The Virtues: Be Mindful

As regular readers of Daylight Atheism are likely aware, morality is a major concern of mine, both in how ethical behavior finds its foundation and in how those principles can be applied to issues of everyday life. Mainly this is because I genuinely am interested in determining what best constitutes the good life, although I won’t deny that my writings on this topic are also aimed at rebutting the tiresome claim that atheists are immoral or lack a basis for morality.

But there is much left to explore in this area. This weblog is rapidly approaching its one-year anniversary, and I feel that only now have I laid enough groundwork to truly tackle the vexing practical issues of ethical action. I’ve mused on free will, contemplated the road not taken, delved down to the roots of morality, and withstood the call of the tempter. It’s now time to move beyond these basic issues and begin applying these lessons to more complex topics.

With this goal in mind, I hereby inaugurate a new post series, “The Virtues”. Just as I once rewrote the Ten Commandments on Ebon Musings, this seven-post series is a conscious reinvention, based on my ethical theory of universal utilitarianism, of the ancient “seven cardinal virtues” of prudence, fortitude, justice, temperance, faith, hope and love. This version is intended to discard the needless supernatural connotations of morality and update this list to more adequately reflect the characteristics that are valuable guides to behavior in any era, describing the interlocking behaviors and attitudes that typify each one. Conscious effort to practice and exemplify each of these traits, I believe, can only lead to a far happier and more fulfilled life.

Be mindful” is the first virtue in my new proposed list, and in this post, I hope to explain what this characteristic consists of and why I hold it in high regard.

Concisely stated, being mindful means giving your full attention and focus to whatever you happen to be doing at the moment. Modern society often extols the virtue of “multitasking”, of attempting to be everywhere and do everything at once. But such a directive clashes with the basic truth of human nature, that we cannot pay attention to more than one thing at once, and trying to do so usually only makes us distracted and irritable and causes us to do a poorer job on every task than if we had just done them in series. The attitude of constant distraction, of sensory inundation, in which we bathe ourselves, may well be partly responsible for the epidemic of attention-deficit disorder and other syndromes of our times. We need to recover the forgotten art of paying attention, and practicing the virtue of mindfulness may be the road toward reattaining that worthy end.

Being mindful means learning to filter information from noise and to devote attention only to the things that really matter. As I said, our society floods us with information, more than any normal person could take in in a lifetime. Much of this information is worthless, concerning only trivia and banalities that have no possible relevance to any person’s life. Much of it is wrong, misleading or faulty, and some is deliberately designed to conceal from us what is important. Being mindful means looking past these distractors to identify the issues that directly affect our lives and the lives of others, and following these issues with care and concern.

Being mindful means always seeking to learn more and appreciating the value of knowledge. In a society that too often scorns intellectualism and instead rewards people for doing things that require little or no critical thought at all, it is all the more important that we recognize that learning how the world works is the only endeavor that can hope to promise improvement to our lives.

Being mindful means appreciating beauty and recognizing the sense of awe and wonder. Though it is all too easy to lose sight of higher things and become distracted by the mundane, that only elevates the importance of being mindful of the true wonder it is just that we are alive, and the great vistas of beauty and mystery that surround us every moment. Our own existence as conscious, reasoning beings is itself a thing greatly strange and marvelous, and that we exist in this way only as infinitesimal parts of a vast, complex and intricate cosmos whose wonders surpass all our understanding should raise our amazement to greater heights still. In the day-to-day quest for the minor matters of everyday life, we should take care to see the beauty and wonder that surrounds us, and never to forget the awe-invoking cosmic truths that form the intellectual backdrop to every individual existence.

Being mindful means taking care and diligence. Our most careless errors arise from being on automatic pilot, neglecting the dictates of reason and acting without planning or thought. Being mindful means taking conscious steps to avoid this mindless state (which is distinct from the “flow” state of effortless, skilled behavior), and instead always acting in full awareness of what we are doing and why we are doing it.

Being mindful means living in the present. Excessive dwelling on the past, or excessive worrying about the future, leads only to a life that misses the opportunities of the present time while, ironically, being no more prepared for the future when it arrives. Without forgetting the pleasant memories and good lessons of our past, and without planning appropriately for the future, we should nevertheless seek to live the full measure of every moment, to always be aware of who and where we are, so that we may best extract all the happiness and meaning that there is to be had from life.

