Imagining Shangri-La: In Defence of Utopian Thinking

Imagine:

You have been given a chance to recreate society completely from scratch. Yes, you personally have to devise a set of principles by which we will all live.

But there’s a catch: You don’t get to know who you will be in this society. You don’t know if you will be rich or poor, ruler or ruled, white or brown, male or female, intelligent or unintelligent, strong or weak, beautiful or ugly, etc. etc.

After you create your principles, a random lottery will decide who you get to be in it.

Credit for this thought experiment goes to philosopher John Rawls, and obviously the point is to eliminate self-interest in the creation of “utopia” or the “ideal society.”

And yet, as just and fair as Rawls’ thought experiment seems, it’s still something of a taboo to even talk about creating a utopia. Even in writing this sentence I feel like I should be looking over my shoulder.

I can only speculate on the origins of this war on hope and imagination. Maybe it’s post-Cold War disillusionment with the Soviet experiment. Maybe it’s Postmodern cynicism, branding every vision of “progress” as merely an expression of a “will to power” over others. Maybe it’s Western elites, demonising any other way of organising society simply because they like the way things are.

But it’s also the thinking of many of our leading intellectual champions. It actually wounds me too much to “name-and-shame,” but it’s safe to say that it’s the “received wisdom” in Arts and Humanities departments across the world, among people who can hardly be branded as establishment boot-lickers.

After all, isn’t the creation of utopia what they tried to do in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and North Korea? Didn’t it lead to the unprecedented slaughter of countless millions in the twentieth century?

Rawls’ thought experiment is all well and good in theory (the thinking goes) but the real world throws up complications: even if you did somehow have the power to implement your utopian vision, inevitably there will be those who dissent, who have alternative visions for society; and just what are you going to do about them?

The answer, such critics assume, is that you will be compelled to censor and persecute the dissenters in order to make your society work. In other words, you will have to devolve into a violent dictatorship – like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and North Korea – whereby your utopia collapses into a dystopia. This, indeed, is one of the most prominent themes in dystopian fiction.

However, there’s three things that the anti-utopian chorus needs to remember:

First, every society is already a utopia to those who have power in it. Our current society is a utopia to the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and other one-percenters. Our society is a utopia if you’re a fossil fuel company or Wall Street banker putting profits before people, the planet and the future itself.

The only utopia we’re being told we can’t have, then, is one that serves ordinary people. This is why I contend that the real question is not whether we should create utopia but who we should create it for.

Second, every society already has dissenters. In every society there are people who disagree with the status quo and want things to be different. I should know; I’m one of them. And how do we respond to dissenters in the Western world today?

We pretty much just let them be.

This answer doesn’t exactly make for gripping dramatic fiction (which might be why it’s less heard of) but it’s true. Sure, you might be able to point to the odd exception, but on the whole we’re not rounding up dissenters and hurling them into labour camps and gas chambers. And there’s absolutely no reason why a push for a better world needs to be any different. If you can get enough people to agree with you that things should be different, then that’s all you need; you can just let the dissenters be. Change need be no more violent or scary than a majority vote.

Third, the odds are that you are already a utopian thinker. Yes, even if you believe yourself to be among the anti-utopians. How can I possibly say this? Because if you at all believe in “making the world a better place” (and granted, I may be going out on a limb here in assuming that you do) then you need to have at least some notion of an “ideal society” in that head of yours, some vision of what it is you want society to move towards, some standard by which you judge “better” and “worse” in the first place.

We might as well call this kind of thinking “utopian.”

THE OVERTON WINDOW

Of course, even if you decide that utopian thinking is a good idea, the first stumbling block you’ll face is a crowd of naysayers declaring: “It’s impossible!” “It’s naive!” Or my favourite piece of patronising condescension; “It’s nice in theory but doesn’t work in practice.”

I can’t help but wonder if they think society as it currently is “works well in practice,” and for whom? Sure, as we’ve seen, the status quo is fantastic if you’re currently sun-bathing poolside at your Malibu mansion, your biggest problem being the decision around whether to order steak or lobster for dinner. But ask an Amazon worker whose pay is docked for taking bathroom breaks, or a resident of the homeless encampments springing up around Los Angeles, if the status quo “works well in practice,” and you might get a somewhat different answer.

But ok, I’ll address the charge that an alternative is “impossible.” I’ll address it by saying I really don’t think it matters. After all, when 19th century advocates of the slave trade declared “It’s impossible to get rid of slavery” they were actually right; or at least, they have been right so far.

The Global Slavery Index estimates that roughly 40.3 million people – 71% women and 25% children – are currently living in modern day slavery.1 But this doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and say “Ok, ending slavery is impossible so let’s just allow it.” No, we fight slavery anyway – whether ultimate victory is “possible” or not – because it’s the right thing to do.

But the main thing to remember about the charge that an alternative is impossible is that they always say that. Whatever it was – democracy, women’s rights, minority rights – those who benefited from things staying the same always shouted “It would never work!”

