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Monk Notes 11 - The Practice of Anti-Mindfulness

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of perspective.

If you asked 50 people what news network is closest to the center or what income level will guarantee happiness — you will get a lot of conflicting answers.

That’s because we make our judgments based on where we are standing. We can’t place ourselves outside ourselves; like a frog in boiling water, we can’t say what the appropriate temperature is “supposed to be” once our body temperature has adjusted to our surroundings.

Even our perception of life follows this pattern. We assume that the way we experience being human today is fairly close to how it’s always been.

And despite being a subscriber to the Monk Manual newsletter, perhaps even owning a Monk Manual yourself, the real life of a monk probably seems pretty foreign to you. The quiet, transcendent routine of monks feels extreme; it’s probably attractive to some, but we still likely see it as far-removed from our daily experience, an ideal state we could never actually reach.

Then again, it might be a matter of perspective.

 ______________________________

It’s important to recognize the unprecedented aspects of the human experience that we are living through:

  • We have more choices than ever before.

  • We have more information (and noise) than ever before.

  • We have constant marketing and ideological messages hitting us every day, many of us since we were infants, telling us we need certain products and services to be successful, attractive, connected, and safe.

  • We have more control over our environment — perceived and real — than ever before. 

 

The result? We now live in a period of infinite demands placed on finite beings.

 

We carry around a universe of information and distraction in our pockets 24/7.

 

We are concerned not only with the neighbors around us, but also every problem, injustice and pain going on around the world.

 

We are surrounded by social media that not only reminds us of all the bonds that haven’t been kept up, but also all the ways that others may seemingly be “ahead” of where we are in any given area of their life.

 

It’s all a bit overwhelming — and even more so if you are a person who sincerely wants to live well and take responsibility for your life.

 

(It actually makes me a bit stressed just writing about it, to be honest.)

 

All of this to say, I would like you to consider that a monk’s life of quiet reflection and simple habits is not extreme. To consider that maybe they're not the ones who are so far removed from the natural human experience.

 

Perhaps it’s us who are the weird ones.

____________________________

Given our modern realities, it seems natural that mindfulness and meditative practices have exploded in popularity. This intentional practice of mono-focusing serves as a counterbalance so that our brain can be freed from the tyranny of distractions and demands that surround us every day. Mindfulness has come to us now because we are grappling with a world we’ve never had to grapple with before. And we are scared, both as individuals and as a collective.

 

We are struggling in real time to find the machinery to cope with such an unnatural amount of pressure and information.

 

As with any problem we encounter in our lives, we often first look at what habits we can add in before thinking about what we can take away. 

 

The reason is simple. New habits — exercise, regimented learning, ritual practices, etc. — feel so concrete. They give us a clear sense of progress, a clear sense that we have done something that we can check off a list for proof of growth.

 

But it’s often in the hidden environmental changes where we are able to set the stage for real profound change, even if it is quieter and less concrete. 

 

In our pursuit of a more human experience, I would suggest that, rather than introducing mindful practices, we find ways to take away our anti-mindful practices: those activities that induce anxiety, add noise, create chaos, or otherwise remove you from the present moment. Whether or not you have a regular meditative practice, whether or not you have habits in your life built to help you slow down, breathe, and reflect — you (like every modern person) most certainly have anti-mindful practices. It’s nearly impossible not to without deep reflection and intention in our current culture.

 

We can learn something from the intentional yet simple environment that supports the life of monks. By simplifying our life, by eliminating that which is unnecessary, we can often progress much faster than through any great willful effort.

 

I’ve thought through some common anti-mindful practices that many of us may experience. These practices and activities contain different experiences for different people, so I’m not here to tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing.

 

But I hope you will consider that, no matter how much you practice stillness in standalone moments, those “anti-mindful” moments will often be quieting undercutting your efforts to find presence and peace.

 

Run through the list and see what resonates most with you. The goal is not personal judgement or condemnation, but rather awareness and the freedom that can result from an environment more conducive to your own personal flourishing

 

Perpetual Choices: Decision-making is stressful, so finding ways to decrease the amount of decisions we need to make in a day will help us allocate more energy to the decisions that really matter.

  • Ask yourself whether a given decision will matter in a month's time. If it won’t, don’t agonize over it; try to choose a good enough option and adjust later on. Overtime try to create scenarios where you have to make less daily decisions.

  • Automate daily decisions as much as you can. This could be setting a weekly breakfast schedule, time-blocking your day, or pre-planning phone call check-ins with loved ones. Whenever you are able to, decide in advance, then put it on autopilot.

  • Delegate. If you're married, see if there are any decisions you’re taking on that your spouse could handle better. If you're a manager or work on a team, ask yourself if you are making decisions someone else could make as well as (or better) than you, but that are currently on your plate because of habit or a need for control.

