Mindfulness & Cultural Development
with Amy Edelstein
These days, most of us feel an ongoing experience of stress. Businessmen, single parents, senior citizens, even preschoolers are experiencing the negative effects of stress.
There are reasons we feel so much weight on our shoulders, and they’re not only what we expect. Integral to learning how to mindfully disengage is to look at how we came to be so stressed in the first place.
As a teacher of mindfulness in settings including a leading corporate media house and an inner city high school, I can tell you that understanding cultural development, coupled with a basic mindfulness practice can make a world of difference.
Let’s take a look at these 10 big ideas — and distress ourselves:
1. Looking at the Evolution Culture & the Individual Contextualizes Our Stress
People think technological advancements created the stress we live with on a daily basis. I’ll talk about that but the place I want to start is a little different than a few short decades ago when the internet was developed. I’d like to look through the lens of cultural development. Let’s start with roughly the 1500s and go to the present. Some super big changes happened in this period. They were good and important steps of complexification and sophistication, but as you’ll see, they resulted in a far greater burden on the individual. That means a greater burden on us.
2 The Democratic Revolution . . . More Stress
When our political structure moved from monarchies towards democracy, the individual bore the brunt of additional responsibility, power, and the burden of choice.
Think about it, when we were ruled by Kings and Queens, who held ultimate power over their subjects, who ruled often by divine decree, and who told us what to do and not do, in one sense, life was pretty simple. Born a serf, till the soil. Born a handmaid, serve your Ladyship. Not much to think about, not much to decide. Your role in life was proscribed and allotted.
When democratic political structures were established, the people had some power, choice, votes, and the responsibility to decide. The individual now had to inform themselves of issues and consequences of decisions. The individual had to exercise the privilege and responsibility of the vote. That’s a whole lot more stress. Not for any particular individual but for the lot of the individual as an entity now seen with a voice and a role.
3. The Religious Reformation . . . More Stress
When the Pope or other theocratic models monitored the gates to salvation, there wasn’t much we needed to do. Toe the line, show up to the religious office, complete the prescribed rituals. Salvation was in the hands of the clerics. When Martin Luther went pounding on the doors across Europe saying priests couldn’t “sell” salvations, it was up to our own actions, our own direct relationship with the Sacred he turned the tables on the religious establishment. The Protestant Reformation said, there were no intermediaries. That meant we could, by our own efforts and will, develop a relationship with the Supreme. Freed of corruption, extortions, and subservience, individuals across Europe found their hearts and minds open to a new expanse of space and autonomy.
With autonomy comes the responsibility to engage, think independently, pursue transformation, purification, forgiveness, awakening.
More self-authorship . . . more stress.
4 Scientific Observation . . . More Stress
Myth, superstition, the occult, ancient texts, or divine decree used to define what we believed was true. With the scientific revolution, all of the sudden, or so it seemed, what was true was defined by what we could observe, measure, and validate by experimentation with consistency. Scientific materialism meant that material, matter, what we could see and touch and prove defined what we could know as true.
It did away with a lot of false, oppressive and limiting beliefs. It empowered us, because now we could all open our eyes and discover so many truths about the world around us.
But now we had to figure it out. We had to decide if the conclusions presented to us as true were indeed verifiable, replicable through observable means.
More creativity, more experimentation, more pressure to see, look, and know what was true.
5 Postmodernity Brought Freedoms & Lost Supports
See the pattern? For all the new freedoms, we as individuals lost so much support. Who or what was going to show us the way? The Queen wasn’t decreeing what we could and couldn’t do. The Priest wasn’t determining our ability to gain salvation. The ancient myths weren’t defining what was true. What could we rely on? How could little old me and you all of the sudden (over five hundred years or so, just a blip in human history) now be mature, sophisticated, and interested enough in determining an intelligent life and way forward? That’s a whole lot of stress not just for one or two people, but for all of us. And no one holds the map….
And you thought it was just that dang cell phone.
6 Technological Superpowers . . . More Stress
We hold an uncanny amount of power in the palm of our hands. What we can do, even little children, was unheard of by the wealthiest rulers of the past. Many of us remember Gene Roddenberry’s prescient vision of a world where we could see an image on a screen of someone/something way far away, and dialogue in real time. Where a tri-corder, (surprisingly similar to the now antique “flip phones”) in the palm of our hand could transmit messages, diagnose disease, and measure subtle changes in the make up of the atmosphere.
It’s powerful, it’s liberating. And . . . it’s stress. Have you found yourself shaking your head wondering how you became your own bank agent, bookkeeper, travel agent, administrative assistant, audio editor, photographer, movie producer, disc jockey, stockbroker without the training, time, or even interest in doing so?
No wonder we feel the stress of so much to do that we can hardly think straight.
And that’s not to mention the constant influx of information and communication to weigh in on, from monitoring breakfast smoothies to workout schedules to weekend parties . . . .
7 Enough Causes . . . Here are Solutions
With the plasticity of structures and rules, identity and paths, we can create our own way forward. A simple and powerful foundation is the re-discovery of time-honored techniques to anchor us in the present. The tools? One we have used since we were first born without even thinking about it. The breath.
Before reading on, close your eyes and locate your in-breath and out-breath. Do this for 5 cycles, without altering your natural rhythm. (Unless you’ve just worked out, you might find that the breath goes more slowly than you might think.)
When you come back to this article, take note of how you feel.
8 Mindfully Focus on the Present
Practicing awareness of the breath is a simple way to ground in the present. It’s hardly a new technique. Siddhartha Gautama (aka the Buddha) used this when he was practicing in the jungles of north India before his awakening. It’s a powerful way to focus on what’s immediate. Surprisingly, what you’ll find is you’ll gain an objective picture of what’s often called the “monkey mind” which swings from limb to limb and tree to tree, grasping after the next shiny object, taunting and heckling us with jests and ridicule. Through mindfulness we discover the mechanical nature of thought, and we discover the particular patterns of our own thought – without getting engaged in any of it. Self-knowledge liberates us to freely choose what we want to pursue and what we want to ignore. All by learning the art and science of following the breath, we can discover a serenity and a control over the thoughts that usually hold us hostage.
9 Connect with Infinite Awareness
Mindfulness doesn’t only give us some space from the mechanical nature of our inner tormentor. It also connects us with direct experience of the presence of that which is always aware. Called the “hard problem” of neuroscience, why we became conscious is a question that, even with all the brain imaging and mapping, hasn’t been answered. Mindfulness won’t answer the question for us, but it will give us an experiential sense of that backdrop of awareness that seems to be ever-present regardless of what we do. Happy or sad, focused or distracted, when we put our attention on awareness, it mysteriously has never been separate from us! Connecting with that which seems to have no beginning and no end creates a lot of space for us, a lot of expansiveness to dissipate the feeling of stress and suffocation.