Yes, at first, a new way of doing things is always seen as “unthinkable.” But give it time; sometimes the “unthinkable” comes to be seen merely as “radical.” And one generation’s idea of “radical” can become the next generation’s “acceptable.” If you’re lucky, the “acceptable” graduates into “sensible,” which is the precursor to it becoming “popular,” and finally, “inevitable.”

This is called the “Overton Window” in political science; that is, the “window” showing the range of “acceptable opinion” in society.2

Once upon a time, feudalism, torture, wife-beating, abducting human beings from their homes and selling them as farm equipment, were all “within” the Overton Window. Basic human decency and treating human beings as human beings all fell far outside of it in the “radical” and “unthinkable” zones.

Thankfully, the Overton Window has moved over time- but only because we didn’t listen to the cries of “It’s impossible!” and we made it move.

All of which, of course, only begs the question: Where could – or should – the Overton Window move next? And with that in mind, I think it’s time to take Rawls up on his challenge, to do the “unthinkable” and “radical” thing of actually imagining an “ideal society.”

REASON

This has to be “first principle” of any society that claims to be sane. Though some like to talk about “common sense,” this term has long been deployed as a cover for a lack of any actual reason and evidence. It’s almost synonymous with “going with your gut,” which really amounts to little more than relying on your personal biases and prejudices.

Basing a society on reason means basing policy on actual scientific evidence and the consensus of expert opinion. Reason means that, actually, not all opinions are equal, that we don’t have to give “equal time” to “both sides” when one side is the majority of experts in the relevant field, and the other side is a minority of internet trolls and Joe Randoms who watched some Youtube videos.

This is worlds away from what we often get, which is policy based either on ideology, in which it’s impossible to change one’s mind, or on simple loyalty to one’s political or religious “tribe.” Should we tax the rich? Legalise gay marriage? Regulate businesses? Forget the evidence, what does my tribe believe? What will make me “part of the group” and what will ostracise me as an “outsider”?

We’re social animals and, as such, none of us are immune to the siren-song of tribalism. But we also carry within us the antidote, and that is our capacity to reason.

Of course, “reason” itself has long had its sceptics, but as I’ve dealt with this at length in another post I won’t labour the point here. I’ll just say that, sure, human reason is fallible, it does make mistakes, but at the end of the day it’s all we’ve got; to give up on it is to surrender to madness.

WELL-BEING

Imagine a society that prioritises well-being as its primary indicator of societal health, rather than wealth. The difference is that while caring about well-being would necessarily include caring about its wealth, just caring about its wealth does not necessarily include caring about its well-being.

You don’t have to imagine too much; Bhutan has become famous for replacing its measurement for national success from Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for Gross National Happiness (GNH).3 This is a victory for the “naive” and “idealistic” notion of putting people before profits.

Such a society might put more resources into mental health, rather than profit-seeking drug companies. It might support ethical businesses that are good to workers, consumers and the environment, not ones that wage war on all that is good, and so forth.

Conservative voices of the world’s superpowers have always trumpeted that their nation is “number one” – the Roman Empire, the British Empire, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the United States. There’s nothing less exceptional than loud claims of exceptionalism. Yet what such voices usually mean is that they’re “number one” in terms of wealth and power.

But by the GNH metric – that is, the metric of what really matters- you are only “number one” if you top the world in healthcare, education, human rights, happiness. You are only “number one” if you use your wealth for more than just the acquisition of more wealth.

FREEDOM

Who doesn’t love freedom? Well, actually, dig just a little beneath the surface and you might find that some of the loudest defenders of “freedom” really only love freedom for themselves; screw everyone else. 19th century American slave owners fought an entire war to defend their “freedoms.” The freedom to do what? To own slaves. It’s like some sort of dark, twisted sit-com.

Maybe that’s just one those historical oddities that we look back on in disbelief, as we tell ourselves that we’re so much more enlightened in this day and age.

But the logic is really no different to those corporations today, who – in the name of “freedom” – want to scrap regulations protecting workers, consumers and the environment, while accusing anyone who questions them of being Nazis or Stalinists.

And then there are those ordinary people who, while claiming to be staunch advocates of “freedom,” are still oddly obsessed with discriminating against people for their sexual orientation, gender identity or lifestyle choices even when they cause no harm to anyone else whatsoever. I wonder what the word “freedom” could possibly mean in their vocabulary.

Because I know what it means in mine; the classical formulation of freedom, that is, the freedom of people to do as they like so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. Somehow, the second part of that sentence has been forgotten by some. It shouldn’t really need to be said that to care about freedom is also to care about the freedom of others, and that to care about the freedom of others is not to be a Nazi or Stalinist sympathiser.

Now that might just be the strangest sentence I’ve ever had to write.

DEMOCRACY

In Western nations, we all say we believe in it and we all believe we live in it. But how true is that, really? We vote every few years for other people to make decisions for us and congratulate ourselves on how we live in a country “of the people, by the people and for the people.” But any country with inequality will tend see democracy distorted in favour of those at the top of society.

