TMI (‘too much information’) seems like a way of life in the 21st century…and it’ll probably only get worse. We have essentially an endless supply of ideas, facts and opinions from 24/7 cable infotainment, emails, blogs, podcasts, texts, YouTube videos, Facebook, Twitter, etc. It can literally be a full-time job to just keep up with a small fraction of our daily information options. But…the truth is we’ve always had more information than we can effectively process…we’ve always had the personal responsibility and capacity to filter and refine our available real-world, raw data into useable decision-quality knowledge. More importantly…as citizens, we’ve always had the obligation to process data about public issues into decisions everyone can live with.
Recently in reading Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong, I was struck by the central importance of ‘mindfulness’ as a personal discipline in translating a cloud of information into a meaningful and focused statement of purpose. Here I’m not referring to a meditative practice…I’m pointing to an attentive learning lifestyle. Armstrong properly sees ‘mindfulness’ as a critical bridge between the needs of the world and the compassionate actions of individuals that can meet those needs. Actions…according to Armstrong and according to our own common sense, I believe…follow from attentive focus on critical needs. ‘Mindfulness’ can keep a spotlight on those issues and needs where our specific talents, resources and networks might make the greatest impact.
Personal ‘mindfulness’ on an issue, idea or goal is a decision. At first, it’s an unconscious decision that focuses mental attention on something going on in the world around us…or not going on, perhaps. Our personal values provide a daily filter in a crush of data. When this filter consistently brings a specific topic to mind, our consciousness is alerted…THIS is something that needs MY attention. Our minds become filled with information and reflections on this theme. We seek news about it…we research the history and dimensions of it…we then create a daily discipline that includes bringing it to mind.
‘Mindfulness’ can also become a public practice. We’ve actually seen its power in many historical and current movements…people focused their attention on and mobilized for civil rights, environmental regulation and women’s rights…and against abortion, big government and too-big-to-fail corporations. Individual ‘mindfulness’ focuses attention, time and resources into a clearly understood and communicated purpose that then touches others, and becomes a public ‘mindfulness’…and this public ‘mindfulness’ becomes a movement. A movement in its early stages has no organization, no leaders and no specific legislative solutions…but it does have a laser-sharp focus on what needs to change.
Personal ‘mindfulness’ always, of course, precedes public ‘mindfulness’…and the transition from personal to public is always an organic growth process. We just naturally share what’s important to us with our family and friends. In conversations at meals…in the normal routines of our lives…in our various social networks…we have opportunities to reveal what fills our minds about our interests and concerns. In addition, many times our passion for a specific issue or goal brings us to create new acquaintances and alliances…where we can meet with and converse with others whose interests match ours.
But, TMI…we’re destined to be frustrated and powerless in the midst of our current information glut, unless we’re willing to do the really hard work of personal ‘mindfulness’ on those very few issues we feel are most critical in our personal values. What’s more…we’re certain to be mired in our sticky public dilemmas without a path forward, unless at least some of us are willing also to strive toward the creation of a public ‘mindfulness’ that mobilizes people and ideas until decisions everyone can live with can be found. Karen Armstrong encourages us to choose ‘mindfulness’ about compassion in our world…but there are many other ways we can characterize our vision and passion for creating and sustaining healthy and fulfilling communities, locally and globally. Bring it to mind…and see what happens!