The Necessity of Reason: Combating the Lies Your Mind Tells You

Have you ever considered that one of your biggest problems might be your own brain?

Not because there’s anything wrong with you, per se, but because there’s something off about the way we’re hardwired as a species. The problem is that the human brain didn’t evolve over millions of years to be happy, it evolved to help us survive the harsh Paleolithic environment.

As such, our brains are adapted not to “seeing things as they really are” but to imagining catastrophe, to focusing on the negative, to blowing things out of proportion. We evolved to see lions where there is only brown grass, and panthers where there is only shadow, because it was always “safer” to assume the worst and be wrong than vice versa.

But while this Paleolithic brain may have helped our ancestors’ survive, today it is doing us no favours. Although it has been thousands of years since most of us needed to worry about lions leaping out of the bushes, our brains still keep us stressed out and anxious as though, at any minute now, we might need to jump up and start running from one.

I guess this is why we need “philosophies of well-being” in the first place. After all, if well-being and perfect perspective were natural then we would just do it as a matter of instinct. We wouldn’t have to be taught it, we wouldn’t bother to write books or blogs about it, we wouldn’t create religions out of it; it would just be our default way of being.

But that is not the situation we find ourselves in. Our situation is that we are stuck with this Paleolithic brain and the steady diet of neurotic lies, biases and distortions it feeds us. And in combating it we have only one true friend: reason.

THE NECESSITY OF REASON

Historically, a love of reason has not been a foregone conclusion. Lest you take the reasonableness of reason for granted, let me introduce you to the ancient Greek Sceptic Metrodorus, who declared the impotence of reason with this somewhat paradoxical line: “None of us knows anything; not even this, whether we know or we do not know.”1

But a lack of faith in reason is one thing; outright hatred of it is completely next level. I give you Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who famously declared that “Reason is the Devil’s whore”2 for failing to confirm his personal religious beliefs.

You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s impossible to go further than that. But you’d be wrong. The Romantics characterised objective science and rationalism as cold, calculating, stripping nature of beauty and wonder, and life of everything that makes it worth living. Reason, it seems, wants little more than to suffocate the human spirit. Instead, subjective emotion is the “true” path to knowledge.3

Yet somehow, even they don’t win top prize for the most cynical view of reason of all time. That would go to the Postmodernists; for whom all knowledge is political and reason is little more than a weapon wielded by one social group to assert their “will to power” over other groups.4

Then there’s modern science, pointing out the inescapable fact that reason is, itself, a product of the same Paleolithic brains that give us so many lies, biases and distortions in the first place. These brains tell us to only listen to information that confirms what we already believe (confirmation bias), and that we’re experts at things we know almost nothing about (the Dunning-Kruger effect).5

The list of the cognitive lies, biases and distortions that make us all terrible people is long. How can we trust any line of reasoning that comes out of such a brain? Even if reason is your friend, it might be more like that irresponsible friend who you want to rely on but who just keeps letting you down.

So yes, reason has taken a bit of a battering from almost every possible angle over the centuries. And yet, we can acknowledge the limitations of reason, acknowledge that there’s some truth to some of the above arguments, and still feel that reason must somehow come out on top. After all, any attempt to criticise reason must, itself, use reason to make its case.

Whether you want to claim that reason is impotent, or that it’s Satan’s whore, or that it should take a back seat to emotion, or that it’s an expression of a “will to power,” or that it’s a product of a flawed Paleolithic brain, you must prove your argument with reasons in the first place. How else could we know that a cognitive bias is a bias at all? Reason is all we have.

And there is a lot at stake here. If it’s impossible say who’s “really” right or wrong – about anything – then it’s impossible say that Hitler, Stalin, Mao or any other monster you can name are wrong. This should give even the most smug reason-hater out there some pause.

How might a conversation go between Metrodorus and the Nazi Führer? “Oh, you believe the Jews should be exterminated? Well, you have your perspective, I have my perspective, and I guess we’ll never really know who’s right.” I’m sorry, but no.

Then, of course, we need reason to face the monsters spawned by our Paleolithic brains; all those cognitive lies, biases and distortions. Yes, against these monsters, reason is a flawed friend, a frustrating friend, a friend you sometimes argue with and get fed up with. You may curse this friend, fight this friend, occasionally abandon this friend. You may even stoop to calling this friend bad names (right, Luther?).

But it is also your only friend.

UNFALSIFIABLE THINKING

A potent and pervasive legacy of our Paleolithic brains is unfalsifiable thinking. To say that someone’s belief is “unfalsifiable” is to say that there is nothing, not even in principle, that could ever change their mind. In science, to say this to someone is an insult far worse than merely saying that they’re wrong.

Karl Popper, who coined the term, identified unfalsifiable thinking to be the difference between real science and pseudoscience, as well as between the “open society” and the totalitarian society.6 Unfalsifiable thinking is the common thread uniting all whack-jobs, lynch mobs, dogmatists, fascist dictators, cult leaders, internet trolls, and so on. They only look for evidence that verifies their beliefs and dismiss (or violently persecute) anything that might falsify them.

But the first pseudoscientist to combat is the one inside yourself. This pseudoscientist is the one who insists not only on negative thought spirals, or on putting yourself down, or on framing everyone and everything around you in the worst possible light; they also insist on dismissing or disqualifying any and all evidence to the contrary.

Someone says something positive about your work; the pseudoscientist says they’re just trying to be nice. You get a promotion; the pseudoscientist says it’s a fluke.

Yet if there’s a pseudoscientist inside you then there’s also a real scientist, and they can use reason to put the pseudoscientist in their place. Identify the belief that you’re holding, like “My life sucks,” and ask yourself, “What is it that would change my mind?” Suddenly, instead of just chasing the evidence that verifies the hypothesis that your life sucks (like a pseudoscientist) you are finding the evidence that falsifies it (like a real scientist).

And you might just find it easier to find that evidence than you think.

CATASTROPHIC THINKING

A tendency to blow things out of proportion may well have had an adaptive survival value in the Paleolithic. A small cut could get infected and kill you; a rustling sound in the bushes could be a lion getting ready to make you their dinner.

But it will also make a wreck of your life for no good reason, turning small mistakes into irreparable disasters, minor setbacks into the end of the world, and so forth. At its worst, catastrophic thinking can lead to the truly paranoid.

One person might take the slightest criticism from someone else as meaning that that person is out to get them. Another (I’m sure you know one) drops down the rabbit hole of their algorithm-manipulated social media feed, believing the smallest government public safety measure to be the tip of the iceberg of a vast nefarious conspiracy to control us all.

Here, reason is a light in the darkness. It gives us “Occam’s Razor,”7 the principle that, all things being equal, we should go with the simplest explanation that fits the evidence; where “simplest” roughly means “requiring the fewest number of assumptions to make it work.” If you hear the sound of hooves, think horses, not unicorns.

Whenever you catch yourself catastrophising, just ask yourself, are your imagined fears really the simplest explanation of whatever is going on? Is your fear proportional to it, or are you just making dramatic assumptions on top of it?

Because please, there’s enough real problems in the world without creating new ones out of nothing.

all-or-nothing thinking

Somewhat related to catastrophic thinking, all-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking is a dramatic tendency to think in absolutes and ignore shades of grey. This comes out in the form of over-the-top statements like “I always fail” or “I never get what I want!”

All-or-nothing thinking can lead to some dramatic, not-well-thought-through decisions. When you are able to cast people from the “good person” category to the “bad person” category at the drop of the hat, you can hastily break off that relationship, quit that job, fire that employee, completely unfairly. Most people are somewhere in between.

Again, reason is a guide here. Watch out for yourself using words like “always” and “never,” which are common in all-or-nothing statements. Look for all the alternative possibilities that lie between the extremes, the grey areas. Acknowledge nuance.

emotional reasoning

A very common lie our Paleolithic brains tell us is that our feelings are facts, or that if we feel it, it must be true. If you feel that your partner is looking at someone else, it means they are looking at someone else. If you feel that your life is over, it means it is over. If you feel that you have a deep connection to Scarlett Johansson, or to Brad Pitt, it means there is a deep connection…

Ok, that’s the more extreme version of emotional reasoning, but you get the picture.

Some will defend their emotional reasoning. After all, why would we feel something if it isn’t true? But the thing to understand about emotions is that they’re not about truth and reality, they’re about desire and aversion, hope and fear. Otherwise all scientific investigation would be about getting in touch with your feelings. Does E = mc2? What does your heart tell you?

And if anything will turn you against the Romantic notion that reason must take a back seat to emotions, it is seeing what happens when we actually do this. To someone in the grips of their emotional reasoning, someone who has essentially gaslighted themselves into believing their own hopes and fears, it is extremely difficult for actual reason to get through; because it doesn’t matter how illogical or inconsistent they’re being, they still feel that they’re right.

Emotions are not your enemy. They’re more like your drunk friend; you like them, you care for them, you wouldn’t want to be without them, but under no circumstances should you let them drive you home. Keep reason in the driver’s seat.

mind reading and fortune telling

Somehow, we fall into the strange trap of believing we have magical powers.

First, we seem to think we have the power to read minds. Because it’s not enough to just take the simplest explanation for why someone said what they said or did what they did; no, in our insecure moments we try to guess what they really meant, or what they’re really thinking behind our backs.

But that’s not the end of our imagined superpowers; we behave as though we have the power to foretell the future. Trying to guess the future, what might happen, how things may turn out, is a hard habit to break. Yes, some things can be rationally predicted but much of the future is unknown and unknowable, and trying to predict it all is just going to drive you insane.

I don’t think I need to explain how reason should be applied here. Just stop behaving like you think you’re an omniscient psychic warlock who knows things you can’t possibly know, and you’ll be fine.

personalisation

Sometimes we just take things way too personally. Someone doesn’t like our work, it must be because they don’t like us. Someone is not enjoying a party, it must be because of something we did. Someone breaks up with us, it must be because there’s something wrong with us. And while caring about what other people think of us is normal, we worry about it far more than we should.

