Mindfulness and Ethics
Mindfulness can be defined as a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. This sounds simple, and it is, but it’s also super not-simple. There’s a lot that goes into returning to our most natural state being, especially in a very unnatural world.
Mindfulness is cool and lifechanging and all that, but it’s also a word we so often right now that it has started to lose its meaning and potency as that force for change in our lives. This sucks, but it makes sense. Any time something is re-processed and re-purposed to make it more palatable (and profitable) many of the most beneficial parts of it will be stripped away.
Mindfulness as a fad (I’ve seen it called McMindfulness, which is apt) has led to the deeper meaning being stripped away, and has seen what is a practice of wisdom and compassion be co-opted by corporations as a way to keep employees happy in jobs that no healthy human would be happy in. This is the unfortunate side effect of anything we want without doing the work, and it is the problem with removing a practice from its ethical roots for the sake of making it more broadly palatable.
So what is unpalatable about mindfulness? There are a few things.
- Mindfulness is not always easy and requires discipline.
- Mindfulness angles us into a dialogue with wisdom and compassion, and the necessity of both
- Mindfulness begins to wear away at many of the things we hold most dear, many of which society leverages for the good of society.
- Mindfulness forces us to re-examine one of our most sacred and sentimental assumptions – the idea that there is a “me”.
What Mindfulness Is Not
Mindfulness is not a simple tool for making everything more tolerable.
Mindfulness is not a quick fix for everything in your life.
Mindfulness is not a way of becoming numb to the world around you.
Mindfulness is not an excuse to avoid evolving because “everything is perfect as it is.”
Mindfulness is not a relaxation technique.
Mindfulness is not an amoral or neutral practice.
If any of these statements are surprising, you should not blame yourself. Mindfulness, when presented as an exclusively secular/mental health practice does often claim these things. Part of this is to make it presentable to everyone – atheist, Christian, agnostic, and everyone else, part of it is from a desire to avoid morality-oriented positions, and part of it is either from a desire to avoid the word meditation and all the associations that come with it or an ignorance of mindfulness’ place within the world of meditation.
It is essential to understand that mindfulness and meditation are not only not interchangeable words, mindfulness is a type, and only one of many, of meditation, and it is not even the type that is generally best to start with.
The most important thing to understand is that mindfulness will not make you perfect, it will not make all of life’s experiences equal or neutral, and you will still be human – maybe even more human. You will still experience anxiety and pain and anger and jealousy and heartache and heartbreak and sickness and death.
If you only remember one thing, please remember this:
Mindfulness is not about changing or improving our experience, but learning to observe and accept and embrace it exactly as it is.
Mindfulness and Meditation
At its core, mindfulness is about learning to observe your experience as a human without attachment or judgment. We mostly see this directed outwardly in the context of mindfulness-as-self-help, but it applies to our internal experience as well, and this is where things can get complicated. As we come face-to-face with the swirling and shifting ground of our thoughts, emotions, judgments, opinions, fears, worries, expectations, assumptions, stories, identities, physical sensations, aches, pains, and everything else that arises in us we find that it isn’t easy to be a human, and this isn’t relaxing.
This requires a steady mind, so many meditation traditions start off by teaching us how to focus on the breath until we learn how to maintain it for at least a little while. This is important because the mind isn’t used to staying on one thing, so mindfulness of our experience is very frustrating as we get pulled away over and over again. Focus takes practice.
It is also vital that we understand how to turn toward refuge when the internal stream becomes too overwhelming or chaotic for us. We spend a lot of our lives escaping what’s going on inside of us, and this seems to be more and more prevalent as the rates of anxiety, depression and general stress are on the rise. It can be overwhelming when we immerse ourselves in everything we have been avoiding. Being able to rest on the breath or a mantra is a way of turning away from the sharp edges of our experience for a few moments until we are ready to begin wearing them down and desensitizing ourselves to them again.
The Shortcomings of Secular Mindfulness
This started out as an exploration of mindfulness as a practice inextricable from the Buddhism from which it emerged. As I wrote, I realized that it was less about this, and more about the problem of mindfulness being promoted as nothing more than a tool to help us feel better or to make a boring corporate meeting less miserable. Mindfulness and ethics is what we’re really talking about here.
While it is unarguable that mindfulness has its roots as a Buddhist practice and there some aspects of mindfulness best understood in a Buddhist context, the more significant issue can be addressed through acknowledging the spiritual or moral character of mindfulness. I put spiritual in italics because it is a squirmy word – I am not sure it is the correct one, but I cannot think of something more appropriate.
Keep this idea in mind: mindfulness cannot be divorced from wisdom, compassion, and the idea of no-self. Wisdom and compassion are not unique to this practice and are present in any valid ethical system. The idea of no-self is somewhat uniquely Buddhist. There are notions of no-self in the mystical traditions of every religion, though often not as explicitly as it is in Buddhism. This is important because the observation of the impermanence of self cannot be avoided in mindfulness practice.
A quick note on citations: this is all I read, write, and talk about so I cannot remember where different bits of information came from. Because of this, I am including my ongoing and often-updated reading list at the end. I assume everything I talk about here is on that list somewhere, though podcasts are another avenue I utilize but have not listed on a per episode basis.
Starving to Death Instead of Drowning
I don’t really like writing things like this. I don’t like to seem like I am sniping at people who do work similar to me, or claiming to be the expert that has everything right. I also dislike the easy credibility/legitimacy that can be found by criticizing others, and I am not seeking that.
That being said, I cannot help but have some concern and even worry over the presentation of mindfulness I see in our society, specifically, the fad/cure-all nature of its presentation.
I’m a fan of mindfulness as a lifestyle. I’m a fan of mindfulness as a way of being. I’m a fan of mindfulness in (what I see as) it’s proper context of an ethically-directed practice or, at the very least, as part of a more profound discipline.
I am not a fan of mindfulness as the silver bullet, easy fix it is being offered as, especially in the field of mental health or personal development. I have seen it bring harm to people, and I have seen it make things harder for others. This makes sense – you cannot divorce something from its foundations and still expect it to work as well as it did when it was built on something completely different.
Let’s say someone is going to the lake for the weekend. They don’t know how to swim, so they decide to learn beforehand. Instead of finding an instructor who will teach them everything, they take the quickest route and learn to float because it’s the easiest way – the body already knows how, so why not. They don’t want to bother with actually learning to actually swim, they just want to not drown.
So, they go to the lake, and the boat sinks. They manage to escape the debris and begin to float. And they float, and they float, and they float, hoping to make it to shore eventually, though when and where they land is out of their control. Eventually, they starve to death floating around in the water rather than drowning.
