Mindful vs Mindless: What is mindfulness?
This is the first of five articles in which I describe 5 core ideas about mindfulness. Links to all five articles are at the bottom of this page.
I am using an everyday, commonsense definition of mindfulness: Being mindful is the opposite of being mindless. That is, the opposite of being disconnected, absent-minded, mechanical. So, to be mindful is to be engaged in what we are doing.
Mindfulness, as defined this way, is a natural ability that we all have. It was honed by evolution.
Our remote ancestors survived because they were actively engaged with their environment. They were alert to both potential opportunities and potential dangers. They were alert without being hypervigilant, because that kind of engagement was a normal part of every day life. The key point is: They were mindful because they needed to be mindful.
This quality of engagement differs from the way we might take a walk in the woods today, following a blazed trail in a State Park. Not only are we not threatened by wolves, our survival doesn't depend on finding food or shelter in these woods. We can afford to be distracted, to act mindlessly, as opposed to mindfully. And so we often do. Not just when we take a walk in the woods, but in so many aspects of our lives. Just think about how often we experience ourselves as bored, i.e. disengaged. We are not engaged because we do not absolutely need to be.
So it is not a contradiction to say that:
(1) We have a natural ability to be mindful, and
(2) Our default mode is to be mindless.
For efficient functioning, a feature that’s not needed is not activated. For us, as for our remote ancestors, mindfulness comes in only when it’s needed. It's just that we need it less often. So we need to "game the system"... and this is why I am talking about "proactive minsdulness" as opposed to the natural mindfulness of our ancestors.
Gaming the system
This phrase probably sounds very abstract, so a very simple example will help bring it to life. Let’s say you’re walking in a State Park. Your attention is not very engaged, because there is no real need for it to be. There are a lot of trees, and all trees kind of look the same, so it’s fairly boring. Maybe very pleasantly boring, but fairly boring anyway, in the sense that there is no direct invitation for you to be engaged with where you are. Chances are you let your mind wander, and you’re lost in your thoughts. There’s more action inside your mind than between you and the outside world!
Let’s say that, at some point, you realize you’ve been mostly in your head, and you want to try to be more mindful. Trying to force yourself to be more mindful will not work for more than a few moments, because there is nothing to keep your attention engaged. It is different if you actively engage your curiosity. For instance, you start to pay attention to the similarities and differences between the trees.
“Attention“ is not a thing, it is a process. There is no such thing as a pile of “attention” the way there is, say, a pile of sand. A process means there is an action: You pay attention to something. For instance, you pay attention to the trees. To do so, it helps to have a specific quest, such as noticing similarities and differences between trees.
Such a quest is a way to enter into relationship with your environment. Then you are actively involved with it, and you are naturally mindful. This relationship will be sustainable if the quest is meaningful. Otherwise, it will default to boring. You may then need to figure out a different way to enter into a meaningful relationship with your environment, if you want to be mindful as opposed to mindless.