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.

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.