When a Princeton University study found that the United States government served the wealthy far more than it served ordinary people, it wasn’t a matter of conspiracy theory or some radical’s hyperbole; it was the result of sober research comparing the likelihood of a law being passed with whose interest that law served.4 The United States is one of the clearest examples of money’s distortion of democracy.

The simplest solution is to get money out of politics with publicly funded elections. Politicians serve those who pay them. If they’re paid by private donors, then they will serve those private donors; it’s a system of “legalised bribery.” But if they’re paid by the people, then they are more likely to serve the people. That’s just a fact.

But a call for greater democracy need not stop there. What about democracy in the workplace? Think about how odd it is that we say we live in a democracy, and yet we actually spend most of every day inside an institution that is, to all intents and purposes, a dictatorship.

Workplace democracy essentially means that workers own (or co-own) their own workplaces. Gone is the separation between boss and worker; gone is the fundamental divide between owning class and working class; gone is the age-old exploitation of one by the other. The workers hold the power, elect their managers, and divide profits equitably.

It is in this way that a more equal society, with less of the democracy-distorting tendencies that inequality brings, can be created bottom-up; not just through top-down taxation that doesn’t really change the fundamental structure of the economy.

I’m sure I’ve strayed far outside the Overton Window now, but calls for “workplace democracy” are nothing new. In fact, any cries of “It’s impossible!” need to remember that this has already long existed in the form of worker cooperatives; I’m just calling for this long-standing model to become more commonplace.

MERITOCRACY

The issue of inequality has crept in, and that won’t go unchallenged, I’m sure. Yes, today’s CEOs earn 354 times their average workers’ salaries,5 and the world’s billionaires earn enough extra billions in a year to solve world poverty seven times over.6 But the “richsplainers” tell us this is all ok; the rich are rich because they earned it and the poor and poor because they’re lazy. Meritocracy, not equality, is the mantra of the day.

Well, fine. Of course people should be rewarded for the value of their contribution to society, and not for their laziness, incompetence or downright anti-social behaviour. But I guess that means teachers, nurses, garbage collectors, and so forth are all in for a massive pay rise; while all those CEOs, corporate lawyers, hedge fund managers and Wall Street bankers may well see their bank balances plunge into the negatives.

Oops.

Oh, but those corporate types work hard? Well, those teachers and nurses work hard too. Maybe harder. Besides, I’m sure Hitler “worked hard” on his rise to power too, so forgive me if I don’t find this point compelling. I’d say that if even a casual, part-time sandwich maker makes a more positive net contribution to society in a day than Wall Street bankers and so forth do in their entire “hard-working” careers, then the “merit” belongs to the sandwich-maker.

The truth is, a real meritocracy might well see society become more equal, not less. After all, no one really believes that CEOs work 354 times harder than their average workers, or that their work is 354 times more valuable. If those CEOs were remunerated according to the actual “merit” of what they do, they might just find themselves on a more level footing with their average workers.

JUSTICE

There’s few things more instinctive that our sense of fairness. Every two-year-old who’s been given less ice cream than their sibling has a concept of justice. Yet just as inequality distorts democracy, it also inevitably distorts justice.

Not to pick on the United States, but – for some reason – the evidence of a “two-tiered justice system” seems to be clearest there. Take Ethan Couch, who got behind the wheel drunk and ended up killing four pedestrians and injuring several others; who was let off lightly because his lawyer argued he suffered “affluenza,” the supposed “condition” of being raised in such affluence that he didn’t know the consequences of his actions.7

Or there’s Brock Turner, who, for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, received a pathetic sentence of only 6 months jail time.

He was released after 3 months.

For “good behaviour.”8

Clearly, having the money to afford good lawyers and long trials, or even just money to have well-to-do judges sympathise with you as “one of their own,” pays off. But I can’t help imagine what would happen if a poor black man had committed the exact same crimes…

Actually, of course, I don’t need to imagine; most of us know perfectly well the stats showing that minorities tend to get longer and harsher sentences than whites for similar crimes, if not just killed outright in the street.

No, an “ideal society” has to have a better concept of justice than this; and it begins by mitigating the distorting effects of inequality through genuine democracy and genuine meritocracy.

ENVIRONMENTALISM

Obviously we need to put the environment front and centre. No environment means no society; without it none of the other principles matter. There should be a minimum “green standard” for any new law, regulation or technology. An environmental crisis like the one we are currently facing should be treated as much of an emergency as an existential war. I think this is obvious enough that I don’t need to explain it more than this.

IMAGINING SHANGRI-LA

I don’t want to be misunderstood. When I list problems with the status quo, I don’t do so to get down about society but because I see hope for something better. And the reason I see hope for something better is because of how far we have come; something we should never lose sight of.

