In an increasingly distracting, overwhelming and maddening world, the role and value of mindfulness is now unquestionable. The problem is, can mindful living be combined with the active life?
Those of us who have at minimum dabbled in meditation, certain martial arts, yoga, buddhism–or other spiritual practices–diaphragm breathing, and the like, are probably well aware of the benefits and importance of mindfulness1 That we are no longer ignorant, however, does not mean by definition we live mindfully; awareness is a skill, and skills require practice. In fact, being knowledgeable of the importance and benefits of mindfulness, and, at the same time knowing that you are not being mindful, can actually make you even less happy, calm and clear–which are the kind of benefits one may experience from a dedicated meditation practice, for example, which leads to more mindful daily living. Unapplied knowledge can sometimes be a poison.
The culture today is one of anti-mindful living. The never-ending, ever-growing, 24/7, and often aggressive flow of information; and the hypnotising and magnetic effects of all forms of social media; and the increasingly long to-do lists, and million-and-one responsibilities; and FOMO–are distractions, period. Add to this dependence on sugar and alcohol, and you’ve got the ultimate cocktail. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that these distractions, most of them, are stimulating, exciting, and easy to occupy oneself with; most of them feel good.
The solution to this big problem is not an easy one; the obvious one, however would be to cut oneself of from the social platforms, consume no news, eat the strictest of diets, and for all practical purposes, isolate oneself from the current culture. Such a life–this decision to go and meditate under a tree for a long time, or even for the rest of your life–is, of course, not one many people want to do, never mind will do. Being isolated may help you live happier, and think different, but it is almost no use to society; thinking different whilst unconnected is significantly easier than thinking different whilst connected. Clearly, disappearing into the wilderness is not the solution.
The alternative is simpler, therefore harder; more realistic, beneficial to society, and will lead, most likely, to a richer and meaningful existence. It is mindfulness. It is learning to be present in this moment, right here, right now; this moment that is the only moment that we have, the only real moment. The past and future do exist, but only in our minds; they are constructs–useful yes, but also dangerous; for they play with our lives as does the puppeteer to the puppet.
Learning to focus your attention on this very moment; learning to go with the flow of life, instead of swimming against it or drowning underneath the surface; learning to look at life, at your experience, with composure, clarity and gratitude; learning to live consciously, to become the witness; learning to listen to yourself, and to others, and to life itself, who is always speaking to you; all these are examples, interpretations, actualisations of mindful living–and they are the key to living a good life in a chaotic world. Once again, you could go and live in an ashram for the rest of your life, but if you are interested in doing something big, if you have great ambitions, if you want to travel the world or build a business or make art or write books, if you want to live a full life, then you must find a mechanism, a system, a way of being with which you can identify noise from signal, separate wheat from chaff, make sense of things–swim, instead of sink. The anti-dote to overwhelm is mindfulness; this, however, while being arguably the biggest benefit, is still one of many–then again, perhaps all the other benefits are simply different framings for not being defeated by the overwhelm of existence.
Going back to the earlier point, it seems that those of us who know about mindfulness, still struggle to live mindfully; why? The reason, of course, is that we are talking about a skill. The amount of distractions both life and our own desires throw ‘our’ way is ridiculous; it is a miracle that we are not disabled by them.2 But not being disabled ought not be our goal; aim low and you achieve even lower. No, instead we ought to aim as high as we can: to become better humans, to build a better world, to live a good life, to make the world a better place, to be good. Any failure to reach this goal, if we try our best to reach it, will still be an incredible success; but to try out best we must become more aware, more thoughtful, more present, more mindful.
As mindful living is a skill, it must be practiced; the most common–and perhaps, best–way to practice is through meditation, but other forms include yoga, introspective walking or journalling, psychedelics3, intense exercise, reading philosophy, or studying great teachers. Typically, it takes many years or practice to become so proficiently mindful that one’s whole experience is one of presence and only presence; that said, many years of practice doesn’t guarantee this.
