We don’t pay enough attention to our lives. Every passing moment is a potential moment of intimate connection with our deepest selves, our loved ones, and the natural world. Every passing moment is a potential moment of wise and compassionate engagement with ourselves and others. Every passing moment is a potential moment of insight into the question of what is the truest and most meaningful way for us to live our lives.
Instead, our lives pass us by. We’re all too often disconnected from ourselves, our bodies, nature, and people around us. Our lives get caught up in the routine and humdrum. Our minds run on old automatic programs — some written deep within our genes: our sense of ourselves as separate from others, our sense of our minds as separate from our bodies, our attraction to novelty, our pursuit of pleasure and flight from pain, our anger when frustrated, our fear of the unfamiliar — others learned in childhood: our respect for authority, our identification with a social class and ethnic group, our belief that personal worth comes from pleasing others or achieving outward success, our fear of being our true selves.
We create new automatic programs all the time. Repeated practice allows tasks that initially require a great deal of attention to eventually run on pure habit. Remember how difficult it was learning how to type? At first, placing and moving our fingers was a slow, painstaking process. Eventually our hands knew what to do without the mind’s interference.
William James called habit “the great flywheel of society.” If we had to pay attention to everything we’d get precious little done. Habit affords us economy of time and efficiency of action. Habit also allows us to multitask: we can run well-learned behaviors in the background while devoting scarce attentional resources to more demanding tasks in the foreground.
Once behavior becomes habitual, however, it’s hard to analyze what’s gone wrong if the behavior proves problematic. We know something’s gone amiss, but we can’t figure out what it is. Solving the problem requires paying fresh attention to it: watching how a habit operates, what sustains it, and what it’s consequences are.
The Pleasure Principle
There are several key programs nature has written into our nervous systems which have a profound and direct bearing on our ability to be happy. Most notably, our nervous system seems to have been designed for pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain (what Sigmund Freud called the pleasure principle.) At first glance this may not seem like much of a problem. After all, we all want more pleasure and less pain!
There’s a serious downside, however. There are a great many behaviors that lead to short-term pleasure, but long-term misery. These include addictions like overeating, alcoholism, and compulsive sexual activity, achievement-undermining behaviors like procrastination and carelessness, and relationship-destroying behaviors like selfishness and intimidation. In fact, the list of behaviors that lead to quick satisfaction and long-term grief is practically endless.
Most of the “defense mechanisms” psychologists talk about are habits of mind that effectively eliminate anxiety. Psychologists talk about “denial” and “repression” which are mental processes that limit our awareness of thoughts and feelings that might disturb us. The cigarette smoker who says cancer will never get him, the driver who won’t buckle his seat belt, the teenager who won’t wear a condom, and the alcoholic who thinks he can handle his liquor are all disregarding crucial information in order to avoid anxiety about doing what pleases them. They’re also risking their own lives and happiness and the happiness of others around them.
Habits that bring immediate pleasure and eventual grief can only be changed by shining the light of awareness on them. All too often, our attention is only focused on the pleasure such acts bring, and we disconnect from awareness of their harmfulness. If each and every time we engage in these behaviors, however, we slow things down and consider the fruits of our actions, would we be able to keep the behavior going? If we keep in mind what the smoke we’re inhaling is doing to our lungs, and remind ourselves what it’s like to have cancer with each and every puff of each cigarette — would we be able to continue smoking?
The Impermanence of Satisfaction
Our nervous systems are built so that we can’t stay happy for long. Nature designed us that way for a reason: A permanently content squirrel wouldn’t gather nuts for the coming winter. It wouldn’t nervously scan the environment for predators. It wouldn’t live long enough to pass on its genes. So it is with us.
Similarly, our nervous systems are built to pay less attention to sensations that repeat and fail to change over time. Psychologists call this habituation. Sometimes habituation’s a blessing; it’s the reason why bad odors lose their potency over time. Habituation makes sense in terms of biological survival. We need to pay more attention to information that’s rapidly changing than to information that’s static. It is more important to pay attention to a charging tiger than to the stationary tree that’s behind it.
