Last updated on 2011/08/16
If I start to talk about how the world is and therefore how we should best live there is a danger you will dismiss what I say as either playing with ideas that have no relation to real life (philosophy) or trying to impose some mumbo jumbo from a possible imaginary deity (religion). Many people are reluctant to explore this stuff because it will either prove a complete waste of time or overturn a belief system that they have accepted since childhood.
Despite this I do need to create a narrative explanation of why you should try mindfulness meditation. The rationality at the heart of our culture requires that this comes first. Please treat what follows as a pragmatic way of viewing the world for the purpose of living the good life rather than just a set of ideas or a religious doctrine.
Things arise in dependence on conditions and when those conditions cease the things cease. This is the root of the philosophy. This is easy to accept because when we look we can see it is true. This should not be confused with “cause and effect” which is more a product of language. To have a “cause” and an “effect” we need to define one thing as being the cause and something else as being the effect which is useful when we want to use words to represent these things but involves isolating them from the rest of the universe. Drawing a line around them if you like. So we could talk about it raining because it is cloudy but this conveniently leaves out the causes of clouds and the processes within the clouds.
Which causes and effects we choose to define are to some degree arbitrary – made up. We don’t even see things that don’t fit our current point of view. They are filtered out by preconscious processes. A good example is when we get a different car. Suddenly we see the same model or colour car all over the place. They were there before but didn’t enter our consciousness. When you walk down a hotel corridor I don’t suppose room 122 jumps out at you as significant like it does for me but then you probably didn’t grow up in a house numbered 122. The world we experience is not the ‘real’ world it is a construct that involves our previous experiences. What we think causes what is the result of mental processes.
This is not a nihilistic philosophy. I am not saying that there is no reality. I am saying that the world we perceive is in our minds. The alternative would be perception not involving the mind which by definition can’t be true. The upshot is that by changing our minds we change the world we perceive and, as we can only know the world we perceive, this is the same as changing the world itself.
You may now be wondering if we can make the world anything we want, fly or walk through walls. We can’t. This is not nihilism. We can only change how we perceive what is really there. Strangely this doesn’t preclude “magical powers”. Most conjurors rely on doing things that don’t fit our world view. Comedy is playing with our world view to make us laugh. Magicians, comedians and writers loosen our grip on a particular interpretation of reality. Powerful art is always a little scary because it literally rocks our world.
What you do have control over is anything that involves your opinion. How much do you suffer because of your opinion about something rather than the thing itself? How often does your opinion of something create a problem, create suffering?
Sometimes I hear a thump, thump, thump noise coming from the neighbours and feel my anger rising. They have got their music too loud again! Don’t they have any respect for the rest of us! The feeling of anger is quite uncomfortable. Then I realise that it is their washing machine and my anger disappears. It is an innocent by-product of daily activity and not inconsiderate at all. Nothing has changed outside of me. All that has happened is a change in my perception of the world. But what if they really are listening to music? Couldn’t I make the same internal change and decide that it is OK to listen to music during the day . They don’t usually do it for very long. I could just change my mind and I’d be happier.
If we could develop a flexibility of mind that enabled us to choose our emotional response to a situation, that is to choose how to perceive it not change the facts, then how often would we choose to feel rotten, angry or depressed?
The seaguls have ripped open the rubbish bags again and there is trash all over the street. They are crying and wheeling overhead. Swirling up and down between the buildings. I could feel angry that the city is such a tip, that people aren’t more careful when they put their rubbish out and that the council don’t arrange the collections better. On the other hand I could find joy in the shapes the birds are making as they turn in the air and rejoice in the pleasure they appear to be having. If I find pleasure in the birds that doesn’t mean I don’t care about the messy streets or that I refrain from writing to the council. It does mean I live a happier life. I am more likely to smile at the next person I meet so that their day is a little brighter. It changes stuff.
This is why meditation is a good thing. It helps you develop a flexibility of mind that loosens your requirement for the world to be a certain way for you to be happy. The world you perceive is created by you and can be changed. Ultimately this has profound implications for discovering ‘meaning’ but I won’t expand in this direction or I’ll get too close to what many would consider religion.