Waking up from unmindfulness

Here’s a bit of Greek mythology that I discovered the other day.

In Greek legend, Lethe is the River of Unmindfulness, one of five rivers in the Underworld. The river winds around a cave where a character called Hypnos lives and anyone who drinks from Lethe’s waters forgets everything that went before. As is the way with Greek legend, the river Lethe also doubles up as the spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion. It’s from these names that we get the words ‘lethargic’ and ‘hypnosis.’

Roman mythology also helps us with modern words too. Somnus is the Roman version of Hypnos, and the personification of sleep – from where we derive the word ‘insomnia.’ Somnus’s brother is called Mors (death) creating the words ‘mortician’ and ‘mortal’ in English and ‘mort’ in French. 

We have our own River of Unmindfulness in modern life. We sup from it every­ day, lulled into a sense that everything will be alright. Someone will fix the problems – we just need to sit tight. We are rocked like babies until we fall into a waking sleep. 

Edmund Burke was an Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher, born in Dublin in 1729 and wrote this: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Just add “and women” and it will be more current. 

It’s easy to float along on the River of Unmindfulness. Simpler to do nothing, when doing something is hard. How can we change the course of climate change, cure cancer or bring about world peace? We are simply individuals making our way in the world. Tiny gnats in a giant hurricane. Although Greta Thunberg disagrees – her latest book is called “No one is too small to make a difference.” 

I think we can get round this by eating the elephant in smaller chunks. Metaphorical elephant of course. Focus instead on inputs (a small action today), rather than outcomes (changing the world tomorrow). We don’t need to fix world hunger. We could just start with changing our mindset. 

One way to do that is to challenge ourselves about how we see change. Often we view it as destruction, rather than disruption. But we don’t need to break things to change things. We just need to unsettle them. 

Wendy Palmer is a coach on a course run by Coaches Rising. She says we “need positive disruption, otherwise how are we going to initiate change?” If everything stays the same or we say “‘don’t rock the boat, don’t make trouble, everybody should be harmonious’ then we’re not going to produce real and lasting change.”

She says sustainable change comes from “things falling apart and re-organising. It’s not easy and it’s not pleasant.” If we focus on keeping it together, keeping it harmonious then “we’re going to be pushing all of that reactive stuff down and laminating over it. And sometimes what needs to happen is it needs to be brought up and people need to be uncomfortable.”

I’ve interviewed over 100 people going through change in their lives. Most of them have supped from the River of Unmindfulness. But some are waking up from their slumber. It’s taken time but they realise they need to fall apart before they can re-organise and move on. 

I caught up with one of my interviewees, Teresa, during the early months of the pandemic.  She said this about the state of the world. “It’s almost as if we’re living in biblical times.” Teresa believed that sooner or later this had to happen. “So many people have been living on autopilot and it is only through this extreme wake-up call that they can finally notice what life is really all about.” She wondered, had the universe “conspired to teach us a lesson. To press pause on life so we can assess, reflect and make change?”

Waking up to what is going on means we can no longer drink from The River of Unmindfulness. We need to sup from the River of Discomfort instead. We will all know this feeling – stories we can tell from a Pandemic Year. Fall apart, glue ourselves back together, then repeat. It’s not comfortable, but how can we change without changing? How can we change without becoming mindful? 


This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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