host the single most developed pieces of cognitive equipment on
the planet (i.e. our brains). Why then, do so few know how to
operate this equipment to its potential? I'm not taking a shot
at the human race, or insinuating something faulty like "we
only use 10% of our brain" — this is one among many
misconceptions about the brain — I'm posing a very real
question, as to why the majority of Earth's population fails to
live up to its potential, given the advanced nature of our minds.
my experience, growing up in America, I suspect the answer lies
in the design of our culture, and its reliance on structure. Structure
is so embedded into our culture, that it has compromised our ability
to make meaningful decisions in any sort of daily continuity.
Let me state, before we continue, that this is a generalization,
and is in no way true for all humans. There are truly independent
thinkers, artists and genius types in this world who maintain
control of their minds. They are either too intelligent, or too
wild in nature, to have forfeited their autonomy for the gentler,
more automated existence. But, these humans are a minority, and
far outnumbered by a more common class of human who opt into a
culture of ease and convenience.
morning we wake up and immediately have decisions to make. Every
action we make — whether we realize it or not — from
getting out of bed in the morning or crawling back into it at
night, is the result of a mental decision. But how aware are we
of these decisions? It seems that most of these decisions have
become routine, and are made with little thought or contemplation.
At face value, this might seem efficient, or even favorable —
humans have refined their routines enough so that they are able
to cruise through their day with very little effort. But in so
doing, we have developed a lifestyle that requires very little
thought, or mindfulness of our actions.
are introduced to structured environments early in life. We can
look as early as preschool or kindergarten and begin to see where
our brains are relieved of, or even denied, decision-making responsibility.
Most of us go to school at age five, and enter a classroom where
every minute of our time is pre-determined and scheduled for us.
We learn to read from 8:00 to 9:00, to count from 9:00-10:00,
eat snacks from 10:00-10:30, draw from 10:30-11:30, and on, and
on. Rather than learning to navigate our own time, we are trained
to be passengers, always relying on someone else to determine
the course of our day. When a student makes a decision that he
doesn't want to finger paint from noon to 12:30, while the rest
of the kids are, it is labeled "acting out." Just examine
that label — acting out. Acting out of what? Outside of
the group? At an early age, we are taught that taking control
of decision making is not acceptable, that we must adhere to the
decisions and courses that are laid out for us.
essay isn't about education, though, for a more thorough assessment
of the public education system, read the essay "From
Schools to Learning Communities," by Dr. Ron Miller.
What I want to examine here is the bigger picture, the results
of growing up in such a highly structured culture.
leave the classroom and enter the work force and it's the same
thing: wake up, take a shower, eat toast, drink coffee, drive
to work, work, come home, eat dinner, go to bed and do it all
again tomorrow. This is the typical day for the majority of adults
in our society who aren't filthy rich or homeless — which
is fine, people have to work, but how many people, if given the
choice to do their job, or something else everyday, would choose
far more often than not, float in a current rather than swim.
Swimming takes work, a lot of work, and when there is a strong
current behind you, it is far easier to go with it, than to swim
against it. This analogy, again, is not true for the entire race
of humans — truly successful people out there have recognized
the current for what it was, and realized that they could overcome
it with a lot of hard work. Mastering our minds and making purposeful
decisions leads us not only out of the current but out of the
water entirely. Boats are being built everyday by people who understand
the sea and the best way to navigate it.
is a broad term, and as such, carries with it many meanings. For
the sake of this article, mindfulness represents a continual,
lasting mental awareness of the thought, speech, intent and action
that makes up our existence.
of the most beautiful, and most basic, features of the human brain,
is that it is capable of free will — the ability to guide
the course of our days and our lives through personal choice and
decision making. If I have learned anything during my time on
Earth, it is to practice this free will as purposefully as possible.
will is, at the very core, what makes us human — and to
progress as humans we need to exercise our free will wisely. Now,
wisely... or wisdom... is quite a broad term as well, and there
are as many definitions of wisdom as there are lessons on how
to achieve it. Personally, I think many schools of thought make
wisdom far too complicated. Many consider wisdom a destination,
a mental accomplishment that is reached only after a long and
well-understood life. Some believe wisdom is the key to a more
believe wisdom can be more simple. Wisdom begins when one is able
to recognize, without a doubt, his place in the world. Wisdom
appears when all the chaos and distraction clears, and we are
able to focus, with single-mindedness and peace, on whatever is
truly meaningful to us. To progress as humans, we can learn to
exercise our free will in a way that is unanimous with our personal
wisdom of what is meaningful and valuable.
in this light, wisdom is something that needs to be sought. The
question now becomes: How do we seek wisdom? — i.e. how
do we discover what is truly meaningful to us? Some point to internal
meditation — and this isn't bad advice, meditation is an
important practice for strengthening our minds — but I believe
the quest for wisdom begins outside of ourselves. We can look
externally, into the outside world, to find wisdom.
may seem a radical concept, but it is perfectly logical that we
cannot know our place in the world until we gain a proper understanding
of it. The only way I have found to learn about the world, is
through observation, investigation and engagement with it. This
is where mindfulness becomes truly valuable to us — when
we enter the outside world, we can monitor how our minds engage
with the information that is presented to our senses.
as our minds are blessed with free will, we are also graced with
the emotion of curiosity.
