Mindlessness is not a flaw of character, but a consequence of the way our mind functions. Our brain is geared to organizing information in terms of action-oriented patterns. It automatically jumps to conclusions, such as: “this is a good fruit to eat, pick it up” or “this is a dangerous predator, you need to escape”.
This worked beautifully many thousands of years ago, when our remote ancestors still lived in the context in which we evolved into Homo Sapiens. In that context, they were able to shift from mindless to mindful, and vice versa, in harmony with the situations they encountered.
Our ancestors needed to be actively engaged with their environment. To function in civilized life, we have much less of a need to be mindful. For instance, while they needed to be poised and alert when walking in the wild, it is quite possible for us to walk mindlessly in a State Park, without any adverse consequences.
So our natural ability to be mindful is not as easily triggered in civilized life. It takes intentionality to shift from mindless autopilot. The way to do that is essentially similar to what happens when we change directions in our car and the GPS recalculates the situation. Something changes, so the GPS has to take a break from its programmed route, to re-orient and redirect.
When we pause, we take a break. This is a moment where our mind, our body, our whole organism, recalculate how we are vis a vis the situation. This recalculation is new information about situation, in a very subjective way. That is: It is a felt sense of what’s happening to “me”, a sense of the potential danger or opportunity, and the beginning of an intuitive response to it.
We are not necessarily conscious of our assessment of the situation and of our response. In fact, much of the time, if we experience it at all, it is as at a pre-verbal level, as a fuzzy felt sense.
We are not computers or logical machines. Our mind evolved to give us a sense of how to face dangers and opportunities. The assessments it provides are not scholarly treatises, but action-oriented information. Subjective, as opposed to objective. This subjective information builds into a sense of who we are relative to the world, and into a sense of meaning and purpose. We are not talking here about lofty definitions of meaning and purpose: It could simply be that, at a given moment, my purpose is to tie my shoes. It’s just what is in the moment.
What are the implications of this perspective?
Being mindless means being disconnected from that moment-by-moment sense of meaning and purpose. No amount of lofty thinking about ‘meaning and purpose’ can compensate for that primal alienation.
What we’re talking about is: The practice of mindfulness involves paying attention to a sense of self. Not as an abstract philosophical inquiry into what ‘self’ might be. More like a sense of living life as a koan: Who is it that is facing the situation? Who is this ‘me’ that I experience when I am mindful?
This may seem a little strange if you’ve read that mindfulness requires that you get rid of the self. It may seem contradictory, but it’s actually not. What we’re getting rid of is the idea of the self as a fixed object, something that is solid.
So what is it that we practice?
Being mindful involves tracking our felt sense of our interaction with people and situations, moment by moment. This gives us a different sense of self, arguably a sense of our truer self. Not as a rigid construct, but the self as the unfolding of moment-by-moment experience, as it makes moment-by-moment decisions.
When we are involved in any form of mindfulness practice, we are acutely aware of how fluid our mind is, moment by moment. This leads us to let go of the idea that there is a fixed mind, or a fixed self. On the other hand, as we are paying attention to what happens moment by moment in our interactions, we notice a sense of process. We may as well call that experience (the process, and how pausing affects the process) the experience of the Self. In this sense, all of our life is potentially mindful practice.