The Truth About Mindfulness
A Zen expert explains why mindfulness isn’t supposed to be blissful or easy and an easy way to be more mindful.
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I’m traveling internationally this week with limited access to internet. There will be no audio read by me this week (but you can still use the Substack AI audio).
Around the launch of Scarcity Brain, a writer named Alex Tzelnic reached out to me.
Alex has been practicing Zen for more than 20 years. He’s a mindfulness expert and writes about the topic for various magazines. He wanted to speak to me for an article in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.
Tricycle is a nonsectarian Buddhist quarterly that publishes Buddhist teachings, practices, and critiques. It’s arguably the most influential publication in Buddhism and mindfulness.
I was surprised that a writer from Tricycle would want to talk to me about my books. But there is, apparently, quite a connection between the ideas in my books and those embedded in Buddhism and mindfulness.
Today’s post contains two parts:
I asked Alex to explain a) how The Comfort Crisis and Scarcity Brain relate to mindfulness and Buddhism, and b) how mindfulness practices can help you live and think better. He makes some wonderful points about mindfulness.
My answers to Alex’s questions about Scarcity Brain. We touch on:
The evolutionary roots of craving and overconsumption.
How The Hawthorne Effect is the first step to changing a bad habit.
What behavior hurts humans the most.
How to balance making progress with mindlessly “doing more.”
How to flip bad habits into better, more meaningful work.
Some possible downsides of the popularity of mindfulness.
How I get out of cycles of craving.
Let’s roll …
Part one: Michael Asks Alex How The Comfort Crisis and Scarcity Brain relate to Buddhism
Michael: Why did you want to cover The Comfort Crisis and Scarcity Brain in Tricycle?
Summary of Answer
The Comfort Crisis can help mindfulness practitioners realize that mindfulness isn’t supposed to be bliss. Scarcity Brain aligns with ancient Buddhist ideas laid out in the Four Noble Truths.
Alex: As a staunch believer in the power of being present, I've occasionally been frustrated by the messaging around mindfulness.
Too often it is portrayed as a blissful practice of ease and joy, and when people attempt to practice and don't experience those things, frustration arises and they chalk mindfulness up as “not for them.”
The reality is that just sitting with your mind and body can be grueling and uncomfortable (and joyful too!). I think embracing the challenge in that kind of activity might help people understand what they are getting into.
The Comfort Crisis so deftly explicated the idea that perhaps we should be leaning into discomfort and not away from it. So many of the messages from that book—like the concept of problem creep, and the power of putting away distractions and allowing whatever comes up to come up—echo lessons mindfulness practitioners have been learning for millennia.
If that wasn't overlap enough, you followed that up with Scarcity Brain, which brings modern psychology and science to one of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhist practice: that craving is the source of suffering.
The fact that we are hardwired to want and can recognize and release this pattern is one of the reasons people meditate. It was fascinating to learn what research reveals about scarcity loops, and affirms for so many in the mindfulness space that underpinning the elegance and simplicity of this practice is an unwiring of the neural mechanisms that often lead to suffering.
Michael: How can mindfulness practices help people live better?
Summary of answer
Realizing you don’t have to “turn off” your mind can be a key to realizing you have more choices on responding moment to moment.
Alex: As a Mindfulness Director, one of the things that I frequently hear from people is that they tried to meditate but couldn't turn off their minds. I love shifting the narrative around mindfulness and helping people realize that they don't have to.
Simply attending to whatever arises and noticing the way the brain and body are interconnected can create a little spaciousness, and a little spaciousness can go a long way towards helping us recognize the choices we have from moment to moment.
I also like to dispel the notion that mindfulness has to be a seated and still activity. I do think intentionality counts. But if one brings awareness to whatever they are doing, they tend to do it more completely and enjoy it more (don't take my word for it, trust the researchers from Harvard).
Everyone has a different gateway to practice, so start small and find the thing in your life that you feel you can attend to more completely. Once curiosity and wonder are stoked, I think the nuances revealed through sitting still will be more appealing, and can deepen one's ability to pay attention.
Part Two: Alex Asks Michael About Scarcity Brain
(Note: here’s the original Tricycle article)
Alex: You write, “Decades of research have found that many of our biggest problems—at both the personal and societal levels—come from our modern ability to easily fulfill our ancient desire for more.” How can taking the long view and recognizing our biological context positively impact our everyday actions?
Humans evolved to crave and consume excessively. Realizing this can help alleviate some guilt around your bad habits and allow you to begin fixing them.
Michael: We have drives that used to serve us in the past but oftentimes no longer do. Or, rather, they push us into “too much.”
Understanding why we tend to overeat, overbuy, or overscroll can lift some guilt—you’re not a bad or lazy person. Rather, you’re doing what our species has always done. But we’re now on a different playing field.
I think becoming aware of the evolutionary origins of most cravings and excesses can alleviate guilt and start to help you understand the issue. Even just developing awareness of a behavior often changes it (a phenomenon known as “the Hawthorne effect”).
In other words, once you learn how the machine works, you can better decide how, and if, you want to use the machine.
I now understand why I fall into scarcity loops of, say, checking social media and reading emails. Realizing that this is just my brain playing an ancient game that doesn’t always make sense, applied to the current context, lifts some guilt and helps me spend my time elsewhere.
This ancient game evolved to keep us alive. For example, finding food falls into the scarcity loop. Hunting and gathering is a random rewards game that we had to play to survive in the past. A psychological researcher I spoke with explained that this likely explains why unpredictable rewards are still today more attention-getting to us than predictable rewards.
