The following is a rather prolonged train of thought about misconceptions having to do with the practice of mindfulness and the common advice to “live in the moment.” If you find my words and work useful, please consider even a small contribution to help support these writings, which I offer to you without advertising or corporate sponsorships, without hidden tracking, and without any expectations of sales. I offer these thoughts for what they are—my best attempts to understand what makes life and creative work worthwhile, in the hope that it benefits you too. Alas, I do also have bills to pay.
If we affirm one moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence.
Early spring for me is a time of impatient anticipation. Traces of winter’s miseries are still not entirely gone from view or from the mind, prompting occasional pangs of yearning for the months-long stretch of relentless cold and sensory deprivation to finally be over. Still, here and there, early hints of life’s return—scents in the air, vibrant flashes of early flowers, new leaves and catkins in some trees, the chirping and fluttering of recently arrived passerines—cause similar little stabs, albeit of a different nature, harbingers of the soon-to-come delirious quickening I always feel when among abundant flowers, swollen flowing waters, trembling leaves, and thriving life.
I am camped in a sparse forest of cedars and pinyon pines, sitting close to a small and fragrant campfire to ward off the morning chill. Memories of past forays to places such as this yield mixed emotions. In former years, venturing into the wild almost always felt invigorating and pregnant with the possibility of discoveries and adventures, at times medicine for a troubled mind or a counterbalance to less-inspiring experiences. In contrast, spending time in these places today sometimes feels more like visiting with an ailing friend, quietly reminiscing about the “old days.” Each year, the ravages of the changing climate, encroaching “development,” the scarring and despoliation left in the wakes of careless visitors (and the increasing frequency of encountering such visitors) are impossible to ignore.
I recall times in places I used to love that I can’t bear returning to anymore. These days I prefer places that may be less visually appealing but that are harder to reach—places less frequented by other people because they require more difficult travel or because their beauty is more subtle and less obvious relative to other places that have now become too popular for their own welfare. I seek places still beyond the spreading rash of humanity—places where I may still find such treasures as complete silence, night skies entirely free of light pollution, tracts of land free of human footprints and the hoofprints of suffering livestock. There are much fewer places like this remaining than were available when I first arrived here. Even arriving in such places, some time still has to pass before I feel at ease—before I can, as Thoreau described it, “shake off the village.”
Two days have passed puttering around camp, exploring my immediate surroundings, soaking in the silence and the peace, walking on occasion to the edge of a nearby canyon to sit on a slab of rock nursing a drink as I watch clouds gliding above and the aerial antics of ravens. Finally in the right state of mind to explore farther, I feel ready for a longer walk.
On alert for signs of spring, I inventory every little flower I come across as I walk. Claret cup cactus. Indian Paintbrush. Bladderpod. Primrose. Stoneseed. A small bouquet of little purple flowers growing out of a mat of pinyon pines needles makes me wonder what depraved soul, seeing such delicate beauty, could think of no better name for it than “dwarf lousewort.” Then again, perhaps not nearly as depraved as whoever thought to name their family “broomrape.” Beware the twisted minds of botanists.
Age has made me tougher, I realize, not just because I am better able to endure hardships, but also because the years have carved away so much of my capacity to enjoys things as I have in childhood: my ability to revel in pleasant sensations and beautiful things for their own sake. I feel I must be more vigilant now to protect what remains.
Some of my best experiences, I realize, involve catching some glimpses of the mind of the child I used to be, when roaming fields abundant in plants and teeming with critters without feeling any necessity to contemplate anything beyond them, nor anxiety, guilt, or any other emotion having to do with things outside the fields. I remember times as a child when being fascinated with natural details was my default state, and these memories always come with the sad recognition that it no longer is my default, and hasn’t been in a long time. These days I must invest conscious efforts in silencing cynical voices that have invaded and settled in my mind, in excluding from my consciousness—by brute cognitive force—emotions that hijack my attention intending to do violence to my living experience.
These realizations, along with contemplating the implications of recent scientific revelations, led me to reconsider some longstanding thoughts about what it truly means to be mindful, to consciously bring my attention to the present moment.
The practice of mindfulness is undeniably beneficial, but I believe it can be even more so when one understands why it is beneficial. Specifically, when one understands how the brain marshals attention and generates its perception of what the “present moment” is, and how this perception differs by necessity from “real” reality—objective reality (or at least scientifically objective reality, which is as close as we can hope to get).
I am now more than three miles from any feature on the map that has a label. Mounds of earth among the trees are strewn with pottery shards, proving that I am not the first human ape to have passed this way, although it is likely that I’m the first human visitor here to be descended from European ancestry. The last people who have been here likely have never heard the English language nor known of any feature of the earth, or of humanity, beyond their immediate surrounding and perhaps the tales of nomads originating in other parts of the American continent.
