We hear a lot about mindfulness these days, which seems to mean anything from having a meditation practice, to becoming aware of the present as it is happening. There are a heap of touted benefits to mindfulness (decreased stress, decreased depressive symptoms, enhanced ability to deal with illness, improved general health etc) and a heap of touted reasons about what why it’s so difficult to be mindful in our current lives (technology, poor work/life balance, so many different roles with so many competing demands etc).
But like with so many things that get proposed as the solution to our woes, there is an over focus on that which is external, to that which is internal, to us. That is, we are not asking the most important question, which is “How does not being present benefit me?”.
Very few of us have the stamina to force ourselves into ways of being simply because we intellectually know it to be ‘good for us’. We’re emotive creatures, and we make emotive decisions (however much we like to convince ourselves otherwise). So when we’re behaving in ways that are not ‘good for us’, it’s because there is something about the behaviour which we experience as beneficial.
So many of us are allergic to being present, because the alternative - that is, being entirely present - feels very grim. Being entirely present would require us to embrace several things that we might initially experience as scary:
Our current inner reality (who we are, how our past experiences and responses have informed who we have become today, and how we feel about that);
Our current outer reality (our world, our own part in making the world that we find ourselves in, and how we feel about that); and
The relationship that exists between our inner and outer realities (do we enjoy our lives? Is our outer reality a good fit for who we are?).
These are often issues that, if really examined, we would have a great deal of uncertainty and insecurity about. How many of us truly know ourselves? How many of us have been deliberate in constructing, and love, our present reality? If we got present, not only would we notice the extreme beauty in so many ordinary moments, but we would also immediately come face to face with all of the ways that we’re a bit dysfunctional and our lives are not aligned with what we most want and need.
Again, very few of us know how to process our own existential angst (I’m convinced this should be a subject in school!), so we avoid it entirely by disassociating with the present. We do this by either:
Living in the past or the future; and or
Numbing out with some form of substance abuse (‘too much’ anything - food, work, social media, TV, alcohol, sleep, exercise - anything that stops us from feeling).
We are biologically hardwired (in order to increase our chances of survival) to create certainty about how our environment works and what our future will include. Of course, this certainty is really no certainty at all, given how small we are in the scheme of our context and the interconnectedness of all things (that is, our environment could radically change at any moment without our prediction) - nevertheless, it does make us feel psychologically safer.
When we live in the past or the future, we have the luxury of affording ourselves some of this fake certainty - we can either construct a story about What Was, or construct a story about What Will Be. These are frequently easier to deal with than the reality of What Is, because in both of those scenarios (the past and the future) we are in control of the narrative. We are rarely in control of the narrative of our present: instead, we are constantly being asked to respond to a myriad of things that are outside of our control. In that sense, being present is the very embodiment of being open - open to What Is in this moment, and open to Whatever Might Be in the next moment, without attempting to control it. That is, in order to be present, we have to transcend our instinctive responses to create certainty, and embrace how little we truly know or control.
Of course, this is terrifying to those at the start of this journey. So, ‘numbing out’ becomes our go-to response. There are so many societally acceptable versions of numbing out that we don’t see anything truly wrong with the behaviour - we’re convinced that spending every weeknight, or an entire weekend, binge-watching the latest TV show is completely fine. That working extreme hours is not only acceptable but required to be ‘good at our job’. No one would really judge another person for medicating with copious amounts of sugary food, because it’s pretty usual (and heaven forbid someone might turn around and judge us for the same behaviour). Excess consumption of alcohol is pretty normalised in Australian culture.
This isn’t about judging those behaviours - it’s about seeking to understand why we do certain things, and asking the question: “Will the pain of living our lives unconsciously outweigh the pain of learning to become present?”
Because there is, whether you acknowledge it or not, great pain to living our lives unconsciously. I don’t think we can look at the current mental health statistics and tout that most of us are okay. We’re not okay. And the issue isn’t our external environment - it’s the dysfunction of our internal environment, and the way that leads us to detrimentally engage with the world.
So, in order for us to become mindful, we need to:
Believe that the current way that we engage with reality is hurting us enough to the point that we truly want to change;
Get support to, firstly, become conscious, and secondly, deal with all of the issues that will crop up as a result of becoming conscious; and
Keep going. This is a life-long work.
At the start of my own journey, the notion of becoming present was genuinely terrifying. Facing myself - my experiences, my beliefs, my ways of being - required an enormous amount of ongoing courage, commitment, and the support of some excellent professionals. It was often a rough journey. But I look back on my last five years, and the person I have become - the ways that I have grown, the ways that I can now show up to myself and to others, the fact that I can ask for support - and I wouldn’t change it for anything. Is the pain of staying unconscious greater than the pain of becoming conscious? From my perspective, absolutely.