In many ways, we are just animals in the field – Scared, and attacked from all sides. Snakes on the ground waiting to bite us, lions that can chase us down, and even our own tribe, who can banish or kill us, if we don’t fit in.
In that sense, our biology is in mostly suited to protect us from these constant dangers. We have to react to the snake quicker than we can think, so that the snake doesn’t bite us. Fear, anxiety, pain – in the world of the safari, these are our friends. Pain lets us know to move our hand away from the fire. Anxious, awkward pauses in a conversation let us know that our social reputation is at risk. These feelings protect us. If we stop for a second, were dead.
Similarly, we react instantaneously to easily accessible temptations – We overeat at buffets, pornography is 30% of the internet, and it’s much easier to send a text than talk in person. Just like pain keeps us safe, to survive we need the drive to eat, procreate and be social. When those things don’t require much effort to attain, our body tells us to grab them. They might not be there later.
In our daily lives, we’re still mostly on the safari. Life is still full of dangers, low hanging fruits that distract us, and amongst ourselves exists an “unspoken, but not so subtle Darwinian competition.”
But as humanity progresses, we’ve developed the unlikely idea that we’re not simply animals in the field, even though much of our biology suggests as much. Rather, we’re human, because we have traits that “make us human.”
For millennia, one of those traits that has “made us human” is our ability to innovate — that is, the ability to change and describe the world around us to solve problems in new ways. You might consider innovative achievements such as controlling fire, democracy, and the light bulb. That innovative process has been amplified by many orders of magnitude in the digital age.
Yet to innovate, we need to separate ourselves somewhat from fear, anxiety, and other immediate needs, and become a little braver to notice new opportunities. If we were too scared of fire, we would never have been able to tame it.
While our animal instincts are still critical to keep us safe, in today’s fast messy and global world, to thrive you must be aware of new opportunities and have the focus to harness them. To do that we need all the mental tools at our disposable: one of them is mindfulness, that amorphous term your friend who downloaded some app keeps raving about.
“The Mind, Explained” twenty minute episode on mindfulness, provides some interesting conclusions about the practice that seems to be taking over the world. Much of the mindfulness practice around today, according to the episode, is focused on stress, anxiety, calmness and sleep. The first widely accepted mindfulness program in the west – MBSR, unsurprisingly stands for mindfulness based stress reduction.
While it’s clear that mindfulness has stress related benefits, the science is shaky on the long term outcomes. A meta-review of mindfulness research quoted in the episode found that only 48 of some 8,000 mindfulness studies showing health benefits of meditation were done using “methods reliable enough to trust.”
What the documentary suggests is the real effect of mindfulness is the ability to mediate the body’s response to outside stimuli. This means people who are expert meditators have an increased ability to determine their response in a given circumstance. As one meditator in the episode put it, it’s not “about fighting the panic…I welcome the panic in and watch it.”
Rather than using meditation to push feelings under the table, mindfulness is the ability to observe those feelings and control your reaction to them. Rather than new age concepts of “acceptance,” or “choosing happiness,” mindfulness is a tool to stop, focus, and think.
This thinking has even seeped into the corporate world, and for good reason. Noted in the documentary is the company Salesforce, which has meditation centers on every floor on their headquarters in a bid to foster innovation.
The Benefits of Meditation – The Orange Bike Model
As animals, rather than notice new opportunities, we’re focused on the immediate threat and availability that surround us. But to live in the present allows us to consider all our emotions and reactions, and from that make a decision to move forward, rather than being led involuntary by our distracted monkey minds.
Mindfulness allows us to notice things around us (what we call “openness”), then focus on the things we choose, and control in the present how to go about it.