On Mindfulness: The Illusion

The art of living... is neither careless drifting on the one hand nor fearful clinging to the past on the other. It consists in being sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive.”
— Alan W. Watts

A friend and I were talking about the power of being fully present in the moment. She said that thinking too much about the past breeds regret, guilt or negativity about the future. And that dwelling too much on the future fosters fear, anxiety or discontentment with today.

This led to a discussion on mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the practice of living right now. Of focusing on what is rather than what was or could be. It's breathing and observing and witnessing without judgment. It's the foundation of gratitude.

After that discussion, I started to notice this word everywhere. Obviously you'll hear it in yoga studios and buddhist environments. But what surprised me is the ubiquity of it. I heard it in a Christian sermon, read it in a book on business efficiency and heard it twice in one day on NPR. Mindfulness has almost become quotidian. So why, then, is it so difficult to practice.

So, I'll say it first: I’m rarely mindful.

Sitting here at my computer, feeling proud for having what feels like a new thought, then immediately realizing that this same thought has already occurred to, literally, billions of people, I suddenly feel silly. Juvenile, even.

Here’s the thought: the practice of mindfulness is itself an illusion.

Mindfulness is the practice of being fully in the present moment. It comes from a desire to exit the illusions we create through societal pressures and norms by reliving the past or pondering the nonexistent future. Only this moment exists.

We bring the peripetetic mind back to the breath. We bring it back to this moment.

Sitting on a bolster in my living room, it hit me. The very act of bringing the mind back to center is perpetually impossible. It's a moment by moment act of the will because “being centered" isn’t a constant state of being. It’s an act of defiance to our seemingly natural state of wandering.

The Past

There’s a party game we played a few years ago we call “The Story Game”. I know, catchy title. Here’s how it goes.

Everyone at the party writes the script-pitch version of a real-life experience they had on a piece of paper with their name on it. “I once saw the pope naked.” Or “I visited 7 countries in one day.” Then the host of this round draws a storyline from the hat, and assigns it to three people to tell the full story as though it were their own. One of the people chosen must be the owner of the experience. In the end, everyone else votes on who they think is telling the truth.

Often the stories are told with great detail to prove the scenario’s validity. All three people wrack their brains to make the story both interesting and realistic.

Some time ago, we played this with a large group of family and friends. The line was “I ran over a dog in the van.” My mother, brother and sister were chosen.

Going first, my brother said, “What’s there to say? I was driving home in the gray van we had when I was a teenager, and I ran over a dog. It was sad.” His dry delivery and wry smile had us in stitches despite the obvious morbidity of the topic.

My mother said, “What’s there to say? I was driving home in the gray van we had when the kids were teenagers, and I ran over a dog. It was sad.”

My sister said, “You’re both lying. I was driving home in the gray van we had when I was a teenager, and I ran over a dog. It was sad.”

We were crying with laughter. We still retell this story at family gatherings. And when we voted on who was telling the truth, the votes were split. We had no idea.

Normally in this game it’s not that difficult to discern the truth from a fictitious lie. Most people embellish too much. The lie is in too many details or a difficulty improvising necessary flow. The truth stands clear and easy and confident. The lie tries too hard to gain your trust.

It's the same with the past. It’s not near so clear what’s true and what’s not. Even now I can’t remember who actually committed canicide in the gray van we had when I was a teenager.

Next time you’re with two other friends, ask them to write down what happened at a shared experience. You’ll find that all three of you have a different story about it. You might even argue about whether it rained that day, who was driving, whether the cute guy was wearing red or blue, where you ate or if that was during your dreadlocks or beach wave phase.

It will seem like you’re all making it up. In fact, that’s exactly what’s happening.

The past ... is a tissue of lies that you’ve created to help make sense of your current reality.”

The past is an illusion. It’s a tissue of lies that you’ve created to help make sense of your current reality.

Let me say that again: it’s not real.

How many times have I been corrected about a detail, argued adamantly that I was right, then been quickly proven to be in the wrong? Names, dates, places, people. I get them all wrong more often than I’m comfortable admitting.

I’m not saying the past didn’t happen. Quite the contrary: every past was once the tangible present. But once it’s moved from present to past, all bets are off about the validity of a singular recounting of that once-vibrant moment.

The Construct

The past is fueled by a desire to make sense of the present. We feel grounded when we can create a narrative of how we got here. “What decisions made me who I am today? What steps led me to this place?” We even say things like “You must know where you’ve been (or where you come from) to know who you are.”