I see this happening a lot with mindfulness. People read a book or two and begin to teach others, or people read a book or two that’s the extent of their self-education. Some even get a certification and start teaching, but certifications are unregulated and do not guarantee any foundational teaching or depth of study. As I mentioned at the beginning, some fail to even explain that mindfulness is a type of meditation, rather than being synonymous with meditation. This is problematic.
Look, I get it. I had to learn about this all through books and certifications as well. I was lucky to come to it through the lens of Buddhist teaching and philosophy but I still approached from a secular/mental health perspective. I saw it as a cure-all for a while, and I sought ways to strip it of its Buddhist constraints to make it more palatable to everyone. I wasn’t ever able to see it as amoral, but, years back, I did not address the morality and ethics as necessary or essential. This was a mistake.
Mindfulness without its ethical underpinnings is just a slower death through suffering – it is not enough to simply be aware of the present moment. We cannot use mindfulness to numb ourselves to very real social problems, but we run the risk of doing exactly that if we remove the ethical foundations of the practice in the name of making it more palatable for everyone.
I’ve avoided this word for quite a while.
I live in West Texas. From what I understand, we are more Christian than Pakistan is Muslim, and we are dominated by a strict sect of Christianity. This is not a welcoming ground to talk about Buddhism.
And I get it. People have their beliefs, and that’s cool. People want to believe that their belief system encompasses all the wisdom the universe has to offer, and that makes sense.
It makes sense, but it doesn’t make it True.
There is a functionality and correspondence to everyday experience in Buddhism that I have not found in other religions. Buddhism offers an understanding of the human condition that is verifiable and action-oriented. I am not even sure you have to believe anything at all to find the truths of Buddhism useful – it is a grounded practice, one anyone can do. You don’t need to be a Buddhist in any sense.
But, all that said, I do not think it is wise or beneficial to completely divorce mindfulness from its Buddhist roots.
Mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism whether we like it or not. This may or not be a problem for you. Where I live, it has been a problem for some people, so let’s break a few things down.
It’s important to consider the idea that many of the core tenets of Buddhism can be explored and even accepted without compromising whatever your current religious or lack-of-religious belief is. Most every faith embraces psychology to some extent these days, and Buddhism is, in many ways, a psychology, and maybe the best one I’ve come across.
Let’s set one thing aside at the very beginning: we are not going to talk about reincarnation. I don’t have an opinion on it because I haven’t died yet (that I know of – rimshot), and, it’s actually the subject of some debate even among religious Buddhists. It is unnecessary to our conversation here either way.
I’m also not going to go into many of the mystical or magical aspects of the story of the Buddha, who was a real person named Siddhartha Gautama and lived about 2500 years ago. The backstory is also not really necessary, neither is the supernatural stuff, that is also a subject of some debate, even among religious Buddhists.
You may see a pattern here: religious Buddhists, like people of every faith, have a wide and varied perspective on what is and is not necessary and true within their faith.
Here are the things that I see as necessary, and that I know a million people would have million different ideas about:
The Four Noble Truths
Gautama tried a lot of different ways to understand our lot in life. After years of arduous practices, he had a moment of realization, and arrived at 4 Truths about the nature of the mind, the self, and being human. It’s important to note that these are things to reflect on rather than ideas to accept as absolutes. This isn’t a set of rules so much as a set of explanations that you have to apply to your own life and practice.
The First Noble Truth
This one seems simple, but it’s also not-so-simple. The most common way I’ve heard this phrased is that “life is suffering.” From what I’ve read, this is accurate, but it also needs clarification. The word Gautama used was dukkha, a Pali word with a lot of different meanings. These include satisfactoriness, pain, imperfect, impermanent, empty, unsubstantial. You get a general idea. More than anything these all engage some notion of change or being ungraspable. We don’t like things like that.
This is not meant to be optimistic or pessimistic, it’s meant to be a statement about reality. This world dukkha applies to all aspect of human life, including times of happiness, because they too are impermanent and will shift on us.
The Second Noble Truth
So the first Noble Truth tells us that life is inherently and inescapably unsatisfactory, and the Second Noble Truth tells us why: attachment. This isn’t the healthy kind of secure attachment we talk about in counseling, but the pathological desire we have for things that we think we will make us happy. Some of these are easy to see: wealth, sex, prestige, fame, etc. There are some less tangible things we use to comfort ourselves as well – beliefs, opinions, concepts, theories, identity, and a host of other mental constructions that we try to solidify into something we can hold on to.
We are in a constant struggle to fulfill cravings, but there’s a problem with this: they cannot be satisfied in any real way or for any length of time.
You are excited to see a movie, you see it, and it’s no longer new.
You are hungry, you eat, you are no longer hungry, but you will be again.
You are tired, you sleep, you feel rested, but you will get tired again.
You meet someone you love, you have a life together, they will die and so will you.
Everything we think is stable is actually dependent on something else. You cannot be hot without the idea of cold, you cannot be bored without the concept of interested, you cannot fear death without seeing life as the right way of being. These are not solid, they only exist in relationship to each other.
In short: Everything, everything, everything changes in this life, there is nothing to hold on to, nothing that will not shift. I hear people say God is unchanging and eternal, and maybe he is, but our understanding and relationship to him through this understanding changes throughout our life, so there is no permanence in that perspective or relationship. There is nothing to grasp on to in the way that we want to grasp on to things.
Learning to observe this impermanence also brings us into close contact with one of the deepest roots of our suffering: a misapprehension of what we are. At the heart of a mindfulness practice is the observation of the impermanence of everything. This is seen in the world as people, places, fads, countries and entire cultures come and go. We can see this in ourselves as well: thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, everything that makes up this idea of “me” is an endless flow of change. This solid self, this “me” we spend so much time defending and providing for is actually very hard to find. At the very core of all of this, even this person I am so invested in is hard to find.
The Third Noble Truth
This one is pretty simple: attachment and desire cause suffering, but there is a way out of it. We do this weird thing where we take our desires and our wants and our beliefs as True and real and us.
Why do I want a cookie? Because I want it.
Why do I desire sex with that person? Because I feel like I do.
Why do I believe what I believe? Because it’s what I believe.
We like to think these things are substantial, but there’s not much more reflection than we see here. So much of our lives are lived chasing one thing and then another and another, always looking for that small bit of satisfaction that immediately turns into the search for something else.
So, what’s the way out?
Learning to reflect on these things, without attachment. Cultivating an understanding of the inherent emptiness of these desires, and letting them come and go without clinging or rejecting.
