A stupid typo can lead to many complex thoughts. Here are want to explore the environmental effects on mindfulness. Should spiritual people look like hippies, monks, or samurais? How does a mess affect our thoughts? Which interferences are welcome and which should be avoided?
I want to describe three distinct and different forms of mindfulness as I perceive them. I am not an expert in this area and some of my impressions are anecdotal. For example, I was an employee of Samsung for several years and used to meditate (mostly zen meditation, combined with other practices) for seven years.
The startup where I work was recently visited by Japanese investors. Before their visit, we were instructed to clean up our tables from anything we do not need. All whiteboards were cleaned and the writing utensils accurately placed. All chairs were returned to their places. It took two days to clean the kitchen. The result was shiny, like “out of the box” place. We argued that if an Israeli investor would see it, he would suspect a hoax.
Confusion is a waste of our focus and energy. It often leads to self-doubts. Removing anything that causes confusion, we free up our focus to deal with the things that really need our attention. At least this is the Japanese theory. So why the Israeli reality is so different?
Are Israeli people mindful?
It is easy to see that the Israeli population is not Japanese. We are rarely polite, noisy, and prone to argue. The emotions are rarely hidden and we struggle to speak in turns. We are very creative. Usually, we help each other, but not without an argument about it. We are not very funny, but we love a good joke. Israelis are everywhere because we also love to travel. As far as I see it, the closest to Israelies are probably the Italians.
I claim that Israelis are very spiritual. Some are close to religion and combine praying with mystical practices. Others travel to the far east and learn from all sorts of gurus. And the common calamities the country faces every several years make us very aware of the environmental threats.
We are also very aware of our sensations. Some of the best chefs, designers and entertainers are originally from Israel. We do not practice muda, but we have a very viable alternative.
What do the Koreans learn?
It is very interesting to observe the way Koreans treat Japanese and Israelies. They invite experts from both countries to learn from them. I would say they love Israelies more, but I might be biased. Many Koreans now learn about Israeli culture with a focus on start-up nation. They try to integrate certain Jewish spiritual practices with a profoundly Confucian approach.
Koreans are very mindful in their own way. They have their own ethical and esthetic ideals. The main focus though is on social norms reflecting family relations.
The ugly side
Somehow the Korean ideals are extremely stressful. Overall it appears that Koreans work harder than their peers in other countries, including Japan. They are very competitive. This does not mean they work more effectively. The frustration is evident, especially as suicide and alcoholism.
Japanese do not appear to be stressed, but they are somewhat depressed. This is seen for example, as extreme shyness of young and healthy individuals. Japanese overall do not take many chances and try to play safe, focusing on what they do as well as humanly possible.
Korean and Japanese women do not work, and on average have less than 2 kids which is bad demographically.
Israel is just the opposite, with around 4 kids in a family and women working as hard as men. At the same time, the kids do not get as much parental attention. This results in low school grades. Israelies catch up in universities, often in graduate degrees. With the addition of military service, a long trip to some exotic location, and high housing prices, this means that many Israelis start independent lives in their thirties. Israelis take chances quite a lot, so PTSD is quite common.
Mindfulness to deal with stress
We practice mindfulness to deal with stress and depression. Only we practice it differently.
- Some practice focusing on the clean esthetic and minimalistic environment. This generates sensory joy of shiny order and light.
- Others practice focusing on natural environments or old man-made items. The Japanese sabi wabi ideals are nostalgically beautiful.
- Yet others practice focusing inwards on ideas and sounds, trying to go past the initial appearances. For example, Kabbalistic practices often focus on specific words.
These ways only appear to be different. The focus jumps between the inner world, heartbeat, and breathing and the outside world with its shapes and colors. The balance between these two worlds is one of the elements of mindfulness.
Children and mess
It is not a secret that a house with many children tends to be messy. Each child plays with his own toys and needs to do his own tasks. In the age of Zoom and video blogging, every child has at least one screen and one loudspeaker. My children have up to four of each. And then there are games and hobbies. Like music, skating, and video gaming.
A normal Israeli house is perpetually messy. It is cleaned up when the cleaning lady appears, or where the parents host a party. The next day the house is already upside-down, and it stays this way for about a week.
When Israelies practice mindfulness, they rarely do this at home. They go to some sort of club or forest and practice there. This can be a synagogue, an orange garden, or the desert. The exact location does not matter.
Athletes, artists, dancers, and writers practice mindfulness in action. For example, a swimmer can swim for an hour with very little sensory interactions. In a way, religious prayer is similar since the experience is highly repetitive, and the esthetics very specific to the activity.
A writer can be totally focused on what he writes and at the same time aware of the environment. He has to be because every now and then something will catch his focus. Someone will shout, or something will crash, or someone will cook and the smell will make you hungry.
This is not exactly mindfulness training. It is messy. Yet, the stress is decreased and life satisfaction increased. There is also a deep awareness of kinematics. Because otherwise, it will be impossible to do the job for many hours.
Which way is better?
I do not think that one way is better than the other. What objective criteria can we use?
- Stress reduction
- Dealing with depression
- Integration of senses
- Ability to do productive work
To be honest, the nations that practice mindfulness as a part of the culture are considered to be very successful. They have a strong economy, a culture that spans thousands of years, impressive arts.
Yet these are countries with very high stress. What is the alternative? New Zealanders are not known as practitioners of mindfulness, yet they have low stress, cheerful disposition, a clear affinity with natural beauty, and impressive cinematic presence. Maybe they simply do not need to practice mindfulness. If anything, they practice extreme sports.
Focus on mess
Some Indian subcultures choose to focus on mess of all things. Ritual activities like cremation is not something most mindful cultures value. Yet some adepts find their peace and compassion in the middle of destruction.
Other adepts, like some early Christians, found their peace in the middle of busy and crowded places. Observing the ever-changing moving human crowd refocuses the practitioners inwards. This process is somewhat counter-intuitive yet there are records of practitioners praising its efficiency.
Hippies often focus on a combination of music, nature, and sex and total disrespect to conventional consumerism. Spending their time in manual chores or on the roads, they have a lot of time for mindful practice. Probably this practice is not very effective, but they can have a lot of it.
Can one focus entirely on mess and be mindful?
Let us again consider what mindful practice means. I will describe some common practice, while there are infinite variations.
The practitioner usually takes a certain pose, traditionally a seating pose. He then observes the world around him until he is peaceful with the environment. Next, he focuses on his inner senses: the position of joints, the breathing, and the lungs, the stomach, and gut feelings. Then the focus goes towards the balance between the inner sensations and the outside world, which can be either similar or just the opposite of each other. Eventually, we accept both and connect with the ground itself, which encompasses both worlds. Filled with peace and acceptance we return to our daily activities.
Clearly. this practice is not better or worse than multiple other variations. If you can do it, and enjoy its fruits, you are blessed.
Certain people are not naturally balanced. They are drawn inward or outward too much for conventional practice.
In some of the Indian tantric practices, the practitioner focuses entirely on the dominant sensation, be it obsession by death, sexual pleasure, or magical kundalini activity. Once the dominant sensations are satisfied, the practitioner gets balanced. Only then he can practice the very thing he wants to practice. Often in the middle of doing something else.
In Judaism, the intellect is supposed to be restless. The practitioner focuses on the meaning of a text or some philosophical argument. His mind gets tired from mutually exclusive argumentation. And only then the practitioner focuses on the perfection of the creation, quite often chanting a text guiding the experience.
Being balanced or being greatly unbalanced we still can find our piece in a mindful practice of a sort. And if you are truly blessed, you will not even need to practice mindfulness.