When the mind wanders, happiness also strays

A recent article in the New York Times reports the findings of scientists at Harvard that people are happier when their minds do not wander from what they are doing.

Whatever people were doing, whether it was having sex or reading or shopping, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else. In fact, whether and where their minds wandered was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing.

This is the other side of the coin from the article, Mindfulness is as good as antidepressants.

If we are not able to stay in the here and now, we are naturally not able to enjoy it. And so we miss out on a lot. As John Lennon put it:

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

Mindfulness is the ability to remember what we are doing without forgetting. If you check, when you forget something, it is because you’ve remembered something else — these are called “distractions”, and the job of mindfulness is to overcome distractions.¬† Concentration is the ability to focus single-pointedly on what we are doing. These two qualities of mind enable¬† us to stay in the here and now, and enjoy it, as opposed to missing out on it. Meditation uses both mindfulness and concentration and improves them both very effectively.

Buddha said: “From concentration comes peace of mind.” If we are peaceful, we are happy. People who meditate regularly do so because it makes them happier.

Enjoying, interesting, valuable…

This scientific study shows that we concentrate well on things that we really enjoy. (It also works the other way around, we enjoy the things we concentrate on.) No surprises with sex, it is generally more pleasurable than anything else going on around us at the time, so we are easily able to stay focused on it. Billions of people enjoy TV shows and movies because they draw us in, engage us, please us, such that we resent the distractions (namely the ads). Sport, acting, playing an instrument, art… all these activities have the power to hold our attention if we enjoy doing them more than whatever else is going on.

We also concentrate easily on the things we find interesting or fascinating. A self-described computer geek told me recently that, at work, software problems can keep him absorbed while the hours fly by.

Also, if we perceive something to be valuable or important, we do not find it difficult to keep focused — for example, people in emergency rooms saving others’ lives. Wild horses will not tear them away.

How to meditate well

So to be a good meditator, we need to enjoy our object, find it interesting, and/or find it valuable. In particular, we need to find the object of meditation more enjoyable, interesting and valuable than all the other thoughts that are bound to arise, or those other thoughts will definitely steal our attention.

You know how if you’re engrossed in a conversation, even if you are in a room full of other people talking, although the sound of talking appears to your mind you do not notice it? Whereas if you’re a little bored by your talking companion, you start surreptitiously looking over their shoulder, eventually exclaiming, “Ah, excuse me, there is someone over there I need to talk to.” Its a bit like that.

Before teaching how to do any meditation, Buddha would commonly explain the benefits of doing it. Our breath, for example, may not be sufficiently gripping to hold our attention if we do not know ahead of time how peaceful, relaxed, clear-headed and contented we will become if we simply follow our breath. If we understand the value of what we are doing, we engage in it fully, and concentration comes far more easily.

So because we are more likely to be motivated to stay on our object and not follow distractions if we understand what we are doing and why we are doing it, at the beginning of any meditation it helps to spend a minute or two reminding ourselves.

(To begin a meditation practice, see this article: Meditation: simple, easy instructions for getting started.)

The cycle of lives

The other day I was at a yard sale with my neighbor and friend, more like family actually, searching for stuff for his and his fiance’s new property. There is, ermmm, about 20 years difference between us in age this time around, and this is sometimes obvious. For example, he can solve any computer problem at the speed of light and gets paid handsomely for doing it; but when we drove past several streets with the names “Whitman”, “Chaucer” and “Blake”, his face went blank when I said brightly: “Well, this is a literary area!!”

At the yard sale, he saw one of these zimmer frames and said, cheeky bugger: “Maybe we should get this, you might need it one of these days.”

Revenge was sweet. A few minutes later I saw one of these and said: “Maybe we should get this, you might need it pretty soon.”

This is because my friend, for all we know, could be closer to his next rebirth as a little girl than I am to old age and dodgy knees in this life.