The Modern Survival Guide #19
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone, and I’m really trying to be “in the now” as I write this article on mindful habits.
It is a crazy, confusing, stressful, overwhelming world. None of that is likely to change anytime soon, so it’s a real shame that our evolutionary history has prepared us so poorly for it. The default response of the human body is to feel stress under pressure conditions. Stress is not good, and is particularly not good over the long term.
Adding to that issue is the problem that people generate a lot of their own stress — making problems worse through over-thinking, failing to solve problems, ignoring things until they become problems, etc, not to mention failing to recognize when they are in good or bad situations. These things combine to create an atmosphere where there is too much, coming too fast, from too many different angles, generating a whirlpool of stress.
There are a few ways out of this kind of trap, but one of the most promising (at least, as long as you can keep the New Agers out of it) is the idea of mindfulness: focusing your attention on the present moment and putting emotions in context. For the purposes of this article, I’m using the tri-part (trait, state, and practice) definition of the ideal of mindfulness that has emerged from psychology.
Trait: A long-lasting characteristic where a person is more easily able to enter a mindful state.
State: Being aware of the present moment, present problems, and the reality of the current situation.
Practice: Deliberately entering the state of mindfulness and knowing under which circumstances to do so.
Simply put, the practice of mindfulness in this context is, at times when you are feeling stressed, to take a mental step out of the situation at hand and deliberately limit your perceptions, focusing on the current situation, your immediate responses to it, and your emotional state. Then you make a conscious choice on how to react from there. This is a slightly less militarized version of an OODA Loop, focused less on resolving tactical engagements and more on taking oneself out of self-destructive emotional cycles.
This is harder than it seems.
People have a nasty habit of trying to do everything at once in stress situations. The classic examples are the overworked mom trying to clean a house, and the overworked employee trying to clear a work backlog.
The mom tries to clean the floor, because she doesn’t like dirty floors. But she can’t mop the floors until she picks up the toys, she can’t pick up the toys until she cleans the kids’ rooms enough to have space to store the toys, and she can’t clean the rooms until she takes out the trash, but she can’t take out the trash because she has to watch the kids. So the whole thing grinds to a halt, nothing gets done, and the mom loses her mind a bit and goes to hit the vodka. Her stress level goes up, and the house is still dirty.
The overworked employee is trying to finish a major project. But they can’t finish the project because they keep getting handed more work. And they can’t focus on the new work because they have to finish the major project. The employee’s stress level rises until they bunk off to Starbucks. So nothing gets done and the employee gets in trouble with their manager. The employee’s morale falls and their stress level increases, thus perpetuating the problem.
Both of these situations seem like situational problems, but they’re not. They are mindful problems. In both cases, the subjects are thinking too far ahead and dwelling too much on external issues to accomplish immediate tasks. They have taken themselves out of the immediate moment and are focused on the next problem, rather than the thing that they need to do to close out the current problem.
A mindful solution to these problems is the same in both cases: step back and take yourself out of the immediate stress to look at the circumstances of the moment. Focus on the problem at hand, the objectives behind that problem, and the immediate constraints that are preventing you from solving it.
For the mom, the problem at hand is that she keeps broadening the scope of her project. Does it matter if the toys are perfectly put away? Probably not, if the core point of stress for her is that the floor is dirty. To hell with the toys. Throw them in a corner and mop around them. Toys are not the core issue. The core issue is being able to walk across the room without your feet sticking to things.
For the overstressed employee, the problem at hand is that they have not taken a moment to think about priorities. A mindful approach is to take a moment to make a list, and then accomplish items by running down the list. The core issue is getting stuff done, by priority order, not necessarily getting all of the stuff done at once.
Mindfulness extends beyond chores and work. How many times have you been in a fun social setting, only you weren’t having fun because you couldn’t stop thinking about something else you were supposed to do, or something else you could be doing? If you find yourself in this situation, take a moment. Think about where you are. Think about where you want to be. If you don’t want to be where you are, leave. But if you do want to be where you are, make the choice to let the other stuff go and focus on the moment. You can pick your other cares back up when you’re done.
Mindfulness also extends to emotions. We all have times in our lives that are emotional roller-coasters. Taking a step back and analyzing what is happening to us can provide some context for those emotions — even to the extent of helping us determine which emotions are useful, appropriate, and valid in particular situations. You can’t solve major psychological issues this way — depression is neurochemistry, not situational — but you can understand them better. Sometimes the only thing we need to snap ourselves out of a funk is a reality check that life is, actually, pretty OK.
Mindfulness has been described in terms of meditation, therapy, and even religion, but that’s not how I look at it or how I advise you to look at it. All of these frames come with their own baggage. You don’t need them. Mindfulness by itself is a worthwhile practice and tool without loading it with a bunch of other concepts — it works whether you believe in chakra points, whether you like your therapist or not, and regardless of which god you believe in.
Does this sound a little wishy-washy? A little too much “live in the now” with no thought to consequences? If so, I refer you back to # 16. You can’t do everything. You can’t fulfill all your opportunities. It is not possible. Stop letting people and society make you think that it is. Instead, think about where you are and what you are doing. Make decisions about those things. Take pleasure in those things. Make plans if you need to, but don’t let your plans dictate your reality.
And yes, there is a mindful way to plan — in broad strokes, for no more than the next two to five years ahead. That’s it.¹ Anything beyond that time horizon is unplannable. Life will, uh, find a way to do something weird that will screw up your plans. So don’t worry too much about it. Instead, set goals. Even if your goal is to be President, there are specific things you can do in 2–5 year increments to get you closer to that outcome. But beyond that, life will dictate some of your actions, and if your plans do not take that into account, you will work yourself into a tizzy trying to make a square peg fit a round hole.
So take at least a few moments every day to mindfully appraise things. Focus on what you’re doing. Focus on what you’re feeling. Focus on what you want. And then do your best to act and feel and accomplish things that meet immediate goals. Modern survival is about more than just taking all of your meds and keeping a job — you also need to stay sane along the way. Mindfulness can help with that.
¹With the exception of putting money aside for retirement. Always do that. This is an exception because, no matter what happens, if you don’t die you can be pretty much guaranteed that you will grow old, and everyone always needs money — particularly old people.