The philosophy of mindfulness
Despite the huge spur in the interest in mindfulness in recent years, it is important to remember that mindfulness is not a new concept, as illustrated by the variety of quotes below about living in the now. In fact, mindfulness has been around for a very long time.
The meaning of life
Through all the philosophers, scientists, scholars, academics, psychologists, writers, poets, and religions that claim that the meaning of life is to live fully in every moment, one thing becomes abundantly clear. Mindfulness is neither a new concept, nor a revolutionary one. Yet it seems to be the key to a full and happy life. I am no philosopher, but upon reading Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It: Wisdom of the Great Philosophers on How to Live by Daniel Klein, it struck me as fascinating that this “simple” message for how to live kept recurring. While present moment awareness is not always easy to implement in one’s daily life (and I speak from experience here), it appears to be a way of living that’s definitely worth exploring.
In my previous blog post, I wrote briefly about our tendency to always ask ourselves: What’s next? What is just beyond that hill? What is going to happen in the near future? Philosophers generally agree that both the past and the future are mental constructs, the past relying on memory, and the future relying on imagination. Put simply, what’s next isn’t real. The problem of looking towards the future specifically, is that our imagination can only be based on our own previous experiences. Our imagination will always be somewhat limited by what we already know (unless we take psychedelics or other mind-altering drugs to expand our consciousness). And after contemplating what’s next, we also start thinking about what might have been.
What might have been?
A similar fallacy occurs when we keep looking back and thinking about what might have been. But while we arguably have at least some power to influence our future, we have no ability to change our past (unless you are, indeed, a time traveller). What might have been is a futile game, culminating in no more knowledge than we already have in the present. We simply do not know what could have been, nor do we have any way to find this out. Yet we still wonder, creating scenarios in our minds, playing out lives that are not ours, and imagining the unimaginable. And sometimes, as human beings, we worry about the past and the future simultaneously, by asking ourselves: What if?
What if we did something differently in the past? What if we moved to a different country, stayed with our ex-partner, or studied a different degree? What if we make the wrong choice today that will affect our present or our future? What if we accept the wrong job offer, take the wrong route to work, or buy the wrong bottle of wine? And finally, what if our future doesn’t turn out the way we hope? What if we never earn enough money, find the love of our lives, or patch things up with our family? We are sometimes so worried or envious about the life we do not have that we are not actually living the life that we do have.
A final note from Buddhism
I do not know if Buddha was the first to promote a mindful and present way of living. But what is very interesting to me is that unlike most Western philosophers, teachers of Buddhism are less focused on finding the meaning of life, and more focused on simply living it. It seems that maybe the key to happiness is not looking for the key to happiness at all. What we ultimately have is the present, the “right now”, the one and only moment in which we can truly live. And the good news there is that it’s always right now.