This doesn’t mean nothing matters, and we don’t have anything to look forward to, only that the things external to us don’t get to drive us, they don’t get to run the show and keep us locked in the rollercoaster cycle of craving-attainment-joy-despair-craving.
The Fourth Noble Truth
So, we have the truth of suffering, the truth of why we suffer, the truth that there is a way out, and then we arrive at the actual path itself. It’s important to note that this path has a clear ethical direction to it – there is nothing amoral about it. Called the Noble Eightfold Path, it consists of a series of nonlinear, non-rule-oriented areas of proper behavior:
- Right Understanding
- Right Thought
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration
The use of the word “right” here is essential – it has a deeper meaning and context than our ordinary understanding of it as an absolute or the simple opposite of wrong. Terms like appropriate, complete or well-directed may be a better fit, as these 8 ideas have a lot of space in them for interpretation and application. Let’s look at that.
The Noble Eightfold Path
In no particular order:
Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood seem to pertain to things we do. How we speak of others, whether or not we gossip, how we behave, the things we do and things we avoid, and how we make our living – whether or not we do this in a way that helps others or harms them.
Right Thought and Right Understanding seem to point toward wisdom as being important. The thoughts we cultivate and nourish matter, and it is important that we see the world and the mind and cravings and desires as they are if we are to walk this path. Thoughts of selflessness and compassion are more skillful than selfish or self-absorbed thoughts, and we should focus on compassion and gratitude more than their opposites.
Lastly, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration point toward inherently positive things, but seem to imply that there are correct ways of doing even things that are good. We need to direct our effort toward skillful mind states, so mindfulness and concentration are not necessarily useful in and of themselves. Concentration on things like greed, hatred, lust, and a host of other things will not benefit us or anyone around us, and mindfully cultivating and planning things that bring harm is not skillful.
Why Mindfulness and Ethics Matters
Mindfulness emerged from a tradition with a deep sense of ethics. Compassion was central, as was wisdom and ethical behavior. This is important because mindfulness divorced from these things becomes a liability – to ourselves and to society at large.
The important thing here is the clearly implied and inherent direction to all of this – it is not amoral or neutral, it is not just a tool to cultivate peace and equanimity to everything. There are things that are helpful and things that are not helpful, there are things that are skillful, and there are things that are not skillful.
Being mindful of the destruction one’s drinking problem is wreaking on their children and having equanimity toward the damage and long-term scarring this behavior brings is not okay. One needs to learn to steady the mind enough to bring mindfulness to the things that might drive the compulsive drinking, put in the effort to seek out help, and try to find a more skillful way to live. Things are not all neutral, some things bring suffering and destruction to those who depend on us. There is something in the nature of this world, in the nature of the mind that keeps us from growing and evolving amid this kind of behavior.
Wisdom and Compassion
Mindfulness needs wisdom and compassion and wisdom and compassion need each other.
Wisdom without compassion leads to arid intellectualism. Many acts can be done mindfully, but are not necessarily good acts to be performing. It would take a high degree of mindfulness to plan and execute a robbery, blackmail or even a murder, but we should not cultivate a desire to perform these acts well. Psychopathic behavior may be mindful, but it is not skillful.
On the other hand, compassion without wisdom leads to foolish people with good intentions (I recently heard this called “idiot compassion”). Working as a counselor, these were often the most destructive people I would encounter, though usually indirectly as I worked with someone to repair the damage the compassionate fool had done. We see this in society at large in policies that bring harm to people in the name of feeling good for a moment, and in religion, as well-meaning leaders step into places they do not have the skill or training to be.
We need both wisdom and compassion in our mindfulness to avoid making a mess one way or another, this is implicit and essential in the Buddhist path, and that offers us a guardrail against these two ditches.
This one is more difficult and pushes back at something we all believe, though we do so without much examination. I do not think there is a religious problem here, and this can even be verified for those who are more scientifically minded.
If someone is using a mindfulness practice to find peace or be happier, then this part of the equation – this no-self – becomes a problem. It can, in fact, be terrifying or mentally harmful if you are not ready for this. It is difficult even when you are looking for it!
This idea of the self very much matters because so much of what we do emerges from it.
I need this, even if it means others cannot have it.
I deserve this more than him/her/them.
My family is especially important. \
My city/state/country has a divine right to prosper, even if its at the expense of others.
It’s not that explicit, of course, but the self, this ego we cart around with us, very much creates an us/them mentality in everything we do. When everything goes through the filter of “me”, we will always assess everything based on what it does for us, at the expense of everyone else.
Swim and Float
None of this is to say that there’s no benefit to an amoral mindfulness. I’ve seen it help people when used as a simple tool to help with the smaller trials of everyday life. It’s helped people deal with stress at their work, their screaming kids, and not to throw a fit in traffic. These are good and decent things.
That being said, I do think there is value in exploring and understanding, if not embracing, the spiritual and ethical roots of the practice, especially if one is going to dive into it in any real way.
It seems indisputable that mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist thought, which traces itself back to Hindu/Vedic roots. There are mindfulness orienting practices in every tradition though, from the mysticism of Christianity to Sufi Islam.
The unifying principle in all of these is the idea of there being an underlying ethical perspective that emphasizes wisdom and compassion – if we are honest these other traditions speak of love as the most significant aspect of these practices. These are not only beneficial characteristics, but they may also be necessary for a complete practice.
Informal practices weave into our lives seamlessly. We like taking a mindful walk, doing the dishes without all the stories, and watching our breath during that boring meeting at work that you have every Monday even though nothing has ever been accomplished in any meeting, ever, much less one that happens every single Monday without fail. We like these fun, peaceful moments into our lives and being all Zen for a few seconds before returning to the hustle and bustle and struggle of being a human.
This is all well and cool, but there is a lot more to this practice of mindfulness. Learning to steady our mind through concentration meditation allows us to experience a more continuous mindfulness throughout our day, and investing in a formal practice of mindfulness itself helps us process through so many of the difficult things in our lives.
Neither of these is easy, but I’m not sure that many things are easy in life that are worth having. I am also not sure that we can be mindful – that we can dig down into the deeper aspects of being a person on this planet – without a formal sitting practice. There are too many distractions for us these days.
Think of how many worlds we live in: the world of our mind, work world, other people’s perceptions world, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Bumble, Tinder, eHarmony, Match, (etc., etc.) world, the worlds of our television shows, and all the things I am missing. Our minds shift from one world to the next to the next, and a few moments of quiet observation on the bus ride to work or school is not going to help us parse this in any significant way.
