In my continuing efforts to improve mental health, I was referred to a mindfulness clinic at the VA. At this point in my life, I’m willing to try just about anything — even things that I can’t apply a rational basis to. In this case, mindfulness has a reasonably robust basis, supposedly supported by research (for what that’s worth… most published “research” is fundamentally flawed and total crap). I know people who have benefited greatly from the practice (a much stronger argument). And, it costs me nothing but my time, so I agreed and signed up for the online class.

At this point, I’ve attended two sessions. So far, it’s nothing new. I’ve attempted meditation in the past, going back as far as my childhood. I’ve never found it particularly soothing or useful. In fact, I’ve always found it frustrating. My mind refuses to be “present.” My mind refuses to release control. My mind refuses to set aside the litany of things that constantly bombard it with tasks to do, problems to solve, frustrations unresolved, random bits of music and lyrics, odd quotes picked up along the way, and the seemingly infinite stream of other mostly random crap that occupies my consciousness.

I’ve always assumed that the practice (mindfulness) would help me, but that I’m just doing it wrong. I still believe that. However when I have to spend energy trying to figure out what the hell it means to “be my breath” and wondering why I should tell myself “may you be well” without conjuring up images of Sylvester Stallone reacting to the deliberately ridiculous future in “Demolition Man,” my willingness to keep trying comes perilously close to inadequacy.

Why does meditation need to have it’s own lexicon of terms? In most settings I can think of, a custom lexicon comes from one of two places: a need to communicate complexity precisely and efficiently, or a need to keep the unwashed at bay. My background in science and technology, and extensive time in the military, taught me several custom lexicons developed for the first purpose. These communities have found that standard English either fails to adequately describe something, or it takes too long to get a point across in a time critical environment. Consequently, they’ve made up new words, or re-purposed old ones, to facilitate communication. It can be daunting to outsiders who venture into those communities, but that isn’t the real purpose for the jargon.

The second form of jargon is more insidious. It masquerades as the first, but has none of the virtuous motivation. This Jargon serves only one purpose: distinguish the initiated from the uninitiated. It provides a sense of exclusivity. I’ve found this kind of jargon in soft-science academia. Take some time to read any journal article published by someone with a PhD in ethnic studies, English literature, or similar focus and see if you can mentally translate the abstract into ordinary English without losing meaning. With the exception of terms describing a specific analysis method or it’s results, I’d challenge you to find a case where the jargon or non-standard phrasing is justified. It exists to make the authors and consumers of the publication feel special and exclusive.

To be completely honest, I don’t care if all of these clubs have their secret handshakes and code words, as long as I don’t have to learn and use them for no other reason than to comply with group norms. However, in trying to figure out mindfulness, I am faced with jargon that appears to serve no purpose and that strongly distracts from the very purpose. The magic words don’t make any sense to the unwashed like me. Assuming I know what they mean, I can come up with thoroughly descriptive and simple phrases that wouldn’t require the average person to employ a decoder ring. The rest of them — like “be your breath” — seem utterly meaningless, and nobody has bothered to offer enlightenment on the topic. Rather than achieving the sought for mental state, I get irritated by new-agey catch-phrases that ask me to do or be something that is undefinable or unachievable.

Maybe I’ll figure it out and join the club of initiates. Or maybe I’ll just suffer through this class and come out the other side no better than I was before and more skeptical of the snake-oil like promises that brought me here in the first place. Time will tell.

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