Habituation comes with a cost, however. The temporary, fleeting nature of pleasure means we’re restlessly driven to seek new pleasures which are equally fleeting in turn. Even winning the lottery doesn’t lead to greater happiness over time — lottery winners are no happier a year after they win than they were the year before they won.
Another downside to habituation is that chronic problems never capture our attention the way emerging ones do. We can see this at work in the way television handles news stories. A fresh problem becomes an object of public concern, and television becomes consumed with covering it. Three months later the problem hasn’t been solved, but the public is bored with it and television moves on to something new. We mobilize national or world resources to solve a problem in Haiti or Somalia, then lose interest in what’s happening in those countries after the immediate sense of crisis is over. Haiti is front-line news one day, but the grinding poverty that is everyday life in Haiti is never news. Even the very word news says volumes about the way we stay only fleetingly informed about the world. All this is only natural. We only have so much attention to spare. We attend to the sensational, the dramatic, and the novel, and never get around to solving the basic problems which are the true ground of unhappiness.
The Reality Principle
Fortunately we’re not totally dependent on our programming. We’re capable of learning from experience and modifying it. We learn to bypass the easy pleasures that undermine long-term goals, and tolerate the short-term pain that helps us achieve them. This ability to delay gratification and tolerate useful pain is part of what we mean when we talk about becoming an adult. In Freud’s language, we learn to put the “pleasure principle” in service of the “reality principle.” As children, if we’re lucky, our parents act as “mindfulness agents” warning us to pay attention to the long-term consequences of short-term pleasures. We don’t appreciate our parents much for this as children, but if they haven’t done this for us we find ourselves in deep trouble as adults. As adults we learn to become our own “mindfulness agents.” We’re responsible to ourselves for becoming aware of how we derail our long-term happiness. This requires us to invest our lives with fresh curiosity and attention. It requires us to look at ourselves in new ways, without the habitual blinders that prevent us from seeing ourselves as we really are.
The Big Picture
If there’s no enduring happiness in pursuing short-term pleasure, is long-term pleasure any better? Isn’t it subject to the same rules of habituation, the same limitations of our nervous systems to stay permanently happy? If the endless pursuit of pleasure seems meaningless, is there something else worth pursuing and basing one’s life on? Is there a state of being more worthy of our efforts? This is the question that religion and philosophy attempt to address. If there are different answers proposed by various religions and philosophies, how can one go about determining what’s true? What is the Good Life? What is the meaningful life?
The answers to these questions can be found through learning to pay fresh attention to life. As we observe ourselves more closely, we start to inquire into our relationship with the larger world of existence. Who are we really? What should we be doing with our lives? What is our place in the natural order of things? We discover that we’ve all too easily accepted answers to these questions that have been handed down from family, religious authorities, and the Great and the Wise. We become aware of how the dissociations that define us: mind vs. body, self vs. nature, me vs. you, are arbitrary and porous. They’re seen as constructions of the social mind that could have been drawn differently and elsewhere, not the contours of reality itself. These dissociations gradually diminish in their persuasiveness as we develop our ability to see through them with greater clarity. It’s as if, in allowing our attention to penetrate more deeply into the interstices of our daily life, we’re shining the light of awareness onto the problem of Being itself. Every time we’ve freed an aspect of Being from the constraints of conventional wisdom, every time we’ve breathed awareness into the space and upon the ground in which we actually live, we experience a realm of existence which can only be referred to as the sacred and holy. Sacredness doesn’t derive from any particular set of beliefs or dogmas. It doesn’t exist as Idea. We directly experience the quality of sacredness itself, the quiet that seems deeper than deep and purer than pure. The experience speaks for itself without need of interpretation. It’s there waiting to be attended to. After the experience comes the search for words and labels, but the experience is prior to words and labels, and in the conceptual search, the experience itself is once again lost, tarnished, encrusted, constrained, and buried. It waits to be freshly rediscovered in the next moment of awareness.