Mindfulness Inside Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Probably most people picture mindfulness as the act of sitting on a beach crosslegged meditating on existence. The word mindfulness connotates an aesthetic living alone in the desert or on a high mountain monastery in Tibet. But it also applies to you washing the dishes, taking a crap, and even being fully aware while you’re reading a book or watching television.

BE HERE NOW is an important lesson of eastern philosophy. Our minds wander all over our distractions. Mindfulness is the ability to live fully in the moment being aware of what each sense is telling us and how we process it. One of the first things you should observe is there are more than five senses. Mindfulness is the ability to keep our model of reality in sync with reality. We are not little beings peering out our heads through sensory windows at reality. Our senses recreate a model of reality inside our head which our observer assumes and acts upon as if it was the objective reality. Subjective thoughts distort the flow of data from the external reality. Mindfulness is the skill of observing all of this happen.

Many of us spend a good portion of our day inside fiction. How can we be mindful when we’re lost in reading a novel, watching a television show, or out at the movies? We substitute our cognitive model of reality with a fictional model that someone else has created. We fool ourselves into believing we are someone else, being somewhere else, doing something else. Fiction by its very nature is anti-mindfulness.

Fiction is sometimes how we communicate our models of reality. Other times, fiction is intentional replacements for our model of reality meant to entertain or provide us temporary vacations from reality. When we’re inside fiction, we’re at least two dimensions away from the external reality. The only way to be truly mindful is to constantly recall our immediate place in reality, but that spoils the magical illusion of fiction.

Is it possible to be a bookworm and be mindful at the same time? Is it possible to be mindful while inside fiction? Especially when it requires forgetting who and where we are to fully experience a work of fiction.

While I’m at the movies watching Colette, I must juggle the sensation of seeing an illusion of 19th-century Paris while sitting in a dark room in Memphis, Tennessee. I must accept Keira Knightley pretending to fool me that she is Colette, a woman who spoke another language in another time and is long dead. This is when fiction is a tool for communicating what reality might have been like for another person. Being fully mindful of the experience requires observing my memories of history and knowledge of movie making as it reacts with experiencing the film in a darkened theater.

To be mindful in such a situation requires grasping the gestalt of a complex experience. That’s why people usually pick a quiet empty room to work at mindfulness. It’s much easier to observe our mental state of the moment when not much is going on. Being mindful inside fiction requires our observer watching a symphony of mental activity and understanding how it all works together.

Generally, we consume fiction to forget our observer. When I was listening to The Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky I was imaging being thousands of years in the future and many light years away. This new model of reality was generated by whispering words into my ear. I never completely forgot the input from my senses because I listened to the audiobook while eating breakfast or walking around the neighborhood.

I believe part of being mindful while inside fiction is to observe our psychological need for that particular kind of fiction at that moment and how I’m reacting to it. I want and get something much different watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel than when I watch Get Shorty. What I experience while reading Friday by Robert A. Heinlein is much different from what I experience reading Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber. The lack of mindfulness inside fiction lets us consume fiction in the same way we can eat a bag of potato chips without noticing that each chip was different.

If I don’t explore why my mind is entertained by stories of a 1959 housewife becoming a standup comic in New York City and a low-life thug wanting to become a movie producer in modern-day Nevada, then I’m not totally being here now.

The purpose of mindfulness is to be fully aware of who you are in the moment. So, it’s almost oxymoron to ask if we can practice mindfulness inside fiction because most people use fiction to escape who they are in the moment. But then, most people aren’t fully in the moment when they are getting dressed or even sitting in a lotus pose in front of a sunset. In the west, mindfulness is taught as a cure for the stress of living. We are told if we meditate five or ten minutes during the day it will help us handle the stress of the rest of the day. Of course, meditation is not mindfulness, but all too often they are confused as one.

One reason I’m bringing up the topic of mindfulness inside fiction is that I believe some types of fiction are polluting our minds. I have to wonder if all the violence in fiction isn’t programming our minds in subtle ways. Is there not a correlation between the mass consumption of violent fiction and the violence we’re seeing in everyday life? The other day I saw a short documentary on the history of the video game. In the 1950s video games were just blips on the screen. Today they almost look like movies. It startled me to see sequences from first-person shooters because I realized those video games were creating the same kind of scenes that mass shooters must see as they walk around blowing real people away.

I have to wonder if the rise of overblown emotional rhetoric we encounter in real life is not inspired by dramatic lines from characters in fiction. Everyday people can’t seem to express their feelings without putting them into harshest of words. Too many people can’t object to a philosophy without claiming they will kill the philosopher.

I  believe its time we extend moments of mindfulness beyond quiet empty rooms or restful respites in nature. We need to observe what fiction is doing to our minds, especially at the subconscious level. We need to be mindful why we seek fiction. We need to understand the purpose of fiction in our lives. We need to know why we turn our own lives off in favor of fictional lives. We need to know what our minds bring back from our fictional vacations.

When I first took computer courses back in 1971, I was taught an interesting acronym, GIGO. It stands for Garbage In, Garbage Out. It meant if you put lousy code and data into a computer you’d get crap for output. I believe it also applies to fiction.

JWH

3 thoughts on “Mindfulness Inside Fiction”

  1. Quite true, James. What we now are calling ‘mindfulness’ and ‘being in the moment’ used to be be called meditation, TM (transcendental meditation), and just thinking clearly. The technique I learned from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (yes, the same one The Beatles and Beach Boys visited in the early 70s) was based on leaving behind the mental parasites that sapped our ability to perceive clearly.

    Juggling uncounted stresses, wherever those stresses come from, keeps us from seeing basic truths in evidence all around us. Your point about violence is well taken. There is a lot of real violence in the real world—working in counter-terrorism I saw a great deal of it. That experience showed and taught me how unreal the violence in movies and books is. Reality is more disturbing and much less fun. It leaves both victims and perpetrators scarred. Achieving that reality in movies would make for terrible ratings. Not thinking clearly (or being in the moment if you prefer) we let fiction writers, movie directors, and yes, journalists, take over our mental driver’s seat and keep us from living real lives based on our real experiences.

  2. Hi James

    Some interesting ideas here. I watch very little tv with a plot as I describe it and have no interest in increasing my input. There are a number of reasons depending on the type of program but one thing that bothers me is the sheer level of violence and the escalating level of it. It seems each show must out do the other. And I am concerned about the consequences for our society. However I was really interesting in your idea of mindfulness while experiencing fiction. I am not sure what this would entail I will have to think of it but I will share a recent experience. I was reading an early (and very stilted ) story by Bradbury called King if the Grey Spaces. It concerned a young man who was obsessed with rockets and wished to train as a crewman. What I became mindful of ( if that is the real term for my experience ) as I read it was how it made me feel, how it evoked my own childhood, how it differed as a reading experience from a story with a similar plot, I though of Heinlein’s Space Cadet right away. The story is quite poorly written and as I read it, I did not necessarily identify with the main character or clearly envision the future setting. Rather I began to feel I inhabited the mood of the story largely through my memory of my own experiences as a youth even while reading the story itself. I am not sure if this is what you meant by mindfulness but I thought I would mention it. I have been meaning to write up the Bradbury story for my blog (hopefully by this weekend) and I think this idea, mindfulness inside fiction, is an interesting concept to use when accessing the reading experience. It also makes me wonder where some works are more open to mindfulness and whether the type of work varies for each individual.

    Thanks for this you got me thinking, again.
    Guy

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