But what appears to be insecurity, on the face of it, is really disguising a kind of solipsism. You’re behaving like you’re the centre of the universe, that everything that happens is in some way about you. Someone might actually have a constructive criticism of your work and it has nothing to do with you. Even if someone breaks up with you it might just be their problem, and there was nothing you could’ve done differently.

Reason might just give you a bit of tough love here, telling you that it’s not all about you. Don’t forget, everyone else also feels like the centre of their universe, and for the most part they, too, are worrying about themselves, not you.

THE just world hypothesis

Finally, a hard one for many of us to admit at the best of times, but life’s not fair. Many of us do seem to walk around with an expectation that life is – more or less – just and fair, that people generally get treated as they deserve. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished. The just world hypothesis is a nice, comforting belief that helps us get through the day.

But it has its dark side. For one thing, it’s just not true; each and every day there are instances in the world, too many to count, where the good are not rewarded and the bad are not punished. And because it’s not true, bad things happen when our gentle illusion of a just world shatters against the cold, hard, unjust reality; things like anger, disillusionment and despair.

Not to mention, of course, the wider social impacts. This includes a lack of basic human compassion for the less fortunate, since we believe they somehow deserve their fate; or a tolerance of corruption amongst the more fortunate, since we believe they deserve theirs. Only by acknowledging the world’s unfairness can we begin working on making it fairer.

But at least the just world hypothesis has the virtue of being falsifiable; reason will approve. It’s just that has been falsified. And many times throughout the world, I’m sure, since you began reading this sentence.

combating the lIES

All of the above are some of the main abuses of reason prevalent in our lives, contributing enormously to crises of well-being as well as crises in society, politics and the environment. And yes, to learn about the kind of lies, biases and distortions that the human brain is prone to can be enough to make you despair for the human race.

However, in a way they also give me hope. It is, after all, the human brain that is able to figure out that these lies, biases and distortions exist in the first place. It is the human brain that can therefore take steps to combat them, to live more in line with reality. It is the human brain that can see beyond its Paleolithic shackles.

It is the human brain that can reason.

A Path Without a Goal: Why There’s More to Life Than Getting What You Want

I’m sure you’ve been there before.

You really wanted to achieve that goal. You wanted to pass your course, get that degree, buy that car, score that job, travel the world. Whatever it was, you knew that as soon as you achieved it you would have “made it.” You would finally be happy.

Then you did achieve it. All that hard work, all that suffering and sacrifice, finally paid off. You couldn’t have been happier, more content, more complete.

And then a week passed. Or a month, or a year… However long it was, the thing you had achieved, the thing that had occupied so much of your time, attention and heartache, no longer gave you the happiness that it once did.

Instead of everything being great and wonderful after achieving that goal, all that happened was that your attention had wandered to something else: a new goal, a new dream, a new cause. And now you can’t be happy until after you achieve that goal…

And around and around you go.

THE HEDONIC TREADMILL

This is called the “hedonic treadmill” in psychology,1 and it goes a long way towards demonstrating the importance of internal goals over external goals. Sure, when we achieve an external goal we’re happy, but eventually that happiness fades, and so we need to replace it with another goal. And then another, and another, ad infinitum. You’re constantly moving but not really going anywhere.2

The reason for this is “hedonic adaptation,” the idea that each of us has a happiness “set-point,” a default level of happiness to which we constantly return.

There are people who have won the Lotto and become overwhelmed with happiness, only to later find that their overall level of happiness has returned to what it was before they hit the jackpot. Other people have been struck by blindness or paralysis, who understandably grew miserable as a result, only to later find their level of happiness returning to about what it had been before their tragedy.3

The truth is that we’re actually terrible judges of what will make us happy and unhappy. We overestimate how great the positive changes in our life will be and how catastrophic the negative ones will be.

We think we’ll be happy when we finally have everything we want, and like spoilt children we aren’t. We think we’ll be unhappy if we lose what we have, and like enlightened sages we aren’t. This is a double-edged sword, of course; hedonic adaptation causes happiness from positive changes to fade, but it also helps us to bounce back from the negative ones.

Obviously, we need some goals. People in material and economic hardship are right to have the goal of escaping poverty, for instance, because yes, to a certain point money does buy happiness. However, researchers on this very question have found that after our basic material needs are met, our happiness doesn’t actually increase with more money. It is after that point that our search for ever greater levels of happiness just lands us on the hedonic treadmill.

So the problem is not with external goals, per se. The problem is with making our entire sense of well-being dependent on external goals. The problem is with thinking there’s nothing more to life than chasing the next fleeting pleasure, and the next, and the next, forever. The problem is with always needing to get what we want.

THE SOCIAL COST

It’s impossible to calculate the hedonic treadmill’s cost to human societies. How many wars, how many murders, how many crimes have been committed because of people who could not stop craving more and more?

Take, for instance, the curious case of Alexander the “Great” (I refuse to write that honorific without scare-quotes and all the bitter sarcasm that implies). This spoilt, privileged brat simply wasn’t happy with just being the King of Macedonia. No, he had to have Greece, Egypt and the entire Persian Empire too.

How many human beings died in all those battles? How many families were broken by the deaths of their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons? How many in the countryside of this vast land area suffered because of armies eating up their crops and spreading disease?

And was all this enough for the “great” man? No. Having reached the eastern frontier of the Persian Empire he decided he couldn’t be happy until he took India as well. He was only stopped from invading because his exhausted army finally told him enough was enough. And like the man-child he was he sulked in his tent before punishing his army by marching them home the hard way through the desert, where many more died.

I’m hard on Alexander – and he richly deserves it – but he is of course just one of many mass murderers who couldn’t escape the hedonic treadmill. In today’s society, we don’t so much worry about the conquering warlords as we do the corporate billionaires. Yet while the characters and settings change, it’s basically the same movie.

If you’re the Koch brothers, it’s just not enough to have $63 billion, you have to buy politicians to give you tax cuts so you can have even more billions. If you’re Elon Musk, it’s not enough to have $160 billion, you also have to support a coup in Bolivia and destroy democracy in that country so you can take its lithium and make more money.

If you’re Jeff Bezos, it’s not enough to be the richest man in history with an eye-watering $214 billion, you also have to punish your workers with truly dystopian pay and working conditions so that that number in your bank account will continue to rise. The list goes on and on and on. And why do it? What can you do with $214 billion that you can’t do with $100 billion, or $10 billion, or one? This kind of behaviour just doesn’t make sense except in the light of the hedonic treadmill.

Yet surely the religious world, to which so many millions look for guidance, has been more enlightened on this issue? The problem is that even the most well-meaning religions have the problem of being made up of people, and as such have been as vulnerable to the pernicious influence of the treadmill as anyone else.

Of course religious leaders can be found plotting for earthly power, or using the language of religion to create rackets for conning people out of money. Such idiotic nonsense is called “spiritual materialism,” and is essentially pseudo-religion putting the hedonic treadmill on steroids.

Take the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” in the United States. Somehow, Jesus’ injunction to “Sell all you have and give to the poor” has been loosely translated into “God wants you to be rich!” And of course, the more money you give to the pastor, the more God will “bless” you in heaven.

Televangelist Jesse Duplantis has become infamous for asking his followers to donate money so he could buy a $54 million private jet to use to “preach the gospel.” Why couldn’t he fly in a normal plane like everyone else, you may ask? Fellow televangelist Kenneth Copeland was happy to explain that normal planes are filled with “demons.” Of course. And yes, Duplantis’ followers were happy to buy him his stupid jet.

There are many differences between all these people, past and present. But there is one thing that they all seem to have in common: they are not happy. They can’t be. Even if they’re often held up as exemplars of the good life, their lavish lifestyles the objects of our envy, we should see that if they were truly happy then they’d just sit back, chill out, and stop chasing happiness all the time.

Alexander could’ve just stayed home and enjoyed all the comforts and privileges of being a King, instead of killing everyone. Today’s billionaires could just bugger off to their private islands and live it up on some beach, instead of sticking around and making life worse for everyone. Televangelists could get a real job and stop conning people.

But they won’t. They can’t. For them, the treadmill just keeps on running.

COMING BACK TO WHERE YOU ARE

Finding an answer to the hedonic treadmill has been a centrepiece of spiritual traditions for millennia. Despite the distortions of their spiritual materialist doppelgangers, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Stoics, and many others have all had traditions of shunning the pursuit of profit and pleasure, recognising them as ultimately fruitless paths to the good life.

Why would someone become an ascetic, or retreat into a monastery to live a life with bare necessities, or take a vow of voluntary poverty? The answer is simple: they are trying to find out if there is more to life than just seeking more and more. They are trying to find a deeper form of well-being that relies on reminding themselves of what they do have – even when they have nothing beyond bare necessities – rather than always allowing their minds to wander to what they don’t have.

Wherever you are right now, just stop for a moment. Soften your gaze and look around you. What do you see? What colours, what light, what objects? What is moving and what is still? What sounds reach your ears in this moment? Maybe the hum of the refrigerator, traffic in the distance, people speaking in the other room. Maybe it’s just the sound of your own breath, soft and quiet.

Feel the weight of your body in the chair or bed, your feet on the ground if you’re standing. Relax the arms and legs. Allow the next in-breath to pick up all the remaining tension in your muscles and the out-breath to drop it all away into the floor.

Marvel at everything that is happening in this present moment, all happening on its own, in all its variety. There’s nothing you need to do about it, nothing you need to change about it, nothing to judge as “good” or “bad.” This moment is enough, just as it is.

This meditation itself has no set goal, no expectations, no agenda. You’re not trying to get anywhere, you’re not trying to reach some new exotic state; on the contrary, you’re just coming back to where you are. This meditation can just be a time for breathing, for letting things be, just for a moment.

