Mental healthMindfulness

Mindfulness, purpose and the answers in the silence

“The world is too noisy and distracted to probably ultimately survive. Everyone needs to shut […] up. The answers are in the silence. Monks set themselves on fire to protest and to make this point. Just consider it.”

― Garry Shandling

Anxiety and thoughts

The modern world is quite a mess. Our great-great-grandparents, hunting and dying in all sorts of violent ways in the forest, lived quite a stressful life, but the dangers it provided were simple – hunger, tigers, lions, other humans with spears. They survived (or more often – they didn’t), but at least they could take a break in the evening when all the natural selection was over and cool off. In contrast, today we no longer need to survive. We are well informed, well-fed and well-dressed all the time. We can read our very own genetic code, from start to finish, we know what species our ancestors mated with and how much genetic similarities we share with a banana. It’s 60% [1]. We have explored so much of our planet, we have been to the moon, we have laws protecting us from humans with spears (effective most of the time). And all of that, instead of being deeply consoling and calming, instead of providing us with sufficient knowledge and self-esteem to better face the future adversities of mankind – has turned out to be maddening. 

The 4 challenges of modern humans

Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has defined 4 major issues that burden the psyche of the modern human being.

1. Distractibility
In 2010 a paper for Science magazine called “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind” [2] showed, that the average American adult spends more than 47% of his daily activities with his mind elsewhere. It also turns out that people are generally less satisfied with what they’re doing if they are thinking about other stuff, regardless of the activity itself. And the thoughts themselves, not the activity, have a stronger impact on this satisfaction. 

2. Loneliness
We are also quite lonely. “76% of middle-aged Americans report moderate to high levels of loneliness [3]” points out Davidson. Loneliness plays an evolutionary role [4] in so far as it promotes reestablishing connection and healthy interaction between members of social groups. It feels awful to be an outcast because you cannot survive alone in the forest. But in the same way our taste buds are more sensitive to bitter rather than sweet, for bitter poisons are deadly in small quantities, whereas carbohydrate-rich sweet foods are needed in plentiful amounts, [5] – we are much more sensitive to negative social interaction. This creates a vicious circle since while feeling disconnected we start further avoiding social contact. This could have been beneficial in hostile environments in the past (it’s better to avoid potentially dangerous humans with spears you are not related to) but today it merely reinforces disconnection. In our distracted busy modern lives, we interact with lots of people all the time while lacking the mental and temporal resource to bring these interactions to a fulfilling degree of intimacy [6]. Instead we interact on a superficial, task-oriented level and people around us rarely feel like they are on our side. We might hence feel lonely while surrounded with lots of people and another vicious circle emerges for we become more self-focused and even less likely to invest effort in building meaningful connections [7]. And this is pretty bad because living in a state of loneliness equals the health impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day [8].

3. Negative self-talk
Following up on the mind-wandering study, Giulia L. Poerio from the Department of psychology at the University of Sheffield [9] found out, that participants were more likely to remember negative experiences from the past, as their mood worsened. Another study from 2013 [10] further fleshed out that our negative thoughts are drawn further and further towards the past, successfully generating negative mental content in the present. But depressive past oriented mind-wandering also leads to anxious future oriented mind-wandering. Negatively reminiscing about the past thus inspires a downward spiral of mind-wandering, which discourages us from the future, makes us lose perspective and distorts the present, where we ultimately exist. 
Some people are more prone to such frustration – people higher in neuroticism seem to dwell longer on negative past-events, for example reenacting arguments long after they took place, thus simulating the situation in an attempt to better control it next time [11].

4. Depression, loss of meaning and suicide
A 2019 study [12] showed a near double increase in all-cause mortality among American seniors over 60 who reported lacking purpose in their lives. Rates of depression have risen with 33% among American adults just between 2013 and 2016 and with 63% among teenagers [13]. Suicide rates which have been falling ever since the Great depression are again sky rocketing. Something must be going on. 
In his book on suicide during the Industrial revolution, French philosopher Émile Durkheim wrote “…people were increasingly disconnected from their communities and this social upheaval had a greater effect on suicide rates than other factors like wealth…”. It seems that there’s a strong discrepancy between the lifestyle we evolved for and the lifestyle of modern man which began at the time [14].
Being stuck in an office, unable to observe the end-results of our labor, interacting with our peers in a superficial and often hostile and competitive manner, steering blindly among the chaos of social media, advertisement, news, political views and celebrity gossip, torn between honoring tradition and trying to keep up with modern trends, we cannot help but feel lost. The obvious contradiction between our inborn human desire to help others and the constant pressure for self-development and individual growth manifests itself most often at a dinner party, where our career as an elementary school teacher might prove to be quite unimpressive next to that of a “project manager” with a five figure salary, despite the struggle of the latter to explain exactly what his job consists of. “The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of evil.” said Albert Einstein in 1949. But that’s not all. In the face of adversity our ancestors could at least blame their gods. It was an enraged Zeus that sent storms our way, killing all our crops and sentencing us to famine, it was God who tested our faith with illness and child mortality. Durkheim observed that in non-religious secular societies like our own, societies where “God is dead” as Nietzsche phrased it, the individual now carries alone the burden of giving his life meaning and suffering the consequences of his actions. In other words – it is our own fault if we are failing. Despite It’s many flaws religion did at least contribute to inspiring a sense of common purpose and giving meaning to human existence [15]. But this is now gone.
When we also consider our bad dietary habits, rising levels of obesity, chronic lack of exercise and sleep [16] it is no wonder that we might consider taking a long, long break from the entire mess – a well-deserved damnation-vacation.

Training our minds

In 1992 Richard Davidson met the Dalai Lama and after showing him all his neuropsychological research, the Dalai Lama had one simple question – “You have used tools of modern neuroscience to study anxiety, depression and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?