A formal practice gives us a set amount of time – 20-30 minutes – where we aren’t doing anything else except focusing and watching the mind. It’s the difference between taking the stairs instead of the elevator versus having a dedicated eating and workout plan that we stick to daily. The results speak for themselves.
There is another, more subtle benefit to a formal sitting practice: it is a rare thing in this world to do one thing, and doing one thing is good for us. We tend to sit, looking at our phones – texting, Snapchatting, scrolling Reddit, playing a game (maybe all at the same time) while also watching Netflix, and even having a conversation if someone happens to be nearby (and they are probably doing all of these things as well). Sitting, doing one thing, for a small part of our day, can actually be life-changing in and of itself.
So, What is Mindfulness?
We haven’t really answered this question in any real way, and I am not sure I can. We can go with all the standard definitions like “a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment” (still my favorite), but this definition leaves a lot to be desired.
Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment, but this applies to everything. A nonjudgmental awareness of the traffic jam, the neighbor and their thumping stereo or stomping footsteps, the barking dog, the rain on our day off. But it also a nonjudgmental awareness of our own beliefs and opinions, of the shifting seascape inside of us – thoughts and emotions and aches and pains, and all with the understanding that these things are impermanent and insubstantial.
Mindfulness is about allowing ourselves to move with the unceasing flow of time around us, not getting stuck on any one thing. As we’ve discussed already, this might be pleasant during a difficult meeting or boring bus ride, but it still applies equally when looking at the things we like and cherish and love – our opinion on something does not imbue it with permanence.
Mindfulness is an informal practice, a formal practice, a way of being, all at once, and each feeds into the other. It is difficult to be truly skillful in any of these without investing in all three.
Mindfulness is an ancient practice, with its roots tracing back into the traditions of India, but being clearly delineated in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama 2500 years ago, and having been refined, elaborated on, and, unfortunately, twisted and dumbed-down since then. Mindfulness is inherently an ethically-oriented practice, emphasizing wisdom and compassion, most clearly laid out in the Noble Eightfold Path.
All that being said, mindfulness is a practice that is compatible with any of the great moral and ethical systems that occupy our hearts and minds in modern times. Whether we call it centering prayer or choiceless awareness, mindfulness can adapt itself to our lives, provided we are willing to act skillfully and with love.
How Do We Practice?
As mentioned, there are formal and informal practices, I encourage people to begin with a formal practice, make it a habit, and stick with it. Here’s how to build mindfulness and concentration:
- Set a timer for however long you want to practice – 5 or 10 minutes might be a good place to start.
- Take up a dignified posture. This can be in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. Sit in a way that you can do so comfortably for 20 minutes or so. Let your spine be straight but relaxed.
- Let your hands rest comfortably, let your eyes close naturally.
- Take a moment to notice everything coming in through your senses:
- What do you hear?
- What do you smell?
- What can you taste?
- What do you see (we are at least seeing the backs of our eyelids)?
- What does the temperature feel like on your skin?
- Notice the places where your body makes contact with the chair or floor.
- Let yourself explore these things, see what they feel like.
- Turn your attention to your breath, let yourself watch it come and go. When you get distracted, return to the breath – there is no one there who needs the distraction analyzed or explained.
- After a few moments of this, begin counting the breath – one on the inbreath, two on the outbreath, and so on. If you get distracted, go back to one. If you make it to ten, go back to one. If you find yourself striving to get to ten, count one/two, one/two. This isn’t a competition or a performance – it’s about focusing the mind.
- When your timer goes off don’t jump up. Take a moment to observe the mind and body, accepting it all exactly as it is. Then, move your fingers and your toes to ease your nervous system back into wakefulness, and, when it is comfortable, open your eyes.
Mindfulness, Mindfulness, Mindfulness
Over the last few years, I’ve written a bunch of words (around 400k), made a bunch of podcast episodes, led a bunch of groups, had a few speaking engagements, and made a small number of videos, and almost all of this was about mindfulness in one way or another.
Most of what I read, watch, and listen to is about mindfulness. Right now, I’m listening to The Science of Mindfulness by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation by Professor Mark W. Muesse on Audible. I’m re-reading Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy. I spoke about mindfulness in schools in June, and I still have a mindfulness meditation group that meets every Monday evening.
Even now, as I switch the focus of what I blog and podcast and make videos about from mindfulness to living intentionally and as a full human being, I start with mindfulness.
The question seems obvious: why do I care about mindfulness so much that I’m willing to dedicate so much time to it?
Mindfulness for a Mindless Person
The answer seems obvious (to me at least): I’ve lived mindlessly, and it brings nothing but pain.
Mindless is actually a pretty good way to describe me for the majority of my life.
When I was 11, I cleaned out the fireplace and put the ashes in a plastic bucket. It burst into flames and ruined my mom’s antique rug.
When I was 16, I ripped the water pump out of my car, driving too fast over a low water crossing.
When I was 22, I drove 2 ½ hours in the wrong direction because I didn’t pay attention to where I was going on what had already been a long trip.
Things like that.
But also not like that, because these are all pretty minor in the long run.
A lot of my mindlessness had more dire consequences, for myself and others.
It’s important for me to say that I am resolved to everything I write about here. I’ve made apologies and amends where I could, I’ve sorted out compassion and forgiveness for myself and the mindless being that I was. I’m aware of how unreliable our memories are, how much they rewrite and re-interpret past experiences so I cannot say everything is the Truth, but I can say it is the truth as I remember it.
So, I’m resolved to younger James, I’ve forgiven him and tried to understand where he was coming from, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t still annoy me. His mindlessness made a lot of things very difficult, for myself and others.
I treated people poorly because I didn’t know how to deal with myself. I talked too much and only about myself, I bailed on people for the smallest things, and when I sensed that people just didn’t understand how cool I was, I made things up. This created an odd cycle where the more I tried, the fewer people liked me, so I tried harder and harder. It was messy.
Not knowing how to deal with emotions and thoughts and (once again), myself, ended up in drug addiction and a pretty decent drinking issue. This led to other problems, as you can imagine.
I was rarely mindful of my time, so I wasted a lot of it. I was rarely intentional, so a lot of my choices were made by default or by path-of-least-resistance. This inevitably led to outcomes that were not planned well in the long-term.
More than anything, I lived a lot like a toddler – I reacted to things and responded from a place of emotional distress a majority of the time. Pain was channeled into anger, so I spent a lot of time lashing out without even meaning to. I was on fire a lot of the time, and I burned everyone around me.
