“We were on a break!” Perhaps one of the most iconic phrases in television history. Everyone knows what show it’s from and what it references. It’s comedy gold. It is also the epitome of an unmindful character speaking in an unmindful way.
Now, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing by any means. We need, want, and crave unmindful characters. They drive good storytelling. But we, as writers and creatives, should strive to be mindful ourselves, and be mindful of what our characters say and do.
So, what is mindfulness?
It’s the art and practice of paying attention and being consciously aware. In other words, focusing on one thing. And it's hard. Really hard.
Our minds drift. We multitask. We’re constantly thinking about future plans, or the perfect retort from a coworker’s insult from three weeks ago, or countless other things that take us away from the moment. As I’m writing this, I’m literally checking email, Twitter, and Facebook, listening to music, and drinking tea.
Being unmindful is pretty much the natural state of most humans all the time. We’re busy creatures with lots to do! It’s also quite unhealthy and unproductive. It’s super hard to maintain good mental or physical health when we’re constantly thinking of the next thing to do or worry about and not focusing on what we’re actually doing.
We’re so caught up in what we should be doing—planning for that dinner party next week, or how to get your toddler into the best college, or where to go on vacation next summer—that we rarely pay attention to what we are doing.
Jeff Goldblum’s character, Dr. Ian Malcolm, summed up the nature of unmindfulness perfectly when confronted with the realities of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
You know what getting so preoccupied, wondering if a character can do something, is good for, though? Creating fantastic comedy and drama.
On screen, we want to see unmindful characters. We want characters to react immediately, to feel the visceral emotions that compel them to action. We need them to act before thinking, to take on too much, to be a little out of their depth. It’s just more interesting.
What has more tension in a scene: a character wholly focused on their one task at hand, doing everything they can to complete it? Or a character distracted by the television while they check their laptop with kids running around, dinner burning on the stove, and someone pounding on the door?
In life, we don’t want that. Being mindful, especially in communication, leads to clarity and understanding. Speaking in a mindful manner with someone fosters good communication.
When you actively focus on what someone is saying—not your response to what you think they’re going to say, or something they said three sentences ago that isn’t the point of the conversation—you can more easily understand them. When you ask specific, probing questions about the topic at hand, you both gain insight into the discussion. When you rephrase what they just said to ensure you’ve understood them, you’re being mindful.
Can you imagine if characters on screen did that? The whole “we were on a break” years-long arc in "Friends" would have gone away completely. If Ross and Rachel had just told each other they were breaking up, or clarified that they were still together as a couple, just taking a small pause in the relationship, then what happens afterwards wouldn’t have mattered. But because they didn’t speak clearly we got years of jokes. Entertaining jokes that have spawned memes and coffee mugs, obviously. Great comedy. Not so great mindfulness.
One time before I began practicing mindfulness, my wife and I were having a heated discussion about something. Some might call it a fight. About what specifically I can’t recall. Probably something silly like what to watch that night or what to have for dinner. Maybe about finances. That’s usually what fights are about, right? All I remember is that we weren’t listening to each other and were pushing each other’s buttons. If I asked for tacos and was trying to convince her why, she broke in with pizza. If she was in a comedy mood, listing the reasons we should watch that, I cut her off with what drama I wanted that night.
We weren’t hearing each other. We were caught up in our own viewpoints, thinking we were right, and were getting angry that the other person didn’t realize it. Yet because we weren’t listening, we didn’t come to a good compromise, went to bed angry, and harbored resentment for a while.
Everyone is the hero in their own story, as the saying goes. That night, my wife and I certainly were our own heroes. We were both right in our own eyes, and we were both wrong in the others. Nothing we could do to convince each other differently.
Had either of us taken a moment to pause, reflect, and think what the other was saying, we might not have been so riled up.
Just recently my wife and I were discussing this very fight. Neither of us remembered much about it, but we did come to realize it was probably the last “fight” we had. Whenever moments of tension arise between us now, I will often stop a moment before answering. Or I’ll ask a clarifying question. Oh, you want pizza? Why? Let’s explore that. Soon we’re talking about all the fantastic toppings we could have or the ooey-gooey cheese, and now we both want pizza. Even if going into the conversation I was determined to have tacos, because I listened to what she was saying, we ended up both wanting pizza (note: happy wife, happy life).
All of this isn’t to say you can’t or shouldn’t have mindful characters. Mindful people, real or created, aren’t inherently any better or worse than unmindful people. Both Bobby Axlerod and Chuck Rhoades in "Billions" meditate, a key attribute of mindfulness. Pretty much every Jedi takes a deep breath and has a moment to focus before tapping into The Force.
Doing these things doesn’t mean characters can’t have faults and act rashly. It just means they might, maybe, possibly, not make the same mistake. Then again, what fun would that be in a character?
For us creatives, taking that moment to reflect might save us hours or days of headaches about plot or character development. If we reflect back on what we’ve done in the past and how we’ve overcome it, facing the same challenge in the future will be just that much easier.
So, in the immortal words of Faith Hill, “Just breathe.”
*Feature photo by Mariana Montrazi (Pexels)