The rise and rise of mindfulness
Mindfulness is, in it’s simplest form, conscious awareness. It has become big business. The assistant head teacher responsible for pastoral care at my children’s secondary school tells me he is overwhelmed with emails from businesses offering mindfulness training. Book shops offer a plethora of volumes on the subject and academic papers on the benefits of mindfulness abound. But is mindfulness overrated, is it possible to be too mindful?
Kashdan & Biswas-Diener (2015) suggest that the unconscious mindless processes we all possess should not be underestimated. Being able to use these effectively is key in good decision making and optimal performance especially in complex situations and in promoting creativity. Being constantly mindful simply requires too much cognitive processing power to allow us to do all the things we need to do to function in daily life. We need the mental shortcuts of mindless thinking otherwise we’d never get anything done. Contrary to our instincts, unconscious thinking processes are better at handling and analysing large amounts of complex data, so believing that mindful analysis is always preferable may lead to less effective choices . So mindlessness is good and necessary, sometimes.
Like many topics in Positive Psychology, it seems to be all about balance. Being able to flexibly use both mindful consciousness and automatic mindless processes in the right context and to switch back and forth between the two makes the most of our brain’s abilities and opens up our potential for success and well-being.
Harnessing mindlessness: Sleep on it!
So how do we do this? Kashdan & Biswas-Diener (2015) have a number of great suggestions such as setting very short deadlines for decision making to trigger mindless decisions in situations where we are frozen by our inability to decide. How many hours have we all spent procrastinating and causing ourselves anxiety about decisions? A mindless approach could be the answer.
The strategy I’ve found most effective from this work is to combine mindful and mindless thinking as follows; when I have a complex decision to make I spend a short amount of time gathering the information I need and considering it mindfully. I then do something else that requires my attention for a set period of time allowing my unconscious thinking processes to get to work. After that I go with my gut instinct. The evidence for the effectiveness of this procedure is quite convincing (Dijksterhuis 2011) and I find it liberating to know that trusting my gut has a scientific basis. It seems that the old adage to “sleep on it” is in fact backed up by research.
So, whilst mindlessness is helpful and mindfulness is not, on it’s own, a panacea for well-being, the issue for me is that mindlessness is easy, mindfulness isn’t. While Free cell and sudoku exist, I will never have a problem being mindless. In our busy, demanding world with multiple competing roles all clamouring for our attention, finding the focus to be mindful is hard and requires practice. I have had a personal daily mindfulness practice for about 2 years now. There are still many days when my meditation time is mainly spent noticing that my mind is wandering to some essential task that I have yet to complete! So, whilst we shouldn’t ignore the importance and potential of mindlessness, I feel the emphasis on mindfulness within Positive Psychology is justified.
On Thursday 22nd June 2017 I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture (organised by www.actionforhappiness.org) on Mindful Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the MBSR. He held the capacity audience of 1000 people spellbound for almost two hours on a very hot evening in London, with no slides and only a tennis ball for assistance. I came away not having learned anything specifically new but with an understanding of the balance mindfulness can afford in my daily life and enthused to practice it more in real time rather than in specific meditation sessions. The tennis ball image has stayed with me. Jon let the ball fall and caught it demonstrating our need to drop down sometimes from our frantic mindless autopilot to the mindfulness below and notice now, which is the only reality we ever really inhabit.
The future of mindfulness
Being able to balance mindfulness and mindlessness means being aware of the benefits of both and practicing them appropriately. For most people improving mindfulness is more of an issue than working on mindlessness. Particularly for our digitally connected, soundbite generation of young people I think cultivating mindfulness is a skill worth pursuing to help balance the scales and promote well-being. My sister’s primary school aged children attend the Dubai English Speaking School (DES) where, for the last year, each school day has begun with 15 minutes of mindfulness practice. The experience has been extremely positive for my niece and nephew and I would wholly support adoption of this practice in schools in U.K.
Dijksterhuis, A. (2011). The best of both worlds: Integrating conscious and unconscious thought best solves complex decisions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(2), 509-511.
Kashdan, T. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2015). The Power of Negative Emotion: How anger, guilt and self doubt are essential to success and fulfillment. London: Oneworld Publications.
About the author: Sarah Monk is a student on the MAPP course at Buckinghamshire New University. She has a degree in psychology from Southampton University and an MSc in Clinical Psychology from the University of Surrey. She has voluntary roles with a number of charities and lives well with C.F.S.