This is it. You’re here. You’re alive. What more could you want?

Getting High on Nirvana: A Guided Tour of Meditation Techniques

photography of a woman meditating

Bring your attention to your breath? Focus on body sensations? Be in the present moment? What on earth could possibly be more boring?

I remember thinking this when I first heard about meditation techniques as a child. I was into fantasy novels and video games; my head didn’t want to be in the present moment, it wanted to be in Middle-Earth saving the world from the Dark Lord, or in Mortal Kombat kicking ass with superhuman strength and the kind of abs that I will never have in real life. By contrast, the present moment, “just as it is,” seemed nothing to write home about.

I didn’t know that something as simple as focusing on the breath could become one of the most mind-blowing highs you could experience. I didn’t know that losing yourself in the sensation of the breath, body or sounds, enjoying the tension draining from your mind and your muscles, could be such pure pleasure that you wonder why people even bother with drugs.

I certainly didn’t know that (unlike drugs) getting high on mindfulness can make you better, not worse, at dealing with whatever life throws your way; calmer, less reactive, more productive. This post is, in a sense, a response to my younger self; it’s a post on what I wish I had known back then, or what I wish someone had told me.

Previously I’ve written that the key to meditation is to find your “anchor,” the thing that is going to keep you grounded in the present moment; the breath, the body, the senses. However, the main point of that post was just to bust some myths around what meditation is and is not. As such I didn’t go very far in terms of explaining how to actually use each anchor in meditation, and so that is the gap that I will plug here.

THE BREATH

I’ll start the way many good meditation scripts start: bring your attention to the breath. Don’t try to push out your thoughts, just get “beneath” them by shifting the focus of your attention to the breath. If it helps you could try counting the breath as you go; or you could just rest in the sensation of breathing itself.

The advantage of the breath is that it is always there. Whatever is going on, whatever madness is rampaging around you, you don’t have to wait for the gentle sounds of bird song, of waves lapping a shore, of your favourite meditation music, so on and so forth, to get some peace. In any given moment you can anchor yourself in the breath, taking a step back to think more calmly and rationally about whatever is going on.

You don’t have to breathe in any special way, either. You’re not consciously trying to change anything about how you breathe; you are just observing it. You may find at first that your breath is quick or shallow or restricted; this is just how we naturally breathe when we are a bit stressed out. Yet simply observing the breath can have the peculiar effect of changing this, of making us breathe better, deeper, calmer, flooding the body with relaxation.

And then, regardless of whatever is going on around you, you start to breathe like a normal, content human being, who can respond to events in the world without the usually-attendant anxiety or fear. You learn that just as your way of thinking can influence your way of breathing, the reverse is also true; your way of breathing can influence your way of thinking. And that is definitely a trick worth knowing.

Strangely, you may find that the way you breathe has a peculiar effect on your perception of time itself. The quicker your breath the quicker and more stressful the world seems to move, while the slower the breath the slower the world moves. Somehow you feel like you have more time to respond in a calm, measured manner.

You don’t have to experience an earth-shattering, mind-altering transformation of the soul. Just sit with the breath, without deliberate thought, without even a goal or agenda, and that is enough. Remember, the simple pleasure of meditation comes from the mind doing less.

THE BODY

The breath is the beginning of getting yourself out of your mind and into your body. The next step, then, is to bring the attention to the entire field of sensation that is the body. Notice where your body meets the chair, or cushion, or bed; feel the weight of your arms and shoulders; the tingling sensation in your hands and feet.

Again, you are just observing your body without consciously trying to change anything, and yet paradoxically the simple act of observing the body will tend to relax it automatically. A body-scan is a popular way of doing this; move your attention slowly from head to toe. Relax your jaw, the muscles around the eyes, which we tend not to notice are tensed until we let them go. Let your throat soften, your shoulders sink, your arms go limp.

If there are areas of pain or discomfort anywhere in the body, don’t try to block them out, just observe them with an attitude of acceptance and non-judgement. Let go of any tension in the legs and relax your feet.

A strangely effective trick is to imagine a rope tied to the top of your cranium, gently pulling your skeletal structure upward, allowing your spinal column to slightly float and expand; while simultaneously feeling the effect of gravity pulling the rest of your body downward, allowing your flesh to sink and relax thoroughly.

Somehow this two-fold movement drains the body of all remaining stress and tension. Again, you can sink into this feeling, lose yourself in it, slow your perception of time’s passing and rest indefinitely.

THE SENSES

The next step is to expand your attention to the outside world, grounding yourself in the senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. If it’s a formal sitting meditation then you might adopt a “soft gaze” that is somewhere between eyes-open and eyes-closed. The sight of soft evening light over a lake, the sound of rustling autumn leaves on pavement, the scene of a home-cooked dinner floating invitingly on the air.

Any and all of it has the power to snap you out of your exhausting ruminations of past and future and just be, fully and completely, in your body, in the present moment. Any and all of it can be the trigger of pure rapture, pure contentment in the here and now.

With this sort of meditation it’s very tempting – maybe even cliché – to quote the 19th century Romantic poets, but they really are relevant here. Take William Wordsworth, whose description of London in the early morning could almost define mindfulness poetry as a genre: “This City now doth, like a garment, wear/ The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,/ Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie/ Open unto the fields, and to the sky…”1

Some might object that mindfulness is about “non-judgmental acceptance of things as they are” and that to call something beautiful is a “judgement.” However, “beauty” could also just be an expression of savouring the present moment however one finds it, of finding the beautiful in the mundane.

And, of course, there’s William Blake: “To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower; to hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.”2 Anyone who has so much as glimpsed the feeling of the sublime, even by accident, can identify with Blake’s words; the sense of being so fully absorbed in the present moment that not only does time slow down but you lose all sense of time and space completely, tasting “infinity.”

Yet using the senses as a meditative anchor is actually controversial in some circles. Certain traditions hold that using the senses leads to craving for sensual pleasure, and therefore to attachment. Sensual pleasures are fleeting; if you admire a beautiful sunset, then you develop an attachment to that sunset, and so you suffer when the sunset passes.

According to this view, meditation is about “closing the sense doors,” retreating within to solely focus on the breath, avoiding the multitude temptations of the outside world.

However, many meditation traditions have spurned this advice. Think of the meditation bells and gongs in many Buddhist temples; think of the popularity of meditation music, soothing voices, burning incense, etc. etc. Clearly, many people have found the senses to be powerful anchors for meditation, without becoming ensnared in attachment to sensual pleasure.

The difference is just one of attitude; it is perfectly possible to observe a sight, sound, scent etc. with an attitude of non-attachment, savouring it just as it is in this moment without craving for it to last into the next moment. If anything, you could argue that denying the senses is, itself, just another form of attachment; you are, in a way, craving for your sensory perception to disappear, rather than just accepting it as it is.

THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS

Once you are absorbed in your meditation it becomes possible to let go a bit, to open yourself up to multiple anchors at once; you might enjoy the breath and body sensations and the sounds of birds outside and so forth all at the same time. There’s no rule saying that you have to stick to a single anchor during any given meditation.

Instead your anchor can become the whole present moment, all of it at once, until it kind of “swells” in your awareness. In this state the entire world feels alive, buzzing, pulsing with life in all its infinite variety. It is what Buddhist texts, in their own poetic way, call being awakened to “the ten thousand things.”

Yet in a strange way, the “ten thousand things” all seem to be vibrating together, so that it all somehow feels connected, interdependent, one. In this state you know you have reached the pinnacle of human experience, of the sublime, of life itself.

In this state, you are truly high on nirvana.

Our Better Angels: The Link Between Mindfulness and Compassion

Mindfulness changes the way you see people.

As meditation practice steadily erodes your fears, anxieties and insecurities you naturally find yourself becoming less self-focused and more other-focused. You realise just how much your view of the world and of other people have been obscured by your self and your endless obsessions. This move from worrying about yourself to caring about others is like bursting through the fog and into open sunshine.

You find that to savour the present moment just as it is, without judgement, has a flow on effect in terms of savouring people in the present moment; just as they are, without judgement. Doing the right thing becomes something we want to do because it is who we are and it makes us feel good, as opposed to just being something we have to do in spite of ourselves because of external rules and threats of punishment.

This promised increase in compassion is one of the key selling points of mindfulness. And the idea that compassion is the key to happiness is the central insight of positive psychology, the science of well-being. After all, love is a source of happiness and contentment, not hate.

However, this is not quite the whole story.

THE LINK BETWEEN MINDFULNESS AND… BEING AN ASSHOLE?

According to new research, there are some people who do not become more compassionate after meditation practice. In fact – somehow, bizarrely – it seems that meditation can actually turn some people into assholes.1 Or, at least, into bigger assholes than they already were.

And wrapping our heads around this strange fact is necessary if we want to ensure we practice meditation in a way that does bring out our better angels.

So how could meditation make you worse, if you were so inclined? Well, as meditation erodes your fears, anxieties and insecurities you might well reach a state where you don’t worry about anything; including other people or what they think of you. For all that “not caring what other people think of you” is held up as a virtue in our culture, a healthy fear of the opinion of others is in fact a key part of what makes us consider other people’s feelings in the first place.

A lack of this kind of fear is a distinguishing trait of sociopaths.

As it turns out, the difference that makes the difference is one of framing. Those whose compassion is increased by meditation are those with a more collectivist outlook on life; they value interdependence, co-operation, the common good of the whole. While those who, well, become assholes, tend to have a more individualist outlook; they prize independence, competition and their own individual good.

In the first experiment, participants were screened for their attitudes towards individualism and collectivism, and then told about an opportunity to volunteer stuffing envelopes for a non-profit organisation. Those who already saw themselves in more individualistic terms were less likely to volunteer after meditation.

