Demystifying mindfulness: A proactive & mindful everyday life

demysitifying mindfulness

Photo: Victorien Ameline / Unsplash

There’s an unintended consequence to putting mindfulness on a pedestal: it becomes an unreachable goal. This article provides a down-to-earth perspective on mindfulness. That is, a proactive and mindful way to approach life.

Mindfulness is a natural ability that we all have

Our remote ancestors survived because they were actively engaged with their environment. They were alert to both potential opportunities and potential dangers. They were alert without being hyper vigilant because that kind of engagement was a normal part of everyday life. The key point is: They were mindful because they needed to be mindful.

Unfortunately, we do not use it

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, but our survival also 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, i.e. disengaged. We are not engaged because we do not absolutely need to be.

So it is not a contradiction to say that:
(1) We have a natural ability to be mindful, and
(2) Our default mode is to be mindless.

For efficient functioning, a feature that’s not needed is not activated. For us, as for our remote ancestors, mindfulness comes in only when it’s needed. It’s just that we need it less often. So we need to “game the system”… and this is why I am talking about “proactive mindfulness” as opposed to the natural mindfulness of our ancestors.

We need to game the system

This phrase probably sounds very abstract, so a very simple example will help bring it to life. Let’s say you’re walking in a State Park. Your attention is not very engaged, because there is no real need for it to be. There are a lot of trees, and all trees kind-of look the same, so it’s fairly boring. Maybe very pleasantly boring, but fairly boring anyway, in the sense that there is no direct invitation for you to be engaged with where you are. Chances are you let your mind wander, and you are lost in your thoughts. There’s more action inside your mind than between you and the outside world!

Let’s say that, at some point, you realize you’ve been mostly in your head, and you want to try to be more mindful. Trying to force yourself to be more mindful will not work for more than a few moments, because there is nothing to keep your attention engaged. It is different if you actively engage your curiosity. For instance, you start to pay attention to the similarities and differences between the trees.

From this perspective, there are many opportunities to cultivate your ability to be proactive and mindful, including a variety of mindfulness exercises.