The Courage to Be Present

Ancient wisdom from Buddhism for today's therapists and clients.

Untapped Assets: The Hidden Potential in MindLESSness

Nail-biting and other mindless habits can be unexpected assets.

All of us fall into mindless behaviors: fingernail-biting, hair twirling, day-dreaming, TV watching, computer games, and many more. I think we all know that these activities do not generally help us to become more mindful. Surprisingly, these very same mindlessness practices can potentially help us to become mindful if we know how to use them that way.

In Contemplative Psychotherapy, drawing on Buddhist teachings, we understand that the ability to be mindful—to notice our experience with precision, without judging it as good or bad—is the key to reducing stress, emotional confusion, and many other kinds of suffering. It is mindfulness, too, that is a powerful tool for tuning into our positive qualities such as clarity, openness, and compassion. How then can mindlessness practices be helpful? Isn't it heading in the wrong direction entirely?

My own personal favorite mindlessness practice is reading mystery novels. When I read one, I lose track of time and become completely engrossed in the story. I seek out stories that have engaging characters, and I become caught up in their lives. I might forget to notice ordinary body cues like being hungry, thirsty, or needing to use the bathroom. All mindlessness practices do this. They cut us off from the direct experience of our body and sense perceptions. Mind is in one place, and body is in another. This is sometimes described as "de-synchronization" of body and mind.

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Mindfulness itself can be understood as the "synchronization" of body and mind. Our body and mind are together in time, space, and experience. We are simply present. With mindlessness practices, on the other hand, we sometimes say we are "absent-minded." Mind is absent, AWOL.

Why would we indulge in mindlessness? Most of us learned at a young age to turn to mindless behaviors to soothe ourselves or to escape from pain. Like Linus in the Peanuts cartoons, we had our "security blankets," or we had favorite ways of turning away from what was happening. We might have learned to cuddle with a favorite toy and to fantasize about a better place. Or we may have learned to bite our nails, sing songs to ourselves, day-dream, or many other things.

As adults, we might cultivate a spaced-out quality of mind by listening to our iPods while working out, not being fully present as we bike, walk, run, or do yoga. These are mindlessness practices involving body activities. There are also practices which use our speech and our minds. For example, the main character, Raymond, in the movie Rainman, uses a speech practice. When he feels frightened, he chants the words of the Abbott and Costello routine of "Who's on first?" Engaging in day-dreaming or obsessive thinking are practices that take place entirely within the mind. We are actually quite creative and can turn any activity into a mindless one—even meditation—if we use it to separate ourselves from our direct experiences of our sense perceptions and awareness.

We might not notice we're doing these things until we "wake up" having bitten a nail down to the quick and caused it to bleed. Or we are alarmed to notice that we've driven past our highway exit having completely lost track of what we were doing while we entertained worried thoughts about an upcoming meeting.

When we do that, we are training ourselves in not being present. Does that matter? I would suggest that it might. We might even discover that the mindlessness practices become harmful or sources of further confusion. People who do a lot of obsessive thinking, for example, often find themselves more indecisive about what to do rather than less. Even though they may spend hours thinking about a dilemma, they may end up feeling at a loss. It's hard to make a good decision when you're not present, and obsessive thinking doesn't help us be more present.

An extreme form of mindlessness practice is addiction. Just like its less dangerous cousins, addictions are designed—at least to begin with—as a way to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Soon, though, they cause pain of their own without letting us address whatever suffering we had that led us to seek escape through alcohol or drugs. Obviously, some other mindlessness practices are also dangerous: misusing food to soothe oneself can lead to losing touch with the natural sensations of hunger, or it can cause health issues and emotional distress. This can be true whether one eats too much or too little. In both cases, one has lost the sense of when and how much to eat because one's body and mind are not synchronized.

In the Buddhist view, whatever we train our minds to do, we plant the seeds of its recurrence. We might find it increasingly difficult to be present if we spend a good deal of time practicing being absent. The more we engage in mindlessness, too, the harder it is to stop.

How do we recognize a mindlessness practice? Sometimes it's not so easy. Here are some key characteristics that signal that a practice is mindless.

1. As we've already said: mind and body are not synchronized. We easily forget what we're doing or what we've said or done while engaged in the behavior. We're spaced out or lost in our thoughts.

2. We get irritated when we're interrupted. This is a good indication that we're being mindless. We don't say, "Oh, thanks for bringing me back to my senses," instead, we get annoyed.

3. Our relationships with others are affected. We are less available and more pre-occupied with ourselves or our activities. Our partner may feel a bit (or more) abandoned by us.

4. We lose track of our compassionate hearts. Instead of feeling grief or sadness, we are dulled out. We are less interested in others who are suffering. In fact, that might even be one reason we've begun to cultivate mindlessness: We feel like we can't handle staying fully present with our own or others' pain.

There are three main ways that we can make skillful use of mindlessness practices: 1) Using them to cultivate mindfulness, 2) Using more benign practices to replaces harmful ones, and 3) Using them to titrate the intensity in our lives.

First, we can become interested in the mindlessness practice as it already is. Obviously, you don't want to do this with a dangerous practice. It is good to do, though, with less harmful ones. We simply bring our attention to all the details of how we do it. My favorite one to pay attention to in this way is fingernail biting. I've never had that habit, so I'm a bit fascinated by it. If you have that habit, what do you actually do? How do you know which finger to begin with? How do you know when to go to a different finger? What tells you when to stop? Where is your mind when you're doing it? What happens to your relationship with others? When do you do it? Where? How do you feel if someone observes you doing it? All these, and other questions, bring mindfulness to the mindlessness. Every time you pay attention instead of not paying attention, you are training yourself to be mindful.

The second way to use mindlessness practices skillfully is to replace harmful practices with less harmful ones. All mindlessness practices are somewhat harmful because instead of learning to be present, we are deepening our habit of being absent. Still, some are worse than others. Reading mysteries is better than taking speed or downers. Walking while listening to music is better than indulging in obsessive thoughts of suicide.

The third approach is to use mindlessness practices on purpose to back off from overly intense situations. Chances are we would indulge in mindlessness anyway if a situation is too overwhelming, but this way we can empower ourselves to take a break as needed and come back when we feel more ready to deal with difficult situations. For example, if we have a loved one dealing with a frightening medical diagnosis, and we don't feel we can stay present and be helpful, maybe it would be better to take that person (or go alone) to the movies just to get a break. Or, we could choose to play a computer game for some specific amount of time instead of trying to solve a perplexing problem that is upsetting us at work. It could give us time to calm down a bit and let us engage again later.

Obviously, this last method has the built-in danger of hooking us into mindlessness. Still, we can make use of it if we mindfully choose to be mindless for a limited time.

Take a look and see if you find any mindlessness practices. Most people find that they have quite a few. I always get interested in my clients' mindlessness practices. Our mutual interest in them is sometimes a way to open the door to becoming more mindful.

 

Karen Kissel Wegela, Ph.D., is a professor at Naropa University and the author of The Courage to Be Present.

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