A second experiment was more interesting still; here, researchers actually chose people at random to be primed to think of themselves in individualistic or collectivistic terms. Stunningly, for those primed for individualism, meditation decreased their likelihood of volunteering by a shocking 33%. Yet for those primed for collectivism, meditation increased their likelihood of volunteering by a relatively encouraging 40%.

Historically, Eastern cultures where meditation has flourished have tended to be more collectivist, and this is reflected in their major religious traditions. Buddhism emphasises pratitya-samutpada, the interdependent origination of all things. Taoism has its Ying-Yang symbol, representing the dependence of seeming opposites upon eachother. And Hinduism gives us the poetic image of Indra’s Net, where each person is represented by a perfectly clear jewel that reflects every other jewel in the net.

Modern Western cultures, in contrast, have been individualist. This would seem to make the introduction of meditation to the West a mixed blessing at best, running the risk of turning us into a society of borderline sociopaths and narcissists. But the genie can’t be put back into the bottle; meditation can’t be untaught to the West, and nor should it.

The real solution for the West seems obvious: if we want meditation to cultivate our better angels and not our inner asshole, we need to bust the myth of individualism.

THE MYTH OF INDIVIDUALISM

Now, I know that by even daring to question the gospel of individualism, in some people’s minds I might as well be trying to argue against truth, justice, and all that is good and holy in the world. In the West, the word “individualism” still rings with positive connotations: it’s said to be about being your own person, bucking the trend, going against the grain, standing out from the crowd. It’s almost synonymous with freedom itself.

The word “collectivism,” on the other hand, has suffered enormously. While it may still have positive connotations in some quarters, it has generally been conflated with blind conformity and submission to authority. Even the notion of working for “the greater good” or “the common goal” has been demonised in Western film and literature as a kind of trick used to trample a character’s individual rights.

However, individualism has some crippling flaws. For example, going against the crowd isn’t always a good thing. Take this image, meant to embody the noble spirit of individualism in all its glory:

The spirit of individualism/entitled douchbaggery.

I’m sure to some people that little red man is a hero, refusing to march in the same direction as everyone else, boldly beating his own path and blah blah blah. He is also clearly an asshole. Look at him, selfishly blocking the stairway and effectively saying “screw you” to everyone behind him who is just trying to make their way down- all because he wants to be a uniquely special individualistic douchebag.

Yes, little man, I get that you’re privileged enough to be all bright and red like that while everyone around you is condemned to a grey, colourless palette. Good for you. Now get over yourself.

Individualism isn’t even the bastion of freedom that it’s cracked up to be. Think about it: as a lone individual you have little power against an overbearing boss, or corporation, or government, or any other powerful entity. As a lone individual, you will be crushed and dismissed as a fringe radical at best.

No slave was ever freed, no woman ever got the vote and no minority group ever won civil rights because of a lone individual fighting the unjust power structures of society. Every instance of progress in history has only happened because of people joining together and using their collective strength to demand change.

There is, in fact, nothing that those with power would love more than for everyone to define themselves in solely individualistic terms, in which (despite some people’s delusions of grandeur) they are rendered an easily manageable non-threat.

Collectivism, on the other hand, literally just means working together for a common purpose. If the word bothers you so much then just substitute the word “teamwork” – no one criticises teamwork as hostile to personal freedom. That would be ridiculous.

Society is impossible without some degree of collectivism (a.k.a teamwork) simply because we have to work together to get anything done. There is a reason why collectivism, and not individualism, is the moral and social core of every major religious tradition; it’s not to try and control you (as some paranoiacs might think), but just so communities can function.

Take the shirt you’re wearing right now. Oh sure, you bought it yourself; congratulations on your “rugged individualism.” But who did you buy it from? What clerk at what store gave you the option to purchase that shirt? What truck driver delivered that shirt to the store? What cargo ship brought it across the sea from where it was originally made? Who actually cut the material and sewed the shirt together? Who was the cotton farmer who produced the material in the first place?

And that’s just your shirt. Take any item you use during the day – your phone, your computer, your cup of coffee, public roads, etc. etc. – and think about all the people who contributed to the stuff you enjoy – and need to survive – on a daily basis. As much as we like to think of ourselves as self-reliant, everything we have is the result of a collective effort where we enjoy the fruits of each other’s labour.

Our mutual interdependence, therefore, is not just some ancient piece of Eastern religious metaphysics; it’s not just some warm and fuzzy abstract concept for hippies to hug each other over; it’s a brute fact of life. If you insist on your individualism and self-reliance, I invite you to run naked into the woods and start making your own clothes, shelter, food, everything, from scratch. Good luck with the dental hygiene.

You’ve been lied to. Literature, film, the media, even the way we tell history, all portray the world as though it’s all about exceptional individuals doing exceptional things. This effectively sidelines those countless invisible, nameless, forgotten persons who these individuals depended upon to make things happen.

Take lines in popular history books like “The Pharaoh Khufu built the Great Pyramid” or “Ghenghis Khan conquered Asia.” By themselves, I wonder? I would love to have seen them try. More likely both of these assholes were living it up in a relative lap of luxury (even if it was in a tent), while thousands of slaves and soldiers suffered and died doing all the real work.

Yes, sure, fine, sometimes a lone individual can be right while all the rest of society is wrong. Sometimes, a given collective can be tyrannical or oppressive. But even then, the stories of individuals fighting such collectives tend to impress us only because they ultimately benefit the collective whole. Those individuals who are just out for themselves – blocking the stairway, so to speak – do not inspire our awe and admiration in quite the same way.

Unless, of course, you’re an asshole.

AWAKENING our better angels

A core theme of mindfulness is that it’s supposed to lead to insight, to puncturing illusions, to “seeing things as they really are.” Seeing through the illusion of individualism is no different. And once we do – that is, once our meditation practice is properly aligned to reality and not to fantasies of complete independence and separation from others – then our meditation will indeed work as it should to make us more compassionate people.

Compassion can be an expression of who we are, and not merely of our fear of rules and punishment. The loss of fear in meditation can lead to opening up to other people, not to arrogant disregard of other people. Savouring the present moment can lead to savouring other people, not to mindless self-absorption.

Reality-based meditation can awaken the better angels of our nature.

Reframe Your Thinking: How to Turn Your Mind Around

I once knew a guy. Let’s call him Bill.

Bill had problems. Many problems, in fact. There were people at work who didn’t share all his opinions. When he spoke, they felt threatened by his vastly superior intelligence. And the things they thought! Well, don’t get Bill started on what they were thinking about him behind his back. Because, you know, Bill could read minds. Clearly it was time to ditch such a toxic environment.

Bill was miserable but he had been here before and he knew what to do; it was time for a change. He would change his job, change his location, change his life. If he just changed everything about his external environment, everything would be okay. Happiness was just around the corner.

Yet bizarrely, life at his new job was the exact same thing- there were people who didn’t agree with his opinions, they were threatened by his dazzling intellect, and they were thinking so many mean things about him behind his back… Clearly, everyone was just out to get him.

Even Bill’s wife had the nerve to question him. She asked whether everyone was really out to get him and suggested that maybe poor Bill just had a bad habit of assuming the worst of everyone and everything. Maybe Bill shouldn’t take every instance of someone disagreeing with him as a personal attack or of them feeling threatened by his inherent genius. Maybe he couldn’t read minds after all and had no idea what other people were thinking.

After hearing all this one too many times, it was clear that Bill’s marriage with such a toxic and unsupportive partner had come to an end.

Bill was miserable but he had been here before and he knew what to do; it was time for another change. He would change his job, change his location, change his wife. If he just changed everything about his external environment then everything would be okay. Happiness – as always – was just around the corner…

Maybe you know a Bill. Maybe you are a Bill. Maybe you’re sometimes a Bill. There is a Bill in each one of us who even occasionally “frames” things the wrong way, who could do with getting some perspective or with looking at things from another angle. There is certainly a Bill in every poor soul who doesn’t realise that “Wherever you go, there you are,” that changing your external environment will do nothing for you if your underlying bad habits of thinking aren’t addressed.

REFRAMING YOUR THINKING

The school of thought that has perhaps been the clearest about the importance of “reframing” your thinking has been Stoicism. Originating with Zeno of Citium in ancient Greece, Stoicism later gained eminence with both the philosopher-slave Epictetus and the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. Today, it is enjoying something of a renaissance through the work of modern neo-Stoics like William B. Irvine and Massimo Pigliucci.1

There is a caveat; like mindfulness, reframing is a tool that in the wrong hands could drop one down the rabbit-hole of toxic positivity, ignoring genuinely bad situations that need to be dealt with in favour of “thinking positively.”

So perhaps the best question to ask yourself in any given situation is not “What is the most positive frame for thinking about this?” but rather “What is the best frame for thinking about this?” The difference is that the word “best” could mean “the most positive” but it must also mean “realistic,” “non-repressive,” “healthy” etc. I will leave it up to the intelligence of the reader to decide when and how the following frames are applicable to their own lives.

THE VIEW FROM ABOVE

Calm down and take a step back with the View from Above frame. How important are the things that occupy our attention in the grand scheme of things? The idea here is that we are just too close to our cares and concerns to see them clearly and think rationally about them. This frame helps you get some distance and therefore perspective.

Imagine yourself “rising” above yourself, looking down at your body from above. How do your problems look now, from an outside, third person objective point of view? This is, of course, similar to the mindfulness approach of objectively observing your own thoughts and feelings, or to the life coach’s question: “What advice would you give someone else experiencing the same problem?” The idea of all these approaches is the same: get some distance, get some perspective.

Now imagine rising above the earth; how do your problems compare to the problems of other people in the world as a whole? To all the pain and loss and disappointment felt by everyone else in the globe?

It’s easy to get so absorbed in our own little world that we look at all our problems and think, “Why is all this happening to me? It’s not fair!” All the while forgetting that everyone has problems, everyone is going through stuff, and many of them have much worse problems than you. Seeing this bigger picture snaps you out of your self-absorbed pity-fest and reorients your perspective on things.