And there’s no reason why progress can’t continue. Just as we look upon our ancestors and shake our heads in disbelief at their backwardness and barbarism, so too might our descendants shake their heads in disbelief at us; at the way we treat animals, or the environment, or each other.

And that will be a good thing; because it means we will have grown. It will mean we didn’t listen to the naysayers and the chorus of “It’s impossible.”

It means we will have taken a step towards Shangri-La.

What Dreams May Come: Dealing With Anxiety About the Future

You and your family board a plane.

As the plane takes off, something strange starts to happen. The passengers get out of their seats and start removing or damaging ever-increasing portions of the plane itself: engine, wings, fuel pumps, navigation, electrical, windows, steering, etc.

Understandably, you start to panic. You rush over to the passengers and confront them one by one, trying to talk to them, shake some sense into them. Their response?

“What? The plane isn’t being destroyed.”

“Ok, the plane is being destroyed, but it’s not being destroyed by human action.”

“Fine, the plane is being destroyed by human action but saving it would be bad for the economy.”

“Look, to be honest, I don’t really care about the plane.”

There’s no prizes for guessing what this is about.

ANXIETY ABOUT THE FUTURE

It’s the blessing and the curse of the human race: our ability to imagine the future.

We live in the best time to be alive in all of history, yet research shows that anxiety about the future is on the rise.1 The reason for this is no great mystery: climate change, pollution, ocean plastic, etc. etc. etc.- we’re all so familiar with this list of human stupidity that I’m sure I don’t need to give you a full run-down.

Yet frankly, our responses to the planetary crisis have been those of children. I’m not just talking about politicians and corporations who refuse to take action because they stand to lose out on short-term profits. To call these people “children” is an insult to children.

No, I’m talking about us. Some of us also find it easier to bury our head in the sand and ignore the problem. Some of us even do so in the name of “mindfulness” and “being present,” as though mindfulness can be equated with its opposite: wilful ignorance and distraction.

Still others resort to the infamous defence mechanisms of denialism and minimisation, somehow convincing themselves that they, their favourite media pundits and their social media memes know better than 97-98% of the world’s scientists. Who knows, maybe they find refuge in the other 2-3%, whose results either can’t be replicated or contain errors.2

And even our intelligent, trained and experienced therapists seem to have difficulty coming to terms with reality-based anxiety. It’s one thing to coach someone through their delusional or distorted thinking about the future, but what do you do when the person’s anxiety is a completely natural, normal, human response to the existential threat of living on the cusp of the earth’s “sixth mass extinction”?3

There appears to have been an almost reflexive tendency to pathologise such people, to treat them as though it’s all just in their head. One story tells about a woman who spoke up about her anxiety over the increasing severity of droughts in her area, only to have her therapist respond with: “Ok, but what is this really about?”4 The notion that climate change might actually be the sole cause of the woman’s anxiety seems to have been outside the therapist’s idea of legitimate options.

Then we have people who acknowledge reality, yet who shut down under the weight of it all, losing all hope and motivation to do, well, anything at all. And – full disclosure – I’m really talking about myself here. But then I decided that this kind of curling-up-in-a-ball-in-the-corner response is not much more useful than denialism.

I refuse to believe that the only answer is to ignore the problem, deny the problem, pathologise the problem or shut down. I refuse to believe that there is no mature, responsible way of managing our entirely natural anxiety about the future.

What follows is my attempt at sketching out a road map for navigating this problem. It’s actually a road map for navigating any crisis that might be causing us anxiety about the future, whether on the personal level or the global; but here, I’m applying it to the environmental crisis, as it the one that affects us all.

GROUND YOURSELF IN THE PRESENT MOMENT

I know, I know, I can see your eyes rolling. What good is meditation in a emergency? Don’t we have more important things to do? Isn’t meditation a luxury that should wait for later?

I say no. In fact, I contend that some degree of meditation is essential in an emergency. If you want to do your best thinking about any problem, you need to calm yourself first. Just think about the last time you were stressed out or anxious. Did you see things clearly and rationally? Did you make the best decisions? Were you your best self? I’m going to hazard a guess that the answer is no. So yes, I will start with meditation.

I’m not talking about a sitting-down, eyes-closed, legs-folded formal meditation, necessarily. I’m just talking about dropping into the present moment, taking a deep breath, relaxing your jaw, face, arms, body, taking a look at the people and objects around you; I’m talking about grounding yourself in the here-and-now.

You’re not trying to repress or ignore your anxiety about the future. You’re allowing it to be there, you’re just observing it from this place of calm in the present moment, this healthy distance where it has no power to overwhelm you. Because as long as you are grounded in the present moment, it doesn’t matter where your thoughts come and go, you always remain still. You become the rock in the storm.

And now you’re ready to “see things as they really are.”

KNOW YOUR DICHOTOMY OF CONTROL

Put everything into perspective by knowing your “Dichotomy of Control.” Write it down if you need to. Take all the things causing your anxiety about the future and sort them into two lists: the things you can control and the things you can’t. And recognise that if you control it, then there is no need to worry, and that if you don’t control it then there’s no point to worry.

