The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness. Whereas mindfulness involves paying purposeful attention and meeting experience with openness and curiosity, mindlessness means functioning on automatic pilot—following routines without paying attention, without appreciating, and without awareness of what’s happening inside and around us.
It’s easy to be mindless and it takes effort to be mindful. Here are two ways to avoid mindlessness and increase mindfulness in everyday life:
Beginner’s mind: We usually perceive everyday people and situations without appreciation or awareness, and through the lens of what we think we already know or understand about them. In contrast, beginner’s mind means experiencing people and situations as though for the first time, without the filter of history and established beliefs.
There are several advantages to consciously cultivating beginner’s mind. First, it allows us to appreciate things and people we take for granted. Think about the first time you see your partner or a beloved family member after a long separation. You notice every new freckle or wrinkle; you appreciate his or her smile and scent—that is, you see and appreciate your loved one as if he or she were new. Think about when a friend comes to visit your town or city and points out and appreciates features you barely notice anymore because you see them every day; that’s beginner’s mind. When we talk about beginner’s mind in MBSR, I ask participants to try to experience their morning shower as if for the first time—to imagine being from a planet where there are no showers, and to feel the amazement of stepping into an abundant stream of hot steamy water.
Second, beginner’s mind can be helpful in difficult interpersonal situations. We usually see our friends, partner, boss, colleagues, parents, and children through the cloudy lens of our history with them and our feelings about them. Beginner’s mind means seeing people as they actually are in the moment and not making assumptions. I used this technique to cope with a former colleague who drove me crazy; rather than assuming that she would react negatively or do something irritating, I waited to see what would happen, as though I’d never interacted with her before. Using beginner’s mind allowed me to approach our interactions with greater equanimity and to avoid unnecessary advance frustration.
Break your routine. Routine promotes automatic behaviour, and automatic behaviour is the death of mindfulness; eating the same thing for breakfast, shopping at the same stores, and taking the same routes to work every day doesn’t exactly inspire careful awareness and attention. I recently read a book that suggested that novel experiences can promote mindfulness and add excitement and meaning to life.
In the weeks that followed, I made an extra effort to switch up some of my habits: I went into stores I’d never been into, tried food I hadn’t tried or hadn’t tried for years, switched up my running routes, and spent time with different people and in different parts of the city.
Did breaking out of my routine dispel mindlessness and increase meaning? Yes. When I was discovering an area of the city I’d never visited before or spending time with a new friend, I felt more present and aware. I had to pay more attention because I had no history to predict what would happen—and that was exciting. To be sure, it was also uncomfortable and effortful. At restaurants, my instinct is to order the same dish I always order so I can be sure I’ll like it; when I go running, I like to run my same old routes so I know the exact distance covered and the precise location of public drinking fountains. It wasn’t easy to change my routine, but it was worth it. Two experiences in particular stand out:
a) After years of dedicated avoidance, I discovered that I like fish after all and don’t hate cilantro;
b) I had an unforgettable run: I’ve been running on the mountain in Montreal for nine years and always run in the same direction around the loop at the top. One morning, I purposely ran around the loop in the opposite direction and was rewarded with a stunning sunrise—slanting through the trees and beaming in my face—that must have been at my back on every other morning run. It actually stopped me in my tracks; it was as it were my very first run on the mountain (beginner’s mind).
Bringing beginner’s mind to routine and breaking up routine are can’t-miss routes to mindful awareness and appreciation. The next time you interact with your boss, parent, partner, or child, imagine that you’re seeing him or her for the very first time. The next time you have to decide where to go, what to do, or what to eat, try something different.
What do you notice?
Sarah Roberts is a psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher at the Numinus Clinic.