I used to be among those who have a great aversion to the recommendation to “live in the present,” firmly convinced that, in fact, this advice is nonsense. That, in reality, every moment we enjoy right now, is actually a millisecond behind, therefore, it is still not the coveted living in the present.
It was my way of revolting against my own mind, which was inclined to spend time thinking about the past or the future, which, if you haven’t found out yet, is said to be either romantic or futuristic, but still inappropriate. I didn’t expect a simple month of social media abstinence to show me I was wrong, but it did.
On a beautiful April afternoon, I crossed the park behind my apartment building, the same one I go through every day, and I was amazed to find that the magnolias had blossomed. It felt like a miracle, and not something natural for this time of the year. There are nine magnolias in the park. I counted them. A show of colour and delicacy that I could easily have missed in my haste, just as I had missed it when it began a few days prior.
Many of us live lives that alienate us from our needs. Not so much in the conspiratorial sense, according to which we have become slaves to the needs of others (for example, high-tech companies that have revolutionised our communication and entertainment and live off of our non-living), but in the sense that because of the choices we make, we have restricted our conscious needs to a very limited typology: we want likes (the need for validation), we want to stay permanently connected, on all channels (fear of loneliness), and we enjoy comfort and we want it in abundance (the need for rest and consumption taken to the extreme–sedentarism + consumerism).
But what about our other needs? Where are the needs for continuity in time and coherence, meaning, the need to touch, to use other senses than the visual and auditory, and how do we satisfy our need for movement? The need for real solidarity, the need for presence, spirituality, to taste art, to experience places and new emotions in the flesh?
We flatter ourselves with the thought that our society has evolved, that we no longer live as our grandparents lived. But honestly, our lives are much more artificial than our grandparents’ lives were. How many of us, or our friends, can honestly say that our work is in line with our purpose? That it’s our calling?
Most of us enter the field of work for the salary, the money we hope to use in the service of the meaning we already have. Once you enter a certain system, that unfulfilling job becomes meaningless. You make a down payment for a house, you have a child, and you end up the prisoner of a life that you can only live for yourself on the weekends, or in the two weeks of vacation that you barely get to take.
And because everyone around us does the same, we refuse to believe that these things affect us, until a sudden break in rhythm proves otherwise. I resonated with the experience of Michelle Lyons, an American who worked in the Texas justice system, because it illustrates to the extreme what so many people live in less obvious forms. Michelle’s job was to assist in the executions of death row inmates and to report to the public on how the sentence was carried out. Throughout her career, she has witnessed hundreds of executions. She was pro-death penalty and was convinced that those sentenced to receive the lethal injection deserved it.
For nearly two decades, Michelle did her job with the diligence with which most of us do our jobs. And she was convinced that nothing she saw affected her. That is, until she stopped working there. The job change unleashed a series of harrowing emotions, similar to post-traumatic stress: when she least expected it, she was struck by flashbacks from the execution room, by a look or a word she had not cared for then, but which now caused her waves of miserable feelings.
It was as if her soul had been holding its breath all those years and was only now beginning to feel. Eighteen years of witnessing the deaths of so many people is, of course, no small feat. The same goes for repressing your feelings for eighteen years, in the name of the ideal of a job well done. Still, more and more people are doing that.
Our alienation from ourselves is a present reality, for which it has become very fashionable to recommend living in the present as a remedy, and not just in any way, but by practising “mindfulness”, meaning the state in which you reconnect to yourself, observing your emotions and thoughts, without judging them. Meditation is the recommended method for achieving this frame of mind and its goal is to induce a state of relaxation in which you can become aware of all the sensations in your body and relate to them as if you were a witness to them.
Where does it come from?
It took almost five decades for the concept of mindfulness to become a consumer product in our society, and a billion-dollar business. It appeared in the 1970s, introduced by the American Jon Kabat-Zinn, who subsequently became professor emeritus of medicine, and the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn did not create this philosophy of mindfulness, but took it from his Buddhist mentors: Vietnamese-born peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh and Zen Master Seung Sahn, co-founder of the Cambridge Zen Center.
Basically, what everyone today calls “mindfulness” is an adaptation of Buddhist meditation to the Western environment, in a version that eliminated the religious framework of the practice. However, the idea of staying in the present is used in Buddhist teaching as a discipline of acquiring self-knowledge and wisdom for the stated purpose of enlightenment, seen as a total release of suffering.
