What mindfulness is NOT…
Now that you know a little of what mindfulness is, let’s talk about what it isn’t.
The direct opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness, and this can occur in a three ways*:
Zoning out or numbing ourselves
The first kind of mindlessness is a kind of disconnection from life. It involves being on autopilot and not being present to what is here – in our relationships with friends, partners and children, work, and our environment. This can lead to a kind of deadness or dullness in our day-to-day relating and living. We can also dull ourselves with habits that don't serve us but are kind of soothing. We all know how to do this: over-eating or drinking too much alcohol, over-use of our phone or watching too much TV, and not pursuing our interests or relationships wholeheartedly.
Resisting or avoiding our current experience
In every life, there are unpleasant moments. Many of us have cultivated the habit of wishing away or trying to avoid what is unpleasant in the moment. This can manifest as fear, anxiety, a sense of urgency to get on to the next thing, frustration, and negatively judging ourselves and others. We can miss huge swathes of our actual lives by not engaging directly with the realities before us, because we have the idea that things ‘shouldn't’ be the way they are. We feel that nothing is quite right or good enough or safe enough. Mindfulness is the practice of embracing all of life – the joy and the difficulty – and letting go of the battle with what is simply here. This takes some courage. We learn how to tolerate and explore our stress and distress, learning from it, and freeing us up for more clear action and authority in our lives.
Wishing for a more ideal future
We can also spend lots of time wishing for something better – an ideal experience, not too cold or hot, not too stimulating but not boring. We strive to have things just the way we like them – setting up an endless quest for the ideal life – and only then will we rest and be happy. We idealise jobs, people, ideas, and possessions in the hope they will make us feel better when we finally attain them. And in doing this, we miss all the lived experience and value that is here now – the only time we can experience anything. By living this way, we set up a pattern of constant criticism of ourselves for having not yet attained this life. To start seeing this as a pattern of the mind – just thoughts rather than reality – can be very liberating.
We do these things because we’re smart mammals, and we’re hard-wired to secure stability and homeostasis for ourselves and those close to us. Unfortunately, change is constant and loss is inevitable. When we come to realise this and accept it and live with it in mind, everything opens up. More risks can be taken and more true peace can be found in the midst of a busy, demanding and imperfect life. We take things both more seriously and more lightly.
*Adapted with permission from an excellent book by Michael Bunting - The Mindful Leader, 2016.