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Dissecting Mindfulness in the Modern Age

 

 

BG:

Let’s get the ball rolling here.  How about we flesh out some ideas surrounding mindfulness to better understand this complex topic?  I’ll throw a few questions at you and you can run any direction with it. 

Ready.

Set.

Go!

 

What is mindfulness?

How can we take back our brain from the grips of technology?

Can mindfulness make you healthier?

 

OB:

Hmmm.  I have some beef with the term "mindfulness."  I am all for the practice; not sold on the term.  It seems that the term "mindfulness" has been commandeered by both popular and corporate (difference?) cultures -- much like the term "zen" (i.e. Zen and the Art of You-Name-It).  Leave this email and search the NYT for "mindfulness" and witness just how ubiquitous the term has become.  In fairness, some of the articles that appear speak to the possible pitfalls around how mindfulness is presented.  Bottom line: it feels like a household word.  Now, in theory, this is not a terrible thing.  My issue, though, is not with the popularity of the term but its popular meaning.  Scrubbed clean of its ties to ancient religious/contemplative systems, it is presented as a panacea.  This is especially true in my work as a therapist. Mindfulness has become such a trendy word to throw around in clinical meetings or in sessions with clients.  Clients have started to come in and insist that mindfulness is what they need.  This is where my beef begins.  Much of the literature and many of my colleagues present mindfulness as the answer to anxiety, depression, anger, interpersonal difficulties, personality disturbance, and addiction.  "Mindfulness Meditation" can lead to some blissed out states and inner peace; we can wipe our minds clean of thoughts (mindful vs. mind full). 

 

Now, in my mind, mindfulness is synonymous with "awareness" and "being present."  Right Mindfulness (smriti) is part of the Eightfold Path of Buddhism.  The Japanese character for it literally translates to "now-mind."  So, mindfulness is more of an approach to something - to anything - to life itself, perhaps.  Often, mindfulness can lead to greater discomfort (at least initially).  Think about it:  If I am more present with and aware of what is going on internally (both emotionally and cognitively), I might be a bit unsettled.  If I am rather mellow at the moment, then, perhaps, I will feel this mellowness even more intensely.  That's nice.  I am also a firm believer (based on my own experiences) that doing things mindfully can often ground us and, simultaneously, make them more enjoyable.  Take eating as an example.  When we slow down and do nothing else but eat, we are able to engage all of the senses, take our time, and, quite possibly, taste what it is we are eating.  Here is a technology tie-in/behavioral experiment.  Next time you eat, turn off the tv and lose the phone.  No books either.  Just sit at a table and focus on eating - smell the food, feel it, taste it, chew it thoroughly.  Ironically, this is often very uncomfortable for many (including me).  It can become enjoyable - but usually with practice.  So, even in this simple example, mindfulness doesn't relax us but shakes us up.

 

 

BG:

Hmm, I hadn’t put much thought into the adaptation that mindfulness has undertaken recently.When  trying to explain mindfulness in my own words, I can not escape using conscious, aware, present. It makes more sense as to why so many people are drawn to mindfulness and use this buzzword as a remedy to problems dealing with the brain.  Understandably, people want to try something new to see if that will fix their internal issues.  I can see mindfulness as a way to alleviate some of the symptoms caused by anxiety or depression, but like you said, I do not see it as the end all be all to solving personal problems.  Yet I have an idea why mindfulness has been hailed as a solution to at least one major problem: technology addiction.  Being aware of what we are doing, especially with technology, can be one of the first steps in the problem solving process. 

 

Alright, let me recap this thus far: one receives more pleasure from an experience when they are mindful of it.  I can absolutely see that.  I can also see mindfulness being uncomfortable for people who are used to moving at such a fast pace.  Technology prods us to live this way.  Always consuming content whether on the television or from the ultimate attention sapper- our smartphones.  I remember the first few times when I tried eating in silence, focusing on all of my senses. I also remember when I made the decision to not let the radio dictate my daily commute.  Turning off media for any long stretch of time initially makes us uncomfortable because we have been recently programmed, particularly within the last ten years, to constantly consume digital content.  As an unsurprising correlation, the attention span over that time period has decreased by almost 33%.  Being mindful, conscious, aware, whatever you want to call it, has become something that people want in their life. 

 

Now that we’ve established that being mindful of an experience means one must have a strong attention span, or at least be able to bring the mind back when it wanders, let’s try and make other connections.  This sounds like the Zen meditation style Zazen.  Let’s think of some solutions to acquiring this way of thinking. If Right Mindfulness in Japanese translates to 'now-mind' then the next question must be how do we achieve this?  How do we get to the 'now' if we've been conditioned from a young age to move at such a fast pace?

 

OB:

Hmmmm.  I am stuck on the idea of “achieving” now-mind or presence or mindfulness.  Achievement makes me think that there is this something that I lack and I must go find it or create it.  But what am I lacking?  As the old Zen saying goes:  Nothing is hidden.  If we are always here and it is always now, what is there to achieve?  Maybe it’s a matter of “realizing” what is already a reality?  Aligning our focus/consciousness with where we are? 

 

What about fidget cubes and spinners?  People are hailing these as a great way to focus.  The reviews on Amazon are from mothers of autistic children praising the ability of these objects to calm and captivate their children. Is a fidget cube or a spinner different from a phone?  Is it better to stare at a spinning piece of plastic or at a smartphone?  Is mindfulness only about the approach or is the object of mindfulness also important?

