It seems that the focus of many bloggers and mindfulness advocates is to promote mindfulness as yet another miracle fix on the way to flat abs and a yacht. Mindfulness isn’t a shortcut to effortless positive thinking.
The fact that the 440×220 pixel Twitter platitudes with a stock sunset background and a quote from a Buddhist have become so popular reflects the growing misunderstanding surrounding mindfulness.
While mindfulness does help with depression, anxiety and other difficult mental states, achieving a certain mental state – or indeed happiness – isn’t the purpose of mindfulness. While it isn’t necessary to buy into the philosophy behind mindfulness to practice it, it’s important to understand what it is one’s getting themselves into.There’s nothing at all wrong with “secular” mindfulness, the kind pedalled by corporations, promoted to children, etc. Indeed, I am in no way a Buddhist. However, I believe that hiding from this philosophy and still expecting to get experience mindfulness to the full is futile. The philosophy states that…
At the root of all suffering is attachment.
Non-attachment is a key tenet of the Buddhism. Attachment is our attempt to deny the fact that everything is impermanent, hence is causes a dissonance between reality and perception ultimately resulting in suffering. The concept seems at odds with out common view of happiness that involves the strife to get through a checklist of experiences and things – and walk of into the sunset in permanent bliss. However, the concept of non-attachment is echoed in the philosophy of Stoicism, the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche and modern talking therapies such as CBT and REBT. Indeed, I struggle with the concept again and again. It seem that Buddhism advocates that we live our lives a bit like plants: accept everything that comes our way and adapt.
Using mindfulness as some kind of trick to accomplish certain goals just doesn’t make sense.
Born at Google and based on brain science, SIY uses the practices of mindfulness to train Emotional Intelligence skills, leading to resilience, positive mindset, and centred leadership. In the midst of complexity, it’s about finding the inner capacity to create, to thrive, to lead. And it’s surprisingly fun. Backed by some of the world’s leading experts in neuroscience and mindfulness, SIY is changing thousands of lives in over a dozen countries.
Here’s a book they propose. I haven’t seen the inside, but if I may judge by its cover, I find it wanting.
Indirectly, insights into how to achieve goals may be precisely the result of the practice. However, a realisation of the irrelevance of those goals may also be the outcome. Being in the moment involves not knowing how it will all turn out. Barry Magid is an American psychiatrist who went against the current. He argued against using meditation as yet another vehicle en route to the conventional happiness prescription, i.e. maximum pleasant feelings and thoughts, minimum unpleasant feelings and thoughts.
Magid’s understanding of mindfulness is that it is a way to stop trying to “fix” ones’ experience of things.
His argument is somewhat routed in mythology: struggling to escape one’s demons is what gives them their power.
The fight for a vision of happiness is the cause of the problem, not the solution to it.
Freud’s seemingly basic idea of our psychology was that we seek pleasure and avoid pain (and we avoid pain much more than we seek pleasure). He argued that our subconscious was a big long list of everything we avoid. The Buddha confronted suffering, he didn’t move away – he moved into the pain – and that is how he became free.
As a doctor, I know that it’s very worrying when a patient doesn’t flinch away from a painful stimulus. I am starting to come around to the idea that for our higher cognition, the non-reflex, non-fight-or-flight, it is better to not flinch away from mental pain.
That’s how I understand mindfulness. It’s not sitting there thoughtless. In fact, trying hard to fix the busy mind is yet another trap. The way I understand it is that it is necessary to observe it without clinging or fleeing. Like I discussed with Bela,
For me the experience of mindfulness is a bit like being on a tight rope: the abyss of clinging to the left and of fleeing to the right. Sometimes of the past to the left and of the future to the right. Just like it takes a lot of awareness to remain on the tight rope, flexing the right muscles, adjusting to the wind, it takes the same kind of awareness to stay in the moment.
Seneca, Freud, the Buddha – and our new friend the living psychiatrist Magid all seem to think that flinching away from suffering is what makes it worse.
The Abhidhamma, a central text for Buddhism, teaches that the mind is a bit like a sense organ. Thoughts and feelings come in just like smells, sounds and tastes. Recently, I observed a thought that seemed completely extraneous to me: having relaxed after non-stop worrying about a sick animals, I found it strange how someone else would get so upset about a pet in hospital. Not every thought and emotion belongs to us. Why do certain songs cling to our minds? In what way are they ours?
We could consider the inescapable nature of the smell of cigarettes – or the taste of toothpaste every morning as a way to understand the presence of certain thoughts and feelings.