You only really control yourself and what you do. You control whether you behave like an environmentalist or like a sociopath. You control whether you are a voice for reason or for madness, for sane environmental policy or for more of the same. You control what steps you take to organise with other like-minded non-sociopaths to put pressure on politicians and corporations.

Sure, most of what you worry about are probably the things you don’t control: the fires, the droughts, the floods, the sea level rise, etc. But if you don’t control them then you must recognise the utter pointlessness of your worry. As long as you’re doing whatever is in your power to control, then you’re doing enough.

Relax. You can only do what you can do.

CHECK YOUR FRAMING

Part of what’s in your control is checking that you’re framing the situation correctly. After all, the human brain’s tendency for cognitive lies, biases and distortions has a way of mutating problems into something they’re not.

Don’t let your negativity bias get the better of you, focusing disproportionately on the torrent of bad news and filtering out any good news. Certainly don’t do catastrophic thinking, blowing things out of proportion until you conclude that all is lost and there’s nothing for us to do but give up and shut down.

Stay clear of unfalsifiable thinking, insisting on your catastrophic framing against all reason. Avoid fortune telling, coming up with endless “what ifs” conjured up by fear. You are not a psychic and your knowledge of what will happen is limited.

Even if such biases are not distorting your thinking, chances are that you’re still framing the environmental crisis as a terrible problem for you to have. Sure it is; but do spare a thought for those who would consider all their prayers answered if only climate change was their problem.

There are people who have died in childhood, or who have endured harrowing lives in the shadow of war or poverty or oppression. There are people who have lived in times and places when the average life expectancy was 25, or when devastating plagues and invading armies could materialise on the horizon and destroy everything they know and love without warning.

In all likelihood, these people – these thousands, these millions, of people in human history – wouldn’t hesitate to trade places with you, even just to have had the life that you’ve had so far.

HOPE

Part of taking control of your framing, of not just focusing on the negative and the catastrophic, is to see the whole picture; and that includes the positive side.

I do get it; we do need people to grasp the truth of what’s going on, to not get complacent, and appeals to fear through scary statistics and wall-to-wall disaster coverage do make for potent calls to action. But doing this exclusively can just make people feel overwhelmed and burnt out. Worse, it seems that doom-and-gloom news only makes the deniers and minimisers dig in their heels even more. Which does make a kind of sense- how can appeals to fear break through their defence mechanisms when fear is the trigger of those very mechanisms?

We also need appeals to hope. If you can’t find it in politicians and corporations, find it in ordinary people; after all, those who benefit from things staying the same have never granted change willingly, they’ve always had to be pushed from below.

And the thing is – despite the loudness of deniers and minimisers online distorting our sense of their numbers – most ordinary people do live in the real world and do accept that climate change is real. This is especially true of the younger generation, and they will be the ones taking the reins in the future.

This is a good sign. As more people become aware and concerned, more pressure will be put on politicians and corporations. The more pressure is put on them, the more likely it is that politicians will pay a political price for their inaction, and that corporations will be wasting their money if they invest in environmentally harmful practices.

In fact, this is already happening; renewable energy overtook fossil fuels in 2020, in Europe.5 Even the United States, under a climate-change denying, coal-loving President, saw renewables on the upswing against fossil fuels: “Solar and wind farms dominated new power plant builds… while fossil fuel plants continue to be retired at record pace.”6

As the people change, the market changes. So even if you hold politicians and corporations to be greedy as all sin, just following the money wherever it leads like pigs to a trough regardless of damage to the planet, they may just end up following that money into an environmentally sane world anyway; because we will have made that happen.

Hope is more than just wishful thinking; it is a strategy. Research shows that hope allows us to see opportunities that pessimism might well make us miss.7 Hope motivates us to act on those opportunities, to persevere in the face of failure, setbacks and improbable odds. Hope gives us a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

As Noam Chomsky says: “If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”8

take courage from THE PAST

One of the most powerful ways to feel hope for the future is to look to the past.

Look at what we’ve achieved before. We fought slavery, feudalism, the divine right of kings. We took on draconian labour laws, misogyny and patriarchy, racism and white supremacy. The list goes on and on. Yes, of course we still have plenty of work to do on most of these things, but anyone who says we haven’t made significant progress in the past 200 years is just not paying attention.

They said slavery was necessary for the economy. They said democracy would lead to chaos and mob rule. They said workers’ rights would lead to all businesses shutting down. They said if we gave the vote to women then we’d have to give it to children and animals.

In short, they always said that we are naive radicals, that our demands are impossible, that a morally sane society is unworkable. They always said “That’s just life” and “It’s just the way things are.” They always said it with a straight face.

And each time, those of us on the right side of history won.

So chin up; we’ve done this before.

BECOME AN ACTIVIST

So you’ve calmed down, narrowed down what you control, corrected your framing, embraced hope and taken courage from the past; the only thing left for you to do now is take action.