An odd series of coincidences led me to learn about mindfulness as a way of being. Once I realized that there was a better way of living life, I was obsessed with learning and evolving. I got super fascinated with things like samurais and cryptozoology, but one day the book I was looking for was missing and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was in its place. I got absorbed into quantum mechanics and physics but did not have the foundations to understand it. I happened across a book called The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, which opened me up to the world of Eastern thought, and I found myself drawn to the stripped-down, non-magical clarity of Zen Buddhism, and began trying to meditate.
This is where things got complicated for me. I had been running from my emotions, and the noise in my head for so long that sitting with all of it was unbearable. I had distracted myself from being on fire for so long that is was difficult to come to terms with what a mess I was.
I couldn’t sit for more than 30 or 40 seconds when I first started. I tried to make it more comfortable, I tried classical music (because that’s what it seemed like fancy, enlightened people would like), I even ordered this binaural beats CD off of the internet because it promised me a better experience. It didn’t work.
I finally made my way to the local Buddhist center – not so much because I was looking to become a Buddhist, but because I knew they meditated and that I would be too embarrassed to walk out in front of everyone. I leveraged that ego that had driven me crazy for so long against my lack of discipline, and it worked.
It wasn’t easy or amazing, but little by little I began to know how to sit with myself, how to watch the thoughts and emotions come and go, how not to invest in every little thing that floated through my awareness. It was slow, but it was also life-changing.
It’s odd as I write this because I don’t enjoy thinking about earlier times in my life. I still remember what it was like to be so overwhelmingly angry and sad all the time. I haven’t lost sight of what it’s like to be driven by these things inside of me that always push for more and more to escape from the fire. I know that suffering is real, and this is what drives me to help others – this and the fact that I know there is a way out of suffering if we are willing to lay down our egos and move forward with existence.
That’s what this next year is all about: the person I was, the mistakes I made, the consequences that ensued, and how mindfulness and meditation helped me deal with and step away from all of it.
What is Mindfulness?
The shortest answer is surprisingly accurate: mindfulness is a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. This, not-so-surprisingly, gets more and more complicated as we break it down and dig deeper though.
Think about your awareness at this moment, how many things are involved in it. We all have the things immediately in front of us, the things we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. These things are all neutral in and of themselves – if there were no humans around to have an opinion on them, they wouldn’t be a problem.
But there are two more things we experience concerning all of this. We have thoughts and emotions about these things, as well.
The dog smells bad, I need to bathe her.
This room is a wreck, why are toddlers such a mess?
It’s freezing outside, I wish I lived in Florida.
Ugh, that thumping sound! Who needs speakers that loud in their car?
I know broccoli is healthy for me, but it tastes like body odor.
You’ll notice all of these things are neutral:
A dog smells a certain way, things are in one place instead of another in a room, the weather is consistent with the season, sound waves hit an eardrum, broccoli tastes like broccoli. There is no objective measure of them being okay or not okay, they just are.
A mindful perspective allows us to understand the neutrality of all this while exploring our reasons for not liking it.
I never even wanted this dog, and she’s so much work.
Why am I such a bad parent? Everyone on Instagram has such a clean house.
My body hurts more in the cold. I want to go ride my bike.
I think it’s rude to impose your noise on other people.
My mom forced me to eat broccoli when I was a kid.
We can, with practice, dig even deeper into all of this. Is there resentment or fear present? Do we feel ignored or taken advantage of? Did we fail to draw boundaries, or are we not using our time wisely?
Mindfulness can help us dig all of this up, while also providing the resources and equanimity we need to deal with it when it hits the surface. It’s a way of living beyond our basic petty thoughts and emotions and delving into the truth of life.
A hammer is a useful tool when used for its proper purpose. If you are hammering a nail in or pulling one out, cool, the hammer can do its job. If you use a hammer to turn off your television or discipline your child, then you have a problem on your hands.
The mind is the same way. It is beneficial for planning things, making decisions, logical analysis – stuff like that. It’s not omniscient, though. It doesn’t have access to the future, any real access to the past, or to other people’s minds. We know this, we all recognize the limits of the mind, but we continuously invest in these things that the mind cannot do, whether we mean to or not.
Mindfulness is a way of stepping away from these things, from letting the mind do its job, and leaving the rest where it belongs: out of our hands. This allows us to focus on what matters and what’s possible.
Why Mindfulness Matters
We have to know why we are doing anything if we are going to do it well. Everything we do can go wrong if we do it mindlessly. Driving, eating, exercising, sleeping, working – all of these things need intention behind them or they can backfire on us and bring us suffering.
When we are mindful of what we are doing, we make wise decisions – decisions born of thought and intention instead of fear or anger.
We can all try to be mindful right now:
Take a deep breath.
Rest your attention on the breath, watch it come and watch it go.
When you get distracted (and you will), just redirect your attention to the breath.
There doesn’t need to be any discussion or judgment. By noticing distraction, you are no longer distracted.
Do this over and over again – every noticed distraction is a moment of mindfulness.
This is a basic practice. You can do it anytime, anywhere, but there is a strong reason to make this a formal practice, which we’ll touch on in posts to come.
I talk about this kind of stuff more regularly on Instagram – connect with me over there too!
Mindfulness and other people has long been a topic of conversation. Even emperors offered thoughts on the topic:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We are born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.
When we get right down to it, mindfulness is about trying to see the world as it really is, without the screen of our thoughts and emotions and prejudices and conditioned understandings. I am not sure how possible this is, but we can at least try to see and accept things as they are. Other people are one of the biggest challenges in this regard.
Mindfulness and Other People
If I had to boil down most of what I see people identify as the main problem in their life, it would be other people.
My husband doesn’t listen to me.
My wife only thinks about herself.
My boyfriend won’t grow up.
My girlfriend doesn’t understand that the world doesn’t revolve around her.
My kids won’t do what I tell them to do.
My boss is unreasonable.
That cop was on a power trip.
My dad doesn’t know how to let things go.
My roommate doesn’t know how to do the dishes.
Other drivers suck.
Everyone who didn’t vote the way I voted is a moron.
The poor only want free stuff.
The rich are corrupt and use their wealth to keep other people down.
Our president is a moron.
Our last president was a moron.
Every president we’ve ever had was a moron.
That other country’s president is a moron.
Everyone except me is a moron.
It goes on and on.
There is a reason Zen masters retreat to the mountains and Sadhus retreat to caves and monks retreat to monasteries where no one is allowed to talk. It seems like you can’t find enlightenment with other people around.
Of all the things we have to learn to be at peace with in life, other people pose the most serious difficulty.
