Higher Living Reflections

Smelling the roses

We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves. – The Buddha

One threat to 21st-century wellbeing is the hectic pace of life. Being digitally wired has it benefits, but it can also be soul crushing. Pressure is on 24/7 to work, to produce. Emphasis is on materialism, amassing wealth and accumulating stuff. For many even in our first-world economy, survival is a never-ending struggle. Many seniors find the promise of retirement is only a dream. As our way of life becomes more complex and driven, the stress factor grows exponentially. Our creative selves dissipate into the ether.

We hear the maxim “We are what we eat,” to which one wag surmised he was a garbage can. We are, though, more than what we eat; we’re what and how we think. A cluttered, unfocused, hectic-paced mind belongs to a cluttered, unfocused, hectic-paced person. A mental garbage can. How can and when does one stop to smell the roses?

In response to the inanity of modern life, some talk about how the practice mindfulness. Perhaps. But are they? What are they doing that constitutes mindfulness?

Consider what true mindfulness might involve. For some as noted, it is an inner process, a turning inwardly as a self-reflective counterweight to their frantic lives. An escape, refuge, or shelter, a disconnect from the incessant barrage of 21st-century life where they find inner calmness, serenity.

By disconnecting from the larger world however, danger lurks if that becomes one’s sole approach to soulfulness. It can lead to self-absorption, narcissism. In pop culture, we call it navel-gazing.

Me-ism is often expressed outwardly. The prima donna and other types of attention-seekers. But me-ism can also be inward. A self-centeredness that shuts others out, an it’s-all-about-me or a misanthrope personality.

When reflecting on my approach to this piece, Barbra Streisand’s classic song “People” came to mind. “People who need people,” she croons, “are the luckiest people in the world.” My soulful side swoons at the thought, but my left-brained analytical side is bothered by it. The line is inaccurate because everyone needs people. As I have written in other pieces, it comes with the territory: We are a tribal species.

It’s critical to keep in mind we’re communitarians, part of the whole. In “Flight of the Wild Gander,” Joseph Campbell states existing as a mere fraction instead of the whole imposes certain stresses on one’s psyche. It’s the reason the libertarian social-political construct is fraught with personal dissolution, but that’s another matter.

Some might counter that the goal of mindfulness is emptying of the mind, a complete detachment understanding the impermanence of existence. But going there, which is the outcome of deep meditation, is different than being mindful. True mindfulness is about awareness including the pleasant and not-so pleasant. It’s the opposite of emptiness.

It can include being engaged in a fulfilling activity, so focused one does not allow herself to be bombarded by an onslaught of distracting thoughts. She becomes so engaged in what she’s doing—painting, cooking, reading, weeding—she loses track of time. What seems only a few minutes of engagement actually becomes hours. Lost in her work.

True mindfulness also includes an awareness of the world around one’s self at the present moment, fully attuned to our surroundings—the people, place, and activity—and observe the richness of it all non-critically or judgmentally.

Take advantage of this opportunity to practice, to be mindful. Turn off your computer, even if for a few minutes, and sit. Take in every sight, sound, and smell your senses can detect. Perhaps go for a short walk even if it’s to get a cup of coffee.

Take a few moments to reconnect to your world and observe. Offer gratitude for it.

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  • Michael
    April 12, 2018 at 12:37 pm

    David Foster Wallace, in his speech “This is Water,” once pointed out that being selfish and self-centered was our “default setting” as human beings, and that the value of a “real education” (whatever that means) is being able to recognize that one is acting on the default setting and to use that awareness to change one’s thought process so that one is a little less self centered and miserable. I think to my mind, that’s what mindfulness is: having self awareness enough to recognize when your own thoughts are making you miserable or causing you to miss out on the roses in life.

    In the age of social media, of course, this basic self-awareness is harder and not just due to an onslaught of content. I would argue it is also due to the narcissism induced by algorithms designed to reflect only the parts of us that are materialistic and shallow and angry, the things about us that companies find useful for selling products and that Russians find useful for swaying elections. Which is interesting, because I think we’ve all hoped deep down that human progress would one day lead to a less selfish, less cynical culture, and yet we seem to have rushed headlong in the exact opposite direction. More and more young people are diagnosed with not only narcissism but also anxiety and depression each year as these technologies that seek to connect us become more and more prevalent. Now, certainly correlation does not imply causation. But if I were a betting man, I’d place good money on Facebook being a big part of why so many people in my generation, including myself, have such a hard time slowing down and being mindful and smelling the roses.

  • Melanie Mulhall
    April 26, 2018 at 12:35 pm

    Mindfulness does seem to be a word that is tossed around a lot these days. But I have never heard a Buddhist refer to it in a reflective way. Rather, they refer to it as being present and in the moment. And that is what it is for me. I’ve had the experience of being with someone who was clearly distracted and not with me when they were with me. And I’ve had the experience of being with someone who was totally present with me when they were with me. I’d take ten minutes or one hour with the person who is present over an evening with someone who is not anytime. And I am conscious of being present myself. Thanks for this post, Jerry. It’s a good reminder of what is important.