The Downside of Mindlessness

We don’t have to talk about meditation, so don’t panic.  But I do want to talk about mindlessness – just going through life without thought or much observation.   Mindfulness or mindlessness is the manner you go about your life between meditation sessions (sorry, couldn’t resist).  The best example for mindlessness for me is not remembering one detail about my drive into work.  Twenty minutes of pure mindlessness, though my new commute is filled with so much beauty it is so much harder for me to be mindless.

We’ve developed these mindless habits to simplify our lives, but Harvard professor and author of Counter Clockwise, Ellen Langer argues that we are giving up our freedom to choose when we fail to be present.  My drive into work could have involved noticing a new store, a beautiful sky, a kind gesture, or the choice for a new route and scenery.  Instead, I typically drive like an automaton, giving away my life in 10-20 minute increments.

There are other downsides to mindlessness.  Others, including animals, can sense our mindlessness even if we think we’re hiding it well.  Distracted conversation is not an effective way to communicate or build trusting relationships.  Those who approach others with mindfulness elicit a desire to interact and engage and are viewed more positively than those who interact mindlessly.

Here are some additional benefits from approaching tasks with mindfulness:

  • Energizing – mindfulness is energizing, not energy depleting
  • Creativity – mindful approaches enables creativity as one views projects with fresh eyes
  • Better, more trusting relationships
  • Higher quality work – Tasks performed mindfully are judged to be better than those that are done mindlessly
  • Fewer mistakes and improved willingness to turn mistakes into opportunities
  • More fun

Langer even states that suffering is due to mindlessness, not only in terms of what we tend to notice (or not notice) in our world,  but how we think/feel about our world (see also  My View on Perception , Bias, It’s Just Not for Fabrics and Projection and Perception).  Our assumptions and automatic beliefs about the world create our unhappiness and our inability to think creatively and out-of-the-box.  My drive to work can either be seen as a terrible burden and unpleasant experience, or a time for discovery.  Again:  a choice.

The path to mindfulness, according to Langer, is to “make it new in subtle ways that only you would know.”  She also recommends noticing how it feels to be mindful and to cultivate that feeling.  I will just indulge myself here and remind you that meditation is exercise for the mindfulness muscle (see also Soothing the Child Within).  Fortunately, there are many ways to exercise mindfulness, so find the meditation style or activity (such as yoga or swimming) that is right for you.  Choose to become more mindful, and observe the beauty, newness, choices, creativity and opportunities that have been right under your nose this whole time.