Mindlessness and Mindfulness

A growing number of people understand that mindfulness is much more than a brief relaxation session during the day. I think of it as an essential skill in the world we live in.

We can think of mindfulness as being aware of what we are doing while we are doing it. Or, as Thich Nhat Hanh describes it: “Mindfulness shows us what is happening in our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and in the world. Through mindfulness, we avoid harming ourselves and others.”

For many of us, staying in this state is a journey more than a destination.

In order to  better understand mindfulness, I’ll explore the absence of it, mindlessness, as Ellen Langer calls it in her wonderful book, Mindfulness.

She defines mindlessness in three ways, to help us see how we can better identify and practice mindfulness.

  1. Trapped by categories

Categories can help us stay organized, healthy, and efficient. They help us manage all the data we receive every day, and allow us to know what to do and when. We create categories for our convenience, but if we’re not mindful of them, they can become limiters in how we think and make choices. The result could be missed opportunities for us and others, miscommunication, misunderstanding, unnecessary stress, or even injury.

Maintaining the same categories in our minds without ever questioning them would be an example of what Langer calls mindlessness. “Mindlessness sets in when we rely too rigidly on categories and distinctions created in the past (masculine/feminine, old/young, success/failure).” (Mindfulness, Ellen J. Langer)

Creating new categories is a mindful activity.

2. Automatic behavior

Automatic behavior can have much in common with habit. I had a client who told me that at the end of a job interview, she automatically said, “Thank you, I love you.” She had a habit of saying I love you when she said good-bye to family and friends. Now, this is a wonderful habit, but she wasn’t in control of it during the interview. She didn’t want to stop saying I love you. She wanted to do it mindfully.

Changing routines and habits increases mindfulness.

3. Acting from a single perspective

This definition of mindlessness is demonstrated when we see only one way to do something. There are many examples of this kind of behavior, where we are convinced we are right and there is only one possible answer to a given situation. Differences in communication styles, working styles, or cultures are common situations where this form of mindlessness occur. When there is no room for alternative perspectives, new options, or different ideas, it leaves ample room for rigidity and stubbornness to grow.

Being open to new ideas and ways of doing things is not only mindful, but also solution-oriented.

By being aware of these three definitions of mindlessness, we can begin to identify when they happen in our lives, and change our approach. This gives us more power over our choices and our lives.

If I’m struggling to find a new way to do something, or if I notice I’m stuck in a pattern, I don’t have to continue as I am. I can learn to disrupt my mindless behavior and begin to apply a new form of behavior that I’m more aligned with.

Remember that we can use anything as a mindfulness reminder. Even habits of mindlessness.

Farhad Desai

Farhad is Co-Founder and Mindfulness Facilitator at Beyond Binary Consulting. He is the author of Orientation: For the Journey of a Lifetime