T H O U G H T  P R O V O C A T E U R S


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Mindful Living
Garrett Heaney


Humans 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 common 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.

Given 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.

Every 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.

We 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.

This 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.

We 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 their job?

Humans, 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.


Mindfulness 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.

One 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.

Free 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 profound "enlightenment."

I 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.

Viewed 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.

This 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.

Just 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 world.

It 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.

When 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.

The 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.


Communication 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.

Some 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.

Now 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 to experience.

What 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.

While 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.

Accumulating 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.

We 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.

Continually living in this way, as curious beings, we can accumulate the experience and knowledge necessary to become wise to our role in the world.

Garrett 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].

The original version of this essay appeared in
Wishtank: Journal of Intellectual Freedom



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