Activism is, of course, the truest source of hope, since without it all of this is just academic anyway. The action you take could be anything from putting pressure on politicians and corporations directly, to raising awareness amongst the public to transform the political and economic landscape at large.

Organise; join with other like-minded “naive radicals” with “impossible” demands. Don’t believe the movies, whose protagonist-centred plots reinforce the myth that change is wrought by powerful individuals who rise above the huddled masses to become heroes. In the real world, the power of the people has always been the power of numbers; those huddled masses are the heroes.

What have you got to lose?

imagine what story you want to tell

Suppose all is lost. Suppose nothing is done and all the most horrific climate predictions come true. Suppose we land in some dystopian, Mad Max style climate apocalypse- you can fill in the picture.

Imagine your elderly, future self, huddled around the campfire with other survivors, watching the sun go down on the ashes of civilisation. There’s no TV, no Netflix, no internet. Your old dead phone is currently being used as a doorstop. All that you and your fellow survivors have to do to kill the time is swap stories of your lives in the “before times.”

So what kind of story do you want to tell? Do you want it to be a story of how you wasted your life in the “before times” in a state of worry about the future; a story of despair, of giving up early, leaving you now wondering if you contributed to the end of the world because of it?

Or do you want it to be a story of how you enjoyed the “before times” that you had by remaining present, calm, and rational; a story of courage, of fighting the good fight regardless of how it turned out, leaving you with absolutely no regrets?

It’s worth thinking about.

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME

Yes, our ability to imagine the future may seem like a curse.

But don’t forget that it is also our blessing. It means that we’re not only able to see what’s coming but also that we’re able to prepare for it; that we’re able to say no, we will not “go gently into that good night,” we will fight the good fight.

Our ability to imagine the future is, in fact, our only hope; whatever “dreams may come.”

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 few 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, 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

Somehow, the reasonableness of reason has not always been taken as a foregone conclusion. 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. As much as I respect the Romantics, some of them characterised reason 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, 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 others.4 Here, you may be asked to swallow the claims that “history is fiction” and that the very concept of universal truth is “cultural imperialism.”

Then there’s modern science, pointing out the inescapable fact that reason is, itself, a product of the same Paleolithic brain that gives us so many cognitive lies, biases and distortions in the first place. This brain tells 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 flaws that make us all terrible people is long. How can we trust any line of reasoning that comes out of such a brain?

So yes, reason has taken 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 assertion 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?

This is why every argument against reason must blow up in its own face in the very act of being uttered.

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, or any other monster you can name are wrong. This should give even the most smug reason-sceptic out there some pause.

How might a conversation go between Metrodorus and the Nazi Führer? “Oh, you believe Jews are vermin and 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.

Closer to home, 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 you down, they also insist on dismissing or disqualifying any and all evidence to the contrary.

Your colleague 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.

NEGATIVE & CATASTROPHIC THINKING

A tendency towards a negativity bias, to focus more on the bad than the good, may well have had an adaptive survival value in the Paleolithic. After all, it’s the threats that pose a danger to you, your family and your community, not the things that are going well. That’s why if you go on a beautiful hike and see a snake, the snake will dominate your memory more than the beauty of the hike.

A negativity bias can affect us all; it’s pretty much institutionialised in the form of the media. Yet while focusing disproportionately on the negative may help you survive it will not help you live.

If you’re spending more time thinking about that guy that said that nasty thing about you than about what is going well in your life, or more about the litany of disaster in the evening news than about what is good in the world, then you’re not setting yourself up for a balanced perspective on things.

Nevertheless, a common “next step” from a mere focus on the negative is to blow it all completely out of proportion with catastrophic thinking. And this will 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.

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 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.

emotional reasoning

A very common lie our Paleolithic brains tell us is that our feelings are facts, 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 you feel something if it isn’t true? But the thing to understand about emotions is that they’re not about truth and falsehood, 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 emotion, it is seeing what happens when someone actually does this. To someone in the grips of their emotional reasoning, someone who has essentially gaslit 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.

Emotion is not your enemy. It’s 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 & 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 tear ourselves apart trying 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 what could happen, 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’re some kind of 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, on the face of it, to be simple insecurity, 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 what others think of them, and not about you at all.

JUST WORLD THEORISING

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 theory is a nice, comforting belief that helps us get through the day.

Until it isn’t. 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 rock of 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 theory 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.

LOGICAL FALLACIES

Errors in reasoning, or logical fallacies, usually take the form of “if this, then that” when actually there is no logical or sane connection between “this” and “that.”

Much of the rumination that plagues us is of this type. “If I mess up this project then I will look bad, then the boss will be mad, then I will get a bad performance review, then I could be let go, then I won’t be able to pay the mortgage, then…” is an example of the Slippery Slopes fallacy, or irrationally assuming that one bad thing will always lead to another worse bad thing, in a harrowing snowball effect.

