The power of the pause: How we shift from mindless to mindful
To put the power of the pause in context, I will go through a description of mindfulness (and mindlessness) in an evolutionary context.
Mindfulness 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 and ancestors, mindfulness comes in only when it’s needed.
Being mindful in civilized life, as opposed to the environment we evolved in, essentially requires “gaming the system”. hence the notion of “proactive mindfulness”.
Of course, this begs two questions: Why should we be mindful if we don’t need to? And how can we be mindful?
First, why should we try to be mindful, even when we don’t absolutely need to. A very simple way to address this is by making an analogy with physical exercise. The need for physical exercise is no longer built into the structure of our lives, as it was for our ancestors. We can live without, but at a tremendous cost to our health, ability to perform, and happiness. So we need to actively engage in physical exercise, even though, strictly speaking, we don’t need to. Same goes for mindfulness.
Now, how do we develop our ability to be more mindful? Certainly not by straining to do so. The analogy with physical exercise, in the previous paragraph, can be very misleading if it drives you to “exercise” mindfulness the way you would lift weights or develop your physical endurance by pushing harder. Mindfulness is not a muscle. It is our natural ability to be poised and alert in our interactions, when there is a need for us to be poised and alert. In civilized life, much of the time, this need is well below the threshold that it takes to activate mindfulness. This is why we need to “game the system“: We do not force ourselves to be more attentive. We trigger the natural process of focused attention and mindfulness.
This 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 then 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.
So, this is “proactive mindfulness”: We get to a more mindful state by "gaming the system".
How do we do that? It takes a pause to notice that you are on autopilot. The pause is what introduces the break, the discontinuity. As you notice that you are on autopilot, you are no longer totally on autopilot. There is at least some of you that is engaged in paying attention to your relationship with environment. Unless you do that, you stay on autopilot.
Once you notice, once you start to be engaged, it is possible to go further. This is when you can start to be curious about what it might be like to be less passive, to have a different relationship with your environment. You have activated the mindfulness process.
It takes intentionality to shift from mindless autopilot. The way to do that is essentially similar to what happens when we change directions in our car and the GPS recalculates the situation. Something changes, so the GPS has to take a break from its programmed route, to re-orient and redirect.
When we pause, we take a break. This is a moment where our mind, our body, our whole organism, recalculate how we are vis a vis the situation. This recalculation is new information about situation, in a very subjective way. That is: It is a felt sense of what's happening to "me", a sense of the potential danger or opportunity, and the beginning of an intuitive response to it.
We are not necessarily conscious of our assessment of the situation and of our response. In fact, much of the time, if we experience it at all, it is as at a pre-verbal level, as a fuzzy felt sense.
We are not computers or logical machines. Our mind evolved to give us a sense of how to face dangers and opportunities. The assessments it provides are not scholarly treatises, but action-oriented information. Subjective, as opposed to objective. This subjective information builds into a sense of who we are relative to the world, and into a sense of meaning and purpose. We are not talking here about lofty definitions of meaning and purpose: It could simply be that, at a given moment, my purpose is to tie my shoes. It's just what is in the moment.
What are the implications of this perspective?
Being mindless means being disconnected from that moment-by-moment sense of meaning and purpose. No amount of lofty thinking about "meaning and purpose" can compensate for that primal alienation.
What we're talking about is: The practice of mindfulness involves paying attention to a sense of self. Not as an abstract philosophical inquiry into what "self" might be. More like a sense of living life as a koan: Who is it that is facing the situation? Who is this "me" that I experience when I am mindful?
This may seem a little strange if you've read that mindfulness requires that you get rid of the self. It may seem contradictory, but it's actually not. What we're getting rid of is the idea of the self as a fixed object, something that is solid.
So what is it that we practice?
Being mindful involves tracking our felt sense of our interaction with people and situations, moment by moment. This gives us a different sense of self, arguably a sense of our truer self. Not as a rigid construct, but the self as the infolding of moment-by-moment experience, as it makes moment-by-moment decisions.
When we are involved in any form of mindfulness practice, we are acutely aware of how fluid our mind is, moment by moment. This leads us to let go of the idea that there is a fixed mind, or a fixed self. On the other hand, as we are paying attention to what happens moment by moment in our interactions, we notice a sense of process. We may as well call that experience (the process, and how pausing affects the process) the experience of the Self. In this sense, all of our life is potentially mindful practice.