Other posts in this series:

On the Importance of Firebrand Atheism
Atlas Shrugged: Bring Me a New Black Guy
Atlas Shrugged: The Rapture of the Capitalists
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Alex Weaver

    While I generally agree with these sentiments, depending on what you mean by “multitasking” I may or may not disagree on that count. I often find it difficult, but not impossible, to pay attention to multiple things at once–being spoken to while I’m in the middle of reading something, in particular, tends to result in a mental event analogous to “shifting without a clutch”–but have easily passed several classes where I spent a significant amount of the lectures doing personal writing in my notebook, yet managed to absorb as well the information the teacher was attempting to communicate. At work, too, I find that interspersing blogs, IMs, and such with my actual tasks helps me to stay focused and complete even the mind-numbingly dull or gruelling tasks; I would compare it to a “pressure release valve.”

  • John Kavelin

    I love your definition of mindfulness. It is uplifitng and inspiring. I especially like the focus on awe and wonder, two of the many virtues we are capable of practicing.

    MINDFULNESS is one of the 100 Virtues in a set of Reflection Cards recently published by The Virtues Project, a grass roots initiative sparking a revolution of kindness, integrity, and understanding in more than 85 countries. Our mission is to inspire the practice of virtues in everyday life by helping people of all cultures discover the transformative power of the universal gifts of character. Virtues are the content of our character — the very purpose of our lives. The virtues help us to remember who we really are and to live our best lives.

    The Five Strategies found in all our books, materials and programs bring the virtues to life in personal development, parenting, family life, character education, and the workplace. They are guidelines for building safe and caring communities. We are not affiliated with any organizaton, faith group or political ideology.

    Here is our definiton of Mindfulness: Mindfulness is living reflectively, with conscious awareness of our actions, words and thoughts. Awake to the world around us, we fully experience our senses. We are attentive to others’ needs. We refuse to rush. Living mindfully lightens our lives by helping us to detach from our emotions. We transform anger to justice. We seek joy instead of mere desire. We cultivate our inner visioin, aware of life’s lessons as they unfold. Mindfulness brings us serenity.

    I look forward to your future posts.

    John Kavelin, Co-Founder
    Virtues Project International
    Salt Spring Island, B.C. Canada

  • javaman

    Several random thoughts, in no particular order. Humans, as a race, are very, very young. We only migrated out of Africa 40,000 years ago. We’re still only hairless apes that use language to represent what’s going on in our consciousness. This cultivation of mindfulness is perhaps our next evolutionary step up from the cognitive perspective in psychology. Mindfulness is one of the foundations of Zen Buddhism, which is much closer to psychotherapy than it is to religion. This mindfulness state is called the “still point” in meditation, clutching the engine into neutral. (My reference to Buddhism is not an endorsement of religion.) I believe the way our consumer society is structured, consciousness is not seen as a virtue and cultivated in our society and taught to our children. They are programmed out of mindfulness at a very early age.

  • standing

    The composition of a new set of Ten Commandments is an interesting but mistaken exercise. All rules must be based on prior ethical values, and it is the logical employment of those values that has priority.

    Elementary ethical values are qualities like Freedom and Equality that are irreducible. No such value can be employed meaningfully other than in conjunction with another value, and such a compound value is a end value for society and the individual. The logical opposite of an elementary value is an end value, such as “Tyranny” in opposition to Freedom.. Rights per se is a value, as is Pragmatism – a right that is impossible is nonsense.

    Rights must be paired with Duties to create the end value of Altruism – other pairs of values also contribute to that same end value.

    The correct pairing of Rights and Duties is necessary. A duty that is merely the reflection of a Right is of no purpose.

    Example. [Within the limits of the practical ability and wealth of the poltical state concerned]
    All citizens have a right to be educated to the full extent of their personal abilities………!
    All citizens have the duty to employ their education to the benefit of their [country] and all its citizens ……!

  • Pedro Timóteo

    Very nice. :)

    However, I think you have a small mistake here:

    Without forgetting the pleasant memories and good lessons of our past, and without planning appropriately for the future,

    I think you meant “and planning appropriately for the future”.