Mindfulness is great, in moderation. In a time when mindfulness has become so popular, this might be a surprising thing to say, but stay with me for a moment. It seems that it’s important to be able to switch between mindfulness and a specific kind of mindlessness, rather than sticking with one mode or the other. This type of mindlessness involves intuitive, instinctive decisions and actions based on well-designed evolutionary hardware and years of training. When we can integrate these two states of mind, we’re better able to avoid bias or stereotyping. We are better able to make decisions in complex situations (Kashdan & Biswas-Diener (2014).
Benefits of Mindfulness
I’m sure you’re well aware of the growing body of evidence that mindfulness practices benefit us in many ways. They boost the immune system, increase positive emotion and help us handle stress effectively (Kashdan & Biswas-Diener, 2014). Engaging in mindfulness practices is indeed a good thing, and there’s a number of ways to do so. Meditation and yoga might be ones that first come to mind. I find that other activities that uses the body in familiar, repetitive actions can have the same effect. Exercise like bicycling, walking or running, and handwork like knitting, crocheting, or slow sewing, are some examples of those.
In April, 2015 I took part in a wonderful training on leading others in writing for well-being. The facilitators, John Evans and Karen Jooste, integrated mindfulness activities into the 3-day workshop, which I’ve been sharing in workshops and in one-on-one coaching sessions.
We often focus on the importance of compassion for self and others. It’s been an amazing experience to be present as participants shift their attention away from the many pressures surrounding them, and take time to reflect on respond to their own need for self-compassion. One workshop participant commented,
How can we help anyone else, if we don’t take time to know who we are, and take care of our own needs?
Benefits of Mindlessness
Mindlessness, or the ability to figure things out without going through a long process of conscious thought can be useful. For example, it can help recognize who we can trust.
You know how sometimes you get uneasy feeling of discomfort in the presence of someone you just met? You might be responding intuitively, or “mindlessly” to someone who is subtly “mirroring” our nonverbal messages in a way that doesn’t match the situation. When such cues match the social context, for example, when a friend smiles and leans in closer as we do the same while telling them a story, we understand that as a signal that they’re listening and have our best interests at heart. The same behaviors coming from someone we’re competing with, or negotiating a purchase with might raise our distrust. The cues they’re sending are at odds with the nature of the relationship.
Mindlessness and Mindfulness, Working Together
We can’t always rely on our automatic mindless reactions, though. They can lead us astray. You may have found that out when your initial negative reaction to someone turned out to be inaccurate or unfair. It can go the other way too. You meet someone new, feel instantly drawn to them, only to later discover they are not trustworthy. You can get the combined help of mindlessness and mindfulness in a social situation with a new person, or in a discussion of a hot-button issue by
- Allowing the automatic mindless process to take place.
- Consciously noting changes in body sensations, thoughts and feelings.
- Reflecting on whether the mindless response is accurate in this instance, or an unfair or over-reaction.
Using mindless and mindful processes in this complementary way might help us make better hiring choices, avoid taking on clients who aren’t a good fit for us, and can even help us recognize unsafe situations (Kashdan & Biswas-Diener, 2014).
The Six A’s of Mindful Writing
Here’s the Six A’s of Mindful Writing exercise, which I’ve frequently used myself, and have shared in numerous workshops. As one participant said, like meditation,
This helps me focus on what’s happening here and now. I can put aside distractions and stray thoughts, and be fully present.
Perhaps you’d like to give it a try!
You can write on a computer, mobile device or on paper. Use each sentence stem, without taking too long to respond. This writing is just for you, so you don’t have to make it polished or error free. Just write. Settle comfortably, take a few deep breaths, notice what’s going on around and within you.
- Awareness. “I am aware of….”
- Attention. “I pay attention to…”
- Acceptance. “I accept that…”
- Appreciation. “I appreciate that…”
- Affection. “I have affection for…”
- Affirmation. “I affirm that…”
Next time try this exercise with a focus on a particular experience, issue or question, and see what emerges. Give it a try and let me know what you learn from it.
[Originally published on 6/6/15. Revised and re-published on 6/12/17.
Kashdan, T. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self – not just your “good” self-drives success and fulfillment.New York, NY: Penguin Group.
First published 6-6-2017. Revised 8-23-17