CHARLIE DOWELL: Week 8
I am not usually one for popping goji berries like ecstasy pills or grinding quinoa between my molars to avoid the hunger pangs of fashion.
But there is one aspect of Californian fad culture that has percolated to my wet corner of the British Isles. It is, the quite unhelpfully named, mindfulness.
Mindfulness – or at least my interpretation of a rather woolly idea – is a mental state in which you are completely focussed on the present and what you are doing at a particular moment in time.
It is an emptying of your brain of all distractions leaving you with a lean, clean view. It perhaps is better described as mindlessness, since it is a filtering and emptying process rather than the filling associated with its name.
Such an idea is becoming increasingly popular. Clicking on the bemindful.co.uk website, I am confronted with stats on a stress apocalypse and a video of a softly spoken man describing how our fractured, multitasking, modern day lives have put the survival part of our brain on ‘high alert’. Looking around the college library it is difficult not to agree with the grandfatherly academic: sunken eyes dart from hastily constructed prose on word documents, to phones shuffling inches from key-pads.
Attention spans, they say, are going the way of women’s skirts in the 20th century. Like any new trend it appears to be damaging and must be moderated with antidotes provided where applicable. This simplistic view of the modern, connected Homo sapiens is not entirely correct. In no other time in society have people had the ability to know almost instantaneously the goings on of the world, from distant suicide bombings to the parochial suicide Sundays. We are the most informed generation of people ever. You could say we are the most mindful: educated and free from petty prejudices of race and gender, with an informed view of the world.
However, it seems this form of mindfulness has come at a cost: our wellbeing. Flitting from Facebook like, to the BBC website or that piece of reading you were supposed to be doing is making us stressed. Concern about ourselves, our friends and our degrees is becoming too much.
This triumvirate of interests was there when our parents were our age, but it seems as if we are finding it more difficult to cope with. Stats suggesting an increase in depression in the young, although in some respects unreliable, imply that our qualitative observations are indeed true. Understanding why things are heading downwards is only made possible by analysing what what is different now when compared to thirty or so years ago.
It is undeniable that much has changed, but if I could sum it up in one word I would choose data. The torrential downpour of data has only got stronger during our lifetimes, with online access to the nooks and crannies of our and everybody else’s lives made not just possible but an obsession. The naturally curious human brain revels in the tangents upon tangents present, losing our train of thought in the digital maize. Such a schizophrenic preoccupation is made worse by there being no end to our wanderings, with continuous Buzz Stream feeds, WhatsApp group chats and clips of cats falling over, being the result of a data flood. It seems natural therefore for some degree of kickback from this addiction.
Mindfulness could be the mental methadone we need, with exam term, full of stress and distractions, the best time to try it.
During those months where leaves come out and students stay inside, I always long for an increased attention span. I want to forget everything else apart from my subject and immerse in thoughts, study and memory. However, despite my best efforts, I never feel mindful, only resentful of wasting my time or the pressure of the exams.
Perhaps my conundrum could be solved by careful meditation, switching off all electrical devices or detailed assessment of my subject. Either way, learning to focus and lose sight of the periphery is a skill I desperately long to learn and perhaps one that may come to define me.
This exam term – as Cambridge becomes more bubble-like than ever – learning to focus on the moment and not the future, shutting out the hothouse environment, will be the best way for my, and I hope your, survival.
In the end most people hate work, with even more hating exams. I bet the minority that do revel in this academic exercise are not necessarily the ones that do well, rather the ones that do not care about the result, merely concentrating on what needs to be done.