I hasten my pace while traversing a wide stretch of sagebrush-covered terrain as I hope to find a way into a nearby small canyon and have enough time to explore it a bit and return to my camp before nightfall. Some people call this mode of hiking a “death march.” I call it earning my dinner.
Mindfulness, defined in simplistic terms as bringing one’s attention to qualities of the present moment, is as much a therapy for injuries already sustained as it is a weapon in the battle for the freedom to own one’s experience. As soon as one learns the metaphor, one can never again be free of it. Once the fight has begun, one must remain forever a fighter. So long as there is conflict, there will be weapons. So long as there are weapons, there will be conflict.
Some of the beneficial effect of mindfulness comes not from any positive quality of the things one is mindful of, but from excluding from one’s consciousness negative qualities of one’s own mind. To be mindful is to pay focused conscious attention to things outside yourself. The alternative, when attention is allowed to wander unfocused, yields states of consciousness generated by the brain’s default mode network (DMN). It is believed that the DMN is the network responsible for narrating our lives. In a sense, the DMN is the author of our life stories. The DMN is thus important to our sense of agency, and to the nature of our interactions with others and with the world. However, the DMN also tends to be pessimistic and self-critical in its narration of our story and may lead to a general feeling of unworthiness, dissatisfaction, and disappointment. The practice of mindfulness (more generally, paying focused conscious attention to anything) silences the DMN and frees us for a time from unwittingly tormenting ourselves with regrets and doubts about our self-worth.
This may seem counterintuitive to those who believe themselves to be singular free willing entities. Consciousness emerges from many complex processes in the mind. The part each of us considers as our self, or as the “conscious mind” (despite there being evidence that other parts of the brain we consider “subconscious” may in fact possess degrees of independent consciousness of their own), may in truth be just the part of the brain responsible for communicating with the outer world, explaining choices made (at least largely) by other parts of the brain. In other words, the part that feels to us as the self, may not be in charge. It may just be the PR person. As neuroscientist David Eagleman put it in a recent interview, “The conscious part of you is like a broom closet in the mansion of the brain, and almost everything going on, you don’t have access to, and you don’t even have awareness of.”
Despite so much justified praise for the practice of mindfulness—focusing one’s attention on qualities and attributes of immediate experience—the experience of any moment is not, and cannot be, entirely comprised of just responses to external things, no matter how much we try to make those things the object of our attention. We can never be free of influences of our past, or of our brains constantly trying to predict the future. It’s what our brains do. Other than regulating our bodies, our brains are constantly combining sensory input with knowledge and emotions in order to predict what is likely to happen next. No degree of meditation or mindfulness can just “turn off” this activity. However, the practice of mindfulness can, if we get good at it, give us some degree of conscious control to choose what knowledge and emotions to tap into, and how this information may factor into the model in our brain that produces our mood. That is to say, we can turn some metaphorical knobs to ensure that good memories or feelings will receive more attention, and bad memories or feelings will receive less attention. This is extremely powerful in improving the quality of our experience, but it is in no way “living in the present” in any real sense. It only changes the illusion—the made-up story—we consider as our present experience. After all, if it wasn’t just a made-up story, we would not be able to change it.
Scrambling down from the rim of the canyon, I am doing my best to avoid stepping on ancient cryptobiotic soil—the crust of microbes keeping the desert soil in place, preventing it from being blown to dust. In a large recess below a rock shelf I find a beautifully constructed wall, the last remnant of a structure built hundreds of years ago by people collectively known as Ancestral Puebloan. Some refer to these people by the name “Anasazi,” not realizing that the term, originating in the Navajo language, means “enemy people.” Puebloan cultures evolved impressive agricultural and architectural techniques after living in the same area for hundreds of years. Although hardly free from their own conflicts, Puebloans thrived here long before the Navajo, who are descended from nomadic tribes making their way down the Americas from northeastern Asia, have arrived. As is usually the case with our ingloriously violent species, the clash of cultures was not a peaceful one.
Walking into the cavernous alcove I am keenly mindful of the lack of any sign of recent visitation, as well as the deep sense that I am in what used to be someone’s home. I am looking through their window at the deep canyon below. I can see the depressions left in the rock, known as metates‚ where they ground seeds into flour. I can see where they kept a fire burning for heat and cooking. At the base of the wall are a few corncobs, the remnants of maize they grew and ate, as well as a few bone fragments of animals they hunted.
It’s easy to romanticize about living in such a place, with this spectacular view, in this quiet and beautiful setting. Too easy. And likely misleading. There are more fertile areas not too far from here. They didn’t live in the cliffs, a long and arduous scramble away from any water source, for the view. They lived here because they feared for their lives. Finding water and sufficient food was likely a constant concern. Odds are they had little leisure time. They had to be constantly mindful of various existential threats, primarily from other humans. Having no form of writing and no understanding of advanced science, they had to rely on stories and myths to make sense of their world. In so many ways, their experience was not so different from that of many present-day people.
