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Phenomenology and Mindfulness, Essay Example

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The phenomenological tradition and the practice of mindfulness bear a crucial resemblance in so far as they place an emphasis on the perspective of the first-person subject. What makes phenomenology and mindfulness distinct from other frameworks and conceptualizations of consciousness, however, is also what can be viewed as bringing them into harmony as two theoretical approaches: that is that the first-person subject is constructed in both schools as always being in relation an environment and surrounding. Accordingly, we can map the similarity of phenomenology and mindfulness precisely upon this conception of consciousness and perception on a subjective level that is not a subjectivity constituted by a relation.

In order to develop this thesis, a closer viewpoint of how the theories of subjectivity present in mindfulness and phenomenology are constructed is required.  In terms of phenomenology, what is of utmost importance is the correlation between the subject and the world. Stelter and Law (2010) provides a concise yet quite deep definition of phenomenology in its psychological context as follows: “Phenomenology casts a light on immediate embodied experiences upon which individuals can focus with regard to a specific situation in which they are involved.” (p. 11) There are numerous parts of the definition that require definition, in order to understand the uniqueness of the phenomenological approach. Firstly, subjectivity is construed in terms of immediate bodied experiences. Namely, the subject is not merely consciousness, but has a corporeal being. Our consciousness is tied in the phenomenological approach to our body, and furthermore this body itself is in a world. We have to understand experience in this viewpoint as a type of subjectivity that means that the subject is experiencing some thing. This is not the product of the subject’s own mind, but is rather a relation between the subject and what is being perceived. This relationship occurs within what Stelter terms a “situation”, meaning that this relationship itself takes place within some pre-established context. Accordingly, phenomenology’s theory of subjectivity goes beyond subjectivity itself: that is, we as subjects are only subjects because we have relationships and experiences to entities other than ourselves.

Mindfulness, as demonstrated in various mindfulness practices, such as body scan or sitting meditation, show a similar type of account of subjectivity. Namely, such a practice traces the outlines of how the subject experiences various activities, such as, for example, breathing. Nanda (2009), based upon the work of Thera, summarizes the fundamental aspect of mindfulness as follows: “taking notice of any object, something which we perform innumerable times in our waking day, brings consciousness into emergence.” (p. 2) Mindfulness practices as mentioned above help clarify this definition. Mindfulness wants to pay attention to consciousness itself, to this process: this is what such meditative practices intend to do. Therefore, we pay attention to a given object, as consciousness does by definition: then we pay attention to this act of paying attention. Nanda (2009) phrases this – what may be perhaps termed if so allowed – doubling up of attention with the following eloquent phrasing: “in mindfulness practice, perception or consciousness is seen as an inter-relational process with the inseparability of subject/object.” (p. 5) Let us unpack this dense passage. In what we have termed the doubling up of attention, what is really occurring is an understanding that our attention to something is as much constructed by the something as it is by our attention of the something. This is not perceivable on the first level of consciousness or attention or perception, since on this level we are only focused on the object that is being perceived. But on the secondary level, we understand that we are focusing on the object and that this object is making our consciousness what it is, as well as making the object what it is.

Obviously, in both schools subjectivity itself is crucial, centering the entire account. However, this first-person subject, following the theory of phenomenology and the theory of mindfulness, is always already embedded within a world and is already in relation, and this relation itself makes the subject and the object.  Namely, the subject is not something that is merely existing in an autonomous cogito type fashion, completely separate from the world. Phenomenology emphasizes the correlation between the subject and the world, which means that the subject and our perceptions always exist in a relation to something other than themselves. It is arguably the practice of mindfulness which repeats this same type of notion, in as much as various mindfulness practices place a clear emphasis on the relationship of consciousness to the world around it. These two approaches are essentially two sides of the same coin, insofar as they emphasize what has been termed “open or receptive awareness and attention.” (Brown & Ryan, 2003, p. 822) The openness to awareness and attention which is an openness to perception understands that the perception is as much constructed by what is outside the perceiver: there is a lack of a distinction which founds these very distinctions.

We may conclude by noting that the similarities between phenomenology in its psychological guise and mindfulness understood as practices may, based on the concept of subjectivity we have discussed, have potential positive therapeutic effects. Namely, well-being may be generated from attention to how we think, as opposed to merely focused on what we think. Studies (Brown & Ryan, 2003) have shown, for example, that mindfulness exercises have psychological payoffs. With the revolutionary approach to subjectivity that makes the subject inseparable from the object, both phenomenology and mindfulness portray a commitment to our relationships to the world.

References

Brown, K.W. & Ryan, R.M. (2003). “The Benefits of Being Present: Mindfulness and Its Role in Psychological Well-Being.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 84, No. 4.

Nanda, J. (2009). Mindfulness: A Lived Experience of Existential-Phenomenological Themes. Existential Analysis. 20, 1.

Stelter, R. & Law, H. (2010). Coaching-Narrative Collaborative Practice. International Coaching Psychological Review. Vol. 5. No. 2.

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