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Mindfulness or Mindlessness? That is the question

Updated: Dec 29, 2021

Mindfulness is a frequently discussed and highly recommended practice in the health and wellness sector and rightly so. Hundreds of research studies have emerged over the past few decades supporting the benefits of mindfulness as one part of a program to assist with the management of:

  • Stress management

  • Weight Loss

  • Substance Abuse

  • Depression

  • Grief

  • Physical Rehabilitation

  • etc….

The general “theme” of mindfulness is to pay very specific, multilayered attention to a chosen activity or situation. Some examples of mindful techniques include:

  1. Lying on the floor and noticing all the qualities of your breath as it moves past your nostrils. Notice the temperature, texture and rate of flow

  2. Eat 10 raisins, one at a time, as slowly as you can. Pay attention to taste, sensation, sound and smell as you do so

  3. Walk barefoot in the grass, again pay attention to how the grass feels on your feet, how it smells, how all the little parts of your foot move as you take each step.

These are all simple and useful activities to try, the goal is that we become more aware of our internal selves and internal workings. In doing so we improve our interoception, which is a lesser-known sense that allows us to feel and register sensations going on within the body such as a stomach growl from hunger (that’s an easily identifiable one) or our rising pulse and heartbeat due to fear (more difficult to sense). As we begin to develop a greater sense of what's happening inside our bodies, we also develop a heightened sense of our "filters" or our programmed responses to what's happening. Filters are our judgments or our instinctive responses to a situation or feeling. If thoughts that come up are pleasant then we often want to "stay" with those thoughts. They make us feel good. If the sensations or thoughts are unpleasant we often want to "flee" the discomfort. As we become more attuned to our bodies and minds we can see that these filters are often subconscious, yet still under our control. Developing a heightened interoception sense gives us a chance to feel and understand what's happening in our bodies before we react, resulting in greater control over our thoughts and actions. This in turn can be extremely beneficial in the management of chronic pain, emotional regulation, stress management and coping skills.

Mindfulness also takes a lot of focus and a certain degree of work, energy, and bandwidth in the brain.

Mind-LESS-ness, however, as described in an article in The Guardian a few years back (here) is the art of not doing much thinking at all and instead, just letting your brain wander without following those thoughts down a rabbit hole. It is the art of allowing our minds to travel away from the present experience without a particular destination. In yoga, we call this Pratyahara, “removal of the senses” and it is one of the tenets, or limbs, on the path to enlightenment.

The benefits of this are many but it is HARD!!

For one, we do not often totally “check out” and just be still without a goal or tangible outcome. It can be a challenge to be ok with doing nothing when we all have such long to-do lists and responsibilities to work, family, and community. Modern society has not conditioned us to be bored or "unproductive”.

We have so much at our fingertips to distract, to guilt, to shame, to avoid, to numb that most of the time we don't even realize or pay attention to what we are actually watching / reading / doing. When we can start to turn down the noise and allow our mind to literally breathe and expand, it is an act of self-care and can be a very powerful way to provide ourselves with the rejuvenating rest we desperately require.

It can be very unsettling, however, to just be alone with our thoughts without some way to distract ourselves from the feelings that come up. If you have a history of trauma this can be especially difficult so please consult a professional or try this first with a trusted person in your life.

Sometimes (ok, a lot of times) you have to persevere through the uncomfortable to get to the reward.

David Foster Wallace on boredom: “It turns out that bliss – a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.”

A few studies have emerged stating that idleness can actually spur creativity by pushing the brain to fill the “gap" that was left by a period of boredom (2). Pretty cool, huh?

You have to let yourself get so bored that your mind has nothing better to do than tell itself a story – Neil Gaiman

Some ways you can practice Mindlessness include:

1. Sit outside in a comfortable chair and just watch the clouds go by

2. Lie on your bed or couch and allow your eyes to soften as you simply stare at the ceiling

3. Lie on the floor and listen to instrumental music

4. Softly gaze at a flickering flame from a candle or fire (also called, Trataka)

Mindfulness and Mindlessness neither are better than the other, it all depends on your goal and what feels right to YOU. This can change from day to day. Having options is always good and putting some thought into understanding what we need at any given moment is a highly useful skill. Try them all and comment below to tell me if you are Team Mindful or Team Mindless or maybe you are both!




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