This was a wake-up call for Davidson. Today, he and his team define “4 major pillars” upon which we could build a better life for ourselves. Through awareness, or mindfulness, we could become more observant of our thoughts and feelings. We could escape the vicious circles of obsession by simply recognizing what our minds are doing and understanding that mind-wandering is a naturally occurring phenomenon that distracts us and ruins our mood. Despite serving some benefits, for example It could contribute to creativity and problem-solving [17], at a certain point we just need to break the cycle and focus on what is going on around us. As mindfulness advocate Ruby Wax eloquently put it “Your brain is designed to keep you alive. It doesn’t give a shit about your happiness.” 
Through connection we can aspire to reignite our bonds to our fellow human beings and our sense of common purpose. But we do need to train our minds in that direction. A research from 2013 [18] showed however, that 2 weeks of “compassion training” in which participants were asked to actively imagine a loved one, his suffering and how they could help, and then progress towards imagining the suffering of all mankind – participants scored higher on compassion oriented tests and more strikingly – MRI scans showed changes in right inferior parietal cortex activity. Another study [19] showed that reading literature made us better at “reading minds”, that is, better at grasping the thoughts and feelings of others. As writer David Foster Wallace put it “I don’t know what’s going on in your mind right now… but when I’m reading something that’s good and that’s real, I’m able to jump over that wall of self and inhabit somebody else in a way that I can’t in regular life. And when I do that, when I do inhabit that other person, very often what they’re thinking or saying or feeling are things very much the way I do” [20]. Surely, we will never completely understand each other. On his dying bed Goethe is famous for saying – “No one has ever properly understood me, I have never fully understood anyone; and no one understands anyone else.” But we can get much better at getting along. 
Through insight and contemplation, though reading science and philosophy and integrating what we learn in our thoughts, we could change the story we tell of our lives and redefine it more objectively. In just 3 minutes a day, advises Davidson, during our morning jog or while enjoying our cup of coffee, sober active thinking could be as meditative as any trip in the autumn countryside. As swizz-born British philosopher Alain de Botton emphasizes – “There’s no such thing as too much thinking. Just wrong ways of thinking.” What is striking is that after only 8 hours of meditation an altered epigenetic profile was observed in genes, related to depression and inflammatory processes in human leukocytes. [20]

And finally, through purpose, we could set the grand narrative of our human existence. 


French philosopher Albert Camus is probably most famous for the following – “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” It is no easy task to find purpose in our secular modern world. Just as our financial shortcomings, our careers and our love lives – we carry the burden of figuring it out ourselves. But this doesn’t mean that we are alone. Each one of us with the unique and beautiful peculiarities of his own life, is born, has a childhood, plays, laughs, grows up, loves, suffers, cries, remembers, asks questions and is denied clear answers. Each one of us learns about his human past and all those who died before him and wonders about the future and the stars and what is yet to come. We all do, in the end, share this experience as a species and we can help each other in making this experience better. And more pleasant.  And kinder. 

For the first time in human history, we are largely unburdened by disease, the threat of worldwide military conflict and religious dogma. Our moment in history witnesses the least amount of violence mankind has ever been subjected to – “We are getting smarter, and as a result the world is becoming a more peaceful place” says sociologist Steven Pinker for Nature magazine [21]. 
For the first time in human history we are free to experience life as individuals. Alone. This carries the burden of feeling lost and lonely but it also gives us the freedom to transcend our loneliness and connect to others willingly, not being forced by a brutal dictator or religion. We can help each other just for the sake of building a better world together. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. Self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.” wrote Viktor Frankl, a German psychologist, who was put in a concentration camp during World war II. We can travel. We can go to the beach. We can watch a movie. We can watch the sunset. We can fall in love. Each of us on his own, but together in our freedom to build a unique sense of purpose and together on our absurd and meaningless and ultimately beautiful human journey among the stars. All it takes is practice, patience and the ability to be quiet for a second and observe what‘s going on around us and in our heads. British philosopher Allan Watts is famous for ending his lectures on the nature of reality, by saying that “A person who thinks all the time, has nothing to think about except thoughts. So he loses touch with reality. Reality isn’t talking or thinking about reality… reality is” and then he hits a huge chinese gong with a stick, lets the sound reverberate…
and shuts up. 

Lyubomir Manolov – Medical University, Sofia

[1] How Genetically Related Are We to Bananas?

[2] A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind

 [3] High prevalence and adverse health effects of loneliness in community-dwelling adults across the lifespan: role of wisdom as a protective factor

[4] Evolutionary Mechanisms for Loneliness

[5] Taste Perception in Humans
Neuroscience. 2nd edition.

[6] Exploring variation in active network size: Constraints and ego characteristics

[7] Feeling lonely when not socially isolated: Social isolation moderates the association between loneliness and daily social interaction

[8] Loneliness: A disease?

[9] Mind-wandering and negative mood: Does one thing really lead to another?

[10] Imprisoned by the past: Unhappy moods lead to a retrospective bias to mind wandering

[11] The functions of internal dialogs and their connection with personality

[12] Association Between Life Purpose and Mortality Among US Adults Older Than 50 Years

[13]  Major Depression: The Impact on Overall Health

[14] Evolution and public health

[15] Secularism and well-being

[16] Depression as a disease of modernity: explanations for increasing prevalence

[17] Mind wandering in creative problem-solving: Relationships with divergent thinking and mental health

[18] Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering

[19] Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind

[20] David Foster Wallace unedited interview (2003) – ZDF

[21] HDAC inhibitors: modulating leukocyte differentiation, survival, proliferation and inflammation

[22] Taming the devil within us

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