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

I’m sure you’ve been there before.

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

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

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

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

And around and around you go.

THE HEDONIC TREADMILL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE SOCIAL COST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMING BACK TO WHERE YOU ARE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting High on Nirvana: A Guided Tour of Meditation Techniques

photography of a woman meditating

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

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

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

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

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

THE BREATH

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BODY

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

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

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

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

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

THE SENSES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS

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

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

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

In this state, you are truly high on nirvana.

How to Meditate: It May Not Be What You Think

silhouette of man sitting on grass field at daytime

What do you imagine when you think of someone meditating?

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

myth-busting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRAINING THE MIND

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

1- Ground your attention in the present moment.

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

3- Bring your attention back to the present moment.

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

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

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

2- Repeat.

3- Don’t fall. 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why you do have time to meditate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So get on that tightrope.

The Necessity of Mindfulness: Seeing Things as They Really Are

There came a point when my life collapsed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had been too long.

Happiness and truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

seeing things as they really are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE NECESSITY OF MINDFULNESS

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

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

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

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