the bell of mindfulness]

So, let’s take a look at some of the insights that Wayne Dyer has to share because there are many helpful observations and suggestions ion the book that can be useful in leading a more fulfilling and productive life. The Buddhist will talk about “enlightenment” as the motivation for action in life. Dr. Dyer names the great motivator as “growth motivation.” “Growth motivation means using your life’s energy for greater happiness, rather than having to improve yourself because you’ve sinned or because you are in some way incomplete.

“A corollary of choosing growth as motivation is personal mastery in every present moment of your life. Mastery means that you are the decider of your fate; you are not a coper, or a striver, or someone who wants to adjust to the world. Rather, you choose what your world will be for you” (p. 36).

This advice may actually be useful for a young person who has not yet found their way in the world, useful as a way to confront inner obstacles that can lead to psychic immobility. If you do find it useful in that way, then, by all means, take this advice into consideration. The problem with it for me is that this determined focus on individual achievement, the focus on the role of being a “hero” in your life. No one can be the “decider of their fate” completely. We all can be aware of obstacles, some real, some self-imposed, but the world is as real as dust and grime and grit and heart pain and hip pain and banged up body parts and loss of loved ones. By all means, don’t let yourself be immobilized by self-defeating thoughts, but don’t assign a mythic role to yourself. You’re apt to over-personalize differences and view people as objects in the way of achieving your ambition rather than unique individuals in their own right, deserving of the right to seek their own fulfillment.

This is from a chapter called “Taking Charge of Yourself.” The central thesis is “Your mind is really your own and that you are capable of controlling your own feelings” (p. 37). A better way to state the situation, I think, is that you are capable of understanding your feelings and managing them in such a way that you make more conscious and productive choices. In both cases, there is a relationship. In the first, it’s a relationship of asserting the will over internal obstacles– control. In the second, it’s a matter of allowing thoughts and feelings to form, taking note of them, naming them and managing them. That’s based on a desire to understand, rather than a desire to control. And it’s related to what we talked about two weeks ago when exploring the wisdom in the Serenity Prayer– the wisdom to know the difference between what you can change and what you cannot.

I guess we can expect that a book that’s written to reach the greatest possible audience will oversimplify some things, state some things too boldly, offer solutions to complex situations with a formulaic response. Still there are many good things in the book and even though it’s forty years old next year, you can profit from reading it as long as you do so with a critical eye and mind.

For example, Dr. Dyer warns against “approval-seeking behavior” because it is “self-defeating,” it’s handing over the power of who you are and who you can potentially be to a third party. Do you feel depressed or anxious when someone disagrees with you? Be on the watch for that. Do you change a position or alter what you believe because someone shows a sign of disapproval? Do you spread bad news and gossip because you enjoy the feeling of being noticed? Do you behave in nonconforming ways for the purpose of gaining attention? Do you try to impress people by pretending to know more about a subject than you do, in order to receive respect and approval? These are all behaviors that are neurotic in some way because you are adjusting who you are to adapt to someone else’s view of who you should be. And it’s useful to have this pointed out. (All these examples are from the book, by the way, from the chapter entitled “You Don’t Need Their Approval”).

Dr. Dyer also warns against guilt and worry, one as a preoccupation with things in the past that cannot be changed, the other, an obsession about things that have not yet occurred and may never occur. “Guilt,” he says, “is not merely a concern with the past, it is a present-moment immobilization about a past event… You experience guilt only when you are prevented from taking action now as a result of having behaved in a certain way previously” (p. 99). Wise words. He’s right when he says that guilt is a “self-nullifying emotion.” And it is something you can understand if you apply mindfulness to it as it occurs, see it manifest itself, ask yourself where it’s coming from and why and what emotional payoff you’re getting from indulging in it. Certainly, it stops you from growing in a productive way, whether you consider that to be psychological or spiritual growth. Certainly, it’s something that you can change. But, it takes motivation. Motivation, I believe, that comes from a desire to understand, to grow and to achieve psychological and spiritual health.

As for worry, that preoccupation with a future not yet here, what do you worry about? Some of the things suggested by Dr. Dyer: Your health, maybe. Your job, quite possibly. Your children, if you have them, almost certainly. Your partner’s, happiness, maybe. Getting old, not having enough money, your car breaking down, your weight, what other people think of you, the weather. Well, I know about guilt and I know about worry and I know that Dr. Dyer is right (as are Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama and Achaan Chah and the Buddha), that neither is productive. So, I practice mindfulness the best I can and leave the rest up to whatever forces of karma are in process.

Grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. May we have the courage to confront our fears with the application of a practice of mindfulness, “maintaining a moment-to-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.” May we seek understanding rather than control. May we open ourselves to the wisdom of the ages that resides within us, if only we are still enough to hear its voice.

Presented by the Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, on November 22, 2015 


  • www. psycholgytoday.com/basics/mindfulness.
    https:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki: “Mindfulness;” “Wayne Dyer;” “Your Erroneous Zones;” “List of best-selling books.”
    Your Erroneous Zones. Dr. Wayne Dyer. Avon Books. NY, NY. 1976.

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