Mindfulness: New-Age Gobbledygook or Powerful Practice?
Mindfulness is both a life-changing practice and mysterious source of confusion. To some, the very term has become a meaningless catch-all for New Age spiritualism. For others, it's a guiding light of internal development.
Of course, it isn't meaningless. At its core anyways.
Mindfulness remains a simple and powerful tool. Practitioners improve their lives and the world by their practice. Because, in cultivating presence we become more whole.
But, there are millions for whom mindfulness remains an impenetrable wall. Yet, moving towards higher consciousness is the most important thing we can do. True mindfulness is the gateway. So, how do we unlock the mindfulness door? What's the key for those who struggle to meditate or don't have access to a float tank?
The surprising answer is personal responsibility. Let's unpack why and how.
This might seem far-fetched. Isn't personal responsibility something preachy parents hammer into their kids? On the surface, it doesn't seem like a doorway to mindfulness.
Yet, personal responsibility is an ethos that fits our time. Most of us are tired of the following, feel-good tropes:
"Do what makes you happy."
"Stop doing shit you hate."
The online environment (and Ikea decorated homes) are littered with these shallow platitudes. And, while there's a kernel of truth in them, the thinking that spawned them has become cliché.
Each of the above statements, and many thousand more, are in a family of ideas related to freedom.
There's no denying that freedom is one of our most beloved values. But freedom is earned through personal responsibility. And this truth has been largely forgotten.
Yes, we lead more fulfilled lives when we remain loyal to our own inclinations. A born woodworker stuffing him or herself into a lawyer suit will be dissatisfied. A true artist will likely not thrive as an accountant.
The freedom to do as we're inclined is important.
But too often the personal freedom mantra is manifesting as irresponsibility. In our longing for freedom, we fail to take on a heavy (but meaningful) burdens. We do this even though we know we must to derive meaning from life.
Great spirits are born under the weight of personal responsibility. A life of significance means many things to different people. When talking about 'great spirits' we're not referring to the classic "great man." You don't have to be Churchill to live a meaningful life. Taking on meaningful responsibility means different things to different people.
The Importance of Truth and Facing Reality
Great works of literature almost universally emphasize truth. But, us moderns have become jaded about truth. This is because we know truth is difficult. In past times, the truth was 'self-evident' based on the culture's religion.
Today we know that truth and fact are not the same thing. We can speak only the proven facts. Yet, if every word we utter (however factual) is an attempt to manipulate, it likely means we aren't speaking truth.
But this is how many of us speak, much of the time. We design our words to get what we think we want rather than to get closer to truth (or, to put it differently, to do what's right).
Rather than considering what's true in any moment we push our agenda. We seek to win arguments, impress others, appear intelligent, get promotions, etc.
But the best people we know don't do that. They speak the truth regardless of the consequence. Interestingly, these truth-speakers seem to win the long-game of life. They might not get what they think they want in the moment. But they get something better.
If you explore your own experience you'll find this to be true. Being truthful has a metaphysical quality to it. Doing what's right rather than what will benefit you leads to something better. It's often far better than what our temporally and spatially limited minds can dream up.
Yet, we do everything we can to get what we want. We do this for years and years. The majority of people act in this way. And we struggle to change this behavior even when we become aware we're doing it. We might commit to the truth. But we find it difficult to follow it when it conflicts with what we think we want.
What if there was a way to choose the truth in each moment?
Here's where mindfulness becomes practical. Most people, when they hear the term 'mindfulness' think of an esoteric practice. And it might be in its meditative sense. But the path to daily mindfulness is to notice your own body as you speak and choose.
When attuned to yourself, you'll notice that you feel weaker every time you don't speak the truth. You'll feel anxiety or another negative emotion. This will reliably happen when you try to get what think you want instead of speaking the truth.
Being selfish turns out to be a subjectively bad idea. And you can tell this is the case because it leaves you feeling weak. Chew on that for a moment: you may be weakening yourself with every word you speak.
Even our best science still struggles to make sense of psychosomatic illnesses. We know there is a connection, but we’re just beginning to understand it. Might these negative emotions not be signal of future ill health?
