by Michael W. Taft
I remember how painful boredom used to feel as a teenager. It was crushing. New television shows, movies, and music just felt like rehashings of old ones. New people reminded me of people who I already knew. Life felt like an endless rerun of the same stale old patterns, and nothing was interesting or new. It was excruciating, and I would do almost anything to find a new experience that was exciting and fresh. This often led me to some unwise behaviors in an attempt to jazz things up a bit.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that you cannot step in the same river twice. He means here that nothing is actually ever the same. Science tells us the same thing: the arrow of time is moving in a single direction, and that every moment is completely new and fresh. The world, the whole universe, never repeats itself. So why is it that it often doesn’t feel that way?
The answer is actually kind of simple: it’s not the world that is boring and repetitive, it’s your mind that is boring and repetitive. Your thoughts can sound like a broken record. When I first started meditating on my thinking (a mindfulness practice), it allowed me to notice this fact right away. Sometimes new ideas would pop up, but most of the time it’s just grinding over the same old territory. We often go through life unaware of this, but even a few hours of concentrated observation of your mental activity will demonstrate how stale your thinking really is.
It wasn’t always like this. When we were children, we saw things directly, and that is one of the main reasons why we remember childhood as something so magical. Education is a powerful and excellent thing, but in our society we educate people into a mental relationship with life and away from an experiential relationship with it. This conceptual way of experiencing life is a fantastically useful tool. It allows you to plan a vacation, balance your checkbook, and read a fascinating book. But in the modern world, it has gotten a bit overactive and is running all the time, even when it’s not required for problem-solving. Instead, we’ve gotten stuck in our minds, unable to let go of our driven, conceptual thinking when we want to.
When was the last time you actually encountered a tree as a tree? It’s possible to see a tree as a sensory phenomenon: the rich texture and scent of the bark, the luscious colors of the leaves, the sound it makes as the wind passes through it, and so on. This is the sensory experience of a tree. Yet most of us pass dozens or hundreds of trees a day, and we notice none of these features. We barely encounter trees as sensory experiences at all. Instead, we simply reduce all this sensory richness into a single word, “tree,” and leave it at that. The word tree functions as a concept, or symbol—a mental shorthand that allows us to shortcut having to actually encounter the tree. You may pass hundreds of trees today, each of them offering a unique experience, and instead you will probably just ignore them.
This is a big advantage in terms of functioning in the world. It’s a very efficient way to process information. Imagine if on the way to work, you had to stop and have a deep, rich, sensory experience with everything you passed on the way. You’d never arrive. You’d be too busy rolling around with a dog on the grass, or staring at the clouds, or listening to music you heard coming out of a shop. You’d get fired, or flunk out of school, or lose your relationship. Also, the brain only has so much processing power. Spending time noticing all that stuff while you were trying to work would just get in the way. So it’s an important part of our life as adults to be able to focus on what’s important in this way, and what’s important in our society is concepts. This is why we are schooled that way. Fine.
But there is a major downside, of course. The downside is that when work is done, and we want to go back to encountering the world in a sensory way, we have a hard time. We have become too habituated to seeing things as concepts in order to function, rather than as sensory experiences. We’ve gotten stuck in a mental rut. Our minds are metaphorically like a video game, in which trees, people, art, and the beauty of the world is reduced to a functional, blocky, low-resolution screen. Not very enjoyable. We’ve lost the connection to our senses, to what poet Mary Oliver calls “the soft animal of your body.” We evolved from animals, and we require a connection to our senses in order to feel safe, comfortable, happy, and joyous. This is what people are talking about when they talk about “embodiment.” Embodiment means being in touch with the lush world of the senses. Many people use booze or other sedatives to knock their mind offline and get into their body, but this is a brute-force method with a lot of drawbacks, like hangovers and addiction.
One of the major benefits of mindfulness meditation is that it teaches you to rediscover your senses in a healthy way. This means that after a long day at work, you can let go of your driven mental world. You can, at will, see the deep beauty in your lover’s eyes. The colors of the forest. The satisfaction of simple foods. These are not sentimental remembrances, but immediate, sensory events that only require re-learning how to experience the senses. There are many ways to help this along. Taking an art class, playing music, writing poetry, cooking meals—any similar activities that focus on the senses will begin to re-ignite your passion for the non-conceptual part of life. Because it concentrates directly on the senses, mindfulness meditation is probably the most powerful way to do this.
The fact is that the magical, beautiful world of childhood never went away, you just trained yourself to think that beauty is unimportant. It’s waiting for you, on the other side of your concepts, judgments, fantasies, and preoccupations. When the poet William Blake wrote:
To see the world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
he was talking about the direct experience of the senses. This experience of the freshness of the world is possible with even a small amount of mindfulness practice. Then, after a long day at work, you can let go of thinking, enjoy a tasty meal, and roll around with a dog in the grass.
In Part Two of this series, we’ll look at how to actually do this as a meditation practice.