About the same time that Jon Kabat-Zinn was initiating what would become today’s famous “mindfulness” philosophy, American veteran Stephen Islas was returning from Vietnam with his mind full of the horrors of war and unable to lead a normal life because of it. The war left him so mentally and emotionally devastated, as he said years later, that when he returned home, instead of rejoicing that he had returned, he was about to commit suicide. However, he had started college and a colleague suggested that he try a meditation class.
He went there reluctantly, but soon found that all was not lost, since he could still have moments, however short, of calm. Forty-six years later, however, he was still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, officially diagnosed in 2000. Still, he is convinced that meditation saved his life. And, like him, many other veterans use this practice to alleviate their trauma. How many of them benefit from it, and to what extent, is already an important part of the discussion.
What does it really do?
Despite the biased claims or hopes of some, and the soaring popularity of the concept, mindfulness is not the cure for all psychological suffering. Scientific studies, which have only focused on the effects of mindfulness meditation in recent decades, draw many different conclusions. Some are enthusiastic about the role of meditation, while others are reserved and point to the need to delve deeper into the subject, or even warn that meditation does not have any effect on psychological disorders.
A study conducted in 2017 that aimed to assess the exact effects of meditation in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder came to the following conclusion: “Although the body of research on meditation-based interventions for PTSD is relatively nascent, this type of intervention offers promise in addressing PTSD.” To study the effects of meditation, researchers aim to establish a causal relationship: because of meditation, subjects improved their X, Y, and Z indicators of mental well-being.
Correlational studies—those that observe the association between meditation and different indicators of well-being—are also relevant, as they show that there might be something in meditation that helps people. Thus, another study, also from 2017, showed the existence of an association between mindfulness meditation and the reduction of stress or mood disorder symptoms, which are also important.
Post-traumatic stress is not the only context in which meditation is recommended as therapy. We have numerous studies that show that meditation can be used successfully in treating anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, or generalised anxiety disorder. And, perhaps even more surprising, some studies evaluate the effects of meditation on the relief of chronic pain. There are even claims that present-focused meditation may even contribute to increased sexual satisfaction. However, imaging studies that have looked at the influence of meditation on the regions of the brain responsible for perceiving physical sensations have not provided enough evidence to support the effect of meditation on sex.
The most impressive scientific results are on the effectiveness of meditation integrated with cognitive-behavioural therapy in the treatment of depression. Serious research shows that such an approach significantly reduces the risk of relapse in patients who have had three or more major depressive episodes in the past. And given the growing prevalence of depression in Western countries, we can understand why it is so tempting to look hopefully at mindfulness, expecting it to be the solution we need for the problems our society is facing.
Approached as an exclusive solution, meditation cannot be enough. Clinical psychologist Anthony King, affiliated to the University of Michigan, said that he would “never recommend for people to go to a mindfulness class… and think that that’s going to be the same as psychotherapy because it is not. It really is not.” However, “I think mindfulness is a useful technique,” the psychologist added, provided that it is used in the context of therapy led by a professional.
Mindfulness meditation can have benefits, but we should not have unrealistic expectations about what relaxing and focusing on sensations, while detaching thoughts from emotions, can do for us. Calm and detached introspection can indeed help us find ourselves. But finding ourselves means more than using our senses to perceive our present—it means changing that present.
Let us get to know ourselves and our emotions, but also control ourselves, and manage those emotions, not just observe them. Let us recognise our needs and take action to meet them, but also pay more attention to the needs of those around us and how we can meet those as well. And, at the same time, let us enjoy the life we are living.
Someone once said that the opposite of unhappiness is not happiness, but joy. I tend to think they were right.
There is a form of meditation in Christianity as well: contemplation. However, it differs in the sense that, although it can have a calming and relaxing effect, it involves an externalisation of attention, not a focus on what is within. By contemplation, we meditate on the character of God, which we try to discover through the study of Scripture.
The same Scripture repeatedly promises that by contemplating God, we not only get to know ourselves increasingly better, but also all that God has prepared for us and how we can change our lives for the better. The person who practises the contemplation of God and then lives according to what they discover, is a person who has found true joy.
Alina Kartman (36 years old) graduated from the Faculty of Communication and Public Relations at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest (SNSPA), but chose a career in journalism. With hundreds of published analysis materials, she has accumulated over 13 years of editorial experience.