It gets a little bit “meta” – as we are more abstractly thinking (one may say observing non-judgementally) of regular thinking (to do list, he said, she said, itchy, hungry, Never mind I’ll find someone like you, and other assorted circular randomness) – and saying that regular thinking is just like an organ of perception. What does that say about abstract thinking? Is that the “real” thinking? Somewhat over-simplistically, I suspect that this abstract thinking is a process of the prefrontal cortex, while the regular thinking is carried out by more basic circuitry we share with many animals.
In this vein, not being able to get the motivation to do something because one’s sad doesn’t make sense. One needn’t feel pumped to do work. If thoughts and feelings are like smells and sounds, one can still muster the agency to do what needs to be done. The Stoics would argue like this also.
In a sense, this still means that mindfulness is a route to happiness, only I changed the goal posts of what happiness is. In a sense, mindfulness is a fight to stay on the tightrope of the present moment – and thus a fight for happiness. This is all difficult to state in words, but I think you all know what I mean.
Mindfulness doesn’t have a purpose, except perhaps to reconcile perception and reality – which is so obvious, it is a bit embarrassing to state as a purpose.
Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level
Fear of the passage of time
I recently came across the term chronophobia in the context of people doing exams: knowing that exam day is ever closer makes people anxious. Chronophobia was defined as an experience of unease and anxiety about time, a feeling that events are moving too fast and are thus hard to make sense of, in “Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s” by Pamela Lee.
Chronophobia isn’t a formal diagnosis, neither does it feature in scientific literature. In other words, it’s not really a phobia. It is more of an unpleasant feeling – one that is often expressed in art.
It is common in prison inmates, students in long academic programs and the elderly. When one is anxious, it is not only possible to be anxious about the event, but also its inescapable approach. Chronophobia is less about the doom and more about it being impending.
Chronophobia appears to be connected with heightened awareness of the passage of time that is inherent in distant deadlines for significant events.
This morning during my 10 minutes of mindfulness, something interesting bubbled up. I randomly remembered myself on an airplane travelling back to Moscow to visit family about 2 years ago. I felt a strong urge to be that person again, a bit like when I’m on vacation and towards the end, with a sigh, I think back to how liberating the first day off felt. Or when I reach the last bite of some dopamine-explosive dessert, I think back to how happy I felt when it was just put in front of me. We all love vacation and desert. However, my wish to be 2 years younger makes little sense. I was in the throes of a challenging 70-80 hours per week medical rota. It took much ingenuity to carve out enough time to travel. Is it regret? It wouldn’t be fair to say that the last 2 years were somehow a waste of time in any regard. Why do I feel so drawn to the thought of going back in time?
Fear of opportunity cost
Aged 27, I frequently contemplate what it would go back to a previous point in time. I think it’s the understanding of the limited nature of time. I also worry about opportunity cost. In economics, there is the term opportunity (alternative) cost is the value of the option that we don’t choose when making a decision. [If I have 1 euro and buy a 1 euro can of Coke, I would have to forego the 1 euro Mars bar in order to have it. I would thus potentially worry about what it would have been like if they got a Mars bar instead.] The feeling is different to decision-anxiety. It’s not even about second guessing one’s choice, but more about imagining alternative paths.
The word decision literally means the cutting off – of other options. Thinking of the alternatives always reminds us of the unyielding nature of choice and how we really can’t literally “have it all”.
Robert Frost’s famous (infamous?) “The Road Not Taken” is a brilliant and often misinterpreted examination of the nature of choice. It is important to recognise the speaker’s deliberation: he says the roads are much the same: “just as fair”, “really about the same”, “equally lay”.
“The Road Not Taken”, a frequent feature of post-card philosophy, is often oversimplified to say that the speaker chose the less travelled road – and, woohoo, that’s amazing. It’s more complex than that.
The speaker admits that he left the first road “for another day”. While he knew he would never go back, the torment of admitting the final nature of choice is just too much.
One can get very detailed when describing their particular fear. I certainly don’t support the idea of including “fear of opportunity cost”, “fear of the passage of time” or even “fear of choice” as phobias into the DSM. Indeed, this is perfect ground for thinking by induction. Is there a common thread here?
Boiling down fears to a common denominator: could it be death?
Why does chronophobia affect students? Time forces them to deal with events that will affect serious aspects of their lives such as their future careers – and thus even more permanent things like social class, the kind of people they will be likely to marry and so on. Exam results’ effects are by no means definitive, but probabilistically they are significant.
It has become popular to say that there are only 2 human emotions: fear and love.
Everything negative is a form of fear. It kind of makes sense: anger is a way of defending one’s point of view, property or whatever other boundary. Being sad is a fear that one will never be as happy as they were before as a result of an event (not talking about depression here). Disgust is a fear that something will negatively impact one’s existence. You get the gist.
The other popular thought is that all fear is a form of the ultimate fear – of death.
