Anxiety seems to be an ever-growing issue that particularly looms large for people of my generation – the Millennials. The American Psychological Association estimates that 12% of millennials are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, while around 30% of working Millennials struggle with general anxiety. Now, I’m not good at math, but that seems like an awful lot of people. There are 75.4 million(ish) millennials wandering this planet, so upwards of 25 million of us have some form of general anxiety? Unfortunately, there isn’t any one magic cure – at least that I’ve found – but that’s not to say there aren’t ways to ease the burden a bit. One such way is called “mindfulness meditation.”
Before we get started, I think it’s important to note that I am a big believer that pop culture not only stems from our belief structures and societal myths but can also help us better understand them. Myths allow us to see things from a different vantage point, and, in some cases, it can become culturally-generative (in that it can help shape the idea that it stems from). For example: when I was in an upper-level philosophy class during my college years, I was having a difficult time understanding a particular concept (Heidegger or Hegel if I remember correctly). It wasn’t until I read an essay on the subject in the fantastic book Star Wars and Philosophy that I grasped it.
While meditation has been around for a long, long time, it’s seen a bit of a resurgence over the last several years (perhaps due to the statistics laid out above). That’s not to say that it disappeared for any length of time — I mean, it’s been around for thousands of years — but it’s become somewhat of a buzzword among industry professionals, celebrities, news anchors, and bloggers of all types. When I first stumbled upon mindfulness meditation, I didn’t understand it. The cynical part of me felt like Han when Obi-Wan Kenobi was explaining the Force to Luke – “So I am just supposed to sit here and focus on breathing? Listen, hokey religions…” Instead of writing it off, I decided to read several books on the subject, as well as any legitimate article I could find. It got easier over time, but it wasn’t until I saw snippets of what meditation, specifically “mindful meditation,” looks like through the lens of Star Wars that I began to realize it’s life-altering potential.
While reading about mindfulness meditation, I watched The Phantom Menace. In it, Qui-Gon lays out the most basic premise of this form of meditation, which is being present. At the beginning of the film, Qui-Gon and his padawan Obi-Wan are waiting for what I am sure would have been an exhilarating discussion with the Viceroy of the Trade Federation to resolve their blockade over Naboo. During this time, Obi-Wan is bothered about something in the future. When he mentions this to Qui-Gon, the Jedi Master responds saying, “Don’t center on your anxieties, Obi-Wan. Keep your concentration here and now, where it belongs.” When young Kenobi tells Qui-Gon that Yoda said “to be mindful of the future,” Qui-Gon responds saying, “But not at the expense of the moment. Be mindful of the living Force, young Padawan.” The majority of us spend our focus worrying about the future, thinking about the past, or just focusing on whatever device we are currently using. And if you are anything like me, your inner-voice never stops talking and can be a bit of an asshole. This form of meditation combats that by settling one into the present. By focusing on your in-breath and out-breath, you are attempting to silence the constant inner-monologue which is taking you away from wherever you are, and doing whatever you are doing.
The most poignant example of Qui-Gon’s commitment to peace through meditation is during his lightsaber battle with Darth Maul. During the fight, Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Maul are all separated from one another by ray shields. Darth Maul paces back and forth, snarling and angry, while Obi-Wan bounces on the balls of his feet, anxiously waiting for the next round of combat. In stark contrast, Qui-Gon just switches off his lightsaber and settles into a brief moment of peaceful meditation, simply being.
When we first meet Luke Skywalker, he is standing on a mound of sand, staring at the horizon, and just because he finds adventure doesn’t mean he ever stopped looking toward the horizon. In Empire Strikes Back, Luke was nearly refused training because he was so focused on the future. Yoda believed this attitude was a possible path to the Dark Side. When he starts to show his frustration, Yoda chastises him saying, “All his life has he looked away, to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was, hmm? What he was doing.” It is Luke’s lack of presence that gives Yoda pause, and I think it’s a common cause for anxiety in modern culture as well. Our constant yearning for the “next big thing” and our inability to unplug because of our fear of missing out on something is a constant source of stress in our life.
As we see in Return of the Jedi, Luke is at least partially responsible for the downfall of the Galactic Empire, but the Luke we see at the end of the film is a far cry from the brash, bush-pilot-turned-Rebel who showed up at Yoda’s doorstep looking for training. Despite Luke going through a pretty horrible ordeal at the end of Empire, in Return of the Jedi, Luke is more thoughtful, less prone to violence, and the brashness we saw in his youth is no more. Apparently this lesson stuck with him too, because the new trailer for The Last Jedi begins with him teaching Rey to use her breath as an anchor for meditation.
One of the most important aspects of mindfulness is not focusing on whatever worries you may have in the future, but existing in the present moment. No judgment, no focusing on the past or future, just being with what is there. While it might sound odd, the majority of us spend our focus worrying about the future or ruminating over the past. If you are anything like me, your inner-voice never stops talking, and is a judgmental asshole, especially when it comes to yourself. By constantly drawing yourself back into the present moment — commonly by focusing on your breathing as an anchor — you can interrupt that constant stream of noise, call it on its bullshit, and find some peace
If you’d like to know more about mindfulness meditation, there are a lot of resources available online. I learned a lot from Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier, especially the last few chapters. Mindful.org has all sorts of articles, including this video for beginners. Finally, I found Insight Timer helpful, and I’ve heard great things about Headspace.
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