The Dangerous Risks of Being Mindless
These days we’ve all heard of mindfulness. The concept introduced to the West in the 70s has gained massive following over the last 10 years. Mindfulness is a psychological principle of intentionally bringing your attention to the present moment. Whatever you may be doing, whether cleaning the dishes, driving or just sitting, we can be aware.
What is the opposite of mindfulness?
Literally without a mind. If mindfulness is adopting a non-judgmental awareness to the present moment, mindlessness is operating without thought or attention. Perhaps your mind is elsewhere whilst your body works on autopilot. Or restless thoughts easily jump to conclusions and stereotypes without interrogation. Mindlessness is different from flow state, where your body and mind work seamlessly together to overcome a challenging situation (but not too challenging) like rock climbing or playing sport with friends. No, mindlessness is when your mind isn’t actively engaged in the activity. Maybe you’ve commuted to work or school and don’t remember the journey. Or you’re clearing the dishes and through carelessness you knock over a glass.
These are simple examples without serious consequences. But the risks of being mindless are much greater.
Risks of mindlessness
In her book Mindfulness, Dr Ellen Langer outlines the dangers of being mindless.
A narrow self image reduces our resilience
We use categories to efficiently navigate the world. Humans are excellent at pattern matching. Once we’ve seen a recurring pattern we categorise it. This allows us to communicate about the pattern. But if we are mindless, we hold tight to existing categories and framings. Including those of ourselves. Identifying ourselves with a narrow category may lead to emotional turbulence when that category is threatened. For example, a person identifying as a housewife may feel lost if their partner divorced them. Afterall, they are no longer a wife. But if that same person co-identified as a pianist, part of their self-image is still intact.
Unintended cruelty and discrimination
Why are many of us happy to eat a cow but outraged when other cultures eat dogs? We label cows as “livestock” and dogs as “pets”. One is food the other is family. But what if we picked another label: “animals”, “mammals” or “sentient beings”? Are we less inclined to eat the cow now? How do our ethics change?
When we are mindless about our actions we could be inflicting unintended cruelty. When we see the cow as food we are numb to the consequences.
Race discrimination may also enter via the mindless door. You’re damned if you see race, you’re damned if you don’t. Langer argues transcending race and labeling everyone as “human” isn’t the best way to bridge divides. Instead it’s more effective to find common ground in shared categories. Have you heard the one about a Chinese man and American walking into a bar? The American saw the Chinese man’s golf clubs and they walked out two golfing friends for life. A mindless approach may have had them at loggerheads regarding politics and trade. But a mindful one, where they related as golfers, saw them connect deeply to one another. Furthermore, one bad mindless encounter with someone “different” shouldn't mean all of a country's population operates in that same way. Being mindful tempers generalizations and stereotypes.
Attribution to wrong causes limit the range of solutions we may seek
When we find ourselves in an unfortunate position, mindlessness has us grab at the first plausible reason. We avoid interrogating the answer fully, potentially trying to solve the wrong problem. “Alcoholics who see the cause of their problem as purely genetic seem to give up the control that could help their recovery”. An inquisitive, curious mind (representative of mindfulness) could steer them toward solutions.
Learned helplessness (aging)
If a person believes their situation to be hopeless, it probably is. A person diagnosed with cancer, who believes cancer is debilitating and bed-confining, will not live to the fullest of their potential. A person in the same situation, mindful of their actual ability and not their cancer label could continue to lead a life to the max.
Further, Langer makes a strong point to separate the associations of sickness and aging. When we mindlessly combine them, we treat all elderly as sick people often doing them the disservice of unburdening them of their responsibilities prematurely. Instead, a mindful approach of assessing each individual on their actual abilities will allow them to lead independent lives for longer.
How can we avoid mindlessness?
Avoid mindlessness through mindful moments
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Mindfulness – Ellen Langer