Our curiosity is a natural emotion that we have from the day we
are born. It is, more than anything, an internal compass, directing
our attention towards that which is interesting to us, and to
that which may become meaningful in our lives. I emphasize
the word may because the nature of our curiosity is not
absolute. That is, it is not such a refined search that it hits
100% of the time. There will be empty leads, but our accuracy
will improve as we grow more in tune with our sense of curiosity.
It's a continual learning experience and we become more knowledgeable
of our personal nature as we take notice of our interests in the
is important to reconnect with our emotion of curiosity, to embrace
it and allow it to guide our interests. There is a lot of stress
when we look out at the world and the overwhelming amount of information
and matter out there. We can't possibly take it ALL in, and many
of us develop a sense of fear, or anxiety over investing our energy
into "the wrong thing." This mentality is troublesome,
for sure, and one that we should work to overcome. We should recognize
that our personal curiosity is not only valid but exceptional,
as it comes from within the only mind that we really have an obligation
to satisfy — one's own. We can trust that our own mind,
and our own curiosity, will educate and improve us better than
anyone else's could.
we embrace our curiosity, we allow it to bring us into contact
with the elements of the world from which our minds will best
benefit. When we recognize that our curiosity has served us, and
we cross paths with matter that interests us, we owe it to ourselves
to learn more about this matter. That is the driving force of
curiosity, it gives us the cues to dig deeper. This is where engagement
with the outside world takes place. This is where mindfulness
brings us outside our minds so that we can learn from the world.
ways that we go about learning and interacting are endless. By
being mindful though, we take on the responsibility of action.
We can not progress or educate ourselves in a meaningful way if
we simply observe and never act. We must take action in one form
or another in order to create a bond between the attractive elements
of the world and our own experience.
is the most useful process I have found for humans to become more
knowledgeable. From very early ages we begin to learn language
and verbal skills necessary to communicate with the world. As
we grow, we refine these skills and begin communicating on deeper
levels with friends, family, teachers and classmates. We gain
a comfort level with a familiar circle of humans and most of our
communication happens within this circle. As we go through life,
this circle changes, people fall out of it... it grows... but
one thing remains: the familiarity. Somewhere along the way we
develop a fear, or at the very least an apprehension of the unknown.
people "don't talk to strangers," for so long as children,
that they develop an unconscious fear of them as young adults,
and this causes a degree of anxiety towards the people in the
outside world, beyond their familiar circles.
don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that having a close surrounding
of friends and family is a bad thing. I communicate with my tribe
everyday and it helps me grow in ways that I am truly blessed
is important though, is to outgrow this fear of the unknown. In
order to shape our existence, and progress, we need to develop
an inner peacefulness about the world, and the easiness to communicate
with the external circles surrounding the objects of our curiosity.
this form of communication may not come easily, it is a faculty
that can be developed to transform our lives. By overcoming our
angst and initiating communication around an object that attracts
our attention, we have bridged the gap between an internal cue
(our curiosity) and the external world — that which makes
up our conscious experience. We can open the door to receive feedback
about this object, which will in turn make us wiser to it.
and assembling knowledge in this way, we will understand an object's
meaning to the world, and its personal meaning within our lives.
We will begin to form connections. Remember, it was our unique
and personal curiosity that brought us to this object, so there
is a unique and personal connection we will have with it.
can't ignore the value of communication in forming bonds, and
expanding our circles — networks if you will. With an openness
about communication, and a confidence that our curiosity is worthy
of expression, we will begin to form bonds with other humans and
networks who share our view of what is valuable. With every act
of communication, we give our circle, network and community an
opportunity to grow in a meaningful way — our lives improve.
This is truly valuable when we consider our goal: to progress
as humans through mindfulness.
living in this way, as curious beings, we can accumulate the experience
and knowledge necessary to become wise to our role in the world.
Heaney is from the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. He has been
a professional editor for the past five years and launched a
magazine by the name of Wishtank
in May of 2007. He is also an independent publisher. As such,
he invests energy as an editor, author and designer to projects
that benefit the population of Planet Earth, or the planet,
Earth, itself. Garrett can be contacted via email at [email protected]
original version of this essay appeared in
of Intellectual Freedom