Photo: Alex Iby / Unsplash
I want to demystify mindfulness, to show how much more ordinary it is than you may think. Mindfulness is not limited to what happens when one meditates regularly. It’s not that I disagree about the benefits of the sustained practice of mindfulness meditation (far from it). However, focusing just on what happens with people who meditate a lot introduces a distortion.
It is as if we only looked at opera singers when we talk about the human activity of singing, omitting the whole range that starts with people singing in their showers. Or if we only looked at Olympic athletes when discussing the benefits of physical exercise.
Part of our evolutionary heritage
I find it more useful to think of mindfulness as an aptitude that we all have because it is part of our evolutionary heritage. To see how why, let’s go back in time, all the way to when our ancestors were evolving into Homo Sapiens.
They lived in the wild. In those days, survival depended on being alert. Imagine the “ancestors” walking: They’re keeping their eyes and ears open. They’re alert. Ready to react to danger, or to seize an opportunity. Poised, but not tense — this is not an emergency, this is everyday life.
Now, let’s compare this situation with the widely accepted definition of mindfulness that was proposed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. According to him, mindfulness means “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
The ancestors described in this scene are very much on purpose, in the present moment. We are not talking about some mystical, esoteric way to “be here now.” We are talking about having to pay attention to what is happening here and now to get what you need. As to the nonjudgmental quality: You cannot be fully engaged with the environment if you are second-guessing yourself or what’s happening around you.
This quality of engagement differs from the way you or I might take a walk in the woods, following a blazed trail in a State Park. Not only are we not threatened by wolves, but our survival also doesn’t depend on finding food or shelter. We can afford to be distracted, to act mindlessly, as opposed to mindfully. And so we often do. Not just when we take a walk in the woods, but in so many aspects of our lives.
Just think about how often we experience ourselves as bored. What if boring means we feel disengaged? And if the mind is disconnected, then we’re functioning mindlessly.
Mindless vs. Mindful
In civilized life, there are plenty of moments like that walk in a State Park, i.e., moments when we can survive without being fully present.
Moreover, being disengaged often has real value in today’s world. Think about the kind of vacant stare we have in an elevator, or in a crowded subway. It’s a useful way to manage to be in very close physical proximity to people we do not know or especially trust.
One of the great benefits of civilization is that we live in a more forgiving world. We don’t need to be as engaged in survival as our ancestors to survive. But not having to be actively involved in survival is also one of the great curses of civilization.
We also need to make a conscious effort to shift from distracted to engaged. We need this intentionality because our current lifestyles tend to train us to be distracted rather than engaged. I call this proactive mindfulness.
Our ancestors evolved ways to store fat, and this had great survival value in an environment where food was scarce or not always available. Now, those of us who have plenty of access to all the food we need (and more) find it necessary to make a concerted effort to monitor our food intake.
Similarly, we cannot count on our regular daily activities to naturally include the amount of exercise that our bodies have evolved to require. And so, we find it necessary to make a concerted effort to exercise.
Proactive mindfulness involves making the shift from disengaged to engaged in what we are doing, including our relationships, personal and professional. Our ancestors were preoccupied with foraging for food or hunting and being hunted. Much of what requires our mindful attention in the modern world is interactions with other people.
In this context, we can define personal growth as cultivating our ability to be fully engaged in what we do. By the way: Having this ability does not mean that we have to use it all the time — — it feels good to have some mindless moments!