We live in an incredible age. We can expect to live longer and healthier lives than was ever possible for any of our ancestors and technology is accelerating at an ever increasing rate. However, the speed of change means a significant disconnect has opened up between the world evolution prepared us for and the world in which we live.
To make matters worse we have a default way of thinking that is ill equipped to bridge this gap and as a consequence we often feel dissatisfied and disappointed despite living in a world of plenty. There is another way of thinking that can bridge this gap and which can help us make sense of the disappointment we often feel for no apparent reason.
This way of thinking is called mindfulness, and this article aims to look at it in a different light so we can gain a deeper understanding of what it is and how it can open up a path to a richer and more fulfilling life.
The disconnect between us and evolution.
Within living memory households had neither electricity nor running water. We now have every possible household convenience to liberate us from the drudgery of cooking, washing and cleaning. In two generations entertainment has gone from radio, records and cinema to an on-demand streaming output of digital content that includes, television, music, and film and has added games, apps, and social media to help us fill every moment of our day. We live in the age of the consumer and technology has put a sophisticated smartphone in everyone’s back pocket.
However modern life has other challenges, paradoxically we live in a world in which more people die by their own hand than through war, terrorism and murder. We have never before lived in a world in which we are connected 24/7 by our smartphones to everyone and everything. We are bombarded by information, advertising, emails, messages and notifications all clamoring for our attention.
Our world has also changed dramatically, we are now largely an urban society, families are often fragmented and the emergence of social media and instant messaging changes our relationships and the way we interact. The constant demands on our attention undermine our ability to focus, we lose sight of what is important and we can easily be led into a world of distraction that is shallow, unfulfilling and addictive.
Stress now affects one in every five of us to an extent that it negatively impacts our mental health. It can manifest as anxiety or depression, two different conditions both corrosive to our happiness, health and well-being.
This is not a world that evolution prepared us for, our ancestors had to compete for scarce resources with limited information in close knit communities. Human brains evolved over millions of years and developed potent cocktails of chemical endorphins as a stimulus and reward to keep us focused on satisfying our basic human needs.
But in our modern world of plenty, a world in which most of our evolutionary needs are met, we still seek the pleasure of the reward in the absence of the need. We have replaced ‘needs’ with ‘wants’, but pleasure dissipates quickly and once one want is satisfied another soon appears to take its place. The constant demands on our attention, the continual carrots that are dangled in front of us, distract us from what is important and what gives life meaning. And without meaning, purpose and direction we can find ourselves lost, bewildered and at times deeply unhappy.
If our greatest aspiration in life is to be content and happy, then it is imperative we understand how to bridge the gap that has opened up between the world evolution prepared us for and the actual world in which we live. To do this we must first resolve two significant problems.
- We don’t fully understand how our minds work
- We have a default way of thinking that doesn’t serve us well.
Why we don’t understand our minds.
Isn’t it incredible that we spend 16 years in full-time education without ever learning how our minds work? Why is this?
We don’t learn how our minds work because our society and education have never placed any importance on doing so. It simply hasn’t occurred to us that our minds might not be the free thinking entities they appear to be.
We believe that our minds are logical, rational and free thinking. They are the centre of our Universe, the starting point from which we look out at the world. We don’t fully understand how mind and body are connected, but our religious and cultural beliefs have instilled a belief that mind and body are somehow separate.
This belief does not allow for the possibility of hidden biases in our thinking, nor does it teach us to be vigilant of the strong evolutionary needs and instincts that drive our thinking and behaviour at a subconscious level. It engenders a one directional way of thinking, one that thinks without ever questioning our thoughts.
Our default way of thinking
It is counter intuitive to imagine that the earth revolves around the sun, every morning we see the sun rise and fall as it moves across the sky. It is only when the rotation of the Earth is explained to us that we understand that the perception of the sun moving around the earth is an illusion.
In many regards the belief that our minds are logical, rational and free thinking is also an illusion.
We look out from our minds in the same way as we look out from the Earth, as if we are at the centre of our own private Universe. But what if our minds are no more than an illusion created by billions of chemical and electrical interactions between cells within our bodies. What is the consequence of our thoughts originating from cells which form an unbroken chain linking back hundreds of generations? What if the perception of our logical, rational, free thinking mind is also an illusion?
When we consider the full implications of a mind and body that acts as one, we create the opportunity for a whole new way of thinking. It no longer serves us just to think in one direction, we also need to be curious as to where our thoughts come from and what purpose they serve.
We can now think in two directions, outwardly at our thought, but also inwardly back at where the thought comes from.
Let us consider these two different concepts in more detail;
- Mind and Body are Separate
- Mind and Body are One.
Mind and Body are Separate
Dualism is the belief that mind and body are separate, and for most of us it is our default way of thinking. So where did this come from?
Many of us believe that we have a divine soul that is separate from the body and which will receive its reward in Heaven. But there would be little point of our soul getting to Heaven if it arrived there and didn’t know who it was! We have invested our mind with the same sense of separate identity that is the defining feature of our soul.
The philosopher Rene Descartes supported the belief of a separate soul when he proposed his concept of Cartesian Dualism. This considers the mind, or soul, as an ethereal substance, distinct and separate from the body but which interacts with the body at the pineal gland. This proposes that the mind controls the body, but that the body can also influence our otherwise rational mind, such as when our emotions take over.
The concept of a separate mind and body is so deeply entrenched in our psyche that we fail to see how deeply it influences our thinking.
It tends to reinforce a belief that we are uniquely different from the rest of the animal kingdom. We watch with fascination the bizarre behaviour of animals and not for one moment do we consider that our own thoughts and behaviour may be equally bizarre driven by similar evolutionary instincts.