The Hasty Generalisation fallacy is when you assume that because one thing goes wrong, then everything must be wrong. If you make one mistake at work then you’re lousy at your job in general. If you screw up that one date then you’re terrible at dating in general.

And appeals to Authority, Tradition or Nature will have you looking for answers in all the wrong places. Just because “The President said so,” or “It’s always been this way,” or “It’s natural,” it by no means follows that whatever you’re talking about is true or good. In case it needs spelling out, Hitler had “authority,” human sacrifice was once a respected harvest-time “tradition,” and of course there’s nothing more “natural” than malaria or typhoons or bubonic plague.

Then on the flipside there’s the Genetic Fallacy, where you reject the right answers just because you don’t like where they come from; e.g. you dismiss crucial information that could genuinely help you because you think the person who gave it is a bit of a dick.

The list of logical fallacies is too long to cover here, but this should give you an idea of how they can ruin your day… and much, much more. But knowledge is power, and simply knowing them enables you to identify them in your own thinking, and to reason your way out of the darkness.

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 courage. 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, beyond its ancestors’ mere survival mode; allowing us to actually, finally, live.

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 $59 billion each, you have to buy politicians to give you tax cuts so you can have even more billions. If you’re Jeff Bezos, it’s not enough to have $201 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.

If you’re Elon Musk, it’s not enough to be the richest man in history with an eye-watering $320 billion, you also have to support a coup in Bolivia and destroy democracy in that country so that you can take its lithium and make more money. The list goes on and on and on.

And why do it? What can you do with $320 billion that you can’t do with $100 billion, or $10 billion, or one (except fly uselessly to space instead of saving the planet)? 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?

Get 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 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 in this scenario, 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. And 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. But 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, 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; that is, the people at large. 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 them. Savouring the present moment can lead to savouring other people, not to mindless self-absorption.

Collectivist – or reality – based meditation can awaken the better angels of our nature.

Reframe Your Thinking: The Stoic Path to Contentment

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

A school of thought that Bill might well benefit from is Stoicism. Originating with Zeno of Citium in ancient Greece, Stoicism later gained eminence with the philosopher-slave Epictetus and the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. Today, it is enjoying something of a renaissance through modern neo-Stoics like William B. Irvine and Massimo Pigliucci.1

The Stoic thesis is that – generally speaking – well-being has less to do with what happens to us than with how we frame what happens to us. In Epictetus’ words, “It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.”2 The former we have little control over, and we must let go; but the latter we do have control over, and so we must get to work. They call this the “Dichotomy of Control,” and it is the reason to deemphasise “external goals” like wealth and fame in favour of “internal goals” like wisdom and contentment.

But can’t this sort of thinking be misused? Can’t “reframing” drop one down the rabbit-hole of toxic positivity, ignoring genuinely bad situations that need to be dealt with in favour of “thinking positively”?

Sure, anything can be misused and misapplied. However, to sceptics I’d just point out that we are always framing our experience anyway. It’s just that how we frame things is not always conscious, and it is certainly not always for the best. Sometimes our framing is downright catastrophic.

The real question, then, cannot be whether we should work on the best way to frame our thinking, but only how. Yes, there will be better and worse answers to this question; but the question must be asked nonetheless. And with that in mind, 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

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 rumination and reframes 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.3

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 everyday grudges and obsessions appear now? What is important now? What is worth cherishing and what is worth letting go?

THE NEGATIVE VISUALISATION

How we evaluate our 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 (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?

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

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.4 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 an average life-expectancy between 21-37 years, and only 57% even making it to the tender age of 15.5 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 GOOD STORY

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?

THE PROSPECTIVE RETROSPECTION

Consider 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 a 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

This is an interesting one if you’re not too morbid about it.

One of the Stoics’ signature catchphrases was “Memento mori” or “Remember that you will die.” The basic idea is that 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.

Take any ordinary, everyday thing you do and remember that one day you will do it for the last time. Also 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 now.

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.

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.

the test

It’s a rare day when everything goes exactly according to plan.

Most days will throw obstacles in your path. It’s like you’re constantly being followed by someone who is trying their utmost to trip you up, get you frustrated, make you angry, in some way large or small cause you to lose your self-control, your “Stoic” calm.

But suppose you frame such trying circumstances not as mere annoyances or frustrations, but as “tests” sent from “the Stoic gods” (metaphorically speaking) of your ability to put your reframing skills into practice.

Start with the little things. The coffee machine at work is out of coffee; reflect on how fortunate you are that this is your biggest concern right now. Eventually you can move on to the big things; until, of course, you one day face the biggest test of all: death, what some Stoics have called “your final exit exam.”

Whether your test is small or large, it will often boil down to how well you can dwell on what you do have, and not on what you don’t.

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 Can 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 his life had meaning; that beyond the senseless waste of life that surrounded him on every front, he still had a reason for existing, for carrying on in the world.

