The Science of Imagination

The blog that leaves nothing to the imagination.

Mindfulness and When Not to Use it

Sometimes being unmindful really helps

Lizard steals green bean
Wikimedia commons

Mindfulness is a Buddhist concept that means that you are consciously aware of what you are doing and what your immediate surroundings are. Mindfulness is viewed by many, including myself, to be one of the keys to happiness.

Why Be Mindful?

The idea is that when you are mindful, you are in the present moment, and not dwelling on regrets of the past or feeling anxiety about the future. These are unhappy thoughts. Even happy thoughts of the past and future are really illusions. There are plenty of things to be happy about in your immediate surroundings if you focus on them and appreciate. For example, you might be warm enough, or there might be a smiling child, or the sun might be shining.

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Mindfulness Means Not Multitasking

Another part of mindfulness is trying not to do too much at once. If you're eating chocolate while you're reading a good novel, then you're not fully enjoying either. So the Buddhists recommend that if you're going to eat chocolate, do nothing but eating, and really enjoy it. Then go back to the novel and really enjoy that.

Some Things Are Not Fun

But there are lots of things in this world that are not very much fun at all, but you should do anyway. I don't like brussels sprouts, but they're healthful and if they're on the table I should eat them. Exercise isn't much fun, often, but the health benefits are great. So should you be mindful when eating not-so-delicious healthy food and washing dishes?

The Buddhists would say yes. Thinking about how exercise and brussels sprouts are good for your body is supposed to make the whole thing worth it.

I disagree.

When Not To Be Mindful

You can make your life more fun if you do unpleasurable things unmindfully. Most of us do this already with exercise—we watch TV on the treadmill, or we listen to music we like while running, or we play games that make the exercise fun. I think this is a great idea.

Remember, if you're multitasking, you're not fully paying attention to everything you're doing. This way you can do important unfun things with more pleasure.

To me, eating buttery, delicious popcorn while you're watching an engrossing movie is kind of foolish. You're all caught up in the movie, and before you know it, the popcorn is gone and you scarcely remember eating it.

What I try to do is eat not-so-delicious things while watching movies and TV shows. That bowl of raw bean sprouts might be gone by the end of the show, just like a bag of potato chips would, without your even realizing it. The difference is you've filled up on something healthful.

You can engineer your life a bit like this, trying to eat healthful things while you're doing fun things, exercising while you entertain yourself. When I started running, I listened to music. But when I switched to podcasts, I was so much more entertained that I was able to exercise longer. I was distracted, and I benefitted.

If you're eating buttery popcorn, there's no need to do anything else. Be mindful; there's plenty to enjoy. But unmindfulness can be a powerful source of happiness too, and can help you do things you should be doing.

Pictured: A lizard stealing a green bean, probably unmindfully. He'll probably go home and eat it while surfing Reddit at home (actually it's a toy, placed there for marketing. It's cute, though.) From Wikimedia Commons. 

Jim Davies, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor and the Director of the Science Imagination Laboratory at Carleton University.

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