As fads go, mindfulness was relatively harmless, unless you were one of the few people who spent a lot of money trying to find happiness in the moment. When you spend your time wallowing in the misery of your life, you look for a magic bullet to make it better. There are two ways to go, change your life for the better or bask in the misery. The former is hard. The latter is far easier, and when there was an industry telling you that it was totally great to wallow, why not?
Since then, there have been many responses that maybe anxiety is good for people. It gets them off their lazy, self-indulgent butt so they improve their lot in life, their performance, their contribution to humanity. If they happen to be lawyers, they will be better lawyers for it, as opposed to the incompetent lawyers who turn to mindfulness as an excuse for being shitty lawyers. But maybe it’s time to speak an unpleasant truth out loud: being “in the moment” is for idiots.
So does the moment really deserve its many accolades? It is a philosophy likely to be more rewarding for those whose lives contain more privileged moments than grinding, humiliating or exhausting ones. Those for whom a given moment is more likely to be “sun-dappled yoga pose” than “hour 11 manning the deep-fat fryer.”
On the face of it, our lives are often much more fulfilling lived outside the present than in it. As anyone who has ever maintained that they will one day lose 10 pounds or learn Spanish or find the matching lids for the Tupperware will know, we often anticipate our futures with more blind optimism than the reality is likely to warrant.
That’s the fantasy being sold in the snake oil bottles, that living in the moment will make us feel so much better about ourselves.
Surely one of the most magnificent feats of the human brain is its ability to hold past, present, future and their imagined alternatives in constant parallel, to offset the tedium of washing dishes with the chance to be simultaneously mentally in Bangkok, or in Don Draper’s bed, or finally telling your elderly relative that despite her belief that “no one born in the 1970s died,” using a car seat isn’t spoiling your child. It’s hard to see why greater happiness would be achieved by reining in that magical sense of scope and possibility to outstare a SpaghettiO.
What differentiates humans from animals is exactly this ability to step mentally outside of whatever is happening to us right now, and to assign it context and significance. Our happiness does not come so much from our experiences themselves, but from the stories we tell ourselves that make them matter.
Maybe not Don Draper’s bed, but you get the idea. Squirrels live in the moment, because they’re not people. We, on the other hand, have the capacity to remember the past and think of the future. We can aspire to greater things than finding the next nut. This isn’t a bad thing. But is the mindfulness movement just another facet of the self-righteous narcissism that pervades society of late?
But still, the advice to be more mindful often contains a hefty scoop of moralizing smugness, a kind of “moment-shaming” for the distractible, like a stern teacher scolding us for failing to concentrate in class. The implication is that by neglecting to live in the moment we are ungrateful and unspontaneous, we are wasting our lives, and therefore if we are unhappy, we really have only ourselves to blame.
This judgmental tone is part of a long history of self-help-based cultural thought policing. At its worst, the positive-thinking movement deftly rebranded actual problems as “problematic thoughts.
The solution to our shitty world isn’t to stop thinking shitty thoughts, but to make our world a little less shitty.
This is a kind of neo-liberalism of the emotions, in which happiness is seen not as a response to our circumstances but as a result of our own individual mental effort, a reward for the deserving. The problem is not your sky-high rent or meager paycheck, your cheating spouse or unfair boss or teetering pile of dirty dishes. The problem is you.
Sure, we’re obsessed with our feelz because people keep harping on them because they’re the easy excuse to avoid thinking, or worse yet, actually doing something. Thinking is hard. Doing something is even harder. Overwhelmed by that “teetering pile of dirty dishes”? Wash the friggin’ dishes. Silent breathing in yoga pants is not going to clean them.
This doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from meditation or yoga, to calm things down when your world seems to be spiraling out of control. But to what end? Get your head together so that you can act upon your world and improve your circumstances. Hate being a lawyer? Become something else. Believe me, the rest of us are fine with that, and those people who might otherwise become your clients will thank you for not taking their case while you’re only concern is your feelings.
What this fad has managed to accomplish is to make the weak and mediocre feel less like failures while still being failures. It’s given them a convenient stalking horse to blame for their failures and, in the process, taken the focus away from fixing problems into sharing group hugs about them.
It is, of course, easier and cheaper to blame the individual for thinking the wrong thoughts than it is to tackle the thorny causes of his unhappiness. So we give inner-city schoolchildren mindfulness classes rather than engage with education inequality, and instruct exhausted office workers in mindful breathing rather than giving them paid vacation or better health care benefits.
Whatever the solution to a particular problem may be, it is not wallowing in misery surrounded by a group of like-minded people who rub your tummy and tell you it’s wonderful to be miserable, just like them. Got a problem? Life sucks? Fix it. If you don’t, then you have no excuse for the misery of your life.
Update: Mark Bennett, the Texas Tornado, was literally shaking after reading this post.
I find Scott’s reaction more than a bit bizarre: While there are apparently charlatans selling a feel-good philosophy by the name of mindfulness to stressed-out lawyers, there also exists an altered mental state, commonly referred to as mindfulness, that it benefits our clients for us to achieve. That an experienced and established trial lawyer would reject this mental state outright is puzzling.
I’m here for you, pal. The first problem is the rhetoric. In the olden days, we might call it attention or concentration, where the performance of a task demanded intense focus. This could be characterized as “mindfulness” if one enjoys trendy language and the latest dance steps, but it’s no different than it was before mindfulness became the flavor of the month.
The difference is that mindfulness carries all sorts of new-wave snake oil baggage that the old school focus doesn’t. The whole “be in the moment” thing isn’t about the performance of tasks demanding intense focus, but a worldview that has nothing to do with trying a case, putting together a manual watch, threading a needle or any other task requiring us to pay attention.
Much as I realize that trendy language is seductive, and that it allows one to be part of the club of people on the cutting edge of coolness, we still need to be cognizant of definitions and clarity, and not get hung up on the rhetoric of the moment.