Timo Volz

Mindfulness is Simple, Life is Complicated

photo by Timo Volz

One consequence of a mindfulness practice is that we begin to understand, on a deeper, level the complexities of life. Beyond the world of sensory pleasures (like enjoying a the smell of the Earth after a spring rain or eating a bowl of rich curry), we don’t tend to like complexity. It’s inconvenient because it takes a lot of work to wrap our minds around complex things. It’s scary because when things are complex enough, we might have to admit we don’t have the answers. And even if we think we have the answers, it’s a lot of hard work to implement solutions to complex problems.

Everything we can experience with the senses, including ourselves, is made up of particles in constant motion and interaction. Some subatomic particles appear to be indefinitely stable across millennia, which means parts of our bodies and everything around us predate our birth and will outlast us. We and everyone we know are made of countless parts interacting with other countless parts. When I think about it like this, life’s inherent complexity seems very clear.

So why then do we crave simplicity? It’s tempting because it caters to our desire for comfort,  convenience, ease, safety and control. If we see things as black and white, all or nothing, this or that, us or them, yes or no, it makes our decisions seem clearer. It tricks us into thinking we can predict outcomes and human behavior. Simple things take a lot less energy, time and resources to understand and sort out. Because of our neurobiology, extreme emotions like fear and rage also tend to make us see things in oversimplified ways.

There are many negative consequences to oversimplification. It places us psychologically between a rock and a hard place, reducing flexibility of thought, options for responding, creativity, and adaptability. When we believe things are simpler than they truly are, we feel no need to consider all the factors such as unique characteristics, history, or context. This makes way for stereotyping and bias – we think we already know even though we don’t have all the information. Deciding before we are well informed often leads to poor choices – simplistic solutions tend to be shallow, short-sighted and short-lived.

Overly simplistic thinking limits our options. If the only possibilities are pass/fail, win/lose, good/bad, then mistakes become unacceptable as they place us squarely in the failure/loser/villain category. Intellectually we know that mistakes are unavoidable in life and necessary for learning. So by ignoring these truths, oversimplification subjects us all to unrealistic standards, harsh judgement, and constructed limitations. It also makes us vulnerable to manipulation. When we think in a binary way, it makes us easier prey for those with an agenda. Black and white thinkers don’t feel the need to do the background research, read the fine print or ask questions, which may cause them to endorse something they would not otherwise support.

A dedicated mindfulness practice can help us awaken to, accept and even embrace the inherent complexity of experience. During mindful movement, we learn to slow down enough to become aware of the intricate interplay of the workings of the body in motion. In stillness meditation, we practice sorting through the symphony of sensory input, body sensations, emotions, thoughts and urges that arise. Over time, a sense of wonder and appreciation may develop as we learn to meet the tangled web of life with greater, patience, courage and wisdom.

Complexity is the prodigy of the world. Simplicity is the sensation of the universe. Behind complexity, there is always simplicity to be revealed. Inside simplicity, there is always complexity to be discovered. – Gang Yu

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