BOOK REVIEW: THE FRENCH ART OF NOT GIVING A F*CK – FABRICE MIDAL

December 17th, 2017 | Posted by sfrydman in Meditation

Midal picIf you’re interested in reading a powerful book about meditation then The French Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Fabrice Midal might inspire you. The title is a gimmick and the insights do not seem uniquely French. There is another similarly titled book called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by American author Mark Manson but this French author has written over a dozen books and is an expert in his field. In fact, when first published this January in French, Midal’s book was actually titled Foutez-vous la paix, et commencez a vivre – Give Yourself a Break and Start to Live. This is perhaps less catchy, but a better indication of what the book offers.

In this book the author repeats the manta about non-attachment (‘to ‘not give a f*ck’) on topics such as being calm, being wise, wanting to be perfect and trying to understand everything. This book is so much more than its title as the writing weaves relevant philosophy and personal story into descriptions about the processes of meditation. Fabrice Midal has a PhD in philosophy, a long history of personal meditation practice and teaching, as well as a gorgeous writing style that reveals his vulnerabilities and experiences as insight and wisdom.

A personal meditation practice can sometimes feel like a lonely journey often interrupted by marketing hype full of how-to instructions, promised benefits, ideal locations and postures. I found it quite a relief to read this dedicated practitioner’s approach which invites readers ‘not to give a f*ck’ if they don’t have a regular practice and that it is ok to sit down on the cushion and then get up a moment later and abandon practice. Midal describes his own preferred ways to meditate, clearly and bravely explains why he isn’t keen on some popular techniques and then encourages others to find their own chosen ways to sit with presence and attention. Because I love this topic and his writing, I am sharing some of the author’s longer quotes below. I’ve written in the past about this over-rated obsession with calmness but Midal has so accurately pinned it here:

I am tired of being asked, because I’m involved in meditation: ‘How can I become Zen?’ As if this question had any meaning! Why am I not asked: ‘How can I become a little more alive’? That is the real challenge. Our challenge. Enthusiasts are called into the world. They know they will receive blows, become irritated, fight back, get angry, sometimes rightly so, sometimes unjustly, but that doesn’t matter – they are ready to roll up their sleeves and get going. There is more truth in their emotions than in all those masters with aloof gazes, which they no doubt think contributes to their caricatures of dignity.

Throughout his book Midal describes how consumerism has impacted on ways meditation is often presented and warns, in particular, against the current trend towards advertising calm as the main by-product of meditation. ‘Calm, the dictionary tells us, comes from the Occitan calma. This naval term describes an absence of wind, which sometimes consigned sailors to inactivity, that is, unemployment. When the sea is calm, it’s impossible to move! Calm is the absence of movement, a static immobility.’ In the next paragraph the author continues on to say ‘I love and appreciate those moments when I feel in harmony with the world, and time seems to stand still at last’ but his warning not to be attached to an outcome of calm from a meditation session is spot on. Meditating is awareness of whatever is happening in any given moment and there is plenty in the world and in our personal lives that is not calm so it is more realistic to sit openly with whatever presents. Midal prefers the deeper and more integrative experience of peace which he explains ‘implies an effort to bring things together as they should be. In other words, it is the exact opposite of calming down’.

On letting go, Midal writes, ‘Stop meditating if you’re doing it to learn to ‘let go’, as per the current trend, because you won’t be able to. Meditating doesn’t mean calming down, it means engaging with your own life. Meditating doesn’t mean distancing yourself from the earthly work, or turning your gaze away from your everyday life. On the contrary, it involves embracing everything that constitutes existence, including sex, money, work, sitting situations, and joy.’ While reading, I smiled and laughed aloud quite a few times, for instance, when Midal writes, “I meditate so as to anchor myself more firmly in the present moment. Not to fly off into the heavens.’

Sitting with the unknown or ambiguous in meditation can allow us to find creative or new ways of being in the world. Again, in order to do this we cannot expect things in advance from our meditation practice. In reality, we can be too busy and not even attempt to sit with the unknown or the challenging. Midal reminds readers that ‘being active does not mean being busy. It does not mean running around in all directions vainly to give others (and ourselves) the impression that we’re doing something. It means building deep down, on rock and not on sand.’

The feeling of ‘building on rock and not on sand’ is something gained from the physical seated meditation position itself and Midal reflects that ‘the practice of meditation, sitting with your back firm, your chest tender and open, expresses the attitude I’ve adopted to life. I’ve acquired strength, yet I feel tenderness. I do sometimes cry, but I don’t let it bother me: something inside me stands up beyond my tears.’ This is the Buddhist ‘strong back, soft front’ approach I repeat in class. The physical practice of sitting still with a spine full of resolve brings moments of stillness and understanding amongst the varying waves of experience.

Throughout his book, Midal provides readers with glimpses of the intense child he once was and describes how he currently manages and perhaps channels his sensitivity through meditation. Of course I relate to this but so might many others. Throughout the book there are the familiar sprinklings of self-help topics such as warnings against perfectionism, the benefits of ‘failures’ and the need to curb busy-ness. It is when Midal presents philosophy and snippets of his own favourite writers and thinkers that this book transforms from just another rant about meditation into a poetic journey of theory and practice. Midal’s chapter F*ck Being Conscious is quite profound and I suspect it might become the synopsis of another book. I certainly agree with Midal that by overemphasising ‘the notion of consciousness, we have reduced meditation to a mere technique, a cerebral exercise that activates a specific zone of the cortex, while putting other areas to sleep’. I know for myself and other practitioners that some forms of mindfulness can at times feel technical and even heartless. Midal is not a fan of instructing people to watch thoughts pass across the mind like clouds. He finds it can be quite boring and simply not work for some people. I agree as not everyone can visualise easily and the most successful way to turn people off meditation for life is to present techniques that will not work for them.

So, if you feel like a refreshing read about meditation, grab this book despite its diversionary title, or perhaps because of it. The ‘what the f*ck’ mantra is an invitation for us to say a big ‘whatever!’ to different life circumstances, not by ignoring or denying anything but rather by honestly being present to them without further reactions and attachments. For instance, Midal is curious why we don’t cry more often in some circumstances, or declare our love or our so-called failures.

Midal expertly dispels some of the nonsense about meditation and yet passionately describes how it has transformed his own life. I believe there is plenty in this book to engage the meditator and non-meditator amongst us.

© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications

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