 

Perpetual Noise and Distraction: Both physical and informational noise can pull us away from the present moment.

  • Decrease background noise. What if you kept the music off in the car? What if you removed your headphones while going about your daily work? Our brains need time for whitespace. Give your brain that breathing room.

  • Decrease front-ground noise. Take note of what noises and needs remove you from the present moment. Could you remove notifications for some apps — even from texting? Could you choose to focus on the TV or your taxes, and not pretend to multitask? Consider what’s necessary and what’s not.

  • Create dedicated phone time. Much of the common advice is, distance yourself from your phone. But instead, consider creating distance throughout your day by creating dedicated times for phone use, so that you use your phone for a specific purpose rather than using it whenever the urge arises.

  • If you work heavily on a computer, try working with only one or two apps at a time, or only one or two tabs open at a time. Before you begin working on something - close out everything that doesn’t relate to that project. Take it one step further and delete the apps that most distract you from the devices where they manifest most as distractions. Do you really need your work email on your phone? I thought I did for a long time, but since I deleted it, I’ve been much happier (and my work has been fine as well).

  • Turn off notifications. Slack, email, Facebook, Instagram - get rid of any notifications that aren’t essential to your core life responsibilities. 

 

Perpetual Pressure: Life as it is now isn’t how it always was. What can you do to remind yourself that you are allowed to just be?

  • Set some work boundaries. Many of us are never truly “off.” Whereas you used to be able to leave work at work, for many of us, this isn’t the case anymore — especially in the age of remote work. Begin the process of giving work its dedicated time so that non-work activities have their dedicated time, too.

  • Build breathing room into your routine. No matter what form it takes, it’s always helpful to have a designated time period (even as short as an hour) that reminds us that our life is bigger than whatever is on our to-do list. Consider some common practices:

    • Mental health days / mornings / evenings — time to rest, or do something you love

    • Digital sabbath — one day of the week that you set aside to be fully unplugged

    • Thinker Thursdays — where you take a step back from daily tasks and reflect, set goals, etc.

  • Make time for leisure and play. Nothing reminds us that we’re human more than getting lost in a board game or trying out a new skill. What would it be like to pick up a hobby just for the fun of it?

  • Do nothing. What is the purpose of doing nothing? Spend an hour each week for the next month doing nothing and you will find out nothing’s incredible effectiveness at helping us realize what life is really about.

  • Consider the games you’re playing in life. Many of us have areas of our life we are trying to “win.” While often unconscious, these games often drive a substantial amount of our behavior. It’s easier said than done, but reflect on what you’re trying to achieve. Who are you trying to be? For whom? What values are vying for your attention? You can’t win every game. Figure out what is important to you and only play that game. As a result you will experience a higher level of self compassion and will stop playing the comparison game.

 

Perpetual Control: Control is a slightly more amorphous anti-mindful activity, but it is sometimes the core of our troubles. Believing we are — or should be — in perfect control doesn’t serve the reality of a wild and beautiful present moment.

  • Invest in relationships. When you feel like you're doing it alone, you naturally also feel the need to control. But you don’t need to control everything about your life. Invest in the support system that reminds you that you are not the only person on the planet and that others want to help when life gets overwhelming.

  • Practice nonaction. See what happens.

  • Decrease triggers. Certain things trigger our need for control — our finances, our relationships, our goals. What would it look like to automate things a bit more so that we don’t have to control every detail? What if you remove yourself from frustrating situations that drain your energy reserves?

  • Practice surrender daily. A spiritual surrender practice can be as simple as meditating on what you truly can control, and what you need to give up to your higher power.

____________________________

As we focus on the control, pressure, noise and distraction diet of our lives, our daily exercises will become that much more effective. We will realize that while it is difficult to engineer our environment, it ends up being substantially easier and ultimately more sustainable than using willpower to effect change. 

 

While most of us will never have the benefit of living in a monastery, we can still intentionally engineer our environment in ways that help us become more fully human. We can still create our own walls to guard against anti-mindfulness and bring a deeper sense of peace and recollection everywhere we go.

All the best,
Steven Lawson

“Art is the elimination of the unnecessary” - Pablo Picasso

GOING DEEPER


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This model really helped me to better understand myself and those around me. I would wager I high percentage of the Monk Manual audience would identify as a maximizer, which often can be identified by perfectionist qualities. I’ve traditionally leaned in the maximizer direction but have been working (and progressing) towards a more balanced approach over the past few years.
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Featured Art: Lascaux Cave Painting of a Megaloceros - Artist unknown (Est. date 17,000 BCE)