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Mindful vs mindless: Demystifying mindfulness, definition as creative interaction with life


The word ‘mindfulness’ is so often used these days that we rarely stop to ask what it means. For some people, it has a mystical connotation, something that puts us in touch with the transcendent. For others, ‘mindfulness’ is simply another word for ‘meditation’.

We suggest an approach that emphasizes how much more ordinary and normal it is than you may think. We see mindfulness as engagement with everyday life. In other words: Living mindfully is the opposite of living mindlessly.

This is by no means a new definition. For instance, in the ninth century, Ch’an master Lin-Chi said: ‘When hungry, eat your rice; when tired, close your eyes. Fools may laugh at me, but wise men will know what I mean.


Why are we de-emphasizing meditation? It’s not that we disagree about the benefits of the sustained practice of meditation (far from it). However, focusing just on what happens with people who meditate a lot introduces a distortion. It is as if we only talked about opera singers when we talk about the human activity of singing, omitting the whole range that starts with people singing in their showers. Or if we only looked at Olympic athletes when discussing the benefits of physical exercise.

So we look at mindfulness as a normal human trait. A good starting point is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition: “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”.

“Paying attention” is part of our repertoire as human beings. So, defining mindfulness as “a particular way of paying attention” is a very nice way to make it more natural, much less intimidating. Let’s look at this quality within an evolutionary context.

A long, long time ago, our ancestors lived in the wild. In those days, survival depended on being alert. Imagine the “ancestors” walking in the woods, keeping their eyes and ears open. They’re alert. Ready to react to danger, or to seize an opportunity. Poised, but not tense—for them, this is not an emergency situation, this is everyday life.

Now, let’s revisit Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition in light of the image evoked in the paragraph above. The ancestors described in this scene are very much on purpose, in the present moment. We are not talking about some mystical, esoteric way to “be here now”; we are talking about having to pay attention to what is happening here and now in order to get what you need. As to the nonjudgmental quality: You cannot be fully engaged with your environment if you are second-guessing yourself or what’s happening around you.

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. What if bored actually means disengaged? When our mind is disengaged, we’re functioning in a mindless way.

It’s not just that we can survive without being fully present. It’s also that being disengaged has real value in today’s world. Think about the kind of vacant stare we have in an elevator, or in a crowded subway: It’s a useful way to manage being in very close physical proximity to people we are actually not connecting with.

One of the great benefits of civilization is that we live in a more forgiving world. We don’t need to be as engaged in survival as our ancestors in order to survive. But not having to be engaged is also one of the great curses of civilization.

Our ancestors evolved ways to store fat, and this had great survival value in an environment where food was scarce or not always available. Now, for those of us who have plenty of access to all the food we need (and more), we find it necessary to make a concerted effort to monitor our food intake.

In a similar way, we find it necessary to make a concerted effort to exercise, because we cannot count on our regular daily activities to naturally include the amount of exercise that our bodies have evolved to require.

You get the drift: We also need to make a conscious effort to shift from distracted to engaged. We need this intentionality because our current life styles tend to train us to be distracted rather than engaged.


See also: Relational mindfulness



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