Go further; rise so far out into the solar system that the earth and everything you know appears as just a tiny dot in a sea of blackness. As Carl Sagan said, that “pale blue dot” is everyone and everything you know; every nation, every religion, every war by one part of that dot to control another part of the dot.2

Go further still: the solar system itself is also just one dot among billions in our galaxy, and the galaxy is just one dot among billions in the known universe. How small, how petty, do your various grudges and obsessions appear now? What is important now? What is worth cherishing and what is worth letting go?

THE GOOD STORY

If being down to earth is more your taste, you might want the simple Good Story frame. Here you imagine your future self telling the story of your present time, or of the present challenging ordeal you are going through. Maybe your car breaks down and your phone is dead. Maybe a hurricane or typhoon or pandemic strikes, leaving only destruction in its wake.

Ask yourself, what kind of story do you want to tell about this moment later on? Do you want it to be the story of how you freaked out, overreacted, cared only about yourself and made everything worse? Or do you want to be the hero of your story, someone who stayed calm, who put the needs of others first? This is an effective frame for informing how you will respond in tough situations.

THE NEGATIVE VISUALISATION

A great one is the Negative Visualisation frame. The thing is, how we evaluate our level of well-being depends in large part on where we have been in the past. A meth-addict who finally kicks their habit in rehab can be ecstatic, while a billionaire who drops ten points on the global rich list can be cursing the heavens in abject misery. So how would you feel about your present circumstances if your past had been different?

Visualise losing everyone and everything you have (yes that may sound somewhat morbid but don’t worry, it gets better). Really think about it; a devastating war has ripped you away from everything you know; nuclear winter has descended on the globe; a zombie apocalypse has broken out; I’m sure you can fill in the details. How would you feel? What would you think? Contemplate this for as long as you can stand it.

Then – very important – imagine somehow getting back everyone and everything that you lost. The war is over, the nuclear winter is reversed, the zombie horde is vanquished, and through some heroic humanitarian effort civilisation is restored. How would you feel then, just to have back all that you currently have? How deep would be your gratitude, your appreciation, of people and things that are all too easy to take for granted in your everyday life?

This frame doesn’t have to be as dramatic as visualising the end of the world, of course. It works just fine on something smaller. Imagine losing your partner or your job or something else you value, and then regaining them; and appreciate their presence in your life all the more.

THE DREAM LIFE

Then there is the Dream Life frame. Our usual habit is to compare our lives to those who have more than us; studies have even shown that people are more likely to commit suicide if they live in a wealthier area simply because they can’t stop comparing themselves to their rich neighbours.3 Or, we make the unfair comparison between our lives – all of the good, the bad and the ugly – and the “highlight reels” of our friends’ lives on Facebook and Instagram.

But what if you compared your life to someone who would consider yours to be their “dream life”? I know, I know, I can hear you now: your job sucks, or your love life is a disaster, or your bills and debts are crushing you, so on and so on. Who would want your life?

Actually, millions, possibly billions. If you’re living in the twenty-first century and are privileged enough to own a smartphone or computer in order to be reading this, then you are currently living “the dream life” compared to the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived.

Think about the millions of prehistoric peoples who eeked out a “nasty, brutish, and short” hunter-gatherer existence, with an average life-expectancy between 21-37 years, and only 57% even making it to the tender age of 15.4 Think about those for whom infant mortality rates were about 50%.

If you have secure access to food, water and shelter then you are already living the high life. Forget about eyeglasses and contact lenses, modern dentistry, toothpaste, vaccinations, surgery- the list goes on and on. Even the greatest kings and emperors of the past did not enjoy many of the privileges you have; just let that fact sink in.

THE PROSPECTIVE RETROSPECTION

The Prospective Retrospection frame is a bit of a mouthful, but the idea is to imagine how you will one day, at some point in the future, view your present moment and circumstances. Have you ever looked back fondly on “the good old days”? Have you ever wished you appreciated those days more at the time, rather than only realising how happy you were later, in retrospect? Well this frame is all about making sure you do realise how happy you are in the present time.

Maybe right now you’re a student, you’re poor, your student loan is swelling and you’re not quite sure what you really want to do with your life anyway; one day you might miss these days of being young, of not having to worry so much about your health, of having the friends you have before they leave to step into the real world.

Or maybe you’re bogged down in dirty nappies, you haven’t slept properly in weeks, your house is mess; one day, before you know it, your baby won’t be a baby anymore and you may miss this sweet age of innocence.

Only you can judge your present circumstances, of course, but this frame just asks you to consider whether and how you might one day look back fondly on these present days as “the good old days.”

THE LAST TIME

The Last Time frame is an interesting one if you’re not too morbid about it. Basically take any ordinary, everyday thing you do and remember that one day you will do it for the last time. And remember it’s very likely that when you do do it for the last time, you won’t know that it is for the last time; which makes it all the more important to appreciate it when you are doing it.

One day you will enjoy your favourite meal for the last time. One day you will say good night to your partner for the last time. One day you will pick up your child for the last time. Acknowledging this makes you appreciate all these small, everyday things infinitely more; you really make the effort to be present with these moments, to not just perform them absent-mindedly while you think about your to-do list, about who said what on that TV show, and so on.

This trick works even for things you normally find to be a chore. One day you will wash the dishes, mow the lawn, take out the garbage, etc. etc., all for the last time. Even here, somehow, there is something sweet to be savoured about each of these tasks when you remember that you won’t be doing them forever.

MORTALITY

Last but not least, there is what might be called the Mortality frame. One of the Stoics’ signature catchphrases was “Memento mori” or “Remember that you will die.” Of course you know this, but how often do you really remember the inevitability of your demise? How often do you take the things and people in your life granted?

Taking anything for granted only makes sense on the implicit assumption that you are going to live forever. Only in the light of immortality can it make sense to waste even a single moment holding onto that grudge, or bickering with your spouse, or uselessly ruminating on the past and worrying about the future, so on and so forth.

For all that we fear death’s grim spectre, death is also the thing that throws the whole rest of life into perspective; that is, into the correct frame. So yes, remember that you will die, and stop wasting your finite time.

PHILOSOPHY AND WELL-BEING

Philosophy can be more than just a dry academic discipline with little real world application. Done right, you use it to take control of your sense of well-being, your resilience in the face of obstacles, your response to the world in general. You can neutralise the inner Bill who lurks inside so many of us. You can truly start to control yourself.

You Are Not Powerless: Focus on What You Do Control

achievement confident free freedom

Let me tell you the story of a man named Viktor Frankl.

In 1942, the shadow of the Third Reich lay heavy on Europe. When the Nazis finally came for Frankl and his family, it seemed all was lost. His father perished in the Thereseinstadt concentration camp. Two years later Frankl and the rest of his family were driven to Auschwitz, where he lost his mother. Later, his wife died in the Bergen-Belsen camp.

Everywhere he turned there was the barbed wire, the armed guards, the gas chambers, the mountains and the trenches of the dead, the stench of sickness and decay; in short, the creation of hell on earth. Yet even here, somehow – you could say miraculously – Frankl had an epiphany. There was just one thing in this world that the Nazis could never take from him: his power to choose how he responded to the unimaginable trauma they had inflicted upon him and his.

And what he chose was to hold on to the idea that there was hope beyond the senseless waste of life that surrounded him on every front. He chose to believe that this life had meaning, that he still had a “why” for existing, for carrying on in the world. Instead of uselessly ruminating on the tragedy all around him he chose to contemplate his beloved and his love for her.

Frankl survived the camps and went on to describe his experiences in his memoir “Man’s Search for Meaning” (1947) which has been described as one of the most influential psychology books of all time.1

what you CONTROL

Previously I wrote about the importance of acknowledging that you can’t control everything. There’s no clearer example of that than Frankl. Yet it may be what Frankl teaches us about the flipside of that coin that matters more: what you do control. After all, if you’re a fool to think you control everything you are equally a fool to think you control nothing.

No matter what your circumstance, there is always one thing you control and it makes all the difference in the world: yourself. After all, it is inside your mind that you experience the world and it is there that you experience well-being and suffering. So while you cannot control the world you can, like Frankl, control your response to the world.

Psychological research tells us that those who assume that control of their well-being lies outside of themselves, see themselves as perpetual victims, blame everyone else for everything, and tend to be (unsurprisingly) more all-round miserable. Those who assume that control of their well-being lies inside themselves, see themselves as having power and agency and tend to be more fulfilled in their relationships, careers, life-satisfaction and so forth.2

And no, this is not some mindless new-agey mantra to just “be positive.” Tell someone who has just lost a loved one that they should choose to “think happy thoughts,” and they will be right to punch you in the face. A self-care mantra worth remembering is: “It’s ok to not be ok.”

But whether we choose to let grief destroy us, or we choose to repress them with “happy thoughts,” or we choose to deal with our emotions in a healthy way, we are still always making a choice about how we respond. If that wasn’t the case, then all well-being and self-care advice would be in vain.

By realising that we choose our response to the world, that we are not perpetual victims who control nothing any more than we are Gods who control everything, we can begin to own our suffering, to control our suffering. In so doing, we begin to own and control ourselves.

You may just find that in controlling yourself, you in fact control much more than you realise.

YOUR mind, YOUR CHARACTER AND YOUR PURPOSE

Different traditions have emphasised at least three different ways that you control yourself and your response to the world.

Buddhist mindfulness is based in cultivating control in terms of your state of mind, or how you think. When you ground your attention in the present moment and gain some distance from your thoughts, observing them without attachment, you are in a state where you can literally choose which thoughts you are going to indulge in. You are not simply battered about by whatever thoughts happen to burst forth like a fire hydrant in the mind.

