It seems that the ancient art of mindfulness is having another golden era. Mind-lessnness, on the other hand, is getting little to no airtime. Everybody’s in a gallop to be living in the now, mindfully aware of each precious moment. And while the lessons of Mindfulness have been a huge gift to the stressed Western mind, it does feel somewhat like the adage “when all you have is a hammer, everything’s a nail”. Aren’t we in fact missing one of the many of the lessons of mindfulness?
Mindfulness is that we learn to become aware of what “lens” we are using to see the world. Is it a narrowly focused lens, resting on – (or obsessing) about one thing, or are we using a broader, more expansive “lens”, receiving whatever comes to our awareness without needing to stretch or strive? This latter lens is not mind wandering, but does not direct what we might call our “beam” of attention. In both, we are fully aware and in the moment.
But if we were to think of our “Modes of Mind” as being something like the gears of a car, we can see that there are other levels of attention and inattention available to us in our tool kit.
More like this...............
Sometimes it’s good to zone out!
Most of us are no strangers to Mind-lessness, although we may never have promoted it to having a name before. It’s those times when we lose track of time, when we do not chose what we think about, but aimlessly and shamelessly allow our mind to wander where it will. On some occasions, this is a definitively bad thing; when we don’t pay attention while driving or crossing the road, when we get trapped in to anxious thinking, when we are oblivious to social cues from others or when we lose three hours down the social media rabbit hole. But there are times when Mindlessness might be just what we need.
Taking a De-Tour De France
Take jogging for example (which has somehow been upgraded in the common vernacular to “running” for some reason. Clearly, they have never seen me jog). Aren’t there times when you just need to allow your mind to wander where it will, unconsciously unknotting the tangles of the day’s stressors, wandering from yesterday, to tomorrow and tonight without path nor pattern? Studies have shown that we can often run for longer when our mind is distracted by the beat of high tempo music or the glue of a great podcast. In these instances, tuning in to the breath or the musculature of the body can make us too aware of discomfort, aching muscles, or shortness of breath, leading to negative self-talk and a lowering of our own expectations. I know that when I am running I much prefer my mind to take me off, with the help of some pumping good music, to some lovely future, where everything is just right, or I’ve finished that marathon that’s on my Bucket List, or I’m visiting French markets in my camper van, or to maybe just allowing my mind to come up with the next article I’m going to write. I absolutely don’t want to be listening to my breath which I find makes me much more conscious of getting tired. So sometimes Mindless disassociation from the present moment may be just what we need.
Less like this...
Two Modes of Mind: Association and Dissociation:
Mindfulness teaches us to tune in to what is in the here and now, without judgement or any attempt to change it. As such, it teaches us to “turn towards” the here and now, to “Associate” with it, to “hang out” with it as it were.
“Disassociation”, on the other hand, occurs when we either consciously or unconsciously (i.e. by choice or not) tune out of what our senses are telling us about the here and now, and allow our minds to take us off in to some imaginary or remembered scenario, a tropical beach, a walk in a pine forest, a deep dive to the ocean floor etc. Probably the most common period of dissociation happens when we drift off to sleep. In order for our mind to rest and come up with all those crazy dreams, our brain begins by disengaging from reality and dissociating from the here and now. But we can also choose to use disassociation to manage chronic pain or the pain of childbirth (I’ve done this and will write about it another day) or simply to achieve a state of deep relaxation when our head is fried.
One caveat I would add is that if you are someone who suffers with anxiety, you may find that allowing your mind to wander wherever it wants can bring you to some dark or distressing thoughts. If this is true for you then you will need to choose (consciously) what you are going to think about - such as a perfect holiday etc. In this case, you are placing your attention on to something different to where you are at the moment but not allowing your mind to bring you to ongoing worries and concerns. Negative mind wandering can also be part of clinical depression so again caution is needed and it would be wise to get professional help to steer you in the right direction.
If you are one of the many people who have learned mindfulness but struggle to find the time to practise it, or to see how it relates to your busy life, you might find that starting with a dissociative relaxation exercise might be a much better way to achieve the instant de-stress you need. You can always re-visit the lessons of Mindfulness from this clearer, more rested, headspace. In the meantime, you can give yourself a pat on the back for adding a new “Mode of Mind” to your repertoire.