If you live an active life and have big ambitions, however, not only is it highly unlikely that you will ever reach the state of the Dalai Lama, it is probably beneficial that you do not–because massive ambitions, at least most of them, are simply not compatible with the mind that is ignorant of the past and future, and is concerned only with the present; creatives, pioneers and revolutionaries have a certain kind of wiring, a way of thinking that is the source of their ideas, dare, of energy.
Most people fall into the middle of achieving the blissful state of someone like Joseph Goldstein, and the revolutionary creative who embraces his erratic variations in disposition as his secret sauce. What this means is that most people will have goals resembling that of the mind of the Enlightened One, but will live a less extreme version of Picasso. Yes, we all tend to want the eternally peaceful state, but most brains do not work that way–because despite what we may think, we need the unpeaceful state. Why do we need it? Go back to a life spent in the ashram; sure, you may become enlightened, but you are so because you are spending your life in an ashram, which is a life disconnected from society; and yes, you may leave the ashram, but upon re-entering the world, your ‘calling’ is now to become a meditation teacher, or something similar. You see, enlightened people (by which I mean, those who live constantly in the present) are not capable, if they are to re-enter society–to do much than doing something in their field–for example, becoming a meditation teacher or spiritual writer. Another way to put this would be that they don’t want any other; in reality, it is more like half and half. Now, this is not a bad thing, of course; it is simply the way things tend to pan out. Nor is it always the case; there are examples of people who always seem to be present, who are not meditation teachers; these people tend to operate in a field that thrives on a slower, more long-term type of thinking and acting (e.g., investing, writing, science, philosophy), which makes sense.
Those that fall in the middle of becoming the Dalai Lama 2.0, and the next Da Vinci, need something in addition to some sort of mindfulness practice–well, not necessarily need, but such persons will likely to better with supplementation to their probable inconsistent practice. An example of this would be every day reminders, stories and analogies that stick in the mind, and better incentives.
When it comes to most universal and general truths, and life advice, upon encountering them, we tend to feel as if we already know what they are–and yes, we do; but the problem is that we forget them. We forget them for various reasons: most of them are not important enough to us; there are not good enough incentives to remember or act them out; we do not understand them fully; there is no immediate benefit; the overwhelming distractions of living an active life. Whatever the reason we forget–or don’t act out–unfamiliar interpretations, appealing stories and analogies, and new ways of framing mindful living can only serve us well in life; they do not replace practice, and they will not immediately turn you into the Buddha, but they will keep the idea of being present, mindful and aware more alive in your mind. If an idea is alive in your mind, you’re very likely to be influenced by it.
Below are a few different examples of these little ‘reminders’ that serve, at minimum, the purpose of keeping the idea of mindful living a prominent thought.
–Feeding the baby—you don’t hit or scream; you are gentle. If the baby is picky, defiant or distracted, the gentle approach becomes even more important. The baby is the present thoughts and emotions you become aware of once you enter a state of mindfulness. If you struggle, shout, get emotional or forceful with the baby, you’ll only the baby more angry, defiant and pissed.
–Bursting a bubble with feather—you simply touch it; you don’t swipe at it. Imagine a multiplicity of bubbles around you (like the dip-and-blow bubbles the kids make)4). These bubbles are your thoughts. Now, the way to burst these bubbles–which is sort of what you’re trying to do when you become mindful, which is to get rid or at least, calm your thoughts– is simply by touching them; the way to remember this, is by simply bursting them with the touch of a delicate feather. This is analogous to the identification of hijacking thoughts and sensations during mindfulness. Your thoughts are like bubbles; they are not clay pigeons, so put away the shotgun.
–Training a dog—you must be calm, because the dog imitates you. There are two points here. First, if you have ever done any dog training, you will know that the dog imitates much of the masters behaviour. The best dog trainers in the world do not begin with the dog; they begin by teaching the owner to control themselves, and to be calm and composed around the dog. The second point–and the more intriguing one, in my opinion–is that, if you hit or scream at a naughty dog, it will probably obey; the problem is that it won’t understand, which means that it will make the same mistake again and again. The dog will eventually learn not to behave such a way when you are around–through fear of being caught–but when you are not around, well… The dog, in this example, is like that discursive wheel of thought and emotion that just keeps turning and turning. Venting and force is not the long-term solution; befriending and understanding, is.
