Monday, June 04, 2012

The Trouble With Mindfulness

We all instinctively know that rushing something often results in poor performance and quality of work. Given the appropriate amount of time and attention, a job will be both well done and of good quality. However, we often find ourselves in the grasp of immediacy, throwing mindfulness under the bus. This is the trouble with mindfulness; it is too time consuming in a world where work is no longer physical, but of ideas. And, while we can think up ideas in a flash, it is often problematic to implement them in a flash. 

The best example I can convey is when I watch 3D movies. I am amazed when I watch 3D movies at the theater, most especially in IMAX. The characters seem to pop out of the screen and are in such clarity. The problem is that in my every day life, I do not see things as clearly or as real. Even when the prescription for my glasses has just been filled and I am presumably able to see the clearest, life often seems like a 2D movie. 

The same holds true with mindfulness. One is often under the pressure to perform work quickly so that one is not mindful towards doing a good job, simply a good enough job. It takes a mental effort to slow down and think things through sufficiently to do a good job. The same holds true for vision; it takes effort to focus sufficiently to see your surroundings in 3 dimensions rather than only 2. At least that is my experience. 

I've been reading Search Inside Yourself to help overcome that tendency. The author, Chade-Meng Tan emphasizes the importance of meditation, of forcing yourself to put all your attention on an individual task, not forcing yourself. It seems contradictory; but it could be natural. 

For example, I walked to the grocery store today. One thing I prefer to do is to take reusable bags to the grocery store to bring home my groceries. Somehow, it is much easier for me to remember to take a bag with me when I am walking to the grocery store rather than when I drive there. Why am I more mindful when I walk to the store than when I drive there?

I do not know the answer with certainty; but, I hypothesize that walking is a much slower and deliberate act, requiring a bit more thinking ahead. An error when walking has higher stakes than an error when driving. If I forget something, it is much more involved to walk back home than to drive back home. Therefore, it is that much more important to go through a mental checklist to ensure that I am well prepare for the journey. 

Similarly, when watching a movie, I am paying attention to the movie. Thus the movie characters seem more realistic and clear than the characters in my everyday life. During that showing, the movie has my attention. I am mindful towards it. And, if I focus my attention enough on real objects that are right in front of me, they pop out into 3D. It takes that little extra effort to make my surroundings appear as real physical objects like they do in 3D movies. 

The trouble with mindfulness is that we all know how to do it; but we cannot force it. We benefit from it; but, it is difficult to sustain without our minds wandering off. Mindfulness makes a great difference in how we experience and interact with reality. But, somehow, it can be elusive to some of us who live in a mental fog of ideas and information, where the abstract becomes more real than those things around us. 

While I certainly enjoy the ability to visualize ideas and concepts, it can be frustrating to have to step back into the physical world to perform everyday tasks at a functional level. The inability to be constantly mindful is why we lose our keys in the morning, why we have to rush from one place to the other, why we forget important things that need to be done, why we become entangled in things that do not get us nearer our goals. 

The trouble with mindfulness is that it requires you to be mindful about being mindful. In order to make things real, you have to step back and think of yourself as a puppet that your mind controls without autopilot. That freaks me out a little. 

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