They don’t listen, they complain, they get in the way of what we are working on. They are selfish and stupid and arrogant and just have to live their lives near us living ours.
There is a good chance the sorry bastards would even have the nerve to say these exact same things about us.
While most of this essay will be about trying to find ways to work with other people, let’s get one thing out of the way at the very beginning: not everyone has the same degree of self-awareness and insight and mindfulness in how they go about their lives. This is an inescapable fact. The idea that everyone approaches life with the same amount of skillfulness and knowledge is nonsense. Some people are healthier than others, some people have a better sense of things than everyone else.
There is no way around the fact that many people out there don’t really pay attention to the things they do, don’t take the time to be introspective and see where they might improve. There are many people who honestly do not care how their actions might affect others. Mindfulness in how we live is not somehting that everyone cares about.
This is all true.
The mistake we make is in thinking we are one of the high functioning elite. Especially if we think we are in this rarefied class in every situation. This kind of thinking points toward a sort of narcissism or solipsism. No one is always right.
It might be useful to ask ourselves if we are really as mindful and considerate and enlightened as we think we are. Even if I am one of the more self-aware and honest people in the world (which I’m not), I will still fail to be consistent 100% of the time. I will still make mistakes and behave poorly. Often on a daily basis.
I am lucky when I can go a few minutes without doing something foolish or unskillful.
I, of course, have a reason for this, and it’s never me. My reasons for being a turd are good and valid.
Mindfulness and Motives
We all like to think that we have a reason for doing what we do. Our decisions (for the most part), make sense to us. We can trace our way back to the precipitating cause and follow a chain of events from there to where we are. It all follows a logic.
The thing is, this is true for other people as well. People are not selfish and difficult without cause, and in their mind, they are not being selfish and difficult. They are standing up for themselves or drawing boundaries or simply doing what they do. It makes sense to them. A central aspect of living with mindfulness is recognizing the differnece between the situations we find ourselevs in and our stories about those situations.
And this is the crux of the problem we are dealing with here: everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. What they do makes sense to them. Nobody thinks they are really the villain.
Lex Luthor thinks he is saving the planet from an overpowered alien.
Magneto is fighting for an oppressed minority.
Agent Smith is fighting to bring balance and order to the Matrix.
Every good villain thinks they are the hero.
This is what makes them believable. We inherently mistrust a villain who is evil for the sake of evil, but we jump to the conclusion that the people around us are being jerks just to be jerks and ruin our life. It doesn’t even make sense.
They are living their lives, same as us. They may be selfish and stupid and self-absorbed and all those things we like to tell ourselves we are not, but they are, for the most part, oblivious rather than malicious. Sure, there are malicious people in the world, but they rarely see their malice as malice – they believe it to be justified.
Just. Like. Us.
When someone is malicious, they are malicious because they are suffering, this is how life works. I do not know that I ever see a situation where malice is present where suffering is not. They go hand in hand. This changes the nature of our relationship to others and their behavior. It takes it from the realm of resistance and opposition to that of compassion. Not without boundaries, but compassion for their suffering.
There is tremendous power in trying to understand just why someone behaves the way they do. It takes us out of the me-versus-them mindset that causes us so much suffering (which we then vent on others in unhealthy ways).
Babies scream and cry and lash out when they are in pain, many adults never find a more constructive way to meet their needs. Complainers often feel like they have no control and seek to alter things through complaining. People who create drama may feel insecure so they cause trouble between you and other people so that the two of you can team up. Laziness is often depression related, but it can also be an expression of powerlessness or something they saw modeled growing up. Cruel and manipulative people are seeking to get their needs met in very unhealthy and unskillful ways. Those who tend toward self-absorption and a lack of insight were often not raised to have these things and, due to the very nature of self-absorption and no insight, probably don’t even know they are self-absorbed and lacking insight.
The Illusion of Control
When it comes down to it, we are talking about control. We want to control other people, we need them to do what we want them to do. I often ask people to make a list of the things they always have control over in life. They tend to list the same things.
You’ll notice, even though none of the things on this list are under our control, other people do not appear on it. Even when we are listing things we think we can control (and getting it wrong) we don’t even consider putting other people on the list.
Yet we let so much of our happiness rest on controlling them.
We constantly outsource our emotional wellbeing to this thing we know we cannot control. We put our peace and contentment in the hands of something that is completely out of our control, and then wonder why we are anxious.
There are so many ways that we give others control.
We take offense to what others say, think, or believe.
We believe this offense means something.
We wish others would do something different.
We seek to manipulate or coerce others into doing what we want.
We think our unhappiness rests on what they do or do not do.
We think our happiness rests on what they do or do not do.
We think anything going on inside of us actually has something to do with them.
The fun part is that they are probably thinking the same things about us.
We are stuck in this web of interactions where everyone is blaming everyone else for how they feel, and then wondering why nothing is getting better.
This isn’t helpful.
There’s an easy exercise to expose and deal with this:
Today, whenever something related to another person makes you unhappy, ask yourself what it might be like if you took responsibility for your own emotional state.
There is the other person and their actions, and then there is your reaction.
You only have control over one of these things.
It isn’t them.
So many of our problems and difficulties stem, not from other people, but from our desire to control them.
To make them do what we want.
To force them into our agendas and plans.
So how we can we deal with others mindfully?
The same way we deal with anything mindfully: by being aware of the difference between the situation, and our judgment or assessment of the situation.
You want to see a certain movie, they want to see a different one.
Is it really a matter of them being unreasonable and selfish, or simply wanting to see a different movie? Is this really a thing, or just someone wanting something different from you? Is it all that important that you get to see your movie? Strip away words like fair – these are just concepts. They muddy situations like this.
This is a really good opportunity to explore the emotions and thoughts you have related to the situation rather than judging their behavior.
Are you tying this to previous behavior you have seen from them, so it is about more than this one movie (They are always selfish!)?
Is this really about feeling like you never get your way?
Are you just unable to accept not getting your way?
Do you experience anxiety when you aren’t in control?
What does anxiety drive you to do?
None of these things are necessarily good or bad. Neither is seeing one movie or another, they are just movies. A few hours out of your life. You will waste 10 times that many hours playing on your phone in the coming week.
Someone wanting to see what they want to see is neutral, and no different than you wanting to see what you want to see.
There is no morality or ethics here, it’s just two people wanting what they want.
So, take a moment, address what is happening inside of you, and accept that it is neutral. Accept that your partner wanting what they want is neutral.
Let yourself sit with these thoughts and feelings, without judgment, without reaction. Observe them, allowing them to be exactly as they are.
