Retroactive Mindfulness

old meditation

Is it possible to rescue mindfulness from the past?

One of the most interesting lessons I’ve ever had in mindfulness came from Sam Harris in his Waking Up app.

He made the argument that it’s not actually time that gives you life, because if you live 90 years on the planet but never pay attention, it’ll be as if you only lived a very short time. Alternatively, you could pay attention closely, only live for 30 years, and your life could feel very full.

He argues that attention is the currency of life quality—not time.

To that end, he warns people not to just drift through life, lest they waste their lives essentially sleeping.

That waste part is what’s interesting to me. For those who didn’t pay enough attention early in their lives, is it possible to get any of that back?

I wonder if we can replay our past as memories, and attempt to be mindful of both the stimuli and the sensations they caused.

As observers. Not judges. Not victims. Not victors. Not someone enjoying fond or bitter memories. But as someone being present for the moment this time—as we weren’t the first time.

I think there are problems with the idea. First off, raw sensations aren’t fully recorded—or at least it’s not easy to retrieve them if they were recorded. So we won’t be experiencing the entire raw situation when we invoke a memory. We’re instead experiencing only very specific parts of the experience, and of course how they made us feel.

So it won’t be full-bandwidth. It’ll be lossy, compressed, and likely altered by our multiple recollections of the memory in the past.

But I can’t shake the idea that we could spend considerable effort, perhaps with a sherpa, to attempt to experience as much as possible, even if your creative subconscious has to construct some of the details, in order to be in the present—in the past.

If you have spent a quarter or half of your life not paying attention, would you like to get some of that time back?

If attention is the real measure of meaningful time, I think it might be possible to do do just that.

We can navigate our memories, in as pure a form as possible, and just be there. Experience them. Be present. Accept what happens without becoming the event. Just observing it and letting it pass—like we would today with the present.

Retroactive Mindfulness. A way to harvest meaning from our past.


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