On Ideology and Mindfulness

Image for post
Image for post

Someone from a Buddhist group asked me to elaborate on the meaning of ideology. This is an important question. In contemporary politics, our thoughts are more governed by ideology than by the old-time religions. Perhaps we can say that ideology is the new religion. And ideology is dangerous, just as religion is dangerous. One’s ideology shapes what one sees as the highest good. The highest good is worthy to sacrifice to.

I would define “ideology” as a framework or structure through which one sees the world. There are, for example, a Christian ideology, a Muslim ideology, a Zionist ideology, a capitalist ideology and a Marxist theology. There is also a Buddhist ideology. When the Buddha talked about the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, ideology falls under the category called “mental objects”(dharma). In educational psychology and cognitive science, we use the term coined by Jean Piaget — “schema.” We see the world through the particular schema we adopted as valid. Piaget said that when there arises a fact or a piece of information which does not quite fit into one’s adopted schema, then one has a tendency to doctor or bend the fact so that it fits. People generally are very reluctant to modify their entire schema in light of new facts. It is too threatening. This accounts for the phenomenon of “facts don’t matter.” The human psyche has a way to modify the fact or reinterpret the schema so that everything fits.

Ideology should be an important object for a spiritual person to meditate on, since one’s ideology drives one’s actions — political, moral, military, etc., But our framework through which we view the world is very difficult to detect. It requires much sensitivity and awareness. It is as if one has been viewing the world through a lens or filter. We are not talking about the objects observed through that lens. We are talking about the lens itself. Ideology creates blind spots. We have to step way back to see the lens. It is a higher-order observation. It requires a lot of stillness and sensitivity.

Is there a practical way to identify the lens? There are a few practical suggestions. For example, try adopting your opponent’s lens and see how the world would look then. In a debate, try debating by adopting your opponents’ position. You may also observe your subtle feelings. Do you become angry or agitated whenever a certain subject is brought up? Your emotional disturbance is a clue of where your lens is. You should also become aware of your subtle intentions. Am I honestly debating an issue? Am I being fair to the other side? Or do I just want to win an argument, regardless of what it takes? Also, ask yourself this — what evidence do you need to see in order to be convinced that you have been wrong and your opponent is right? What do you need to see in order to change your mind? If there is nothing that can cause you to change your mind, then you are tied to an ideological position. This is what philosopher of science, Karl Popper, referred to as falsifiability. In other words, the cognitive skills required are of a higher-level, you have to learn to observe how your own mind processes information. Some of these mental processes may even be subconscious.

As a philosopher, I tend to dig out the underlying assumptions of a particular thought system. Any discipline and any academic subject is built on many underlying assumptions, many of which cannot be justified. They are taken on faith. Such unjustified assumptions necessary to build a system are called axioms. You may have learned this term while studying geometry. It is important to develop this mental habit of digging up assumptions. It is for this reason that each discipline offers its own philosophy course. There is, for example, the philosophy of science, philosophy of law, philosophy of economics, philosophy of religion, etc.

It is for this reason that mindfulness sometimes requires critical thinking and intellect. Mindfulness is not just about paying attention to various objects. It is also about paying attention to the reasoning and model-building processes. This is why the dismissal of the intellect in spirituality is very dangerous. You’d need intellect and rationality to practice mindfulness and identify your cognitive biases. Without using your intellect, you will have many blind spots.

This is what the Buddha referred to as the mindfulness of mental objects. Sometimes, it means mindfulness of the thinking process itself. We have to exercise critical thinking about thinking.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store