Orginially published in Mindful Magazine
March 1, 2015
Before we read further, let’s pause for a moment and consider our circumstances. Chances are if you are reading this magazine, you are in a comfortable, safe setting, with access to virtually unlimited resources. You can travel freely, communicate globally and explore the entirety of human knowledge virtually unrestrained. And most likely you have ready access to friends, colleagues, family and neighbors.
For many of us, what we find when we consider our circumstances is that we are profoundly endowed with unprecedented resources never before experienced throughout human history.
Yet, there is a “rub” – a strange irony to our circumstances.
Despite such remarkable prosperity, too many of us find ourselves increasingly depressed, anxious and unhappy.
Approximately 1 in 10 of us in the US suffer from depression. Anxiety disorders affect over 40 million of us and the numbers are growing at alarming rates.
And, in the midst of such anguish, we aren’t treating each other well.
88% of us feel that rudeness in everyday social encounters is getting worse. And on the job, 78% of us feel disrespected, bullied or demeaned.
In short, while those of us living and working in developed countries find ourselves profoundly prosperous with resources unimaginable to the billions of human beings who came before us, we, nonetheless, find ourselves increasingly depressed, anxious and unhappy.
What is the source of this “irony”? How have we come to obscure our good fortune? And what can we do about it?
In his now well-known study of “cognitive-mind wandering”, Matthew Killingsworth, PhD. documented what may be the source of our problem. Essentially, his research found that we human beings spend about 50% of our time thinking about something other than what we are doing. And at work our minds stray as often - almost always toward non-work related concerns.
And here the research brings the irony into sharp focus: according to Killingsworth’s findings when our mind wanders from our immediate experience, what we are considering is almost always more distressful than the actual experience we are having. In essence, we spent a lot of our time ignoring our prosperous circumstances while authoring the very distress we are seeking to avoid.
And this is where mindfulness-awareness meditation comes in.
The practice of meditation teaches many things but one of the core discoveries is becoming utterly familiar with our immediate experience. Whether tragic or triumphant; exquisite or horrifying; painful or pleasurable, meditation liberates our hearts and minds to savor life as a “lived experience” rather than a mental rehearsal of thoughts, ambitions, hopes and fears. And it is here in our willingness to open to life that we can touch our profound prosperity thoroughly – not as an “economic fact” but as a remarkable lived experience.
While training our minds on the cushion is important, no doubt, we can bring our prosperity alive in everyday life with these simple practices:
- Marveling at devices
Too often we treat our IPhones, GPS maps, IPads, and computers like bothersome intruders or numbing gadgets. Or we take such wonders like light bulbs, toilets, refrigerators and airplanes for granted. Here, instead, we pause and deliberately consider the sheer human brilliance that brought such powerful devices into our hands. In essence, we marvel at our modern day experience rather than being numbed by it.
- Expressing gratitude
Research is fast showing that being grateful is a skillful way to dismantle the impulsiveness of a wandering mind. Here, we deliberately pause throughout the day to be grateful for a glass of water, a loving friend, a blue sky, a working traffic light, a breeze – the list is endless.
- Delighting in others joy
Whether it’s a dog run at the local park, a child smiling with her mother or teenagers playing soccer, there is much human joy to witness and appreciate.
- Remembering the scope of human despair
Over 20,000 children starve to death each day, hundreds of millions are without homes and human despair is vast and unrelenting. Recalling that so many are without prosperity and permitting our hearts to break while lending a hand is a noble way to savor our good fortune.
21st century economic theory is fast concluding that successful “prosperous” societies will be less about accumulating wealth, growing income or amassing consumables, and more about relieving human suffering, inspiring human creativity and offering solutions to human problems. Such an awakening comes as no surprise to mindfulness practitioners. Because all we have to do is pause and witness our good fortune and sharing such prosperity with others, then, just comes naturally.