I come across a lot of content that has to do with mindfulness and being here now and the meditative breathing buddhist. It’s clear to me that those who are able to exert more control over their thoughts derive much satisfaction from it. I believe, however, that many adherents conflate two separate phenomena.
First is what Benson and Klipper* refer to as The Relaxation Response, in their book of the same name. Their thesis is that across many cultures and religions exists a ritualistic activity that brings about a sense of calm and well-being in its participants. Benson & Klipper take an anthropologic approach to this activity and propose a simple maneuver that they advocate as a distillation of the common elements in these various practices, which all tap into a physiologic reflex to bring about that peaceful, easy feeling. This approach boils down to focusing on your breathing and repeating the word “one” to yourself between breaths.
It works. After a few earnest minutes you start to feel tranquil; anyone who has done yoga or anesthesia knows it works. I suspect Benson&Klipper are correct about the reflex, and it’s a useful skill to tap into when you’re anxious or can’t fall asleep. More than just relaxing, it feels good. This is distinct, however, from mindfulness.
I discovered mindfulness accidentally while doing drugs in my late teens and early twenties, and I think a lot of stoners make a habit out of marijuana–which has little if any physiologically addictive properties–because it promotes mindfulness(though nobody in those circles refers to it by that name, and I didn’t understand it as such until many years later).
One of the most important effects of marijuana is that it potentiates sensation. Experienced users learn to take advantage of this in all sorts of interesting ways, but its most immediate and accessible form is the heightening of sound and taste.
Now if the ability of marijuana to make music more compelling were limited to the time when the user is intoxicated, it would be neato and fun but not important from a lifehack perspective. The genius of this drug is that it teaches us to compartmentalize our attention. Unlike the meditative breathing buddhist, who must train herself to exclude distraction and be here now, this ability forces itself on the stoner as the sensation at hand is so overwhelming that to divert any neurons from its appreciation is abhorrent.
The type of mindfulness I practice in my sober thirties has to do with recognizing how an activity’s perceptual resolution** affects my appreciation of that activity. For example, reading is an inherently high resolution task–if you want to get anything at all out of what you’re reading, you have to devote a lot of attention to it. Since the total amount of attention you have is fixed, like the space on a computer screen, every pixel of attention you devote to one activity takes away from your appreciation of another activity. So, if I’m eating six-day old rice and beans, I’m happy to yield to my urge to read this week’s New Yorker at the same time. But when I have butter chicken from Bombay Mahal delivered, the magazine is put away and the music turned off.
I take the concept of perceptual resolution a step further and organize my tasks into high resolution (studying, flirting) and low-resolution (paying bills, talking to mom), so that I can plan my consumption of high resolution content (talk show podcasts, bob dylan records) and low resolution content (jazz, Boing Boing).
I have also become very protective of my attention pixels and am frustrated when they are unwantingly expropriated, by construction workers across the street, the bus-riding mobile phone user, or my email program. In addition to lengthening the refresh times of my email and RSS feeds, one of my all-time greatest lifehacks has been the purchase of insulating headphones.
*Herbert Benson with Miriam Klipper, “The Relaxation Response.” Copyright 1975 by William Morrow and Company. ISBN 0-380-00676-6.
**Elliott Malkin named this concept.