This is why mindfulness has been so effective as a method of pain-relief. It’s not that meditation reduces the primary physical pain itself, it’s that it reduces what psychologists call “secondary pain,” or our mental and emotional reaction to the primary pain. According to this research, much of the pain we feel when we experience physical injury is actually of this “secondary” type, not the actual pain itself.3 As it turns out, we’re all just over-reacting drama-queens, and mindfulness helps cut through that nonsense.

Greek and Roman Stoicism emphasises control in terms of developing who you are, your character as a human being. In fact, the Stoic “Dichotomy of Control” is one of the earliest and clearest expressions of the idea that while we don’t control the world we do control ourselves. Epictetus said, “It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.”4 But how do we make the “correct” judgements? We must improve ourselves.

External goals like wealth, fame, the admiration of others, etc. are no good because they largely depend on factors outside our control. Whereas internal goals that develop our character, i.e. “virtues” like wisdom and compassion, are good because they lie within our control. So instead of indulging in pointless wishful-thinking that the world will stop being difficult and conform to your whims, just focus on the kind of person you want to be.

Instead of hoping for a promotion, which only your manager controls, just focus on being good at your job, which you control. Instead of hoping someone will love you, which only the object of your affection controls, just focus on being a loveable person, which you control. Instead of hoping the world will stop being sexist, racist, classist or ecocidal, which the entire rest of the world controls, just be a voice for anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-classism and environmentalism, which you control.

Yet Frankl himself is usually associated with the not-so-ancient and very loose school known as Existentialism, which advocates control in terms of figuring out your purpose, or why you carry on. Their catch-cry is “existence precedes essence,”5 which basically just means that, rather than coming into existence as the result of some predetermined purpose (as set by God, Fate, Nature and so forth), we come into existence and then choose our purpose.

More simply put, the meaning of life – and therefore the meaning of all the crap that life throws at you – is what you make it. Jean-Paul Sartre – the poster-boy of Existentialism – even went so far as to argue that a person is free even when they’re in chains, since they have the freedom to choose the meaning of their condition.

Such thinking was certainly part of Frankl’s answer to the Nazi concentration camps: “Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he can see a meaning in it.”6 In fact he went even further, posing that finding one’s meaning is the fundamental driving force for human beings; the “will to purpose” as opposed to Friedrich Neitzsche’s “will to power” or Sigmund Freud’s “will to pleasure.”

The Existentialists won’t tell you what the meaning of your life is. In fact, looking to anyone but yourself to tell you the meaning of your life will get you accused of “bad faith,”7 of pretending that others know something that they don’t. Although I’m sure there’s a cult leader or two out there who would be more than happy to tell you the meaning of your life, I would hope you decline the offer of their advice.

No, freedom entails responsibility, and so I’m sorry but this one is on you. If it helps, Albert Camus famously said that your purpose is just whatever keeps you from committing suicide.8

THE LAST OF THE HUMAN FREEDOMS

Whichever school of thought you align yourself with, there is truth in all of them: resilience comes down to the choices you make about how you think, who you are and why you carry on. The power to make these choices is something that no one – not even Nazis at the height of their power – can take away from you. It is in this sense that you are never powerless.

Frankl was by no means perfect.9 However, the main take-away from his story should be an invaluable lesson for us all. If Frankl could harness the power to choose his response to his external environment, choose who he was and the meaning of what happened to him, even during one of the darkest episodes of all time and with such a horrific level of personal loss, I’m not sure what excuse the rest of us have.

I will leave you with one of the many gems from his book: “Everything can be taken from a person but one thing – the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Be the Change: Mindfulness and Social Justice

What do you think of a monk going off to meditate in a cave for years at a time? How about decades?

Such a person might well be the world champion of meditation. Maybe they are a bona fide Enlightened One. Or maybe they’re a certifiable headcase from the lack of human social interaction.

But the thing is, either way, what good are they? What good is the infinite compassion of an Enlightened One who never interacts with people with whom they can be compassionate towards? What good is a Buddha or a Jesus who no one has ever heard of?

The issue of whether mindfulness is compatible with engaging with the world and seeking social justice is a surprisingly contentious one. I always just took it as a given that a practice centered on increasing your insight and compassion would make you think to extend that compassion beyond yourself and your immediate circles, to care about wider society.

At the very least, I would’ve thought that even a purely selfish person would have to care about the social, economic and environmental conditions in which they, themselves, live… But I was wrong.

THE OPIUM OF THE MASSES

Some critics of the mindfulness movement have been concerned that it is essentially anti social change. In this view, meditation pretty much makes us like the monk in the cave, withdrawing from the world to self-indulgently work on changing ourselves at the expense of changing the world.

Ronald E. Purser, for instance, has infamously coined the term “McMindfulness” to describe the way that mindfulness has become “the new capitalist spirituality.” 1 Essentially, the corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon; and anyone who has walked by a store and seen a sale sign for “Mindfully Made Jeans” and the like has an idea of how mindfulness has been co-opted by consumer materialism.

But Purser’s concerns go further than that. Employers have been forcing their workers to attend professional development meetings and workshops in mindfulness; not because they care about their workers gaining special insight into their minds or the world, but because a happy worker doesn’t complain or go on strike.

Turns out, when mindfulness is tweaked the right way, it can become the new opium of the masses, a potent concoction for creating a zombie horde of happy slaves, all “living in the moment” in order to avoid their real problems.

Far from empowering us to “see things as they really are,” then, meditation wraps us in a blindfold to blissfully sleepwalk into the abyss as the world burns down around us. At best, this “mindful” renunciation of the world is a tacit endorsement of the status quo, an unthinking embrace of the unfair and exploitative power relations that exist in our society.

And even if the workers themselves won’t have it, mindfulness is still a great excuse for employers to just pull out the classic and well-worn blame-the-victim card: “No, my workers’ problems can’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that they’re precariously employed, overworked and underpaid while facing crushing bills, no- it’s just because they’re not being mindful enough.”

PRIVILEGE BLINDNESS

More soul-crushing is that fact that there seem to be plenty of people in the mindfulness movement who are happily doing their utmost to prove their critics right. I’ve mingled in circles of people at meditation workshops or online forums who have quite cheerfully dismissed the idea of engaging in politics or social justice, viewing these as antithetical to their goal of cultivating mindfulness.

Fighting for a cause is frustrating, agonising, stressful. Why would you do it when you can just be blissfully mindful and non-attached to it all? I have no way of knowing scientifically just how widespread this frankly terrifying attitude is, but I’ve seen it enough to know it exists.

The truth is, it takes a certain degree of privilege to even be able to articulate the sentence “I don’t care about politics or social justice.” A slave – to take an extreme example – doesn’t have the luxury to utter such a sentence unless they are one hell of a masochist. All that sentence tells me is that you, personally, are comfortable enough that you are able to insulate yourself from society’s cracks and flaws and tell yourself that “all is well.”

When nothing is actually forcing you to look, it is always easier – less stressful, less frustrating – to just turn a blind eye than to make the effort to see the world from the point of view of someone less privileged than yourself. The term for this is “privilege blindness.”

And sure, it would have been much easier for 19th century abolitionists to not bother fighting slavery, to just retreat into a cave and bliss-out in meditation. But it should be obvious that the fact that something is easier and less stressful does not make it right. If your mindfulness practice makes you go for the easier option just because it’s less stressful, well… I can see why some might start to sympathise with mindfulness’ critics.

MINDFULNESS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

But mindfulness critics like Purser are only half right. At the end of the day, meditation is a tool; whether it’s a “good thing” depends on how you use it. Just as a hammer can be used to build a house or to crush a skull, meditation can be used to deepen your insight into your mind and the world, or to turn you into a happy slave or a blissful ignoramus.

There is, in other words, such a thing as right mindfulness and wrong mindfulness; a distinction that was always present in Buddhism but which seems under-emphasised in the modern mindfulness movement.

As philosopher David Loy has said, mindfulness and social justice need each other. 2 Mindfulness without social justice is the shallow, self-absorbed mindfulness of the comfortable and the privileged; it is not the mindfulness of love and compassion.

And yes, fighting for social justice without mindfulness is indeed stressful and frustrating; it is easy to get down, get angry or get overwhelmed. Far from making us just drop out of the fight and ignore the world’s problems like a sociopath, mindfulness, by allowing us to just take a breath, step back and see things more rationally, can actually empower us to respond to such problems more effectively.

None of this is to say that there is never a time and place for focusing on yourself. I’ve been there. There was certainly a time when I had far too many problems of my own to contend with without also having to battle the Keystone Pipeline or the resurgence of Neo-Nazi numbskulls. Sometimes you do have to take the time to work on yourself before you can take on the world.

But if you claim to give a damn about others, that your mindfulness practice has something to do with compassion, then eventually – when you are able – you have to return to the world and show it.

Sure it’s a cliché, but that’s only because it’s true: You must be the change you want to see in the world.

You Are Not All-Powerful: Let Go of What You Can’t Control

Are you the guy with the long white beard in Michaelangelo’s painting? If not, I have some shocking news for you. Brace yourself. Sorry, but you are not all-powerful and you can’t control everything.

Yes, yes, I can hear you thinking- “Wow Sam, are you running out of ideas already? What’s your next stunning insight, that water is wet? Why am I reading your stupid blog?”

Well, smartass, turns out that this stupidly obvious fact is not at all obvious to everyone, and that it’s not even obvious to you or I much of the time. Admit it. We may not forget that water is wet but, for some reason, it’s actually really easy to forget that we can’t control everything.

From the moment we wake in the morning we start ruminating about the past as though our rumination has the power to change it; and we worry about the future – far beyond what is useful for mere planning and preparation – as though our worrying has the power to change that. We react with shock and fury when other people don’t behave the way we expect them to, as though we have the power to control other people.

For some reason, we all have just a little dose of the God Complex.

