How can I embrace mindfulness when there's so much to think about?

mindfulness unmindfulness

OK, so my sister, Erica, asked me whether I might be willing to contribute something to her blog on mindfulness. As is quite common at the moment, I absorbed some of the information I was given, specifically “contribute something to her blog”, whilst the information about the mindfulness theme sort of rinsed straight through like my latest batch of indigo hair dye.

At first I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to have a ramble about myself and since I’m currently struggling with some addictions (in truth the addictions are constant, it’s the struggle which lacks consistency) I could perhaps use the blog as a sort of therapy. However, after a little further thought I decided that speaking about personal matters could get me into hot water, since I have a habit of being terribly Frank (get it) and would almost undoubtedly end up upsetting my nearest and dearest. I mulled over the matter some more and then decided that perhaps a blog could be more like a sounding board for people to rant about the wider world and since, at that moment, I was in something of a ranty mood, I got straight to it, chopsing away about the human need for definitive answers, Nelson’s Column, Donald Trump and so on.

It was, unfortunately, only as I was drawing to a close, that I was "minded" of the fact that perhaps my sister’s blog was not just a general ranting opportunity, but might have a more specific theme to it, which my contribution might have missed. I followed the link. Oh dear. The website appears to be about mindfulness (rings a bell, though who knows what it means), meditation and craft activities – nothing about Nelson’s Column or philosophy of science.

I cobble together a clumsy conclusion to my rant that waves a feeble finger in the direction of wellbeing, but I know I’m in trouble. What to do? Ditch the rant and start over? Do a bunch of research into whatever I was supposed to be writing about? Seemed a shame – I quite enjoyed the rant. But then, a mindwave (oh we’re on it now), perhaps my blog could be a journey into mindfulness, starting from a position of unmindfulness. Suddenly the rant has become extremely relevant as an absolutely staggeringly brilliant example of being unmindful. Happy days – I just need to write some sort of explanation at the beginning of the blog (check) and it’s job done and I can go to bed. So, for your pleasure ladies and gentlemen, written with little regard for breathing patterns and absolutely none towards posture, please find below the beginning of Frank Lamb’s journey into mindfulness.

Nelson's Column

Science is the tool with which we measure the world around us, but a tool is only as effective as the craftsman who wields it. Though our craft has come a long way since the times of bone-rattling, star-watching bird shamans, this sophistication has come with a price – we have grown ignorant of our own limitations. Increasingly our desire for definitive answers to all our questions has blinded us to the truth. Everything we think we know is a tiny marina, sheltered from the oceans of the unknown by fragile buffers we call a priori assumptions, assumptions about relativity, geometric dimension and time, strung together with the fraying ropes of religion.

I was once tasked with finding the answer to a question that on the outset seemed relatively simple - to find out the height of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London. Initial searches on the internet give the answer to be 52 metres, however a little more digging revealed a multitude of alternative answers.

There are differing levels of accuracy. The height of 52 metres has in fact been rounded up from 51.59 metres. Doubtless were there an enthusiasm for a more precise answer this measurement could be further enhanced for accuracy to the very limits of human ingenuity, but we would run into limitations long before the subatomic level.

Perspective is also of fundamental importance in determining the answer. The given height of 51.59 metres is based on a measurement from the bottom of the first step to the tip of the Admiral’s hat, but measurements can also be found from street level, from sea level… In fact, one has the entirety of the perceived three dimensional universe, of which we have explored a tiny fraction, to help comprehend the immense possibilities of perspective without even contemplating alternative dimensions and geometries.

And then there is time. Up until 2006, when a refurbishment revealed the error, the height of the column was thought to be 4.4 metres more than currently believed. Time changes our answer in real terms as well as perceived. Do we include the thin veneer of pigeon excrement on Nelson’s hat in our measurement? Another day, another portion of guano, to dry and shrink in the sun or wash away in the rain. Do we consider the possibility of subsidence over time? If the measurement is above sea level, another time dependent variable is introduced into the equation.

In short, only by making assumptions regarding relative accuracy, perspective and time can we begin to attempt an answer. The same is very much the case with the rest of our knowledge. We know less than we do not know. It is from this rather humbling position that we ought to contemplate our existence. Definitive answers are frequently beyond our grasp, but our hunger for them is such that we will gleefully swallow the unqualified statement over a convoluted attempt at truth.

Unlike Nelson’s Column, the important issues which we should be addressing today - climate change and environmental sustainability, conflict resolution and social justice, technological advancement and cultural prosperity - are as unpredictable in nature as they are immeasurable in complexity. They require a degree of humility, an acceptance of our own ignorance for us to begin to understand them. Which makes them somewhat unpalatable amidst our appetite for certainty. When faced with a decision of incredible complexity, more enticing perhaps than the grey uncertainty of fact, is the black and white of non-fact. The scope for the debate on Brexit was staggeringly narrow, the facts rigorously unqualified. The side that presented absolute uncertainties as truth won the hearts of the majority. £350 million a week for the NHS was a definitive answer to an unasked question and damn it, we do love a definitive answer.

Donald Trump is streets ahead of the rest of the field in the era of post truth and what’s not to love? I’ve been told that I can fix my country’s problems by building a wall. That sounds like good news. I can build a wall myself. It is a known procedure – the interlocking pattern of the bricks and so on. This is a simple definitive solution to what some people would have me believe was a very complex problem.

It is quite easy for a thinking human to become dispirited in the era of post truth, but time rolls us around, walls fall, lies unravel and each turn takes us a little further into the unknown, opens our eyes to a fraction more of all there is. Revel in the unknown, seek to understand it, seek new truths with humility and vigour. Take heart. Enjoy yourselves. Eat plenty of soup.

When Frank sent me his contribution to Mindwave, he suggested that I might not want to post the article because it didn’t fit. However, I think it’s a perfect fit, because what Frank describes as “unmindfulness” is something that we can all relate to. It also highlights the multitude of factors that can hinder our efforts at becoming more mindful: high levels of stress, anxiety, addictions, our incessant thoughts... it’s a starting point that makes Frank’s journey relevant to those of us in a similar situation.