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Jeremy Tattersall

Out to lunch

Super Mario faces an existential dilemma Super Mario faces an existential dilemma

Distractions of all kinds—speculation, daydream, fantasy, replays of how the recent past should have turned out, forming opinions about the people we meet—are totally normal daily mental events, part of the furniture of our mental living room. As someone I know once pointed out, the appeal is distilled into a single slogan in an old advert for Nintendo Game Boy: “Wherever you are, be somewhere else!”


I suspect the most fundamental reason that I still get lost in thought is that part of me just really likes doing it. There is something deceptively comforting about being absent from the present moment. It’s the cheapest vacation destination I know of. The seductiveness lies in the belief that mental invention and interpretation is interesting and gratifying, and that ‘real life’ often isn’t.

So it might come as something of a shock and a disappointment to learn that meditation encourages us not to indulge in all these cosy habits and instead to be present, mindful and undistracted. Why exactly would anyone want to do that?

There is a wonderful image of mental absorption in Gulliver’s Travels, by the eighteenth century satirist Johnathan Swift. At one point Gulliver is rescued by the inhabitants of an island whose rulers are all fascinated by the twin sciences of mathematics and music. While the fabric of their nation falls apart around them, they spend their time absorbed in contemplation, endlessly searching for solutions to a never-ending supply of abstract problems. As they are so oblivious to the external world, the aristocrats are forced to employ a special servant, called a ‘flapper’, who accompanies them in public places, at court and at social events. The flapper carries a stick that has an inflated pig’s bladder tied to it. Whenever someone wishes to speak to his master, the flapper brings his master’s attention to the present moment by rubbing the bladder over his ear. If someone greets him or asks a question that needs a reply, the flapper rubs the bladder over his lips. On the street, the flapper prevents a constant stream of accidents by the judicious rubbing of his master’s eyes.

The more we involve ourselves in our thought processes, the more divorced we are from what’s actually happening, because the only place where our thoughts are ‘real’ is in our own mind. Fortunately, the more we disentangle ourselves from our thought processes and get used to our own nature, the more present and aware of what’s happening we become.

The practical result of applying mindfulness and awareness is that the world shows itself to be less how we think it is and more just how it is. Freed from the heavy overlay of our own ideas, moods, hopes and fears, the environment can spark into life and reveal itself to be full of possibilities. And because we have become a natural part of how things are, we are more capable of influencing events in a good way. Everything is less complicated and laboured, more open and unforced.

If we can stay present and reduce the amount of time we are lost in distraction, existence reveals itself to be even more captivating than Super Mario World.