Last week while running a training event at Google and AirBnB I made a prediction. In the coming decade, what we are going to most struggle with in the Western world, the thing that will be most evident (if it isn’t already) is our lack of general awareness in everyday life. I don’t mean focus that leads to concentration. It is clear that given something a person values to do (even if it is some silly game with no real point), that people can, if needed focus intently on the task at hand. Focus then can be defined as the act of concentrating your interest or activity on something. In this respect, in order to concentrate on one thing you must, by default, ignore many other things. And this is where I think the real issue lies.
It seems to me, when people don’t have something they must focus on, or are told to focus on, they are completely distracted by default. Have you tried walking through a mall in Singapore lately? It’s like running an obstacle race. People are there, but they are not very aware of their surroundings. In fact, it does seem that no one else exists but themselves. Conscientiousness of one’s behaviour and how it may impact other people in social environments seem to have been lost (nowhere is this more evident than in emerging economies who are racing to be like everyone else in the West). Everyone seems to be on their own mission, lost in their own world. There is a likely a multitude of reasons for this.
The Reasons for Our General Distractions
People spend so much time in the virtual world of the internet, that real in the flesh experiences have become lost in-between virtual reality. I mean, just look at how people can’t even enjoy a walk down the street in the fresh spring air, without being completely connected to their phones. The push towards individualism too, at all costs, breeds a competitive state of being that has a tendency to exclude other people, especially strangers. As one high level security expert told me at dinner last week, “If there ever is a crisis in Singapore, don’t expect Singaporean’s to stop and help you, they will all be trying to save themselves.” If that’s true, its very sad, but I don’t believe it is unique to Singapore. Inject any other Western countries name into that space, and I believe the outcome would be similar.
As a security expert myself, it concerns me too, that people’s lack of general awareness seems to be disappearing. Unlike focus that is a concentrated effort on an interest or activity, which requires concentrating on one thing, to the exclusion of others — a general sense of awareness is an open attention to everything in the outside world, including oneself. Something a person absolutely needs in order to remain safe. One can quit easily see how the ability to be generally aware by its very nature is increasingly becoming difficult, as it does seem that everything (especially those pesky marketers) are always vying for a piece of our attentional real estate. Instead of tuning in, we seem to be tuning out, even in simply walking down the street.
People Are Scrambling to Be Mindful, But It May Not Me Why You Think
I am not surprised then by the global rise of mindfulness practice in the West. Most put it down to people wanting to find a more productive way to manage their stress, but I think, as people feel more and more disconnected from themselves, and by default the world, mindfulness has offered a way for people to become more in-tune with their awareness of the world and themselves in it. I think people miss that deep connection. In other words, the paradox of how the Western world is going, we have become disembodied in a world that requires an embodied nature to be truly happy.
No matter if you want to be truly happy, or keep yourself safe in unpredictable environments, it requires an open attention to the world you find yourself in. This is why I believe mindfulness is an important tool to cultivate no matter if you are walking down the dangerous streets of Lahore, Pakistan, or craving the need to feel more connected to the planet you live in. Mindfulness allows you to expand your attentional field.
As I noted to one participant of my mindfulness-in-action workshop at Google, by being more mindful you are more in-tune with your intuition. From a safety stand point, intuition, by which I mean, your ability to trust your evolutionary embodied system to pick up subtle clues in the environment which is simply not possible if you are distracted — awakens. Most people think of intuition as some kind of mystical energy system reserved for those irrational among us. But at least as I define it, intuition is really the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning. In my experience the only way to achieve this is by being more mindfully present.
What Is Mindfulness?
There are many operational definitions of mindfulness. John Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment”. This paying attention to experience moment to moment, as Dane (2011) points out, centres on both internal and external events in our perceptual field. In other words, it encompasses all the factors of experience of which a person is conscious at a given time (Brown et al., 2007). On the other hand, Langer (2002) defines mindfulness as “a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context,” compared to a state of mindlessness where we “act according to the sense our behaviour made in the past, rather than the present … we are stuck in a single, rigid perspective and we are oblivious to alternative ways of knowing” (p. 220). In other words, to be mindless is to ruminate on the past, or be focused on the future. When this happens one is considered to no longer be mindful (Brown and Ryan, 2003).
If I return for a moment to what I noted earlier in this article, people these days are in a general sense distracted all of the time. This constant distraction, not only removes a person from immediate experience, but in addition, makes them less generally aware of both environment, and other people. In other words, they no longer have much ‘experience’ with the present moment. The paradox really is this, that to have a general sense of awareness, requires a person to be open to experiences as they arise. If one can then do that, and not judge those experiences both internally and externally, you are then able to be more intuitive to context. Which, in my mind, both for the average person, or security specialists at large, allows them to be more aware of situational variables in their immediate surroundings, which increases their ‘Spidey Sense’ to potential danger!
General Awareness Needs To Be Trained in our Modern World
Being more generally aware then, is a skill that now has to be retrained in the modern world. I am not saying it will defeat all the bad guy attempts out there, but I do believe being more mindful, especially in environments that may require attention to context due to potential danger, is crucial in this day and age. If you are a security specialist, and you are not training people in this crucial skill, people’s general lack of awareness these days puts them at a much greater risk than ever before.
But beyond that, being more mindfully aware, makes life more manageable. Being more connected to the present moment as it arises, without judging every moment, makes modern life seem easier to handle. I believe increasingly this will be a skill that can no longer be taken for granted. It will have to be taught, not only in security courses around the world, but simply to allow people to live a more fulfilling life.