Mindless Mindfulness

shrinbks-links-photo1If you’re a shrink and have been paying attention to trends, you’ve noticed that everyone in shrinkland is talking about something called mindfulness. I don’t know if mindfulness has infiltrated non-shrinkdom as much as it has the land of shrinkishness; but if it has, it’s either got you completely converted, or, if you’re like me, you’re ready to puke.

As much as I hate to admit this about a trendy thing, the purveyors of mindfulness are selling something that’s real, and really good; the trouble is, they’re doing such a great job of selling it that they may be outselling their supply. The customers buying mindfulness may be placing their order, awaiting the delivery, opening the box, only to find it empty, containing as much mindlessness as they have in the rest of their life.

The problem is that mindfulness has become mindlessly equated with meditation. That might be because the purveyors of mindfulness will all have you start meditating so that you can be mindful. Meditation is a good way to do it, but it’s far from the only way. The idea is to quiet the mind, so you can focus on one thing at a time. That’s the idea; but, when you sit on a cushion and try to quiet your mind, you discover that your mind thinks of a hundred things at once, no matter how hard you try to focus on one thing, like your breathing. They say that, with lots and lots of practice, you can get good at training yourself to notice your mind running off to chase squirrels and rein it in to focus on your breathing; but, for most people, all they accomplish is that they notice that their mind chases squirrels.

The funny thing is, mindfulness can be the act of noticing your mind chasing squirrels.

Definitions are in order. Ellen Langer, the mother of mindfulness, says it’s a flexible state of mind when you are actively engaged in the here and now, noticing stuff, and aware of context. Mindlessness, by contrast, is when you already have your mind made up. When you’re stuck in a single, rigid perspective, oblivious to alternatives.

The person who invented sheet pizza must have been mindful. He (or she, it’s an example of mindlessness to keep saying he all the time, when you don’t know) realized that pizzas don’t have to be round, just because they were always made that way. There may have been a good reason to make them round back when they were invented, but he had no good reason now. He could make them rectangular just as easily as he could make them round.

If you’re feeling strong emotions, chances are, you’re being mindless. Emotions are pre-programmed scripts that kick in when certain buttons are pushed. The anger you feel when someone acts unjustly is there to protect you; all the physiological responses to anger get you ready to fight. You don’t need to think about what you are doing for an emotion to kick in. That’s the point. The emotion, and the pre-programmed script, is there to tell you what to do, so you don’t have to be delayed by coming up with something through deliberation.

If you actually get in a fight, when a fight is unavoidable, this automatic response really helps. But, if you get into a lot of fights because you over-react to provocations, then you may want to tinker with the program a little so that, when the buttons are pushed, you don’t follow the anger script without consideration of other options. In other words, you may want to be mindful of your anger.

So, that’s all mindfulness is: it’s being aware of yourself, your environment, and your choices in interacting between yourself and the environment. That’s all. You don’t need to meditate to do that; but, you could.

Meditation can hurt mindfulness if you meditate mindlessly; if you’re just doing it because it’s trendy or someone told you to do it, without regard to the objective of the exercise.

If you understand what mindfulness is and keep it in mind, then meditation can be a very good thing; but, so can other time-proven practices, like the following:
– Look around and find something to see in your environment that you have not noticed before, hear something you haven’t heard, smell something you haven’t been conscious of smelling, feel something you have touched, but haven’t felt.
– The next time you eat something, slow down and really taste it, smell it, and see what it looks like.
– Write out your thoughts. When you write things, as opposed to just thinking them, you become more aware of what you’re thinking. However, if you want to become even more mindful, write out your thoughts without using any value laden words.
– Try to explain a project you’re working on to your Grandmother without the lingo you would normally use, employing words and concepts she would understand. If you can’t do it, then you are just mindlessly repeating what others have said.
– Talk to someone about your feelings. Putting them in words can make you think about your feelings differently. However, if you want to become even more mindful, talk about your feelings from another person’s perspective.
– State your values and your goals. Will doing what you are about to do help you achieve your goals or serve your values?

I could go on and on. There’s a million ways of being mindful. Wake up and experience them; don’t just mindlessly start meditating.

If you want to learn more about mindfulness, click here to go to Langer’s website.