Despite the teachings of some purists, thinking about the past and future, if done with the right attitude, can be profoundly beneficial in elevating one’s present moment experience. What I mean by “right attitude” is being good gatekeepers of what enters our consciousness, separating consciously good thoughts and emotions from bad ones, and excluding or reframing the latter into better stories. These are skills trained by the practice of mindfulness, but they are not necessarily bound to external events occurring at any present moment. We may apply them just as well to emotions arising from thinking about past or future events.
Of our past experiences, we tend to remember most vividly those that moved us most profoundly: the most beautiful and the most traumatic things we experienced. Although we tend to believe that memory works like a recording device, encoding information in some error-proof way so we can recall it later with perfect precision, in fact this is not the case. Our brains record incomplete and biased information along with often-contrived stories about this information, and we may unwittingly rewrite this information and change the story each time we recall it, without realizing it. This is why eyewitness testimony is often unreliable, and why in recent experiments researchers were able to implant false memories in some people who became convinced these memories were true.
The advice to avoid ruminating about the past when being mindful of our present experience is a good one, but only in the sense that ruminating is bad, not in the sense that we can entirely prevent ourselves from recalling past experiences and associating emotions with them. Our brains always interpret the meaning of both outside events we perceive with our senses and inside events we experience as emotions, in light of prior knowledge. No amount of effort to “live in the moment” can change the fact that if we didn’t rely on recalling prior knowledge when forming our perceptions, we would have no conscious experience at all. Our memories are encoded as elaborate connections among neurons in our brain. We can’t decide arbitrarily to prevent any neuron from signaling another neuron in the process of making meaning from any stimulus, whether originating in signals from our sensory organs or arising from subconscious parts of our minds.
It will serve us well, then, to not try to exclude memories from our present experience. To do so may be to accept the effects of these memories—both good and bad—implicitly, without realizing it. When memories arise, if they are good, they may improve our present experience; if they are bad, we may consciously mitigate their effect and diminish their influence by reframing our stories of them. Mindfulness trains out minds to recognize events entering our minds so we can intervene and “manage” them consciously rather than allowing them to influence our moods without realizing it. Our perception of the present moment is as much a product of things we encounter in real time as it is of things we bring with us into the moment: memories, attitudes, expectations, personality traits.
The advice by some mindfulness teachers to avoid thinking about the future when trying to be mindful is, I believe, also flawed. Studies show that the cumulative increase in happiness we gain from anticipating some future reward is often much greater than the singular spike of happiness we may experience when getting this reward. Why would we deny ourselves these rewards of anticipation when they can make our present experience better?
The key to benefitting from thinking about the future is not in trying to avoid such thinking but in differentiating useful hope from false, or improbable, hope (which may set us up for disappointment). Just as the practice of mindfulness allows us to exert conscious control over which memories and emotions factor into our mood and which are better set aside as unhelpful, so can the practice of mindfulness give us the tools to choose from among our predictions of future events and retain only those we consciously, by rational analysis, consider as beneficial, setting aside “doomsday predictions” we can do nothing about, or irrational fears associated with highly improbable outcomes.
Mindfulness anchored entirely in external stimuli, to the exclusion of memories and hopes, is a fantasy incompatible with what we know about how our brains make meaning. Ultimately all experience is a product of the mind. The difference between beneficial and detrimental perceptions is not necessarily in their origins but in the stories we come to believe about them. Mindfulness gives us the tools to consciously frame our perceptions (of any origin) as useful and elevating stories, and to exclude or to reframe—rather than accept as given—negative stories conjured by subconscious processes in our brains.
Evening finds me back from my hike, feeling clean and refreshed thanks to my newly acquired solar shower. Tonight’s dinner special is veggie hotdogs served with a side of roasted potatoes topped with homemade chipotle sauce and freshly cut salad. As convenient as some so-called “trail food” is, I consider good eating as one of the great pleasures of life and worth investing effort in. Cooking outdoors with the same dedication I do at home has never failed to prove far more rewarding to me than any pre-packaged meal. I might make some exceptions when backpacking, but when camping close to my vehicle my heavy cast iron skillet is as essential to my joy as a good chair or any other convenience.
It’s quiet. Stars are coming into view. The fire is crackling and radiates golden light and a pleasant warmth. The sweet smell of burning pinyon and juniper is welcome and familiar. Memories of so many other campfires in so many other times in this desert mix pleasantly with the effects of the fine tequila I’ve been sipping with my dinner. The future? Tomorrow I’ll still be here along with all the things that make this moment so pleasant. There are a couple more areas I’d like to explore within a day’s walk, that may yield more exciting finds and revelations. Beyond that I don’t really care to speculate.
The words float into my mind, as they have on so many evenings for so many years—another day not wasted. Soon to also be the title of my next book.