Is it better for us to live an unexceptional life in the real world or a fulfilling life in a fantasy world?
This is a question that people who are into Mindfulness meditation have a clear answer for: we should live as much as possible in the real world, no matter how unexceptional our lives. The unexceptional can also hold our interest when viewed in a certain way. Persistent daydreaming is a waste of time. It’s like spending your life in bed. You may as well be in the Matrix, living out your imagined life on the motherboard of some super computer.
Mindfulness is really just an intensive way of training yourself to concentrate on what you are doing instead of constantly slipping into vague thoughts.
Personally I find any kind of meditation boring, just as I would find practising scales and doing finger exercises when learning the piano boring. There are good reasons for doing such exercises, I know, but they aren’t for everyone. Apart from the boredom there is also a tendency to become obsessed with unnecessary details, like how to sit and how to hold your fingers. I think that these things are distractions from the main purpose, which is to live more completely in the present. How you hold your fingers is neither here nor there.
Many of us, myself included, spend a lot of time at our computers, reading books, watching TV, planning what we are going to do and thinking about what we have already done. I know from my own experience that I spend very little time in the real world. Even when I am eating or having a shower my mind is generally on something else. I am addicted to this vague thinking in the same way that some people are addicted to drugs or tobacco and I don’t think any kind of addiction is good for you.
People who are into Mindfulness say that we ought to try to experience life more directly. We should wake up and smell the coffee, notice the beauty of flowers, touch the softness of silk, listen to symphonies and the sounds of children that float over to us from a distant playground. We should notice what our breakfast tastes like instead of reading the paper or watching breakfast TV while we absent-mindedly munch on some toast. We should slow our lives down and notice such things as the pressure of the chair against our bottoms, hear the creak of the house as it settles at night, listen to the sound of our own blood pulsing in our ears.
There are myriad tiny events that go unnoticed because our minds are too occupied to notice them. Some people suggest that it is these tiny sensual events that, when accumulated, constitute a good life. Abstract planning, dreaming, ruminating, deliberating and reflecting all distance us from a real world we could be happy in if we only paid more attention to it. Instead we try to escape it by making sure our minds are always busy.
Whether or not Mindfulness meditation does all it claims, I really can’t say. However, I am inclined to agree that too much thinking tends to render our experience of living vague and diluted. Once you start concentrating more on the actual world around you your experience gains solidity and substance. The stone becomes stony again.
Of course it’s almost impossible to stop all random thoughts from entering your head and carrying you off to La-La land. Habit and the human condition see to that. And when all is said and done we probably evolved big brains for some reason or other. Maybe it was to help us ruminate. Even so, maybe it’s not necessary to be lost in thought every single minute of the day.
The best description I have read of the kind of mental state mindfulness meditators try to reach is in Edgar Allan Poe’s story, Man of the Crowd:
Not long ago, about the closing in of an evening in autumn, I sat at the large bow window of the D—- Coffee-House in London. For some months I had been ill in health, but was now convalescent, and, with returning strength, found myself in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui – moods of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs and the intellect, electrified, surpasses as greatly its every-day condition, as does the vivid yet candid reason of Leibnitz, the mad and flimsy rhetoric of Gorgias. Merely to breathe was enjoyment; and I derived positive pleasure even from many of the legitimate sources of pain. I felt a calm but inquisitive interest in every thing. With a cigar in my mouth and a newspaper in my lap, I had been amusing myself for the greater part of the afternoon, now in poring over advertisements, now in observing the promiscuous company in the room, and now in peering through the smoky panes into the street.
Of course, such moods can’t last but it may still be worth cultivating them as much as possible. After all, what else are you going to do? Read another book? Watch one more film?