Journeying Back to the Here and NowShare
A Review of "Mindfulness and the Big Questions: Philosophy for Now" by Ben Irvine".
It is supremely difficult to write something new about mindfulness. Every week, it seems, another title makes its way into the New Age, self-help, or positive psychology genre that promises to cure one’s physical or psychological ailments, bring about one’s financial success, or mend one’s torn relationships with friends and family via the miraculous powers of mindfulness meditation. Alas, the weight of these claims is often too unbearable for the actual practice of mindfulness to bear. Indeed, the enthusiastic promotion of mindfulness practice in the West, especially by corporate executives lauding its stress-reducing benefits to the consumer economy, has been largely oversold (strolling through a maple grove at sunset appears to be just as stress relieving as attending to one’s breath during Samadhi). Nor is mindfulness simply a lighthearted relaxation exercise free of risks and side-effects; being mindful means attending to one’s inner demons as well as angels. In a phrase borrowed from the great Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross, a “dark night of the soul” often haunts those who are unwary of the pitfalls of this contemplative practice.
In such a psychologically and spiritually perilous environment emerges Ben Irvine’s Mindfulness and the Big Questions: Philosophy for Now. Despite the innumerable number of both legitimate and disreputable tomes on mindfulness floating in the literary ether, Irvine’s promise of a unique blend of mindfulness and philosophy is, at first glance, charmingly inviting. Irvine, a philosopher, strikes an engaging, self-deprecatory tone as he criticizes his field for its aloofness and failure to engage with the world as it is. Despite their obsession with the “Big Questions,” Irvine argues, philosophers are astonishingly bereft of any answers. The questions—Why am I here? Do I really know anything? Am I free? Is there a higher power? What makes a life good? What does it all mean?—are typical of any intro to philosophy course or cannabis-fueled dorm room. Irvine understands their importance and laments philosophy’s general failure to answer them, or even to take them seriously. Instead, Irvine promises to provide his own “Small Answers” to the Big Questions by discussing the “dos and don’ts of Eastern and Western philosophy, and of meditation” (p. 19). This is a big promise, and it would be refreshing to encounter such a discussion in an intellectual sphere rife with pseudoscience and supernaturalism. Indeed, an engaging book on mindfulness and philosophy that sidesteps the pervasive pitfalls of theism and dualism, and that is scientifically rigorous and readable at the same time, would be quite refreshing. Unfortunately, Mindfulness and the Big Questions is not that book. Like the human mind under the attentive gaze of mindfulness, Irvine’s book is a mixed bag.
As Irvine stresses throughout the book, his motivation for studying philosophy and practicing mindfulness stems from a deep-seated existential anxiety, described by Irvine as a general fear of existence and everything that comes with it. Irvine writes that his existential anxiety led him to the study of philosophy and its Big Questions. Despite professional philosophy’s failure to answer the Big Questions, Irvine believes that his “Small Answers,” which become visceral truths when coupled with mindfulness practice, are the cure to existential anxiety. The problem is that Irvine’s prescription is too solipsistic to be generalized to many of his readers. Indeed, not everyone who is interested in the Big Questions and mindfulness suffers from existential anxiety, and not everyone who suffers from existential anxiety (an amorphous condition with no clear set of symptoms) can accept Irvine’s Small Answers. Such a rejection would not stem from subjective barriers alone—some of Irvine’s answers are examples of rhetorically dressed-up hand-waving or non sequiturs that have little relation to the questions asked. And they often have little relation to mindfulness.
Take Chapter Two, in which Irvine attempts to tackle the first Big Question: Why am I here? Irvine’s answer—because existence is “two-sided” (meaning that the world and the self are both real, different, and yet coextensive)—is a non-answer. I do not doubt Irvine’s sincerity that this answer has helped him to relieve his existential angst, but I fail to see how it either answers the chapter’s initial question or is anything other than a tautology. Irvine is right to criticize “one-sidedness” (i.e., the belief that only the world exists or only the self exists), “three-sidedness” (i.e., that some third entity, such as a god, is responsible for the existence of both the world and the self), and what Irvine calls a “two-placed” theory of existence (i.e., that the world and the self exist, but are separated from each-other). But what does a two-sided theory of existence say about why we are here? Although Irvine includes an excellent discussion of reality’s and the self’s mutual imposition on one another from an evolutionary perspective in his musings on freedom in Chapter Four (pp. 61-65), the science of biology and cosmology are noticeably lacking in his discussion of why we are here. In like manner, beneath Irvine’s two-sided theory runs a detectable undercurrent of Cartesian dualism, a stance refuted by most findings from the cognitive and brain sciences, and in contradiction to Irvine’s own takedown of transcendence and otherworldly agency in Chapter Five. This oversight speaks to Irvine’s general evasion of science and science-informed philosophy—fields that have provided much better answers to the Big Questions under Irvine’s purview. Irvine promises that meditating on the two-sidedness of existence will bring its lucidity to the fore. It may or it may not, but being illuminated by a truism’s truth is an experience denied to all but a handful of philosophers who write books on mindfulness.
