What were you thinking about before you started reading this? Do you ever notice an obsessive chattering inside your head when you’re not totally engrossed in something? Your mind is like popping corn, jumping from one thought to another. Mindlessness is pervasive in our culture. At times, most of us have functioned on autopilot, as though we were sleepwalking, not paying much attention to anything but the endless dialogue in our heads.
Some researchers say we humans have anywhere from 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. Surprisingly, as many as 98 percent of those thoughts are exactly the same as the ones we had the day before. In addition, 80 percent of our thoughts are negative. Most involve rehashing things from the past or worrying about something in the future. Interspersed may be some important thoughts or creative ideas. However, these often get lost among the mindless chatter.
“Oh, you’re here,” I said to one of my friends at a recent dance. He responded, “No, I’m not here yet.” His mind was still processing an event he had just left. Our busy lives don’t allow us time to process where we’ve just been so we can be fully present where we are. Have you ever taken a wrong turn and forgotten where you were going? How embarrassing it is when you can’t respond to someone because you haven’t really heard what they said. Perhaps even now you don’t remember what you just read.
There is much more to the mindless state of consciousness than our rambling thoughts. We experience the world by creating categories. This helps us distinguish between a cup and a table, between our mother and our boss, or, on grander scale, between religions, ideologies, and systems of government. Based on our upbringing and schooling, we tend to accept the word of authority figures, often without thinking on our own. In the words of journalist Walter Lippmann, “We do not first see and then define, we define first and then see.”
We are not aware of how rigid, stereotypical, and limited our worldviews and behaviors often are. We act automatically on beliefs based on cultural labels, experience, etc. Habits, rote behaviors, and rigidly fixed perspectives may limit our capacity to see different viewpoints and conceive of better ways to do something. These behaviors can lead to errors and accidents—and even impact the course of our lives.
Why move to mind-FUL-ness?
What’s missing in this mindless dance is the ability to be and feel fully alive. When experiences become ordinary, we may seek to intensify feelings through drugs, media, sports, or sex. We never get enough though because the experience soon becomes ordinary again. Or, we may go in the opposite direction by numbing ourselves with alcohol, food, TV, etc. I would suggest a better way. When we came into this world, we viewed it with curiosity and openness; with the cultivation of mindfulness, we can return to that way of experiencing the world.
Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist and author of Mindfulness, has been researching these opposite states of consciousness since the 1970s. She defines mindfulness as simply “actively noticing new things,” which she says energizes and engages us and opens us up to new possibilities. We then become more aware of our environment and more sensitive, understanding, even compassionate. Langer suggests that we notice five new things about a partner, friend, or colleague and then consider what we learn from this. Noticing is also listening objectively to others’ viewpoints and being curious about how they came to their opinion.
When you start actively noticing new things about yourself, others, and the world around you, you discover that there is no room for judgment. As you become cognizant of multiple points of view, you become less biased, are able to shift perspectives and beliefs, and feel more connected with others. Your intuition and creativity are enhanced as you open to new information and new perspectives. Your working memory is boosted. You become more alert and focused on the project or situation at hand—and you do so with greater ease.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction, defines mindfulness as, “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” Zinn teaches meditation as the path to reach this conscious state of awareness, while Langer’s path is by simply noticing. I am a proponent of meditation, as well as well as yoga, tai chi, and qigong to help hone mindfulness skills. However, as my mentor, Richard Miller, PhD, founder of iRest Yoga Nidra meditation, constantly reminds us, meditation is a 24/7 way of being, rather than something we do once a day.
Health and well-being
Langer’s research has revealed that our mindset can affect our health and well-being. In the mindless state, we have a belief and then seek to confirm it. She suggests the more mindful approach is to ask How is it this way? and How is it not?
In one of Langer’s studies, one group of chambermaids was told that their job was exercise—calorie burning and beneficial for health. The second was given no frame of reference. Those with the exercise orientation experienced improved health benefits and weight loss. In a landmark 1979 study (which has since been replicated), elderly men participated in a week-long retreat in which their environment was retrofitted to seem like it was 1959. At the end, the participants’ hearing, vision, memory, and strength improved. Even arthritic fingers were longer! The focus was not on pretending, but rather on “being” and acting mindfully as they had at a much younger age.
Mindfulness is the process, the doing. Mindfulness can change your relationships to everything. It invites you to change the question from Can I do something? to How can I do it? When you make this shift, a whole world of possibilities open to you.
Accept the invitation
Instead of escaping from or intensifying life, mindfulness asks you to welcome everything—not just the good things in life, but the challenging and the ordinary as well. You learn to dance between the opposites in life with less emotional reaction and more grace and compassion.
Meditation can provide a foundation for learning how to accept the mindfulness invitation. This is especially true with practices such as iRest Yoga Nidra that help you navigate emotions, thoughts, and beliefs, clearing the path to help you “notice” more.
Most of us will never escape mindlessness completely. We still need to create and achieve goals. However, when we notice we are ruminating or having a knee-jerk or emotional reaction, we can consciously move to a state of mindfulness.
As Eckhart Tolle aptly recommends, “Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment. Surrender to what is. Say ‘yes’ to life—and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.”
* Here Ellen Langer talking about Mindfulness
Contact me to experience the mindfulness invitation with a complimentary telephone iRest session: Jacqui@HarmoniousPathways.com