But what do we do about the truly toxic people in our world?
We’ve talked about the suffering people and all the words that go along with them.
And it goes on and on and on.
What do you do about people like this when they continually bring true harm into your life and the lives of those you love? Is this blog post advocating just accepting abuse and mistreatment?
There are times we have to address peoples’ behavior, we just have to do this without anger, and with compassion and an awareness of the limits of our control in the situation. These things will prevent it from creating suffering for us.
So how do we do this?
Confront them, kindly and with compassion. Without hurt or anger. Tell them how their behavior affects you. If this is a person who cares and deserves to be in your life, this should at least be able to be a conversation. If it cannot, you have to decide if they are someone that gets to keep a spot in your life. If they are, accept these things about them and move on. If they are a part of your work environment, then it may be time to look for a new job.
Draw boundaries. Not everyone has access to all parts of our life. This doesn’t change because they are family.
No matter what, keep a focus on the fact that you are choosing to have these people in your life. Not as a way of blaming yourself or assigning responsibility, but because there is a great deal of power in acknowledging our ability to choose.
A lot of this depends on who they are and what role they play in our life.
If they are an acquaintance or casual friend, you can simply choose if you want them around or not. No matter what anyone says, we are allowed to break up with our friends.
If the person carries a little more weight in your life (a spouse or family member) or you don’t have a lot of choice about them being there (a boss or co-worker), things are a little more complicated.
We have to choose our reaction to their behavior and decide how much is too much – when does their negative behavior outweigh the level of requirement they have in our lives? When they exceed this, we may need to step away.
No one gets a free pass to stay in our life. Who we spend our time with determines who we are. Who we are is all we have.
When it all comes down, I really like people.
People are cool, people do cool things.
I think the cool things outweigh the uncool things by a very wide margin.
I also really trust people.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, for every person who has done something shady to me, thousands and thousands have not. I constantly give people the opportunity to screw me over, and they don’t.
People tend to show up when they are supposed to show up and do the things they are supposed to do to fit into society and be a decent human. We all know people who don’t do these things, but we tend to remember them because they are the exception. We forget just how many people we see every day who take care of their shit.
People are generally trustworthy.
I also think you can trust toxic people more than you can trust anyone else.
They are very consistent in their behavior and their actions are predictable.
If you know someone always thinks the other person is wrong in a disagreement, you can trust them to do the same with you when you disagree.
If you know someone starts trouble to make themselves feel better, you can trust them to do just that if you tell them about an issue you are having with someone else.
If you know someone is lazy, you trust them to be lazy.
If you know someone has no insight, you can trust they will behave as they have always behaved.
It is absurd to have this hope that someone is suddenly going to change and then get mad when they don’t. Adjust your expectations to fit what you know of them, and make your decision based on that rather than some hopeful nonsense.
If you know you can trust someone to respond selfishly, don’t share something personal with them and expect yourself to be happy or satisfied with the results.
If you know you can trust someone to blame others when things go wrong, don’t work with them on something unless you are ready to shoulder the blame.
Complainers will complain.
Blamers will blame.
Manipulators will manipulate.
Why are we surprised by this?
So, yes, you can trust people. You can trust them to act according to the nature they have cultivated. Work from this understanding and you will rarely get betrayed or be harmed. Don’t get mad at them, remember that they are doing the best they can with what they have. Cultivate compassion in response. Love them and be kind. But have boundaries.
Besides, remember that their selfishness and difficulty harms them more than it does anyone else. They pay the price for their behavior, it is not our job to bring consequences or play the role of karmic enforcer. Being treated poorly is an opportunity to offer compassion if we can step outside our own wants and desires and sheer annoyance for a second.
The most important thing in all of this is understanding that you are really in trouble if your emotional wellbeing is in the hands of someone else. I don’t care who the other person is. I don’t care how much they love you, how much you love them or how good their intentions toward you may be. You cannot outsource the regulation of your internal state without creating anxiety because people will let you down whether they man to or not.
In seeing things as they are, simply accept that you are going to encounter all sorts of difficult people today, and every day for the rest of your life. There is no escaping this. Some will be strangers, some will be family, some will be the people closest to you. Try to stay in your own business and offer compassion instead of judgment. Don’t let someone else’s selfishness or unhappiness push you into your own selfishness or unhappiness. They are the way they are for a reason.
Same as you, same as me.
Mindfulness and Nature
The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Mindfulness is Natural Because We Are Nature
Mindfulness and nature are a natural pairing. I’ve written about this alot.
At its core, there is nothing more natural than being mindful – engagement with reality without the screen of admonitions and opinions from our thoughts is our natural state.
There is also something inherently calming about getting out into the world and realizing that there are things far beyond us that will continue no matter what happens to us.
I like to meditate on the fact that there are things that were here long before me and will be here long after me. I like that there are stars out there burning and planets out there spinning that never have and never will care about me at all. We are not as important as we like to think we are. There is a stability to the world and the universe whether we see it or not. A lot of the doomsday wailing and gnashing of teeth we hear so much of these days begins to seem silly when we consider things on a larger scale.
These tragedies and catastrophes are only such when we think we are the center of things or that we are needed for everything to work as it “should”. Nature always finds a way to survive and overcome, and I am not sure it cares if we are there to witness it or not. Nature is everywhere, all the time. It finds a way to survive and thrive no matter what is going on. The weeds in the sidewalk and the puddles on the ground are nature. Nature is with us everywhere we go because, no matter how technological and advanced we become as a species, we are nature.
This makes me happy.
These things being more significant than us and not caring about us are only a problem if we think we are above or separate from nature. One of the most significant sources of unhappiness and struggle for us as humans is the notion that we are above or apart from nature in the first place. Religion, the ego, and technology are the primary culprits in making us feel that we are somehow above or separate from the universe, though I am sure many things contribute to this idea.
Our PlayStations and iPhones and shoes and cars and air conditioning and pizza delivery all make it very easy for us to forget we are biological creatures, with actual biological needs.
We forget that a vast amount of human history was spent in very different conditions than what we live in now. Our technological and cultural evolution is outstripping our biological evolution (I for real don’t care how you want to define evolution here, we can just say that the world is moving way too fast if that is easier) and an epidemic of depression, anxiety, and alienation is the result.
Mindfulness and What We Can Learn from Nature
I grew up in the mountains, and I grew up outside. I think I learned from nature my whole life, apart from the years where drugs and alcohol and other assorted messes drug me into a different, less natural and less healthy, world.