In fact, they're a gift. It's our job to notice negative emotion and adjust on that basis. This is the power of practical mindfulness. To live a meaningful life, notice the feedback your body provides. Then alter your behavior appropriately. Bring your words inline with truth. Bring your actions inline with what matters.
By speaking the truth, you may not achieve what you think you want in the moment. But over the long term, something better manifests.
Why Personal Responsibility is a Type of Mindfulness
Not only should we listen to our body when searching for true words to speak. It's also beneficial to apply the same bodily awareness when seeking to improve the world. This idea comes from the following logic:
To improve the broader world, we must start by improving our immediate environment. All progress in the external world comes from people improving what’s in front of them first. But how do we know what needs improvement right now?
Our body seems to know before our conscious mind.
Thus, by paying attention to our bodies we will know what needs attention. Try this: Get quiet. Turn off the noise. How do you feel? What comes up? Which niggling thoughts push into your awareness? Which unfinished tasks bother you? Which relationship needs attention right now? What would embarrass you if the girl/guy you like knew?
If your face itchy because you haven’t shaved in a week? Do you feel scattered due to your home being messy? Is there a work task you’ve been putting off? Is there something unsaid between you and a loved one?
Feelings of unease are signs. This feeling means you must repair this thing first. Feeling exhausted? Maybe you need to rest. Anger? Maybe you need to forgive and feel more empathy. Feeling lethargic? Perhaps exercise will help.
Whatever the feeling, there's an appropriate response. There's always something you can do about it. This is not to say you'll solve every problem immediately, especially if it's a big problem. But you can always do something about it.
When such a thing announces itself, the method of action is to stop whatever else you're doing. Take care of the thing announcing itself now. Then note how you feel. You will feel a tiny bit better.
Now use your powerful imagination to see the future. Stack up dozens, hundreds, and thousands of these actions. Think of this as your guiding ethos. Do you foresee a life transformed?
Important note: Most of us get tripped up by our thoughts. Rather than doing what announces itself we rationalize and over-plan. We do what we think we should be doing rather than what we know we must. We fail to heed our body's wisdom.
This leads to meaninglessness. Soon you’re just ticking boxes on a checklist. Stop following the bodies' signals and soon you'll be numb to them. Follow your over-rationalizing brain and you end up confused.
We believe in the big, dramatic action. But the moment usually requires something small and simple. The big, dramatic thing is often sporadic, misguided energy.
We tend to the think the world would be perfect if only it would do what we want it to. Meanwhile, our own bedroom is a mess.
We have no business trying to fix the world. And we realize this when we turn their attention inward. But, lacking mindfulness about our proper task, we project our chaotic energy outward.
If you have a problem with the world ask yourself: "Is my own room clean?"
Much as we brush and floss our teeth daily, we must ‘brush and floss’ our lives. Modalities like floating and meditation are powerful aids on this process. They help us become more mindful.
But we must manifest our mindfulness in practice.
Pay Attention (The Key to Practical Mindfulness)
Teachers and parents always tell kids to ‘pay attention’ to what they deem important. But it’s the rare child who learns to ‘pay attention’ to their inner world. In this type of world, our internal guidance system fails to develop.
We believed that by following the rules everything would pan out. But we learn that 'the rules' are imperfect at best. Self-awareness is the true unlock code.
Paying attention only to others' agendas leads to dissatisfaction and distraction. Picture the person bouncing between Facebook and Instagram. We’ve all been there. If done without check, these are our worst moments. Where we place our attention dictates the quality of our inner lives. And the accumulation of this attention results in our external impact.
Try this: instead of someone else's agenda, pay attention to what’s in need of repair in your immediate world. When something is off, you'll feel it in your body. When something requires fixing, it will stand out. But you'll only notice it if you pay attention.
By keeping your room clean, you create an environment that improves your life and the world.
Apply this logic to your life and you'll gain momentum. Fixing the small things means incremental progress. But enough of these small wins leads to exponential growth.
You don't need to fix the world. You just need to fix your tiny corner of it. This alone has the power to change everything.