Similar problems beset Irvine’s answers to Chapter Four’s Big Question, “Am I free?” Irvine criticizes the materialist view that there is no “self” despite the fact that there is no necessary contradiction between a materialist view of existence and the existence of the self. Indeed, neuroscientists have discovered a brain network—termed the “default mode network”—associated with one’s perception of oneself as oneself. Admittedly, whatever the neurological correlates of the self, the existence of an indivisible “ghost in the machine” of theology or naïve dualism is philosophically and scientifically suspect. But this does not doom the materialist to a self-denying and, in Irvine’s words, “one-sided theory of human existence” (p. 66). One can believe in both the self and the world whether one believes that the self is an encapsulated, ethereal homunculus or a diffused network of neurons. Irvine’s discussion of selflessness, however, contains a refreshing critique of the no-self doctrine’s abuses in the Bhagavad Gita’s condoning of warfare and in Zen’s goading of Japanese Kamikaze pilots toward certain death during WWII. Yet even here, the problem is not selflessness per se, but an exploitation of selflessness.
I will not descend into the maelstrom down which every discussion of free will is thrown. But whether one lands on the shore of its existence or non-existence, Irvine’s contention that “you wouldn’t be you and you wouldn’t be free if your choices were objects that you (or anyone else) could see” (p. 73) is mistaken on two fronts. First, being able to measure the neurophysiology of choice has no bearing on whether the choice under observation was made freely. After all, observing the eventual outcome of a choice, be it the eating of a cake or the stealing of a wallet, is still an observation of a choice, albeit perceived at the behavioral endpoint of the choosing process. Second, direct observation of cognitive choice is no longer relegated to the world of hypotheticals. In what is already a classic study, Soon and colleagues were able to use brain imaging to predict whether participants would press a button with their right or left hand up to 10 seconds before they actually pressed it. What this says about free will is another matter entirely. And the role that Irvine assigns to mindfulness in his discussion of freedom might be better described as “self-control.” When everything is mindfulness, nothing is.
Irvine is on firmer ground in the third chapter’s tackling of the Big Question “Do I really know anything?” He adroitly deploys the most effective philosophical responses to radical skepticism, from the Cogito to the “relentless imposition” of reality. His diagnoses of “existential self-absorption” and “existential self-escapism” (denoting the denial of the world and denial of the self, respectively) are clinically dubious, but a philosophical assault on fatalistic nihilism may very well be necessary for those seeking answers amid the chaos. Likewise, his celebration of humanism in the fifth chapter’s answer to “Is there a higher power?” is inspiring, even though his over-reliance on the “overwhelming-underwhelming” argument against the need for a higher power is itself somewhat underwhelming. And despite Irvine’s usual empathic tone, he sometimes waxes a bit callous, as when he enjoins an anxious reader to “accept your fate, whatever it may be, and enjoy the here and now in the meantime” (p. 57), and likewise attempts to cheer up hopeless readers with the thought that “suffering is the price we pay for the marvellousness of existence” (p. 118). I doubt that existence was all that marvelous at Treblinka, but I’ll accept that most of Irvine’s readers are educated, middle-class urbanites who are thankfully spared from the extremes of human suffering. But even in this chapter, Irvine commits the non sequitur fallacy by invoking “imposition” in response to why there is something rather than nothing. And preposterous sentences such as “… the self and the world are neither and both—neither being both, and both being neither” (p. 100) are inexcusable.
In the end, Mindfulness and the Big Questions is a mixed bag. At his best, Irvine can be quite inspirational, especially when giving practical advice on being a decent person (Chapter Five) and finding personal meaning in the here-and-now (Chapter Six). But despite Irvine’s critique of one-sided theories that deny the existence of the world, Mindfulness and the Big Questions may be too one-sided for readers in the world to relate to.