Mindful vs Mindless: Self-regulation & mindful engagement

I do not think of mindfulness as a transcendent state. I see it as a state of the nervous system which can be described as mindful engagement. That is, being mindful as opposed to mindless, engaged with what we are doing as opposed to disconnected.

What is implicit in this definition is that life is interaction. At any moment, our organism is responding to interaction. We are not controlling everything, nor are we totally passive: mindful engagement is a dance of interaction. The concept of self-regulation is better understood in this context. Here is a visual metaphor. Think of it as a floodgate, just like the dam that regulates the flow of water.


If the floodgates are open, we get totally flooded. The information is no use to us. The experience is actually destructive.


If the gates are closed, we get no information whatsoever. We get no experience. And we get no benefit from the experience.


To benefit from the mighty river without being flooded by it, we need to be able to open and close the floodgates at will.

When we regulate interaction, we benefit from the experience without being overwhelmed by it.

The process of regulating interaction is a natural process, one that we share with other animals. It is very clear if you observe how human babies drink.

The bottle is open, and gravity gets the water to flow down to our mouth.


As we drink, we take pauses to shift from bringing water into the mouth to conveying it inside the organism:

– if we were totally open, nonstop, we’d be flooded,
– if we were totally closed, nonstop, we’d get no water,
– it works because we’re able to regulate the intake of water.

It’s so natural, a child does it without being taught. So, if pausing comes naturally, why would ever need to take a mindful pause?

The answer is: When things are more difficult, especially when we are stressed. Here’s an analogy: Breathing, too, comes naturally. But, under stress, our breathing becomes shallow. This reduces the blood flow in our body (including our brain) and, in turn, reduces our capacity to deal with stress. It is good for us to intentionally break this vicious cycle by intentionally regulating our breathing (see: Beyond reactive: How to develop a proactive mindset).

A mindful pause helps us regulate interaction, in such a way that we can benefit from the experience without being overwhelmed by it.