Mindfulness: The Fascination of Sherlock Holmes

SherlockBBC’s Sherlock (which airs on PBS in the States) has enjoyed three seasons of incredibly high praise. Season 3 (or Series 3, if you’re a sophisticate) just aired after a two-year gap from when Season 2 finished, and it was one of the most anticipated TV premieres in recent memory. It also was just plain brilliant. If you’ve never seen Sherlock, or if you’re not caught up, you should really do yourself a favor after you finish this post.

I bring up this modern-day interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic character because there is an intriguing renewed interest in Mr. Holmes in recent years. Most classic works don’t enjoy a resurgent favorableness like this. The Benedict Cumberbatch rendering is one of three active adaptations alongside CBS’ Elementary and the Robert Downey, Jr. version in film. Not to mention a bestselling nonfiction book entitled Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Maria Konnikova, Viking Adult, 2013). Why so much Sherlock?

All three contemporary iterations are edgy, energetic polymaths who exude their own kind of suaveness through the success they achieve by their brainpower. But anyone can be smart, of course. The compelling thing about Holmes is not that he is just a bit more intelligent than any Joe on the street or professor in a university—it’s that he has an incomparable ability to observe and capture detail and context that everyone else misses. He exhibits a particular quality we might call mindfulness or awareness. By practicing some intentionality of focus in the moment, he is able to be fully present with what’s before him and notice things that fly by people who are preoccupied. A lot of holistic experts have made this quality a point of emphasis recently.

Our world is saturated with things demanding our attention. We can see upwards of a few thousand advertisements in a day. We conspicuously update the presentation of ourselves that we like across a variety of social media platforms. Some people experience phantom vibration syndrome because their smartphones have conditioned them so thoroughly to expect a notification at any and all moments of the day. We try to text while we drive, and fail at both in the process. Our cumulative technological innovation has all but erased the distinction between the rhythm of night and day, resting and waking (or working).

We’re disconnected from any natural cues in front of us: sunrises and sunsets, changes in the smell of the air, the story in the facial expression of the person next to us, the nuanced flavors of our morning coffee, the gentle touch of a loved one full of longing for uninterrupted conversation, and so many more. Instead, we’re surface deep across too extensive and too disparate demands for our attention, which leads to us not doing much of anything particularly well.

In this kind of a climate, Sherlock Holmes seems virtually superhuman.

We’re compelled to an artistic presentation of someone like Sherlock because we wish we had that prodigious awareness ourselves, and it seems like an unachievable skill. But as Holmes often declares, his observations and deductions are “obvious.” The ability is actually rather unremarkable—it’s what anyone can do if they took the time (but maybe a bit less perspicaciously than Sherlock). It seems remarkable because most people don’t carry out the patient, intentional “tuning in” to be truly mindful.

Few of us will use mindfulness to solve crimes like Holmes, but a little more attentiveness in our everyday lives could go a long way. For starters, there’d probably be a lot less accidents or near accidents on the freeway—particularly where I call home in Los Angeles. But beyond collisions and everyday annoyances, there are friends giving you signs that they need a shoulder to lean on but don’t want to burden you by asking; coworkers who are overwhelmed by what life has thrown at them and need even just a small moment of relief; whole neighborhoods, streets, and communities that need someone to have their eyes open long enough to notice their distress and that political deadlock isn’t fixing anything.

Here we have an opportunity to go much further that the “high-functioning sociopath” that the Cumberbatchian Sherlock describes himself as being. His talents are astounding until we realize that we are quite capable of such things if we actively practice being present in the present, and that our mindfulness can have an impact far beyond criminal mysteries or showing off. The game is on.

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