Mindfulness and mindlessness: Do we have it backward?

Mindfulness has been gaining traction for a few reasons. Primarily, it works, it’s effective- so as word spreads, increasing numbers of personal stories about mindfulness inspire others to join the practice. Secondly, research is backing mindfulness now. Mindfulness, as a concept, is ancient and cross-cultural, but as therapists, social workers, guidance counselors, teachers, and more integrate mindfulness into their work, studies are popping up that prove mindfulness correlates with reduction in things like depression and anxiety.

These findings, in one fashion or another, show that mindfulness can help increase positive thinking, reduce stress, help people regulate their emotions, and lead to higher levels of self-awareness. As a practitioner of mindfulness myself, it’s also fundamental to my work as a mental health counselor. However, in my own practice I’d say I’m more into meditation. Is there a difference?

Well, if you’ve ever read my work before then you know that I’m a firm believer in the language we use. Words take on meaning and that meaning can grow and change over time. Mindfulness and meditation, in my opinion, are similar but different. Mindfulness is focusing on the present moment with intention. Meditation is conducting self-soothing, introspection, and rote breathing patterns in order to reach deeper and higher levels of consciousness. In my opinion, mindfulness is a kind of meditation. Also, mindfulness means myriad things, from simple breathing to guided visualizations. A mindfulness practice can last two minutes or three days. To keep it simple: the practice of intentionally being in the present moment, moment-to-moment, is beneficial.
Yet questions come up in the great mindfulness debate. Is mindfulness about being present with your thoughts, or about putting them away, or letting them go? Is mindfulness about being aware of how you’re feeling, or being aware of your feelings as you’re having them?

The short answer is: yes. All those things. Mindfulness can be whatever you need it to be.

But the more complicated, and much more fun, answer, is tied to when I began to consider the word “mindlessness” in contrast to “mindfulness”, and I began to think that maybe we’re looking at two different practices.
Because all day long our minds are full: planning ahead, thinking back, problem-solving, feeling, learning, regulating, introspecting… Aren’t we mindful all day? Isn’t the point of finding your breath and stepping away from your thoughts more about mindlessness? I think so!

But the word “mindlessness” has developed a sour connotation, meaning mostly that people do dumb things because they weren’t thinking good enough. A mindless person can be inconsiderate, clumsy, stupid, self-centered, etc. That’s the meaning we currently have for the word. However, Merriam-Webster defines it as, “Marked by a lack of mind or consciousness” and, “Marked by or displaying no use of the powers of the intellect”, and, “Requiring little attention or thought; especially: not intellectually challenging or stimulating.”
And boy, do I love those definitions. If we reframe our perception of the word then we can see that mindlessness requires little effort, no challenge, and lack of intellect. It’s giving up the struggle and the constant gravity of human-ness in order to be in a place without working at it.

Concurrently, “mindfulness” is defined as, “Inclined to be aware.” This is also good. Awareness is central to the therapy I conduct. Awareness is such a good thing! But it can get us in trouble when we consider that a mindfulness practice is all about being present with your thoughts and just sitting in the muck and mire of them. This can be a good practice, too, but really, mindlessness would be the next step. If, when practicing mindfulness we are present with hurt, pain, joy, worry, loneliness, back pain, family troubles, lack of sleep, etc., then mindlessness practice is the next level- a dedication to releasing yourself of such intellect and removing your attention from this stimulation.

A well-prescribed mindfulness practice is doing the dishes. Practitioners advise to mindfully wash dishes, meaning to be intentional about being present with dishes, a time when we’re often dissociating, thinking about other things “more important” than the dishes. It’s a great practice, to mindfully wash dishes. But what I propose is that mindfulness practice raises our awareness of how full our minds are by helping us observe our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors from a little distance, and encourages us to “be present”. So. as you do dishes do you notice that you’re bored, tired, thinking about your job? This is noticing what your mind is doing as you do dishes, but it is not doing the dishes.

A mindlessness practice would simply be being present. No intentionality required. Positive Psychology calls this engagement, those moments when we’re so connected with our experience that everything else falls away. Gestalt therapy calls this Contact. The ancient Greeks called it “Eudaimonia”, or “well-daemoned”, meaning to be taken care of by divinities… Stripped of needing to be conscious of how full our minds are, then we can mindlessly Be.
That is to say, we can be being without any doing.

People use mindfulness differently. I don’t like guided practices or visualizations. I prefer deep breathing and chakra cleansing. I also don’t like doing things mindfully, like going for a walk or doing the dishes. I like seated, intentional meditation. Others really like having YouTube to walk them through a practice. I suggest you discover the mindfulness practice that works for you. Then, after you’ve been doing mindfulness for a while, I suggest you begin a mindlessness practice, one where you’re no longer needing to separate yourself from your Doing by increasing your awareness, but rather giving up your awareness. Reduce the effort. An effortless being reminds me so much of The Master that Taoism speaks of. Doing by Not Doing. The Master puts in no effort, but he does so intentionally. I’m beginning to see that, in part, what is meant by this, is that The Master is mindless. He’s let go of his mind and is utterly in the present.

Yes, it all sounds like hippie mumbo jumbo. I’m not here to convince you, but I do like exploring meaning-making, and I will say that mindfulness is paramount to my daily routine and has helped me become a better me. Even more, as I study therapeutic techniques and this idea of “engagement”, I also see them as moments of grace- and my practice of mindless being (as opposed, I suppose, to mindless doing) has led me to a very beautiful place of self-growth.

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