Let’s forget for a second about all the new studies coming out in recent years that link mindfulness to stress release and other beneficial effects on body and mind. Let’s ignore all the (necessary and important) studies showing how meditation changes the make-up of the brain itself, reduces anxiety, makes states of loving-kindness more easily available in daily life. And let’s also forget about spiritual traditions that link experiences during mindful meditation to tales of unified consciousness, of a divine ground of experience, to the revelations of the prophets.
There is a very simple idea behind mindfulness that is in my mind independent of all its beneficial effects and all potentially metaphysical framings.
Sam Harris likens it to experiencing stress released by reading a book. Getting your well-deserved relaxation might be a nice side effect, but it has almost nothing to do with the content and point of reading a book.
Mindfulness is a fundamental shift in perspective on one’s life and on the nature of reality itself.
The Stories We Tell Us About Ourselves
There are two distinct ways in which we live: first, there is what we tell each other and ourselves about what is going on (as I have explored in an AI-related context here). We live in this and that place, work at this job and have this hobby, act for this and that reason. We have an idea of ourselves and mold our life into a coherent story that is easily told and easily understood.
But then there is our life how actually appears to us from moment to moment. It is quite an absurd notion, but life, as it is going down, is really hard to notice, and we can spend days, weeks, or lifetimes without really noticing it.
Our daily perception of the world is overshadowed by a large number of preconceptions that we and the societies we live in have built up around us, by our constant desire to put the world into small and easy-to-digest boxes. Our brain constantly builds conceptual models of the world in order to predict what will happen in the future. These internal models are extremely useful, and without question one of evolution’s most brilliant inventions, but as are modern lives are progressively defined by abstractions, we are easily tempted to spend most of them stuck within the ideas we have of ourselves and the world.
German philosopher Edward Husserl, the father of the school of phenomenology, begins his philosophical inquiry into the world with the epoché (=a keeping back of judgment), a state of inquiry into the world that is free of all preformed notions. He asks himself how we would perceive what is going on around us if we truly rid ourselves of all judgments, simply observing what is going on without pressing it into any structure.
The idea of searching for this state of non-judgment is, of course, older than Husserl: it stands likewise at the beginning of every mindful meditation and is the point to be returned to again and again. It rests on an almost childlike-notion of bringing yourself to a place of intellectual innocence. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, it is called the beginner’s mind (Shoshin). Because to a certain extent, you can never acquire any real proficiency in meditation. That would defy its point: thinking you are good at meditating is a story you tell yourself about yourself, is a judgment with which you encounter the world.
And so every time you meditate, start again.
The Transformative Simplicity of Mindfulness
For many, the first experiences with mindfulness can be really surprising, because suddenly the world and yourself that seemed intelligible just a second ago takes on a whole new look.
“Really, this is how my thoughts actually behave if I take a closer look at them?”
Delving deeper into mindfulness, more and more concepts that seemed absolutely self-evident get dissolved. Notions of time and space, notions of selfhood loose tangibility. You begin to perceive yourself and your thoughts as arising and passing away without you controlling it, in the same way that the sun shines and the wind blows. In the breath, voluntariness and involuntariness coexist: while you can actively breathe, you can also just observe yourself breathing. Even if you want to stop, you cannot stop. And so it is with your thoughts and everything in the world. While you are entangled to it and the world and your thoughts come to being through you, you are ultimately not causing them.
In mindfulness, the ego slowly releases its grasp on the world, and the world, freed from it, is transformed in its core.
For me, realizing this is constantly and endlessly surprising. Because as you start again, this sense of wonder never really goes away. It is so easy to fall back into old habits, to get caught up in Maia, in the world of appearance, as the Buddhists call it, but so it can also, again and again, be simple and wondrous to step out of it and take a fresh look.
I don’t think you need to become enlightened or become a holy man meditating in caves for the rest of your life. The ego and the stories we tell us about ourselves are great and useful tools for organizing societies and our own lives, and we don’t all need to get rid of it completely.
Nonetheless, even a small shift towards a more mindful life can be transformative and valuable. Since I started meditating ten years ago, my life has been greatly enhanced by a mindful undercurrent, and I think it has always enriched my experience of life and never taken away from it.
There are different affinities, it takes different amounts of time until it really “clicks”, but I think everyone, independently of any spiritual or intellectual tradition, can experience this sense of wonder, can catch a glimpse of the world through beginner’s eyes.