And yes, mindfulness

Here’s what I wrote some months ago:

“I’m feeling grumpy this morning. Why? I could list reasons like ‘guilt for not having been running lately’, ‘fear that I’m not a good enough singer for this band after all’ and ‘there are problems at my workplace that I can’t solve’. But these are not actually reasons for my grumpiness. These are the manifestations, the reasons why I conclude that I am grumpy. This is how I can tell my mood is low.

So I’m not taking these thoughts too seriously. They are all true to some extent, but at the same time they are not that important. Before I worry more about them, I’m at least going to eat and drink and wait. Maybe have a meaningless chat with another human.

This doesn’t mean that I’d stop being grumpy. I still am. It comes in waves and has a constant hum.

I can’t make that feeling stop because there is a real reason for the grumpiness, I just don’t know what it is. But I can stop the second layer of worry. I don’t need to conclude that everything is going to hell in a handbasket because of me not running enough and I need to do something and if I don’t, shame on me. Because there is no reason for that.

That in turn I know because I know that there are things like low blood sugar, that my body wants something to be done about, and feeling generally bad is its way of communicating it to other parts of the body in order to get some attention and make that happen. But those different parts aren’t always very good at that communication, and then the conscious executive function (the “me” in my machine) is left guessing what the problem is. And sometimes guesses wrong. So these ideas about guilt and fear could just be false alarms.”

I already wrote earlier about this aspect of metacognition, this combination of accepting a negative feeling and then leaving it be. I count this as one of my most important skills. Note the word ‘skill’: it doesn’t just happen, you learn and train it. You train it through mindfulness meditation.

Now I’m pretty sure that just mentioning mindfulness or meditation, and the two together in particular, is going to make some people groan disapprovingly. It’s got something to do with new age hippies and Oprah Winfrey and goes together with celebrity diets, start-up culture and yoga. At the very least it’s an overhyped fad like decluttering your home with the Kon-Mari technique. Right?

Well, no. Or yes too, but no. I can of course see why a casual observer would come to that conclusion. But just because Kon-Mari is (perhaps) silly as a technique, it doesn’t mean that decluttering your home would be equally silly.

When I talk about mindfullness, I talk of something far more mundane than healing crystals and mystical energies. In my view, mindfulness is more on par with brushing your teeth every morning and evening and taking the stairs instead of the elevator in order to take care of your overall physical wellbeing. Even the meditation part doesn’t need to look like “traditional” meditation with closed eyes and lotus positions. I actually do a small mindfulness exercise quite often exactly when brushing my teeth, exactly because it’s boring.

I’m not the only one with that view of course. If you, like me, have a totally secular and material worldview and are still intrigued by the concept of mindfullness, you should listen to Michael Taft. (Note on the word material: apparently it needs to be pointed out that this does not mean being overly excited about things you can buy with money, but being of the opinion that there is nothing beyond the physical world, no souls or spirits of any sort, and that your mind is just a thing your body does.)  Here‘s a lecture that’s a great place to start. It’s almost an hour long but just the first 10 minutes are already packed full of things I’d want to repeat word to word. So I’ll try to summarise:

  • Definition:  Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience.
  • Meditation, and mindfulness meditation in particular can be taught and practiced completely outside a spiritual context.
  • Emotions are not airy pink fluff to be controlled or even avoided, inferior and opposed to sense and reason. They are there for good evolutionary reasons.
  • “Understanding the background and function of emotions is clearly of supreme importance. The clearer picture you have of your emotions the clearer picture you have of your entire life.”

I am honestly overwhelmed about how much I wish people knew about all this. It has given me so much personally in several areas of my life but also when I look at the state the world is in… In particular: we would all be so much better off as individuals but particularly as a society if we understood the mechanisms of how we end up dividing people in to ingroups and outgroups . But knowing that it happens and understanding how and why it happens, is completely hollow if I as a person can’t recognise and see it, feel how it feels, when it is happening to me.

I am optimistic however. I think that all this will slowly but surely become common knowledge much in the same way that it is nowadays common knowledge that you should wash your hands regularly: that practice is only like 150 years old, and was originally rejected by the medical community. For a good reason, actually: before germ theory there was no good scientific explanation of why washing your hands would do any good. Now every good parent will teach their children to do that. Maybe one day mindfulness will be an equally boring thing that you do because that’s just what people do.

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