 

Are there activities to which mindfulness cannot (or should not) be applied?  Can I daydream mindfully?  Can I inject heroin mindfully?  Can I abuse a child mindfully?  My experience has taught me that there is a baseline level of restlessness associated with human existence (angst, anxiety, sickness, despair, or whatever the existentialists liked to call it).  I am here (and somewhere, somehow I know this fact), but I want to be there -- I am dissatisfied with where I am or who I am. I also think that many of us become aware of this restlessness.  I find that when my restlessness becomes aware of itself, it seeks distraction.  And, often, my attempt to evade my restlessness only serves to increase it.  I am not sure that this is a new phenomena -- one that has emerged with technology.  It makes sense that television shows with 5-minute segments punctuated by commercials and 6-second Vine videos don’t help the brain sustain its concentration.  But haven’t distractions always existed?

 

Maybe technology amplifies this restlessness by the very speed at which it stimulates our brain.  Ridding ourselves of smartphones -- especially if we are talking about young people -- doesn’t seem realistic (not that you are suggesting this).  The question seems:  How can we use smartphones and technology instead of having them use us?  I suppose the first step is pure awareness -- realize that my smartphone is using me.  Mindfulness of now-mind might be helpful here.  Perhaps we can learn to notice our own urge to touch or check our phones and connect with the underlying sense of restlessness. 

 

And, if there is a goal here, what is it?  Is the goal of mindfulness to become quieter?  Or is it to simply become mindful (i.e. aware) of our restlessness?  Does awareness of our restlessness reduce the restlessness?  This seems to be a critical point here.  In my own experience, the stillness and quiet are a natural byproduct of the practice.  The practice is fundamental -- not any particular goal or outcome.  John Barth in The Floating Opera:  “ . . . processes persisted in long enough become ends themselves . . .”

 

Here is a quote about that underlying sense of restlessness by Marguerite Duras:  I make films to occupy my time.  If I were strong enough to do nothing, I wouldn’t do anything at all.  It’s because I am not strong enough to do nothing that I make films.”  Is it possible to do nothing?

 

BG:

Man, I really like Marguerite’s quote.  If I were strong enough, I probably wouldn’t be as compelled to write all the time.  I do not think it is possible to do nothing, because even if we do nothing, chances are we are still doing something- even if that something is just sitting with our thoughts.  I believe that most people have a hard time sitting still, and if they are sitting still, they are engaging with television, computers/tablets, or hopefully a book.  The restlessness is real for a lot of people.  The media machine, making us feel like we need to be up to date on everything, doesn’t help. 

 

You brought up two questions that I believe are essential to the current exploration towards understanding mindfulness.  First, which scenarios should we be mindful of?  I think before we get to which scenarios, we must ask what’s our purpose with this action?  Mindfulness of now-mind would be extremely helpful here. Overall, mindfulness can help us eliminate our negative and destructive habits, while also forcing us to sharpen and incorporate those that are positive and beneficial.  In this case, does utilizing mindfulness result in a sharper form of judgement, refining our actions based on the deduction of thought?  I don’t think it’s impossible to have mindfulness when injecting heroin, yet if we are mindful of our actions, and aware of the physical and mental impacts this drug can have on us, then logically our chances of using it will vastly decrease.  Yet addiction is powerful, so unless we are mindful before consuming it for the first time, then chances are we are hooked from there on out regardless of mindfulness.  

 

In terms of technology and mindfulness, I think this is the reason why mindfulness has taken on such an added meaning to society.  There is little mindfulness when people pick up their phones.  It’s easy to pick up our phones to do one thing, and then get sucked down a rabbit hole of social media, texting, or emails.  Whatever notification pops up that’s where the mind goes. It is impulse, no doubt, but it is also very subconscious.  My co-worker recently passed along this 60 Minutes segment on ‘brain hacking’ and it correlates specifically to the brain and the need for awareness when using our smartphones. “What we find is the typical person checks their phone every 15 minutes or less and half of the time they check their phone there is no alert, no notification. It’s coming from inside their head telling them, 'Gee, I haven’t checked Facebook in a while. I haven’t checked on this Twitter feed for a while. I wonder if somebody commented on my Instagram post.’ That then generates cortisol (stress hormone) and it starts to make you anxious. And eventually your goal is to get rid of that anxiety so you check in” Psychologist Larry Rosen, California State Dominguez Hills.

 

As you said before, smartphones are not going anywhere.  In reality, they are going to become more and more a part of our lives, so this need for mindfulness, specifically now-mind, makes our interaction with technology much more meaningful and provides more of a purpose. Unlike some situations, where being mindful may not make much of a difference either way, I think being mindful or aware of how we use technology is certainly something we need moving forward.

 

As much as we’ve fleshed out these ideas on mindfulness, I wonder if we are still scratching the surface on such an intricate topic?

 

OB:

Good question.  I think we have sent sufficient grist through the philosophical mill; however, in some ways it still feels hollow.  I think that what the conversation is missing is personal narrative.  Instead of discussing the subject of mindfulness abstractly, it might be more impactful to ground our philosophical work in our personal experiences.  So, perhaps that is the next chapter of the discussion.  And, this brings me to my final thought:  there must be a next chapter.  Having this conversation reminded me of the importance of conversations.  The process of having conversations - not where they lead - is vital.

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