Are Mindfulness and Meditation Natural?

We humans possess scores of traits and faculties. Some, such as eating or mating, we share with other living beings; others, such as thinking or speaking, are exclusive to us; all are inherent to our kind, that is, they are natural—they are part of our biological design.

Is mindfulness natural? Are we born with this characteristic and we lost it—some animals seem to be permanently attentive—or is it something we have to develop? Though there do not seem to be definitive answers to these questions, most everyone agrees that the exercise of mindfulness is a difficult task to perform, which raises doubts about its naturalness—its innate quality.

It is easy to speculate, though, that the brainwork involved in mindfulness is quite similar to the sharp attention that wilderness living should have imposed on our distant ancestors. Long before becoming themselves carnivorous and predators, our forebears were non-carnivorous vegetarians and easy prey for aggressive animals. Only those individuals who were attentive all the time to both the sensory signals in the environment—sounds, forms, smells—and the careful motions of their body, were able to anticipate killers, move silently and so survive enough to leave offspring.

Considering that natural selection might have led us to some predisposition toward mindfulness is not a farfetched hypothesis. If so, our brains might have a natural inclination to focus attention that we do not always develop. It is also evident that, during the millennia that preceded the discovery of fire and the development of language, our prehistoric ancestors, with an elementary brain that hardly thought, had to adjust to stay awake, in darkness, still and quiet, both body and mind, for millions of long nights.

It is probably too bold to suggest that mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are characteristics implanted in our nature. On the other extreme, it would be too timid to say that these two habits are genetically foreign to us, modern humans. Still it is safe to state that something in our body and our brain is there to facilitate meditation and mindfulness.

Meditation, in general, is neither more nor less natural than aerobics or sports. Our distant precursors ran a lot and did not ponder much; they went everywhere on foot, and lacked any kind of relaxing furniture on which to sit or rest; they indeed struggled for their livelihood in open spaces, and lacked safe, fixed workplaces.

Very slowly for many millennia and suddenly high-speed over the last decades, humankind progressed extraordinarily and machines took over most of our hard work. Thereafter modern humans stilled their body—they remain sitting most of the time in comfortable chairs or couches—and disturbed their mind—they hardly stop thinking, digressing or worrying.

In reaction to their immobility, Homo sapiens invented all kinds of calisthenics—rather recently, we should say; to counter mental agitation, the humans of the third millennium are recapturing the old tradition of mindfulness meditation, a tool to appease their restless mind.

Atlanta, julio 10, 2008


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