Going back to chronophobia again, why does it affect the elderly? Time threatens the existence of the elderly. It threatens all of our’s existence, but the elderly are more aware of it – mostly for social and cultural reasons. Now, none of us are deluded enough to actually think we’re not going to die. However, as Ernest Becker points out:
we have 2 ideas of the self: the physical and the symbolic.
In my opinion, our rationality only extends as far as the physical self. We are preoccupied with ways to immortalise our symbolic self. As per the “Mahabharata”:
“The most wondrous thing in the world is that although every day innumerable creatures go to the abode of death, still man thinks that he is immortal”.
The recent debate that followed my discussion of the role of validation in our self-esteem sparked some follow on thoughts. In short, it showed that people with narcissistic tendencies experience much emptiness or even self-hatred – and validation is used to take the edge off. However, as all creatures who make choices, people with narcissistic tendencies are subject to avoiding pain and seeking pleasure (thank you, Dr. Freud). Clearly, they find narcissism more tolerable that the alternative. How could this be?
What if those who crave validation to feel good about themselves chose to be this way because the alternative – knowing that one is inherently valuable, without any validation – makes the thought of inevitable death absolutely intolerable? If one feels that they’re not that valuable, dying isn’t quite as scary or tragic.
Realising that a person is valuable, getting attached and then letting go is much harder than never getting attached – in this case to your self, as is the case with death. This devaluation allows people to cope with the fear of death. At the same time, the person with narcissistic tendencies maintains the upside of being able to work on “their immortality projects”, like winning medals and getting promotions. This is just a hypothesis of mine. I understand that I have no idea what Steve Jobs was really like. A lot of people say that he was an obnoxious narcissist. He said this, which happens to be congruent with my hypothesis:
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
There are other psychologically sneaky ways that we deal with the fear of death that have stood the test of time (well, since 1974 or so when “Denial of Death” was published):
Becker argues that everything we do: writing books, starting businesses, having children are all ways to transcend – and not have to deal with – death.
It makes sense too: the thought that everything one ever does will disappear into oblivion is so hard to accept that in order to keep going we find ways to defy death’s erasure of our existence by leaving a legacy.
One’s own death is hard to imagine. It is as if we believe we will still be alive on some level after we die, but unable to act on our dreams and stuck reminiscing of the time we were alive and lamenting we didn’t do more.
If leaving a legacy isn’t an option, then one can choose to believe in the afterlife to help themselves cope with the concept death.
Paradoxically, dying may be a way to transcend death. Physical death could be a route to symbolic immortality. Just think of war heroes.
Constant reminders of death were common all throughout the last millennium: having a skull on one’s desk was kind of like having sticky notes or an extra mouse. An experiment where people were asked to write about death before they were asked about their country’s war efforts showed that thinking of death made people more enthusiastic about war -as it adds meaning, purpose, a sense of belonging, a feeling of impact…
The purpose of my reflection isn’t to say we shouldn’t fear death, and it will all be fine. It is more of an inquiry into what behaviours of ours are motivated by the fundamental, underlying fear, which so far appears to be that of death. However,…
It’s not death we fear, it is not having an impact
Is it really death we fear? I think a better way of putting it is that we fear that we’re inconsequential, insignificant, that we made no difference through our existence.
For those who insist that it is a fear of death: it’s that of the symbolic self. For those who insist that our biggest fear is to not be loved: to have someone love one is probably the biggest impact one can have on another human being. Perhaps, it is the ultimate, or the one that really count. I am not sure. However, my point remains: it is about impact.
My recent discussion of meaning according to Nietzsche prompted many to comment that the fact that we die and that the universe will ultimately end (something to do with the Sun and physics) implies that there could be no meaning in our lives. I don’t follow this argument. To me, it is like saying there’s no point in eating because you’ll get hungry again. Clearly though,
for a lot of people death is the ultimate enemy in a game rigged against them.
I used the word impact above for a reason. I could have said consequence or meaning, but something stopped me. Both of those words are overused and call to mind all kinds of associations. Furthermore, I thought of animals. They are driven largely by the same evolutionary forces as we are, and I think we overestimate the extent to which animals are different. They may not have insight, but they are a reflection at least of how nature intended things. To illustrate, I will use an example I recall from watching a BBC documentary on giraffes. Two massive male giraffes were fighting for a female. How on earth do giraffes fight, I hear you ask. Well, they violently swing their entire necks to strike. The force of the swing is enough to shatter their skulls. The battle went on to the point of near death… for the sake of a female. The giraffes decided/were driven by nature to go that far just to reproduce – so death is less important than an opportunity to have impact, which, for giraffes I think is reasonable to assume, is to have progeny.
