How Self-Help Can Help The World

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Many meditators, yogis, and other spiritual practitioners will answer this question with a resounding yes. Critics – ranging from religious studies and management scholars to serious Buddhist practitioners – may disagree.

Mindfulness meditation, which has grown exponentially in popularity in recent years, is commonly associated with a wide-ranging set of contemplative practices aimed at training oneself to pay “attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally,” as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society.

Early leaders in the mindfulness movement, many of whom came of age in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, had a more activist bent; they hoped that mindfulness would lead to a wave of self-actualization, increased compassion for others, and democratic decision-making. With these tools, humanity would be able to collectively address the many complex social problems we collectively face, such as racism, overconsumption, economic inequality, and environmental degradation.

To investigate the spread of mindfulness across powerful social institutions in science, healthcare, education, business, and the military, I travelled around the country from 2010-2012, and again in 2015, talking with leaders of the mindfulness movement. The passionate, inspiring mindfulness advocates at top Ivy League and flagship universities, at Fortune 500 companies like Google and General Mills, at K-12 schools, and the U.S. military had personally benefited from meditating and felt bolstered by a wave of scientific evidence which has supported the practices’ beneficial effects on well-being, memory, attention, meta-awareness, cognitive flexibility, and emotional regulation. Above all, by sharing mindfulness, meditators believed they not only transformed themselves, but the world around them.

Yet, most meditators I spoke with revealed more self-centered effects from spending time in quiet contemplation. This was not surprising to some of mindfulness’ leaders.

Sitting in his office at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society in January of 2015 in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, Executive Director Saki Santorelli told me that people loved to do mindfulness because they learned about who they were, and through the practice, they transcended who they previously were, and who they had thought they were. This process was intrinsically rewarding and exhilarating.

People come to their mindfulness program, he said, because they have “a Real. Life. Problem. Something is just not right,” he said. “And what keeps people engaged is . . . the most interesting topic in the world.” He paused and turned toward me.

“What is this most interesting topic in the world?” He paused again, waiting.

“The most interesting topic in the world,” he responded, “is me.” He continued, “People come here because they are interested in me. Meaning themselves. And something’s not quite right about me or I want to learn more about me including “how am I going to live with this condition for the next 20 or 30 or 40 years?”
In teaching mindfulness at the Center, they seek to “draw out,” rather than “pour in” knowledge. They seek to ignite “a fire with people to know more about ‘who’ or ‘what’ I actually am,” he said. He explained:

They start with practice. Practice reveals not because I say so, but because they discover it. They discover that they have a breath, they discover that it feels a particular way, they discover something about the relative present moment, whatever that is. They discover something about what happens in their viscera when they have a particular thought or a particular emotion . . . They discover the ways that they’re conditioned or limiting themselves or living today out of yesterday’s memory, about whom or what I am or what I’m capable of. And they love it. . . . And whenever people discover a little bit more about who they are, they transcend. And ultimately, I think that’s what’s transformative—is that sense of transcending. Transcend some idea about who you think they are, even if it’s a tiny little idea, and then you feel more room.

Others found meditation useful for different reasons. Neuroscientist Ravi Chaudhary (pseudonym used upon request) thought mindfulness practice provided him with a critical cognitive distance that enabled him to pause, reflect, and ultimately, have greater self-control in facing the challenges that arose in his life. He has learned “not be super reactive to unpleasant situations,” he said. “There’s difficult situations no matter what,” but with mindfulness, he now can take “a moment, sit back and accept that . . . I am not part of it, but rather it is there and I am here.” This helps him make decisions “as if it’s a presumed situation,” and he feels less entangled with difficult situations.

These effects of mindfulness meditation are no doubt important: they help people learn about themselves and, hopefully, engage in more thoughtful decision-making. Mindfulness meditation can also have a therapeutic effect for many people, helping them de-stress, calm themselves and provide openings to experience a sense of peace.

However, mindfulness’s impact off the cushion of the larger organizations and communities where it is practiced largely remains to be seen. Most mindfulness programs have never gotten around to confronting the many larger-scale social problems we face as a society; in fact many newer practitioners might be surprised to learn that founders of early mindfulness programs had sought out such activist-minded ends. In speaking with dozens of program leaders and mindfulness teachers, only a handful had any evidence at all that their programs’ impacts extended beyond the program’s direct participants and into the larger organizations they were a part of.

The impact of mindfulness practice, even among top CEOs and corporate leaders, is largely not trickling down into their larger companies and causing them to cut down expected work hours or loads or increase wages, which are the fundamental causes of the stress many Americans face today. While meditation practices may individually improve the lives of practitioners, and perhaps even those they regularly interact with, it is less clear how the practices lead to the collective action needed to address the complex social problems we face daily in our workplaces and in our democracy.

Yet, the myth that mindfulness will lead to a more progressive, utopian world continues to linger, as a mirage, that might appear just around the bend.

Featured image credit: “Take a seat photo” by Simon Wilkes. Public Domain via Unsplash.

Why Happy And Comfortable Won’t Get You There

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By John P. Weiss

My hands are still sweating. I recently saw the outstanding documentary Free Solo. It chronicles the stunning achievement of free soloist climber Alex Honnold, as he scales the famous El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

El Capitan is 3,200 feet of sheer granite, and Honnold climbs the whole thing in under four hours.

Without ropes.

I read Honnold’s fascinating book, Alone on the Wall, but there’s nothing like watching him in action on the big screen.

The documentary shows his exhaustive preparations, practice runs, climbing journals, and more. It also examines the relationship he has with Sanni McCandless, his girlfriend.

Dating a guy who risks his life climbing vertiginous walls of granite can’t be easy. Not to mention Honnold’s emotional remoteness, which helps him stay focused.

