Photo by Gerrit Vermeulen
You are delusional. So am I. So is everyone you know.
We exist in the eternal present. And yet, we constantly remember, ruminate, daydream, plan, and anticipate as if the past and the future were real.
The past exists only in the tales we tell ourselves. Tales that, thanks to our flawed perceptions and memories, might as well carry the tagline “based on a true story”. The future is even less knowable–we don’t even know how we’re going to finish a sentence when we speak. Not that it matters. We have an infinite number of potential future choices, but by the time the future becomes the present, those choices will have been whittled down to the tiny number we end up with by the equally infinite number of events we can’t control, from the raging winds of a hurricane to the flapping wings of butterfly. All of this comes at the expense of the way we experience the present moment, the only moment that is ever real.
And, even when we’re not projecting ourselves into the past or the future, we’re usually deluded about the present.
This is my third attempt at writing this essay. The first two were bloated, messy and confusing. This made me feel quite anxious. Why I couldn’t I make my ideas as clear on the page as they were in my head? But the main problem wasn’t the emotion of anxiety. Anxiety is simply a constellation of sensations—knots in the stomach, tension, prickly heat—that arise when we’re confronted with certain situations. So if I’m really in control, surely a few sensations can have no bearing on my actions? Of course, it’s not that simple. We’re constantly lost in unconscious reactivity. We don’t just feel excited; we become excited, and so we compulsively pace the room and chatter ceaselessly. We don’t just feel pissed off; we become pissed off, and so we compulsively lash out and regret it later. And I don’t just feel anxious as a result of writing two crappy drafts; I become anxious, and so I compulsively worry and become incapable of writing anything for fear of screwing up a third time.
But then, I noticed the anxiety. I know, that sounds like a strange thing to say. Surely I knew I was anxious? Let me explain. Imagine you’re watching a film at the cinema, completely captivated by the characters, feeling everything they’re feeling, getting lost in the plot. But, with a little awareness, you will start to notice what’s actually happening: sounds from nearby speakers entering your ears, light bouncing off an otherwise blank screen onto your retina, the weight of your body sitting. This is what noticing the anxiety was like. The nature of what was happening hadn’t changed, but I suddenly saw it for what it was—a constellation of sensations, to which I could either unconsciously react (as I had been doing up to that point), or consciously respond in whichever way I wanted. And so I responded by writing.
Mindfulness helps us understand the true nature of our conscious experience, and to use what we learn to think, act and respond to situations in more skilful ways
This is mindfulness in action. Mindfulness isn’t an activity or an emotion; it’s a skill; the skill of being present and aware of whatever is happening in the here and now, and doing so with equanimity—the quality of being composed, non-judgemental and non-reactive. Through this equanimous awareness, we start to better understand the true nature of our conscious experience, and to use what we learn to think, act and respond to situations in more skilful ways. Ultimately, it’s a vehicle for living a better life.
Mindfulness is a simple concept, but it’s tricky to practice. To get an idea of just how slippery it is, try thinking about the Mona Lisa for as long as possible, and only the Mona Lisa. I managed 33 seconds (yes, I timed it) before I realised I was thinking about bacon. Don’t judge me. This is big, so it’s worth repeating—we struggle to even picture an object for more than a few seconds without becoming distracted, by how you’re going to handle a difficult conversation, remembering how awesome the last episode of Game of Thrones was, or thoughts of bacon. The difficult thing about being mindful of anything, whether it be the Mona Lisa or your present moment’s experience, isn’t doing it. It’s remembering to do it.
So, like any skill, we need to practice. And to practice mindfulness, we need to meditate. As we’ve seen, mindfulness isn’t about changing your experience, so don’t worry, you don’t need to chant, burn incense, start wearing hemp or do anything else remotely ’New Age-y’. Mindfulness meditation is about simply observing whatever’s there, without reactivity or judgement.
To meditate, sit with a comfortable, upright posture. Close your eyes. Then, bring your attention to your breath, wherever you feel it most clearly—either at the nose, chest or abdomen. Feel the sensations of breathing in, and know you’re breathing in. Do the same as you breathe out. From time to time, you’ll notice other things—sensations, sounds, emotions, and so on. Be aware of them, while maintaining your focus on the breath. If any experience calls your attention away from your breath, shift your focus to that experience. Without reacting to it, simply know that you are experiencing it, and feel what it feels like. When it’s no longer calling your attention, return to the breath.
And that’s how you meditate. Sounds easy, but there’s a catch. While you’re doing all that, you will get lost in thought. All. The. Time. And that’s okay, it’s part of the practice. The idea isn’t to not think, but rather to notice when you are thinking and to let the thoughts go, bringing your attention back to your experience in the moment. You will suck at this at first, getting lost in thought for minutes at a time, and even after years of practice you will still have plenty of ‘off days’. But as you get better at it, you’ll catch yourself lost in thought sooner and more often, and you’ll start to notice just how often it happens as well as how repetitive your thought patterns are. As Sam Harris describes it, it’s like realising that you’ve spent your entire life trapped in a room with the most boring person on Earth, who repeats the same stupid shit over and over again. While it might not put a gag on the voice inside your head, the good news is that mindfulness can at least help you ignore the nonsense it speaks. At least, some of the time.
In case I haven’t been clear thus far, let me be clear now. There is no such thing as a silver bullet that will change your life overnight, or that will ever give you the perfect life. Mindfulness is no exception. A good life is a journey, not a destination; and mindfulness is a path on which you can make that journey. If you’re willing to put in the work, that path is yours to walk.
In my opinion, the gold standard of mindfulness resources is an app called 10% Happier. But there are plenty of other resources out there, so find one that works for you. All you need to start is fifteen minutes a day. Your future self will thank you.
If you enjoyed this essay, you can support me by sharing it with your friends. Building an audience is tough, so this really does help. Thanks in advance. JM