–Saying ‘thinking—ahhh, thinking…’ or ‘lost in thought—I am lost in thought’—actually saying to yourself, in your head or out loud, that you are distracted, that you are not present, that you are lost in thought, is often the time enough to knock yourself back into awareness. This is especially the case once you clock some hours in the intentional mindful state; the best example of this would be getting started with meditation, which will give you some idea of what it means to ‘watch yourself’. The upshot: simple acknowledgment on its own is often enough to detach you from your thoughts.
–When you realise you’re not in the movie, but just watching it. Being lost in thought, distracted, overwhelmed, emotional, is like thinking that you’re the character of a movie; becoming aware, mindful, detached from your thoughts, the witness to your experience, is realising that you are indeed in the cinema, watching pixels move on a wall. Our experience, being the ever-distracting, confusing, thrilling, emotionally, stimulating, and rollercoaster ride, slowly convinces us that we are living the a movies closely resembling a combination of The Avengers and Memento. Mindful living is noticing when you have become so absorbed by the movie that you actually think you are in it; you are only the watcher. Of course, life requires that we do get lost in thought–or else nothing would get done. The difference when you know, however, is that you can drop back, detach, and become ‘unlost’ whenever necessary–such as when confusion or overwhelm creeps in.
-The two elements that generate the tranquil mind: dispassionate detachment, and rational compassion. The former is what is sounds— detached observation of your own mind, taking the higher ground to view your affair from a different perspective, letting go of your attachments so that you can see. The latter is forming a rational understanding of your own mind–your emotions, feelings, thought patterns, habits, and so on–and leaning in, and becoming friends with yourself. One cannot be applied properly without the other.
–Does a mirror become what it reflects? We so easily make the mistake of identifying with the thoughts we think, the opinions and beliefs of others and society as a whole, the experiences we have; this thought pattern fuels anxiety, fear, confusion, overwhelm and depression. Becoming aware at the meta level of your experience, mindful of your conscious experience, teaches you that this type of thinking is a mistake; the perspective from which you are able to be mindful, for all practical purposes, has no identity–and this perspective is your own perspective. Going back to the question, the mirror is analogous to consciousness: it is not changed by its experience (what it reflects); it is simply the space in which images occurs. Your consciousness is the space in which your experience occurs; it is not your experience–hence the value of learning to detach.
–Looking through the window, vs looking at the window. We spend most of our lives looking out the window, for it is where most of life happens; outside is compelling, interesting, distracting, stimulating, is where the pleasures are, is where goals are made realities, is where the world is. But what happens when you look at the window? Yes, you see yourself.5 Your reflection was there all along, but it was never the first thing you looked at when you encountered a window. Noticing this reflection is like noticing your experience; it is like turning inwards to explore mysterious, dangerous, confusing, emotional place, that is your very own mind. This place is left unexplored for many reasons; the first reason is that it is not necessary, and the second–and perhaps, the most saddening one–is that we are not taught how to. It is saddening when you consider all it takes is simply noticing your reflection. Noticing your reflection can serve as the precursor to noticing your experience; and noticing your experience is the precursor to no longer getting lost in harmful thought; and no longer getting lost in thought is the precursor to no longer identifying with, well, anything.
Take those of these easily digestible insights that speak to you, and go with them. Use them as reminders to be mindful, as ways to tell your skeptical friends and family, as tools to fix problems, and as supplements–not replacements–to your mindfulness practice.
- a better way to put it would be mindful living, because the word ‘mindfulness’ has a) become very overused, and b) tends to carry a lot of stereotypical baggage.
- Which is another way of saying, it is a miracle that anything works; a miracle that we have been able to build the world we have, and that it functions so well; a miracle that we have been able to make sense of so much chaos.
- Done under selected circumstances, and after much research and scrupulous consideration
- Or, if you’re a playful adult…
- Unless of course, you look through a dirty window. If so, clean your windows. If it is somebody else’s window, tell the dirty Bastards to clean their windows.