An article in voanews.com quotes Honnold:

“Soloing always comes from some kind of particular mental space. And it has taken some effort to cultivate the right space for a relationship, the right space to still climb at a high level and just try to balance it.”

There’s a fascinating part in the documentary where Honnold contrasts McCandless’s desire to have a happy and comfortable life with his push for climbing excellence. He mentions how being comfortable doesn’t lead to achievement.

Clearly, Honnold would not be happy resting on his laurels, because excellence comes from serious effort, not settling into a life of leisure and comfort.

In the documentary, we watch as Honnold and McCandless buy a new house and shop for refrigerators. Honnold previously embraced an ascetic life, living out of his van, shunning alcohol and red meat.

While Honnold’s fame brought endorsements and money, he remains largely unchanged. Still focused on the next climb.

For Alex Honnold, settling into a conventional life won’t do it for him. Happy and comfortable won’t get him where he wants to go. He knows that to achieve greatness in climbing, he has to keep pushing. Keep training. Keep his eye on the next prize.

“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I doubt the cat volunteered

Alex Honnold isn’t the only person to accomplish a dangerous challenge. Consider the life of Annie Edson Taylor. She was born on October 24, 1838, in New York.

A school teacher, Annie met David Taylor and they were married. The couple had one son, who sadly died in his infancy. Shortly after that, David passed away.

Life does that sometimes. It completely destroys the happy and comfortable world you made for yourself. When that happens, what do you do?

Do you give up? Throw in the towel? Or do you find a way forward? Rebuild and craft a new life?

For Annie Taylor, she chose a bold, unorthodox way to move forward.

After her husband died, she pursued various jobs and moved around. Concerned about finances for her later years, she decided to become the first person to ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

She acquired a custom barrel made of oak and iron and cushioned the interior with a mattress. Then she tested the barrel by putting a cat inside and sending him over the waterfall.

I doubt the cat volunteered. Thankfully, the cat survived and emerged from the barrel with only a small gash on his head.

Wikipedia describes the rest of the story:

“On October 24, 1901, her 63rd birthday, the barrel was put over the side of a rowboat, and Taylor climbed in, along with her lucky heart-shaped pillow. After screwing down the lid, friends used a bicycle tire pump to compress the air in the barrel. The hole used for this was plugged with a cork, and Taylor was set adrift near the American shore, south of Goat Island.

The Niagara lake currents carried the barrel over the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, which has since been the site for all daredevil stunting at Niagara Falls. Rescuers reached her barrel shortly after the plunge. Taylor was discovered to be alive and relatively uninjured, except for a small gash on her head.”

Annie Taylor never achieved the financial success she hoped for. A corrupt manager took off with the barrel and some of her money. In her final years, she managed to craft a living. She posed for photographs with tourists at her souvenir stand and pursued a few other ventures.

The point is, however unorthodox her plan, Annie Taylor didn’t give up. There was a time when she had a happy and comfortable life, but it didn’t last. So she lifted herself up, crafted a bold plan, and moved forward.

Writer Margie Warrell, in an article for Forbes.com, notes:

“Only in giving up the security of the known can we create new opportunity, build capability, and grow influence. As we do, we expand the perimeter of our ‘Courage Zone’ and our confidence to take on bigger challenges in the future.”

Warrell goes on to write:

“In short, we must be willing to get comfortable with the discomfort involved with taking risks.”

We tend to live in our comfort zones

I live in Southern Nevada, in a Del Web type community of mostly retired folks. I enjoy coffee a few times a week with a bunch of guys who are older than me.

I like hanging out with these men because they have many life lessons and wisdom to share. These guys could simply enjoy their homes and play golf, but they do more than that.

One guy goes off on mountain hikes that many young people would fail to accomplish. Another guy, who is 80 years old, rises early every day and lifts weights. These guys are intellectually curious, travel frequently, and keep pushing themselves.

What I’ve learned is that “happy and comfortable” isn’t enough. Human beings thrive when we have challenges to tackle and goals to achieve.

An article in timemanagementninja.com explains why “happy and comfortable” isn’t enough. An excerpt:

“We tend to live in our comfort zones.
Most people rarely, if ever, venture outside of theirs.
For most, it’s about going through the motions.
It is a life of routine, slackness, and minimal effort.
Yet, to reach new heights you have to push yourself.
You have to do the work. And you have to test your limits.”

There is a caveat. Important as it is to have goals and focus on achievement, we also need periods of downtime. Space in our lives to rest, think, and renew our creativity and drive.

Being happy and comfortable is fine. It’s a state we all aspire to, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the spoils of our efforts. But in order to keep growing and achieving, we have to push ourselves. Sometimes, when we get too comfortable, we get lazy.

I’d much rather sink into my leather couch and get lost on my laptop than drive down to the gym for another, brutal workout with my trainer. But the couch and laptop won’t help me achieve my fitness goals.

How about you? Have you been seduced by a comfortable routine and happy status quo? It’s easy to let this happen, because who wants to struggle in life? And yet, pursuing goals and doing hard things is what moves the needle. It’s how we keep growing and achieving.

Take a close look at your life. Are you a bit settled? Have you let happy and comfortable get in the way of becoming the person you really want to be?

Focused effort leads to breakthroughs!

You don’t have to risk your life climbing mountains of sheer granite, or tumble over Niagara Falls in a barrel. But you do have to get off the couch, get out of your comfort zone, and chase your passions and dreams with renewed focus and determination. Do that, and watch your life transform for the better.

Before you go

I’m John P. Weiss. I paint landscapes, draw cartoons and write about artful living. Get on my free email list here.

This article first appeared on Medium.