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 was out 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? 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 this day was different.

At some point I actually saw the evening sun piercing through the trees. And 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, anchored, grounded, connected. The present moment swelled, bloomed, and finally consumed me in the most beautiful way.

It was as though someone had just turned down the volume of the world. 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. 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.

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 well-being 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, since it is precisely ignorance that produces so much of our misery.

It is ignorance that makes us ruminate about the past as though it will change anything, or makes us believe that our well-being only lies in the future, after we achieve all our goals, when all the external conditions of our lives are “just right.” It is ignorance that keeps us perpetually lost in thought, living our lives the same way as when we read a book without really taking in a word.

It is ignorance that deceives us, mires us and traps us in these illusions; and a fair definition of “wisdom” is any insight that wakes us from it.

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 mindfulness is really about is using the present moment – by paying attention to your breath, body or senses – as an anchor to ground you. You don’t judge the present moment, you don’t label things in it as “good” or “bad” or wish for it to be different; you let go of all that and accept it, just as it is. Far from repressing anything, this allows you to see everything more clearly, unfiltered by your concepts about the world.

The term for this is “non-conceptual awareness.” Normally, we see the world through a thick layer of concepts. But it’s one thing, for example, to understand a tree conceptually in terms of its species, anatomy, function in the eco-system, etc. It’s entirely another to understand it non-conceptually through direct experience, as it is, prior to our thoughts about it.

In this state, you really can become blissed out by 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 suddenly became as entertaining and satisfying as watching your favourite TV show. 3 

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, to be aware of your breath, of the weight of your body in the seat, of the sounds of the cars and people around you; whatever is there. In these moments you must just find that boredom is impossible and that in fact you are no longer waiting at all; you are just continuing to enjoy living your life.

At its deepest level, you become so absorbed in the present moment that all the labels, categories and divisions that you use to carve up the world simply melt away, in a way that is notoriously difficult to describe. In such moments, some say they experience the world as an “undifferentiated whole,” while others feel “the connectedness of all things.” Some report that they “find God,” and others claim to transcend the duality of “self” and “other” entirely, becoming “one with everything.”

Whatever words people use to describe it, all agree that words ultimately fail to truly capture it. Words are, after all, just more concepts. But what such people also agree on is that it is one of the most transformative, life-changing experiences of their lives. They may even start to talk somewhat strangely, speaking enigmatically of “seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary.”

Because the thing is, much of our lives are ordinary: wake, eat, work, eat, chores, shower, sleep, repeat. So normally we seek out happiness by chasing after extraordinary experiences; that overseas adventure, that exhilarating thrill-ride, that momentous occasion. But extraordinary experiences – pretty much by definition – can only ever be a minority of the moments that make up your life; 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 have to see the beautiful in the mundane, the joy in the tedium, the sublime in the everyday. We have to be able to see what we’ve looked at countless times before as if for the first time.

If this was all that mindfulness did, that would be enough. But that’s just the beginning. Anchoring yourself in the present moment and dropping beneath conceptual awareness gives you a certain healthy distance from your thoughts and feelings, allowing you to see them more clearly, too.

An anxious thought or feeling may arise, but instead of jumping on it and being swept away by it, you can just observe it rise and pass away. In the same way, a happy thought or feeling can arise, but instead of anxiously clinging and yearning for it to last forever – and inevitably being disappointed when it doesn’t – you can just enjoy it while it lasts, and all the more so.

There is actually a great Buddhist analogy for this. It’s as though I we live our entire lives as mad people who rush about on the shore of a beach, uselessly trying to grab and hold onto the pleasant waves and to push back the unpleasant waves. Sanity is waking up to just how mad this exercise really is, and so we decide to just sit down and allow the waves to gently crash around us and pass away; no clinging, no attachment.

Then you suddenly see – very clearly – what is important in life and what is not. Regrets about the past are futile; it can’t be changed. Worries about the future are pointless; either you can control it or you can’t. And if you can find the ultimate bliss in something as simple as the breath, or in staring at a lamppost, then things like money, status and possessions no longer seem all that important.

You want nothing more because you need nothing more.

the necessity of mindfulness

I’ll close on a somewhat bold claim. Mindfulness is more than an art, or a science, or even a religious practice: it is a necessity for living the good life. I say this because 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 “enlightenment” that they have lived in a state of perfect mindfulness permanently.

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

Footnotes

  1. Perdue, D. E. (2014). The Course in Buddhist Reasoning and Debate: An Asian Approach to Analytical Thinking Drawn from Indian and Tibetan Sources. Shambhala Publications.
  2. Cutler, H. (2009) The Art of Happiness: 10th Anniversary Edition. Riverhead Books.
  3. Hanh, T. N. (1999). The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, Beacon Press.

15 thoughts on “The Necessity of Mindfulness: Seeing Things as They Really Are

  1. Sam
    just came across this awesome piece by you
    The way you have described your experience is itself a great example of mindfulness, being present, being in the here and now.
    very nice expression and lovely, chiseled choice of words
    all in all a great blog
    thanks for sharing
    vikas

  2. I first discovered Mindfulness a few years ago. While not a quick fix, it does give me a tool in my emotional armoury and the ability to step back and gain perspective.

    1. Yes like any skill it takes practice. But in giving you the ability to step back and gain perspective it becomes easier to deal with what life throws our way.

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