Frankl survived the camps and went on to describe his experiences in his memoir, which has been described as one of the most influential psychology books of all time.1

what you CAN CONTROL

Previously I wrote about the importance of letting go of what you can’t control. 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 external circumstance, there is one thing you control – assuming a psychologically healthy mind – 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 control of their well-being lies outside of themselves tend to see themselves as perpetual victims, blame everyone else for everything, and tend to be (unsurprisingly) more all-round miserable. Those who assume control 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 lost a loved one that they should just 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 it with “happy thoughts,” or we choose to deal with it 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.

And 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. To be clear, you cannot always control what thoughts come and go in the mind. The core of Buddhism is that pleasant and unpleasant thoughts and feelings will both inevitably come and go, and trying to either cling to or avoid them is precisely what causes us misery. However, when you ground your attention in the present moment, you are in a state where you can take control of your relationship to your own thoughts.

In mindfulness, an anxious thought may arise but that doesn’t mean you have to believe the thought, much less react emotionally to it. So instead of being battered about by whatever thoughts happen to burst forth like a fire hydrant in the mind, you can literally just observe them rise and pass away. This is self-control defined.

It’s also 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 cultivating 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. And as Epictetus said, “The good or ill of a person lies within their own will.”4

The Stoics point out that 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 make us a better, wiser, happier person are good because they lie within our control. This is the essence of the Stoic recommendation against idle hope, or wishful-thinking about things beyond our control. Instead of just hoping the world will stop being difficult and conform to your whims, focus on the kind of person you want to be.

Instead of just hoping for a promotion, which only your manager controls, focus on being good at your job, which you control. Instead of just hoping someone will love you, which only the object of your affection controls, focus on being a loveable person, which you control. Instead of just hoping the world will stop being sexist, racist, classist or ecocidal, which the entire rest of the world controls, 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: “People are ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as they 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 Nietzsche’s “will to power” or Sigmund Freud’s “will to pleasure.”

Sartre contended that the freedom to choose our own purpose can be exhilarating or anxiety-inducing (depending on how you look at it). When people feel the latter they tend to look to authority figures – parents, mentors, church, etc. – to simply tell them the meaning of their life; but this is what Sartre called “bad faith,” or pretending that such authority figures know something that they don’t.7

No, our purpose can never be based on being true to someone else’s expectations, only on being true to our own; this is what Sartre said it is to live “authentically.” If the Stoics emphasise being our best selves, being true to ourselves and our ideals, Existentialists add that doing so is the very thing that gives our lives meaning. Be true and you will feel purposeful; fail, and you won’t.

Don’t just fight fascists like the Nazis because you hope to win. Instead, fight fascists because it’s who you are, it’s what you believe in, and therefore it gives you purpose, your reason for being. Fight fascists because even the slave who is true to themselves lives a freer, more meaningful existence than the king who is not.

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.8 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 thoughts, to choose who he was, to choose the very meaning of his existence, 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, 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.

THE GOD COMPLEX

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, Byrne is just being consistent with what she believes. She had to say it; and that’s the problem. The fact that such beliefs force you to talk this way about 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. 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 quite a 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.

Meditation is just the act of taking control of how we are training our minds. When you do the above samatha practice, over and over, you are training the mind to be better at being present and therefore calm and content. 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.

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 a sense, meditation is really about doing less.

In short, as long as you are actually paying attention to whatever it is you are doing, you are meditating. That said, 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?

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. I finally stopped chasing and clinging to “happy thoughts,” or even fleeing and avoiding unhappy thoughts. I stopped trying to force it. Instead, I just let go.

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.

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.

ILLUSION AND REALITY

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 is behind our irrational attempt to try and control things beyond our control, or to be unaware of what we do control. It is ignorance that 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” (spoiler alert: they almost never are).

Above all – and this was the Buddha’s central insight – it is ignorance that makes us think that well-being lies in chasing and clinging to pleasant thoughts and feelings, and in fleeing and avoiding unpleasant thoughts and feelings; both of which just put you in a state of anxiety and dissatisfaction.

It is ignorance 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.3

Instead of our usual stressful game of chasing or clinging to pleasant thoughts and feelings, and fleeing or avoiding unpleasant thoughts and feelings, this “objective observer” state allows you to just step back and watch all thoughts and feelings rise and fall without attachment.4

To use a Buddhist analogy, it’s as though we’ve been living our lives as a mad person who rushes 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. The peace is incredible.

It is from this place of calm that it is easier to see the waves for what they are; that is, see which thoughts and feelings are based in reality and which are not, which are useful and which are just pointless worry, rumination and fear.

This state transforms not just the way you see your mind but the way you see the world. You see the world “as it really is” at a deeper level, the level of pure experience or bare awareness, unfiltered by your thoughts and feelings about it. Here, the strange, enigmatic statements of mystics, speaking of “seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary,” suddenly make sense.

In deep 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. 5 

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, whatever is there.

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; work, home, chores, eat, sleep, repeat. So normally we seek out happiness – those “pleasant waves” – 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 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.

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 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.