While mindfulness can calm us down and we may even decide, after too many deep breaths, that we have “found ourselves”, we then invariably go back to the real world and all its limitations. And our old circumstances stare us in the face and create the same stress and aggravation.
Harvard professor Michael Puett argues in his latest book The Path that “finding yourself” is a misguided objective, as what we are is a fluid concept which can and needs to be developed. I would add simply that, instead of contemplating too much, we should just try things out and see what works and what doesn’t.
A management consultant friend of mine is going through a fairly typical crisis a decade into her career. She has learned everything there is to know about her job, which used to fascinate and define her, and which, to her disbelief, became mundane and repetitive. So she is terrified that, from this moment on, her life will roll on in small and predictable increments: junior partnership in three years’ time, equity partnership in five, then a larger house, perhaps a holiday home, and, all along, the same tedious hours in the office, same pointless meetings and predictable problems to solve.
She is trying all sorts of new-age remedies: meditation, deep breathing, a retreat where she did not speak for a week (instead she started sending emails), a retreat where she had to tell strangers her problems and punch bags. All is good while she is there, but her newly-gained serenity evaporates with consistent predictability the moment she returns to the office.
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And here comes the message of this article. It is breathtakingly naïve to claim that all a modern individual needs is inner calm, and all else would fall into place. How can half an hour of yoga and meditation a day fix a stalled career, for example? So instead of chasing some elusive sense of self which we hope will keep us happy at all times, we should instead focus on improving our circumstances and getting rid of the problems that caused us the stress in the first place.
And if we do need a spiritual nudge, what works far better than mindfulness, in my opinion, is the feeling of awe. For me personally it was standing on a cliff in Portugal seeing five-metre waves breaking during a storm, and hearing Sir Simon Rattle conduct (apologies for a reference to high culture, but sometimes Taylor Swift just won’t do). At a time when my life was becoming lazy and complacent, these moments showed me that I still had ample capacity for daring and adventure. Or, as Puett would put it, the feeling of awe allowed me “to respond to the world in richer ways”.
Of course being calm is better than being wound up, so mindfulness has its uses. But in the end, it is engaging with the world, rather than retreating from it, that makes the difference. So just as most unhappy people that I know chant and meditate, the happy people that I know are brave, adventurous and cherish the joy of the new. Their contentment is not a product of mindfulness or any other new-age technique – just plain old-fashioned effort.