One of the best times in the mountains is the spring when the snow is melting, and everything is muddy and rocky and soggy. There is a smell of dampness in the air, and you can see where trees rotted and fell over in the winter. A lot of things are dead, but this won’t last. It won’t be long before there is a layer of green everywhere, and flowers start to bloom, and new life takes root.
Because of this time, the idea of birth and death and rot and regeneration as being two sides of the same coin are lodged pretty firmly in my mind. The cycle of birth and death are intricately connected. They roll on and on and on, one leading to the other. It’s been this way for a very long time and will be this way for even longer. Way before us, way after us. Once again – much, much bigger than us.
We can see this in our lives as everything that ends is the beginning of something else.
Things that have reached the end of their time pass away if we let them, and something new moves in to take their place. We exist within and because of this cycle of birth and death, rot, and regeneration. It’s only a problem if we are trying to hang on to things that are cycling out, things whose time have passed.
Mindfulness of the Fact That We Will All Die Someday
One day it will be our turn. Keeping this in mind changes the way we see everything.
Nature stays rooted in much larger cycles than we can understand. We get caught up in a lot of stuff in life, and much of it can seem overwhelming and terrifying and eternal.
Issues with friends or partners, things at work, the news, our leaders, other countries. Don’t get me wrong, these are problematic, and they affect our lives, but I am not sure they are as big a deal as our minds make them out to be.
I like to think of the places I’ve been that are the farthest away from other people when these kinds of fundamental life issues arise. Alpine lakes, groves deep in the mountains, wind-driven plains out in the middle of nowhere. These places are as they are, and they have been this way for longer than any of us have been around. They change, but almost imperceptibly to us. Very little affects them in any real way.
These places help ground me, to root me in something bigger than myself and my problems.
I like the fact that they will be here long after me. I love that they will outlive Twitter and Facebook and job promotions and that thing someone said about me that one time.
A lot of the things we worry about are not.
Mindfulness is Natural, Animals Embody This
Animals are the embodiment of mindfulness. I like how animals just do what they do.
Dogs eat the same food every single day, and they are just happy to have it. Wolves kill baby deer, and ants eat butterflies. There’s no right or wrong to it, it’s just what they do.
I also like that, as humans, we do think about right and wrong and, for the most part, try to do the right thing.
No matter what the cynics and doomsayers proclaim, the vast, vast majority of people you meet do enough of the right thing that they don’t rob or kill you.
The problem with all of this is that our mind likes to generalize, and turns all sorts of things that are not matters of right and wrong into matters of right and wrong.
A lot more is neutral than we like to think.
The rain is just rain, seasons change and sometimes we are hungrier than we would like to be. It’s part of life. Complaining and focusing on how we wish things were does not help anything.
Both a mindful life and a life in nature are a constant reminder that much of what we center in on and sincerely believe are merely human constructions. There are a lot of things we put a lot of stock in that don’t exist anywhere outside of human social construction.
Think of things like fairness, beauty, niceness, charisma, manners, equality, justice, postmodernism, celebrity. These are not real in any sense apart from a human understanding of them. I am not saying they are not good things, or that they are good things, only that they are the result of human construction and nothing more.
I like to ask myself if something would keep a bear from eating me to decide if it is real or not.
Violence or speed or being better at hiding than the bear is at finding would save me, but concepts would not. Telling the bear that it is unfair to eat me because we are unequal in our ability to fight will get me eaten. Brad Pitt telling the bear not to eat him because he is too handsome and too famous to die will get him eaten. These are just concepts. They don’t mean anything beyond human agreement.
We are humans, living in a complex human world and human society, so these things are necessary, but we often get them confused as things that are inherently existent in the world when they are not.
This makes us think they are going to be more present than they are, or that they are inherently good things. Maybe some of them are, others maybe are not, but they are created by us, for us.
Mindfulness and Balance with Our Nature
We spent a great deal of our history as a species living in tribal groups and clans, but we do not have this anymore. Most of us spend our evenings in small boxes with our immediate families, if we are fortunate enough to have that. Many of us live alone, or with people we don’t really know. We spend our days surrounded by strangers in distinctly non-natural environments.
In the past, we had a much better chance of seeing how the work we did with our bodies actually fed and sustained our bodies. The work we do now has very little to do with actually maintaining our lives, it is rare to have a direct correlation between the hours you trade and what you receive in return. Everything goes through a layer or two of symbolic representation before translating into anything that helps keep us alive. In my job, every hour that I sit with someone brings X amount of dollars to my bank account, which then can be translated into cash or spent with a debit card. This is not a direct exchange for the things that keep my family and me alive. It is an exchange in which I receive a credit I can trade in for those things. I am always at least one step away from how my work feeds my people and me.
We spend very little or no time outside unless you count walking to our cars. We rarely see the stars. We are almost never in danger. Our food is waiting for us in the supermarket or the drive-thru, and it is often hard to actually even call it food. I am not onboard with the societal notions of beauty driving people to be unhealthily skinny or insanely defined and sculpted, but to say that we can eat whatever we want and still have our bodies operate as they were meant to operate is pure nonsense. We even apply fabricated ideas and ideologies to something as simple and basic as what we put into our bodies as fuel.
Our bodies are meant to move and work, but if we work our bodies at all, it is often in a building specifically designed for working our bodies. We earn symbolic representations that we exchange for being allowed into a building where there are manmade machines that simulate the motions and exertions of working as our ancestors did every day.
All this is to say that we are very, very far removed from nature. We have created layer upon layer of separation, some physical, others mental, and each layer alienates us from ourselves because we are nature. When we separate ourselves from the natural world and create structures to bypass and circumvent it, we are bypassing and circumventing ourselves. This can only lead to suffering.
Mindfulness and Modernity
This is not to say that the modern world is bad or that society is an adverse development. I am writing this in a house on a computer connected to the internet so that I can post it on my website later while listening to Brain.fm on my Bluetooth headphones. I’m not exactly an anarcho-primitivist. I am only saying that we have to remember that none of our progress and technological achievement can alter our essential and inherent needs and desires, and much of how we live now is difficult for us.
This stands whether you think we evolved or were created or some combination of the two. Does anyone really think we evolved or were designed to sit in front of a computer screen all day or to sit in a car for hours at a time? To eat microwave meals and Starburst and drink Kool-Aid? To spend 90% of our time indoors?
The healthiest (all-around healthy, not just physically) people I know push back against this creeping anti-nature. They ride bikes outside and pay attention to what they eat. They work on projects because they want to and remember that their jobs are there to provide a means to live, not as the reason they live. They still go out and do things and really love their partners and haven’t given up on life yet.
In short, they live mindfully.