TOXIC POSITIVITY GONE MAD

Our culture certainly doesn’t help. The mantra of the day is “Believe in yourself and you can achieve anything!” Anything. We preach this mantra across all media platforms and in our education system. It remains the central pillar of many of our self-help books and motivational speakers. It’s the “take home lesson” of every reality TV contest winner who has apparently already forgotten the hundreds of other poor souls who also believed in themselves but didn’t make it.

Now don’t get me wrong, my problem is not with the “believe in yourself” part, just with the “anything” part. As though social, political, and economic conditions don’t matter; as though there are no physical and logical constraints on individuals; as though we can all be billionaires if we just choose to without causing mass inflation and economic collapse (and if I just poured a big bucket of ice water all over your dreams there, well I’m sorry).

Yet just to put this mantra on steroids, we now also have “the law of attraction,” which says that the “frequency” of our thoughts “attract” what we are thinking into our lives, that we can essentially control the world with the power of our minds.1 I would call this an “extreme” example, but Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret has been translated into at least 50 different languages and has sold 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the most best-selling self-help books of all time.

Clearly, telling people that they have the power of God strikes a deep chord.

And why wouldn’t it? The human need to feel in control of an uncontrollable universe goes right back to our earliest cave dwelling ancestors, who thought it was a good idea to throw virgins into volcanoes to make sure that there would be no more earthquakes. All superstition can be said to be a natural human response to the fact that the universe is sometimes a stochastic terrorist, striking us at random, inspiring the kind of fear that makes an irrational belief in our own omnipotence not just possible, but popular.

But what’s the problem with people thinking they’re the Master of the Universe? Isn’t it positive? Well I’m sure that believing you’re a god is probably fantastic for your self-esteem; at least in the short term. The problem is that it so naturally leads to victim-blaming; and whether it’s society doing it or the individual doing it to themselves, the results can be toxic, even abusive.

Essentially, if you are in control of everything that happens to you, then regardless of actual circumstances, it is you who are to blame for being mugged in the street; you who are to blame for being struck by lightning; you who are to blame for being poor, etc. etc. etc. You just did not believe in yourself enough, or you just weren’t putting the right thoughts out into the universe. Not only are you a terrible person for having bad things happen to you, but the real causes of your woes are never addressed.

And that is not so positive. That is toxic positivity gone mad.

Yet there are plenty of people who seem happy to bite the bullet on this one. There are entire political movements that seem to be built on victim blaming. Which is hardly surprising, since there could be nothing that individuals in power would love more than a society of people who will happily blame themselves – no matter what – rather than them.

And then we have Byrne’s own famous response to the 2004 South Asian tsunami – which killed over 227,000 people – telling us with all apparent sincerity that the tsunami victims “attracted” the disaster to them with their thoughts; essentially, that they brought it on themselves.2 That may seem a callous, heartless and despicable thing to say – and it is – but to be fair she is just being consistent with what she believes.

Byrne had to say it; and that’s the problem. The fact that such beliefs force you to talk this way about helpless disaster-victims should really give you pause.

A REALITY-BASED ALTERNATIVE

As I say, I’m not here to tell you to not believe in yourself. I believe in believing in yourself to change what you can in fact change. I’m just pretty sure that believing you can change things you can’t change is inevitably going to lead to failure and feeling bad about yourself for, essentially, not being an all-powerful superhuman god. I believe that is stupid.

And I’m hardly the first to talk like this. There is a healthier, more reality-based alternative to dealing with the uncertainty of the world than adopting a God Complex, and it has been offered by many of the world’s great traditions- we just forget.

Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism have always been pretty adamant that accepting that we can’t control everything is the key to both happiness and wisdom. As the Dalai Lama has said: “If a problem is fixable… then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying.”3

This is certainly an attitude cultivated in mindfulness training; in grounding yourself in the present moment, in experiencing a state where the present moment is enough, just as it is, you simply don’t feel the need to control everything that happens. The insecure ego that fears the world and craves a God Complex is just gone. In this state, it is far easier to just step back, take a breath, and calmly see what you actually can and can’t control.

The Greek and Roman Stoics called this same concept “The Dichotomy of Control.” They believed that dividing the world into things we can and can’t control is the first and most important thing we should all do, from a well-being point of view. Stoic philosopher Epictetus said: “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”4 Coming from a former slave, that’s a significant thing to say.

But following Epictetus’ advice gives us much needed perspective on almost everything else that is worth thinking about. We get on with the productive task of figuring out what we can in fact do, instead of wasting time pouring energy into worry about things beyond our control.

Christianity has its Serenity Prayer, well-worn in today’s 12 step recovery programs: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”5 There is a reason this prayer is said to grant serenity; there is a profound sense of peace that comes from humility, from acknowledging that you are not all-powerful and therefore don’t have to concern yourself with what can’t be changed.

If every utterance of “Believe in yourself and you can achieve anything” could be replaced with this, then our world would be a much happier, wiser place.

The trick is the “wisdom” part. We might well be mistaken about what we can and can’t change. I might think I have the power to build a mansion or to change the mind of a conspiracy theorist, only to (almost inevitably) learn better the hard way. Or, I might think I don’t have the power to change something that I can, in fact, change with a bit of effort.

But that’s just life. You use the best of your knowledge of the facts and circumstances to make your decisions in any given moment. The fact that it can sometimes be hard to figure out is no reason to wrap yourself in cotton wool and believe the impossible… and the dangerous.

GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK

So give yourself a break. Accept your relative impotence in the face of the infinite cosmos and relax knowing that you only have to worry about the miniscule amount of it that you can actually control. You will be a happier – and better – person for it.

How to Meditate: It May Not Be What You Think

silhouette of man sitting on grass field at daytime

What do you imagine when you think of someone meditating?

There was a time I would’ve imagined someone sitting crossed-legged in the lotus position, eyes closed, palms up and thumb and forefinger touching to form a symbolic circle. And if they were wearing a saffron robe and sitting atop a mountain or deep in a forest temple – somewhere in the mystical East, of course – then all the more the credible they were.

myth-busting

The mainstreaming of mindfulness has done some work towards shattering this cliché but there is still such a sea of nonsense out there that I have to start by saying what meditation is not: that is, it’s not about “checking out” (which is escapism), nor is it about “clearing your mind of thoughts” (which is impossible).1 If anything, you engage more with yourself and the world around you, and are just aware that you are thinking as opposed to being lost in thought.

Then, of course, many say “I can’t meditate because I can’t stop getting lost in thought,” which is rather like saying, “I can’t learn to play the guitar because I can’t already play the guitar.” If we never got lost in thought, we wouldn’t need meditation in the first place. Still others might say “I tried a guided meditation once and it’s not for me,” which is like listening to a song you don’t like and deciding “Music isn’t for me.”

And – perhaps the most popular misconception – some think that if they meditate they have to be happy. After all, isn’t that what meditation is all about?

Maybe in the long run, but there are of course times when “happiness” is inappropriate – the loss of a loved one, a relationship breakdown, and so forth – when being “happy” would involve such a herculean effort of repression that you would have to be a sociopath to succeed (or suffer feelings of guilt and failure on top of everything else when you don’t). Sometimes in meditation it’s better to just sit with your emotions.2

Of course, some of this depends on how you define words like “mindfulness” and “meditation,” and these words seem to be thrown around with a maddening inconsistency. So even if not everyone agrees with my definitions of these terms, it’s useful to be clear about how I’m using them:

When I refer to “mindfulness” I am talking about a state of mind; one characterised by being grounded in the present moment, thoughts rising and falling without grasping or attachment, and you treat well-being as something ultimately to be found in the here and now. The antithesis of mindfulness is a state of distraction or mindlessness, being lost in thought, ruminating about past and future beyond what is useful, treating well-being as always something to be found elsewhere and else-when.

Whereas “meditation” is the method or practice by which we train our mind toward the state of mindfulness. In other words, if mindfulness is the “what” then meditation is the “how.” Meditation itself can be broken down into two aspects: samatha, or the stilling of the mind, and vipassana, the insight or perspective you gain on your mind and the world by stilling the mind.

TRAINING THE MIND

At its best, samatha meditation is a very simple practice. It can be boiled down to three steps:

1- Ground your attention in the present moment.

2- Notice when your attention wanders (it will).

3- Bring your attention back to the present moment.

It is that simple… and that difficult. Meditation takes about five minutes to learn and then a lifetime to master. A byproduct of our big human brains is that our minds are wired to wander, to jump all over the place, grasping and attaching to thoughts and expectations; what the Buddhists call “the monkey mind.”

Neuroscientist Sam Harris has made an excellent analogy comparing the instructions for meditation to those for walking on a tightrope, which are also relatively easy to say in a nice tidy list:

1- Step forward by placing one foot directly in front of the other.

2- Repeat.

3- Don’t fall. 3

Like any skill it takes training. But in a sense we are already always in the act of training the mind. The brain is a muscle, and like any muscle, however you are using it is training it to be better at doing that thing. If you lift weights at the gym on a regular basis then you are training your biceps to be better at weightlifting. If you are constantly lost in thought, uselessly ruminating about the past and worrying about the future, then you are training your mind to be better at ruminating and worrying.

When you do the above samatha practice, over and over, you are training the mind to be better at being present. You are building a place within yourself where you can observe your thoughts and emotions from a certain healthy distance, so that you are not simply buffeted and overwhelmed by them, allowing you to gain a better perspective of them and to respond more rationally. Meditation is just the act of taking control of how we are training our minds.

The key to meditation is to find your “anchor.” Your anchor is the thing that is going to keep you grounded in the present moment, the thing that you will return to when your mind inevitably wanders. The anchor could be your breath, your body, your senses. What your particular anchor is is not important. What’s important is simply that it works to ground you in (and return you to) the present moment.

I will emphasise the “you” in that sentence; it is what will keep you grounded. Different anchors work better for different people- and some can be downright bad for certain people. This is a fact that seems to have been underplayed somewhat in the modern enthusiasm for mindfulness.