We consider ourselves to be logical, free thinking and with the exception of matters of the heart, to make rational decisions based on our information to hand. This belief is so strong that most of us take it as a self evident truth, one that is so obvious that we don’t need to question it. We implicitly trust our reasoning and the experience upon which it is based.
The deep flaw with this one-directional way of thinking is that we never really question why we think or feel the way we do. We do not allow for the fact that our thoughts and behaviour are often driven by evolutionary needs and instincts buried deep within our psyche.
As a consequence we never benefit from the deep liberation of knowing that we are not our thoughts and feelings. We appreciate that hunger and physical pain are signals from our bodies, but somehow cravings and moods become much more personal. We identify with our emotions, “I am happy”, or “I am sad”.
But what if thoughts and emotions are just ‘stuff’ that happens to us. Wouldn’t stress, cravings and difficult emotions be much easier to deal with if we thought of them in the same way as we think of physical pain, as something that happens to us. Not something that is us.
Mind and Body are One
One of the most amazing recent discoveries in science is that life started just once on Earth when a single cell pulsed into being. Two billion years later and every living thing on the planet; bacteria, plants and animals all share a single common ancestor.
“…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
On the Origin of Species (1859) – Charles Darwin
There are now several fields of science engaged in gaining a greater understanding of our minds. Psychology is the science of behavior and mind and cognitive neuroscience investigates how psychological functions are produced by neural circuitry within the brain and body.
Materialism is the philosophical and scientific concept that matter is the fundamental substance in nature and that our mind and consciousness are part and processes of our body. To put it more succinctly, mind and body are one.
The concept that mind and body are one allows for the possibility that our subconscious mind may be constantly scanning for threats and seeking to satisfy needs. Suddenly understanding our mind takes on a whole new imperative, what other forces or motives are underlying our thoughts and decisions? What hidden biases in our thinking do we need to consider and make allowance for? Are we constantly being driven to satisfy ancient evolutionary needs that are out of sync with our modern day circumstances?
Two directional thinking allows us to insert a curious observer into our thinking process. Not only does this allow us to question why and where our thought comes from, but it also allows us to make more considered decisions based on all our options.
A Better Way of Thinking
Allowing ourselves to consider mind and body as one opens up a real opportunity to bridge the disconnect between the world evolution prepared us for and the world in which we live. An opportunity that can lead to a happier and more fulfilling life.
We can learn to understand our minds are not as free thinking and rational as we believe. That there are hidden biases in our thinking processes, and that we have inherited ‘ancient fires’ from our ancestors that drive our thoughts and behaviour.
Considering our mind and body as one is not mutually exclusive of a fundamental belief in a divine soul, it just re-frames our thinking in a context that allows a healthier understanding of our mind and how it works. A mind and body that are united can still be the seat of a divine soul.
The most significant consequence of considering mind and body as one is the importance of nurturing all aspects of our well-being. If our thoughts and moods originate in our bodies, then we can fully appreciate the connection between a healthy body and a healthy mind. We can fully understand the importance of taking care of all aspects of our health; physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual.
Happiness and contentment are states of mind, and our first priority must be to find a way to develop resilience and positive emotions. We also need to find a healthy way to deal with stress and negative emotions.
The answer is a two directional way of thinking, a way of thinking that we otherwise know as mindfulness.
Mindfulness can be thought of as many things; a multi-faceted diamond, a key to open many doors, a state of being, a path, an energy, a strategy, and a tool.
In essence mindfulness is bringing our attention to what is happening in the present moment, at it’s very core is the energy of a relaxed, but focused attention.
“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Jon Kabat Zinn
The state of awareness that we cultivate is detached, curious and compassionate, it is as if we have invited a trusted, wise and kind observer into our minds to watch what is happening.
This two directional thinking can replace our default way of thinking that never seeks to understand why we think the way we do. We now have a thinking tool that not only looks at our thoughts and emotions but also looks back to see where they came from.
This practice of alert awareness brings insights, and it is through these insights that we can make life changing choices about what is important to us, and where we want to invest our limited time and precious attention.
The practice of mindfulness if developed over time can be deeply transformative, we operate on auto-pilot most of the time and our reactions are purely instinctual based on a life time of acquired programming, beliefs and habits.
What mindfulness does is to take us off auto pilot and allow us to recognise that at any time, in any situation, we always have choices on how to act. We learn that not only can we choose our words and actions, but with practice we can also choose our thoughts and emotions, this is deeply liberating.
Putting it all together
Our world has changed so dramatically in the last few generations that a disconnect has opened up between the world that evolution prepared us, and the world in which we live.
This disconnect is challenging our happiness and mental health to such a degree that in a world of plenty we often feel dissatisfied and disappointed without knowing why.
Our difficulties are compounded because we have a default way of thinking that assumes our thinking is always logical, rational and without influence or bias. We cannot see that on many occasions the tail is wagging the dog, that our thoughts and behaviour are often driven by hidden evolutionary needs and instincts. Our thinking is one directional only, we think but without ever questioning our thoughts.
If we allow for the fact that our minds are part and parcel of our bodies, and that they contain millions of years of evolutionary baggage, then we can change our perspective and the way we think.
If we introduce the practice of mindfulness we can insert a curious, kind observer to watch our thoughts. This two directional style of thinking not only follows our thoughts, but also looks back to understand where they came from.
The insights we gain from a better understanding of our mind, thoughts and behaviour allow us to make better choices. Choices which can bridge the disconnect between the world evolution prepared us for and the world we actually live in.
Ultimately, it is through a greater understand of ourselves that we find peace and happiness and open a path to a richer and more fulfilling life.