I don't expect people to be perfect. Everybody is flawed. To be human is to be imperfect. And since people write books, I don't expect the books I read to be perfect. I just hope for them to make sense.
Having finished The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, I can say that this is a very good book about both mindfulness and meditation.
But I came across a few things that made me go, Huh, that doesn't make sense. Notably, some mentions of pure awareness, since I don't see how such can exist, as noted in a post from a few months ago.
I doubt there is such a thing as pure awareness, or pure consciousness. Anyone who claims to have experienced such a state, including Sam Harris, almost certainly is mistaking a feeling or thought of pure awareness for the actual thing.
So my attitude is that one part of my conscious brain is aware of other parts of my conscious brain, which could include a sensation of Wow, I'm experiencing pure awareness! My meditation rocks!
This leaves mindfulness as an activity, or ability, to be aware of the contents of consciousness, with mindfulness being part of those contents. Thus Harris is on the right track when he says that mindfulness practice leads us to see that the contents of consciousness are constantly shifting and changing within our mind.
Where I disagree with him is his assumption that somehow we are clear pure consciousness. This is at odds with modern neuroscience, as I wrote about in Brain's "dark energy" casts doubt on pure awareness.
I wrote about my problem with Harris' claim of pure awareness in this post. What I said in 2016 still makes sense to me now.
The authors of The Mindful Way through Depression also elevate awareness into something that almost certainly it isn't. Sure, I like the metaphor of awareness being the clear sky and contents of consciousness being akin to clouds that appear and disappear in that sky.
Metaphors aren't reality, though. I see no solid evidence, or even semi-solid evidence, that awareness exists separate from what we're aware of in the same sense that the sky is there even when clouds aren't. Here's some excerpts from the book about choiceless awareness, a notion I do think makes sense if it's viewed as being aware of everything within our experience, rather than focusing on certain things.
It's always possible to jump to choiceless awareness at any moment, simply by letting go of any and all objects of attention. This sounds easy, but it is in fact a very challenging practice because we have nothing specific to focus on.
We rest in awareness itself, without any attempt to direct our attention toward anything other than awareness itself. There is no need even to think that you are meditating or that there is even a "you" to meditate. Even these are seen and known as thoughts by awareness, and in the seeing, in the knowing, they are seen to dissipate, again, like touching soap bubbles.
OK, I don't have much of a problem with these paragraphs. Well, aside from the mention of "awareness itself." What the heck would that be? How is it possible to be aware, yet aware of nothing but awareness itself?
And even if this was possible, how could someone know they were aware only of awareness itself without a content of awareness that, at minimum, includes a thought, intuition, or sensation of "I'm now aware only of awareness itself" -- which obviously wouldn't be true, given that thought, intuition, or sensation being an object of awareness, not awareness itself.
The book then engages in some speculations that struck me as being at odds with the general theme of being mindful of what is actually present within one's consciousness.
As we engage in this practice, we may become increasingly aware of the distinction between the objects to which we can direct our attention, if we choose, and the space of awareness in which all experiences arise.
The objects could be thought of as celestial bodies hanging in space. In choiceless awareness, we become the space that holds whatever condenses momentarily within it. Awareness, like space, is boundless, having no edges or limits.
The invitation is to settle into this awareness, to be the knowing, the nonconceptual knowing that pure awareness actually is. Awareness is not itself subject to pain, although it bears profound and empathic witness to pain.
And so once we have become acquainted with it, we may find it easier simply to hold even the most difficult and painful of our experiences within it. We may even make the curious, but profound, discovery that awareness is already free, intrinsically whole, and deeply knowing.
I think this passage is wrong. There's no evidence that pure awareness exists. The authors make awareness, or consciousness, into a thing rather than an activity. I suspect they fell prey to echoing Buddhist/Hindu teachings here, rather than sticking with the science of secular mindfulness.
Yes, it's true that the human brain doesn't feel pain. That's why surgeons can operate on the brain while a patient is conscious. But that's much different from claiming that the awareness/consciousness created by the brain is not subject to pain.
Again, that claim assumes that awareness is a thing that somehow exists separately from what we humans are aware of. It's crazy for the authors to say that awareness bears "witness to pain." Everybody who has experienced pain, whether physical or psychological, knows that's bullshit.
It is possible to endure pain. It is possible to deal with pain in a way that lessens its impact on us. But pain is a valuable signal that something is wrong. Evolution has given us pain because an inability to feel pain is exceedingly dangerous. People who don't feel pain typically don't live very long, since they're prone to ignore harmful situations, like a hot fire.
This pure awareness part of the book struck me as undercutting their main theme, as stated in this quote. Clinging to the notion of pure awareness is an attempt to make reality into something that it isn't.
As we said toward the end of the preceding chapter, mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, to things as they are. It's a way of shifting from doing to being so that we take in all the information that an experience offers us before we act.
Being mindful means that we suspend judgment for a time, set aside our immediate goals for the future, and take in the present moment as it is rather than as we would like it to be.