But the truth is, someone who has anxiety around breathing problems may not find it so relaxing to focus on their breath; a hypochondriac prone to worrying about their body may not be calmed by being instructed to focus more on their body; a victim of PTSD may not be soothed by being made to tune in more to the sounds around them.

Even if you don’t find any anchors to be particularly troubling, some may work better than others, and some may even work better at different times. You know you best; don’t let anyone tell you that you must use their favourite anchor, no matter how advanced they are as a meditator, how ancient and revered their tradition is, or how qualified they are in meditation research.

Certainly don’t pay money because someone insisted you must use their meditation technique, and only for a price. This is where some go wrong, trying an anchor not suited for them and concluding “Meditation’s not for me.”

Why you do have time to meditate

I know, I know, I can hear you now: “But I don’t have time to meditate.”

Yet what’s important to note about the above instructions is that there is nothing about it that necessarily involves taking extra time of your day to sit or close your eyes. This is why I say that if you are alive, then you do, in fact, have time to meditate.

If you are going for a run and you are keeping your attention in the present moment rather than letting it stray to thoughts of what you’re going to have for dinner or that conversation you had yesterday, you are meditating. If you’re standing in a queue and you notice the sights, sounds and smells around you – ignoring the automatic reflex to whip out your phone – you are meditating.

In short, if you are actually paying attention to whatever it is you are doing, you are meditating. In a sense, meditation is really about doing less.

Of course, there is a rhyme and reason for taking the time to do a formal eyes-closed sitting meditation. People haven’t been doing it for millennia for nothing.

For some it is easier to still and relax the mind by stilling and relaxing the body, in which case it is worthwhile to take the time to “just sit”; and sitting is often recommended over lying down as then you are in less danger of simply falling asleep. And because the sense of sight is so dominant in human perception, closing the eyes can really help you better tune into your other senses, your body sensations, your thoughts and your emotions.

All you can really do is try out a range of anchors and meditation and see what works. To know if a meditation is effective for you there really is no substitute for personal experience.

So get on that tightrope.

The Necessity of Mindfulness: Seeing Things as They Really Are

There came a point when my life collapsed.

I won’t bore you with the details. But needless to say, I had some things on my mind one fine day when I went for an evening run in the country. It was beautiful – green trees nestled amidst sun-drenched fields – but I saw none of it.

All I could see or hear was the storm inside my own head. What if I had done X? Or Y? What will happen now? What if Z happens? Will things ever get back to normal? Will I ever get back to normal? I felt like Sisyphus, forever damned to keep pushing that boulder up a mountain, only for that boulder to fall back to the bottom once I reached the top so I could begin the process anew.

Such had been the dystopian hellscape of my mind for weeks, even months, casting a long shadow over every lame, half-hearted positive thought. But for some reason today was different. I had stopped trying to “think positive thoughts.” I stopped trying to force it.

And at last I actually saw the evening sun piercing through the trees. That’s all I did; I just noticed it. I was struck in that moment by the effect of the light glowing behind the new spring leaves, the intensity of the green before me. I breathed deeply, my nose flooding with the scent of flowers and pollen. My ears were assailed by the songs of thousands of birds, it seemed, a full evening orchestra from the canopy above.

Although I had seen it all thousands of times before, it was as though I was just now seeing it for the first time. Continuing to breathe, tension that I didn’t even know I was holding just drained from my muscles. I was suddenly in my body again, grounded, connected, the volume of the world turned down.

The storm in my mind was still there but it was as though I was observing it from a distance, its noise growing fainter. And from that distance I saw the storm differently- quieter, less dominating of every aspect of my consciousness.

I saw that there was just no point ruminating about the past, which was over, done; I could learn from it but no amount of fretting would ever change it. There was no point worrying about the future, which I could not know; I could plan for it but being anxious about it wouldn’t help a damn thing. In a sense the past and future were not real, or at least my nightmarish imaginings about them were not real.

What was actually real was not the storm but these trees, these birds, this present moment. And being so complete and content in the moment I suddenly didn’t need everyone and everything in the world around me to be any particular way; I was strong and secure enough to accept it as it is. I could still try to make things better, of course, but this feeling of contentment didn’t need depend on it.

Even the “big questions” about the ultimate purpose and meaning of it all just felt less urgent than before; this moment was enough. What I realised was that this is, quite literally, what it is all about- everything we do, everything we achieve, everything we believe in, hope for, crave for, search for – it’s all about trying to experience this exact feeling of deep, complete contentment.

And I had gotten it, not by solving all my problems or by achieving all my goals, but just by breathing and being present. For some reason that was funny. And so I did something strange for me at the time. I laughed. Like some madman in the middle of a field, I let out a deep, full throated laugh.

It had been too long.

Happiness and truth

It was just a glimpse and of course it didn’t solve all my problems, but it was enough to begin steering me in the right direction.

At the time, I both knew about mindfulness and had no idea about it at all. With all the hype and, frankly, faddishness around the idea it was impossible to not know something about it. I knew mindfulness was an ancient Buddhist practice which had become the latest plaything of the fashionable hipster, the flavour of the month.

But it wasn’t until this moment that I felt the full force of what those hipsters had been going on about. It turns out there is a word for what happened to me. It is called “vipassana” – a word roughly translating to “insight,” “clear-seeing,” “special-seeing,” or my favourite translation, “seeing things as they really are.” 1

The notion that the royal road to well-being and contentment might run through the valleys of truth and reality, in waking up from illusions and “seeing things as they really are,” might strike some as counter-intuitive. There is a marked cynical streak in our culture which says that happiness is incompatible with wisdom; we say “ignorance is bliss,” and speak of “vulgar truths” and “noble lies.”

Gustave Flaubert said, “To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness. Though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.” 2 

Yet from the point of view of various contemplative traditions, this is a strange view. It is precisely ignorance that produces so much of our misery. It is ignorance that is behind our irrational attempt to control things beyond our control, or to think that our well-being depends solely upon external conditions.

It is ignorance that makes us think that ruminating about the past and worrying about the future will change anything, or to believe that happiness is only to be found in the future and after we achieve all our goals. It is ignorance of the deep well of contentment that can be found within, right now, beneath the storm of our overthinking mind, that keeps us mired in these illusions.

And a fair definition of “wisdom” is any insight that wakes us from them.

seeing things as they really are

Mindfulness is more than just a shallow admonition to “be in the present moment,” to repress past and future, which can be attacked – rightly – as a call to ignore all your worldly concerns, as an abdication of personal responsibility, and even as mindlessness.

And yes, I’ve seen some who take up mindfulness with half an understanding of it based on what they see on Youtube or read on some blog use it in just that way, as an escape from reality (okay I’m projecting- that’s what I did for a while there).

But what you really do in mindfulness is you use the present moment – by paying attention to your breath, body or senses – as an anchor to ground you, to gain a certain healthy distance from your thoughts and feelings; not so you can ignore them but actually so that you can observe them more clearly and rationally. 3

This is the “special seeing,” the “seeing things as they really are.” The “objective observer” stance dissolves the anxiety, anger, fear etc. that attends the thought, enabling you to better see which thoughts and feelings are based in reality and which are not, which thoughts are useful and which are pointless rumination, worry, or dissatisfaction. Far from being a way to avoid your problems, mindfulness makes you more effective at dealing with them.

Mindfulness doesn’t just transform the way you see your mind but the way you see the world. You experience the world at a deeper level, the level of bare awareness; that is, you see the world “as it really is” unfiltered by words and concepts. Here, the strange, enigmatic statements of mystics, speaking of “seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary,” suddenly make sense.

In a deep state of mindfulness you really can become blissed out by being absorbed in something as simple as the rise and fall of the breath, or the way the light is falling on a lamppost. Something as mundane as washing the dishes can suddenly be as entertaining and satisfying as watching your favourite TV show. 4 

Even sitting and waiting in traffic – something as tedious and annoying as an everyday occurrence can possibly be – can become an opportunity to just let go of everything and drop into the present moment, be aware of your breath, the sounds of cars and people around you, the road, the trees- everything. In these moments when you remember to be mindful you might just find that boredom is impossible and that in fact you’re no longer waiting at all; you’re just continuing to enjoy living your life.

Because the truth is, much of our life is mundane and repetitive; for much of it we are Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the mountain only to have it roll back down so we can repeat the monotonous process. So normally we seek out happiness by chasing after extraordinary experiences; that overseas adventure, that exhilirating thrill-ride, that momentous occasion.

But extraordinary experiences – pretty much by definition – can only ever be a minority of the moments that make up our lives; otherwise they wouldn’t be extraordinary. Learning to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, therefore, is what is necessary if we are to actually live in each moment of our lives. We must see the beautiful in the mundane, the joy in the tedium, the sublime in the everyday. We must be able to see what we’ve looked at countless times before as if for the first time.

As Albert Camus once said, we must imagine “Sisyphus happy.”5  

THE NECESSITY OF MINDFULNESS

Mindfulness is more than an art, or a science, or even a religious practice: it is a necessity for living the good life. Without at least some degree of mindfulness you’re not really living, not really present to your own life; you’re a zombie, going through all the motions of life but unaware, uncomprehending.

That’s why mindfulness is not, as some seem to be treating it in the modern age, merely a treatment for anxiety or depression, and therefore only relevant to those suffering from mental illness; nor is it just an antidote to the stressed out, overworked modern age. It’s certainly not just a handy sleep-aid. It’s for everyone, everywhere, because it is the means by which we gain control of our own minds and actually, truly, live.

This is not to say that we can always be in control of our mind and always have perfect perspective. We are only human after all, and I remain agnostic on the question of whether anyone has ever reached such levels of sainthood that they have lived in a state of perfect mindfulness permanently.

But this control of the mind, this freedom, this seeing things as they really are, is as good a definition of nirvana as I know.