But, do you?

If our construct of the past is just that, a construct, then how can it tell us all we need to know of the present, or the future?

Our pondering the past is fueled by emotions like nostalgia, fondness, guilt, remorse and longing. We say things like “Things were simpler then.” Or “I was so full of hope.” We make comparisons to our current feelings about our lives today. If we love our lives, the past is moderated. If we think life was better then than now, well, you get the point. The past is viewed in relative nature to how we view our current situation.

On the other hand, when I'm having a great time, I'm not thinking about the past at all. I’m laughing and eating and drinking and enjoying fully. Thoughts of the past are no where to be found. I’m never in the throws of ecstasy thinking, “Gee, this is great, but remember that girl in high school Chemistry?” No! When I’m enjoying the moment, there’s no need to find fuel from the past.

In day to day living, there’s value in taking time to remember lost loved ones and the struggles you overcame. Take stock of what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown. Retell your glory days. And then, bring them into this moment as gratitude.

Don’t stay in the past. Memory lane is full of traps and delay tactics. And, much like the Fire Swamp in “The Princess Bride”, the trees may be quite lovely, but it’s not where you’d want to build a summer home.

Trying to relive or remember the past as a means to define my future is inaccurate at best and self-deception at worst. But it can help give me confidence that I will continue on no matter what comes.

The Future

If the past is a fiction, what can we possibly know about the future?

Thoughts of the past are often grounded in feelings of accomplishment or loss. And thoughts of the future are often based in feelings of hope or fear. It’s the basis for much of our existential crisis. We realize that even great moments are fleeting, and that soon the anticipated future will be just another faded memory.

I now have memories of thinking about the future, realizing that it would soon be in the past. For example, on April 15th, 2007, I walked out of the shower thinking how in two months I would already be back from a trip to Italy. That’s some “Inception” level craziness right there. And now, I’m currently in the present remembering the past, thinking about a past future... Mind blown! You’re welcome.

We only fear what hasn’t yet happened.”

Ever notice how you cannot fear the present? We only fear what hasn’t yet happened. Even as a kid, when I got a spanking, I didn’t fear the swat I just received. I was already thinking about the next swing of the paddle.

A kid breaks a glass, and now she dreads Dad coming home from work. She’s not afraid of what’s happening right now. She’s afraid of what might happen.

See there. It’s another construct. We live in this pendulum state of time conception. We’re planning for and reaching into the future, or we’re reliving the past. We swing forward and back constantly.

And in so doing, we miss the one thing that actually is. The one thing that gives legs to the future. We are able to live our entire lives never being fully in the present. As improbable as that seems, I’ve spent much of my life doing it. Heck, I’m doing it right now by writing this bit while simultaneously wondering if you’ll like it.

The Turn

Life more often than not plays out in ways we never anticipated. That dreaded confrontation turns out to deepen the relationship. That feared public presentation goes better than expected (or much worse than anticipated when we’re feeling overly confident). Life surprises us for the very reason that it must: we can’t predict it.

15 years ago at that party with the story-telling game, I couldn’t have predicted all the foods I’ve since eaten, languages I’ve attempted, people I’ve met or sunsets I’ve seen. I’ve changed so significantly that if that James met me today, he’d likely not understand me at all. He was arrogant and ignorant and hopeful in a way that only ignorant, arrogant people can be. And he’d likely be telling me what I need to be doing with my life to “live right”. We probably wouldn’t be good friends. He was kind of a dick.

And that’s okay.

That younger James doesn’t exist in this present moment.

The present is the only reality.”

I have the power to choose who to be right now. I’m under no obligation to be the same person I was five minutes ago. I can make eye contact with the person speaking to me, or I can tell them I think they’re stupid and walk away. I can allow my mind to wander to the thing that haunts my daydreams (the superhuman ability to fly), or I can bring it back to center in this moment.

I alone can balance memory with expectation to realize that the present is not merely a flash between two infinite, all-consuming realities. The present is the only reality. 

I get to choose everything about my life and how I perceive it. And, yes, that’s a construct too. But it’s one of my own choosing. And that’s worth something.

While I cannot go back, nor can I move forward any faster than time allows, I can choose to be fully present in this moment. And this moment. And this moment. And, really, that’s the only place I have any real power anyway.