Living the mindful life 12

So, what is ‘normal’ anyway?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how people disagree recently, for instance over political issues such as our response to climate change and other matters and it has occurred to me that a person’s view and consequent arguments will often be profoundly affected by what they regard as ‘normal’. The trouble is that this is often (usually?) implicit rather than explicit in any given conversation and so quite difficult to engage with – and yet it affects everything.

So, what is normal, then? Well, I suppose what I am implying is that we all have a slightly and sometimes radically different sense of what ‘normal’ is but that it will not be until we ask this question of ourselves that we will begin to get underneath some of the apparently intractable arguments we tend to get into. And, for me, this is where mindfulness comes in.

One of the basic theories underlying mindfulness in the psychological tradition is that we all have ‘conditioned’ minds which, mostly through our education, upbringing and environment, have come to accept a certain set of circumstances as normal. In other words we have become so used to how things seem to be that we have ceased to ask how else they could be. In fact we may even fight to keep things as they are even if they are not supporting our well-being just because they seem, well, ‘normal’ to us – they seem familiar and so we feel safe with them.

About half way through any mindfulness course we start to pay some attention to the thought patterns in our minds. This involves grounding our attention in the body and then, from this perspective as it were, starting to watch thoughts and thought patterns come and go. We see if it is possible not to react to or get caught up with these thoughts but rather just to become familiar with them.

This can be quite a revelation for some of us. Firstly some people declare their amazement at just how many thoughts there are – and how they just keep coming! But then there begins to be the recognition of what kinds of thoughts or what subjects of thoughts seem to prevail. ‘I seem to be always planning my day’ says one, or another, ‘my mind keeps going back to this particular incident or issue’. Or ‘I keep having these quite negative thoughts about myself whenever I am stressed’.

The key bit of teaching we slot in here as soon as people have started to notice these thoughts coming and going is this: that thoughts are not facts – they are just mental events coming and going in the mind; some of them bear some relation to reality but they are not an exact representation of reality and are sometimes a very inexact representation. But nevertheless, these are the thoughts and thought patterns we have become used to – these, for us are our ‘normal’.

For many this comes as liberating – especially those plagued by anxious or negative thoughts. For others it is disturbing as they gradually realise that some of the things they have come to feel are self-evidently true are not that at all but rather they are just what I have come to accept as normal because of my upbringing, my education and my life experience.

So, with a general election looming and debates about the right way to respond to climate change – including whether Extinction Rebellion’s strategy and methods are good ones, this becomes a very poignant question: to what extent are my ideas, arguments and voting intentions shaped by my implicit, unacknowledged sense of what is ‘normal’?

Limiting myself to Extinction Rebellion for a moment, though, what this movement, it seems to me, is trying to say is that what we have come to accept as normal, should no longer be accepted as normal: things will nor sort themselves out as they normally do; the normal political processes will not work in this case; our normal way of life, perhaps with just a bit of tweaking, can no longer be seen as normal. So (the argument goes) a different kind of action/protest is needed in order to shift the common mindset of what is actually normal in this case.

These are bold suggestions and often fall on deaf or resistant ears. And I, for one, am keen to keep these as open questions rather than assume we in XR know all the answers. But what I do feel committed to is the process of questioning myself and what I have come to accept as normal in my own thinking and in how I see the world.

So it just may be that it is not new information I need (even though information has its place) but to come to see the world in a new way. And this involves questioning deeply and honestly what I have come to accept as ‘normal’.

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