I don’t think that the fear of not having an impact is the same as the fear of failure. One can fail, but still achieve a lot and have an impact. Failure is defined in terms of a percentage of the way to realising a dream. Impact, or lack thereof, is much more real.
I feel that a human being on their death bed is likely to think of what impact they have had, not where they ranked compared to their dream.
On the bright side…
There is a “cure” for fear of choice
Going back to my own ENTP-torment of being more interested in talking about choices rather than actually making them, I am looking for some kind of resolution. N. N. Taleb, a favourite writer of mine, is popularising the concept of optionality. He argues that having options is a great thing:
Optionality is the property of asymmetric upside (preferably unlimited) with correspondingly limited downside (preferably tiny).
It’s not really a way to get out of making choices. Instead, it is a way to do what you were going to do anyway, but leaving cheap enough nets here and there to see if one day something nice washes up in one of them such that covers the cost of having had the nets n times over.
He argues against specialisation (i.e. going down too far in the decision tree of choices or going down to the end of just one branch). We are all familiar with specialisation success stories. The Nobel Prize goes to the person who studied a particular enzyme for 30 years. The startup that solves a specific problem in one particular niche is the one that does well. Kim Kardashian has one thing going for her, and she’s taken over the world…
Taleb reminds us that there are cemeteries of specialised ventures and people. Just because the successes that make into the media are specialised, doesn’t mean all of them are. Specialisation comes from the propensity to make choices. It is not the only way to achieve something. Hence, it is possible that the act of making choices is overvalued.
Richard Branson has over 400 companies. Is it because he is greedy – or perhaps because he understands that specialisation is a dangerous game to play? Venture capitalists and angel investors back things in a non-specialised way. All financial investors do. It may look like it is specialised on the surface, but it really isn’t. Biotech, or robotics, isn’t a specialisation. These are incredibly broad fields. It’s like saying blogging is a specialisation. Investors take directional bets once is a while, i.e. ones that really require a choice, but they do so in a way that for every 1 euro they invest, they stand to gain 10, and only invest a tiny fraction of their euros into these schemes. This is exactly congruent with Taleb’s definition of optionality.
I have fabulously rationalised away the pressure to make choices here. However, the real work is in putting oneself into situations where optionality can be exercised.
The older I get, the more I realise that there’s quite a lot of engineering involved in all of this. It’s not so much about going after specific visions, but creating situations where visions can flourish – and ultimately have an impact.
Children are a spectacular audience in that they have a great BS filter. It is quite common in paediatrics for kids to be very skeptical of advice. I recall an overweight doctor working in paediatric endocrinology giving dietary advice to a diabetic child. Let’s just say, the poor doctor was informed of the value of giving advice that they themselves don’t follow.
Through the years, I’ve met many smoking surgeons, neurotic psychiatrists and overweight dieticians (but never a less than glowing dermatologist). It’s not necessary to practice what you preach to give good advice. However, going directly against what you preach, what you are meant to be good at – does raise authenticity and competence concerns, not always fairly, but we would be worse off without this filter.
Whatever about overworked doctors, my real question is about philosophers. Schopenhauer is widely regarded as having been an intolerable hedonistic psychopath and a chauvinist. It is well known that he nearly pushed a woman down the stairs – for being annoying. He bailed on a woman who was pregnant with his child. Hegel did something not entirely dissimilar. Nietzsche didn’t have much of a social life, except for in brothels (not unlike Schopenhauer, actually). Kant didn’t have one at all. Gazillionaire Seneca denounced worldly possessions. He was clearly preoccupied with a fear of poverty. At times, in his letters to Lucillius, he sounds like he’s trying to calm himself down more than anything else. I strongly believe he has what modern day psychiatrists would call a passive death wish. Marcus Aurelius was born into being arguably the most powerful man in the world – and so his advice sounds good, but it’s not clear of how much use it was to him. Seneca’s and Marcus Aurelius’ explanations often reference two separate entities: luck an the gods, without really examining the nature of these. Machiavelli, regarded by many as the ultimate weasel and plamaser, didn’t exactly fare so well at court. Freud came up with a theory that is to philosophy as Newtonian physics is to physics. Nonetheless, there is some outrageous stuff in there too. And if you say enough – some of it is going to be right, a bit like a broken clock is right twice a day.
Two quotes come to mind. Both from Seneca. The first I will use as a disclaimer:
“I shall never be ashamed of citing a bad author if the line is good”.
The second, the one I am actually interested in is:
“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”
What if replace the word religion with the word philosophy? Let’s be honest, philosophy is nearly more powerful than religion – because it spreads more insidiously. There’s no discrete baptism, no conversion, no point of no return – just silent incremental exposure. And so, I wonder, we treat philosophy with such reverence, but should we?