Alex: Your book details the many arenas in which our rampant desire has become destructive, from drug abuse to our relationship with food to consumerism. What is the most concerning example of scarcity brain in contemporary society, and is there any reason to be hopeful?
The most concerning example of scarcity brain is whatever bad habit is impacting you, the reader, most right now. Fix yourself and you can fix the world.
Michael: It depends on how you want to measure it and how you calculate it. For example, if you went with what most shortens lives, it would likely be food. If you went with sheer emotional destructiveness (i.e., impact rather than range), it might be drug addiction. Really, I don’t think anyone knows.
So my answer is this: the worst rampant desire is the rampant desire that’s hurting you, the person reading this. Most people have some habit that impacts them negatively. Beginning to get to the root of that can change your experience of life and lead you to live it better.
Alex: What would you say to those who would argue that progress, innovation, and affluence have all arisen thanks to our voracious appetites?
My work highlights what I call “good problems.” These problems are the result of progress.
Michael: It’s totally true. I consider the problems I’m pointing out in my book “good problems.” I’d prefer to have to think about not eating too much rather than not getting enough.
But whether a voracious appetite is good or bad depends on context. For an underweight person: good! For a morbidly obese person: bad!
So I think, in a way, we’ve hit a point where many of our advances clash with our evolutionary drives in a way that can lead us into trouble. This goes back to the mismatch theory. Abundance is great, but it has led to its own set of problems.
Alex: You write, “Permanent and lasting satisfaction lies in finding enough.” But we seem to keep moving the goalposts on what “enough” entails. If we are wired to always want more, how can we accurately determine what is enough?
“Enough” shifts across our lifespan. Finding richer, more engaging ways to spend your time can diminish cravings and bad habits.
Michael: I think “enough” will always be shifting based on our experience. The book mostly asks people to understand where we are now and to do the tough work that will help them find what enough is for them—which could be constantly changing across a life span. I wish I had exactitudes, but life doesn’t work like that.
In the context of today, most of what improves humans isn’t easy. It’s usually somewhat challenging, at least in the short term. But it gives us long-term rewards.
So the tough work is unpacking why you have a certain behavior in the first place, then taking action to change it.
I don’t believe humans do anything that doesn’t benefit them somehow, but our tendency is to choose short-term rewards over long-term growth. And, in fact, choosing short-term rewards can often hurt us in the long run. So getting out of that cycle is challenging.
For me, “enough” is simply feeling more engaged and focused on longer-term goals I deem more meaningful. I think that many of the times where we crave more—excess food, another purchase, checking and rechecking social media or email—we’re simply finding a quick relief from something else like frustration or boredom.
I’m not saying to avoid buying, snacking, or using social media. But I do think overdoing them is often a symptom. Getting more engaged in something big and meaningful transitions our attention to longer-term rewards and makes us less likely to crave and consume in ways we regret.
It’s taking a “gear not stuff” mindset and applying it across the board. For example, I’ve found when I’m most engaged in writing, my social media usage goes down, I don’t snack just to snack, and I don’t buy crap I don’t need.
Alex: You write, “We seem to believe our internal and external conditions will be perfect and that we’ll be able to finally ‘arrive’ and rest once we fulfill our next want. This is a delusion.” Do you see the practice of mindfulness as a potentially useful tool for recognizing this delusion and responding to scarcity brain?
I don’t think mindfulness is “The” answer, but I think it can help many people and is worth trying. Figuring out whatevery works for you takes a lot of trying.
Michael: Yes! I think mindfulness can absolutely help people recognize the nature of the beast. I don’t think it’s the only path, but it’s a time-tested one, with new research confirming some benefits.
I do think we’re in a phase of discourse and research where mindfulness has become a sort of “answer for everything.”
I don’t think it’s going to work for every person, for a variety of reasons that may be cultural, social, or biological. People should try mindfulness and whatever else they think might help them in order to find something that works.
Michael: Your time at the Benedictine monastery revealed the link between contemplation and contentment. Aside from donning robes and taking monk vows ourselves, how can we tap into that quietude on a daily basis?
Find a way to get out of yourself. Realize it won’t be easy.
Michael: (Tricycle readers), I imagine, would do well with meditation. In addition, time in nature is helpful (that’s what helps me most).
For others, it might be traditional prayer. Or helping others. Effectively, asking the question, “How can I get out of myself?”
Meditation asks us to do that by contemplating what the “self” even is. Time in nature shows us that we’re part of something much larger—it inspires awe and helps us build perspective by making us realize how small our selves really are. Helping others gets us out of our own selves and leads to deeper rewards and satisfaction than, say, buying something on Amazon.
Really, my message is just find whatever way of getting out of yourself gives you benefits. Try it all. Know that trying isn’t always going to be easy. As you see what works, continue with what resonates with you.
Alex: What have you found to be the most effective tool for fixing the craving mindset in your own life?
Doing work that helps others.
Michael: Taking on experiences that build perspective and help others.
My work forces me to travel into austere environments. Those are very perspective-giving. I then try to translate those travels and ensuing research around what they mean in the “big picture” into something that I hope can help others.
I get a lot of great messages from readers that remind me why I do the things I do, which helps me keep my eye on the right ball. My experiences have made me really appreciative of what I have.
Have fun, don’t die, be mindful.
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