This article discusses mindlessness in perspective and the primary difference between mindfulness and mindlessness. We’ll also explain what mindlessness as a mental condition is and how it can affect our day-to-day lives.
Most of the time, our minds function by generating a constant swirl of remarks and judgments that create a barrier of words and images that separate us from our own lives. This mental condition of mindlessness makes it difficult to be mindful, or attentive, of the experiences of our lives.
The very dynamics that lead to mindlessness can be gently redirected through meditation to cultivate the quality of mindfulness and to develop the mind in ways that will be conducive to our happiness and the happiness of others.
The mind is a notoriously elusive concept. We all have an intuitive idea of what we mean by it, but trying to define it concretely seems almost impossible.
Throughout the centuries, theologians, philosophers, psychologists, and other thinkers have offered various ways of conceiving the mind and trying to bring some specificity to the notion.
The mind has been associated with such functions as consciousness, thought, perception, memory, emotion, willingness, reasoning, and imagination—and with various combinations thereof. In this course, the mind will refer to all of these mental processes.
In short, we’ll remain content with a rather vague conception of the mind. As we proceed, we’ll begin to see the value of allowing this concept to remain broad.
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I. Mindlessness in Perspective: Owners of Our Minds
We ordinarily think of our minds as our own—as something belonging to ourselves and no one else. No one can “read” our minds, but they may infer our mental states by becoming familiar with facial expressions or other gestures that coordinate with particular forms of our subjectivity.
Scientists may be able to analyze certain brain activities using sophisticated imaging techniques, but they cannot perceive what our minds are thinking.
We think of ourselves as in control of our thought processes. Our minds are our most private domains. Most people will more readily regard their minds as the locus of their true or real selves—rather than, say, their bodies.
(Related: Mindlessness: The Default Setting)
We usually experience our minds as somehow connected to our bodies. Specifically, the mind seems to work within the same space occupied by the head, suggesting a close relationship between mind and brain. However, specifying the exact nature of the relationship between mind and body has bedeviled thinkers for millennia.
Despite the obvious importance that we accord the mind and the intimacy it has with our physical natures, we do not really understand it or use it very well. We pay some attention to the content of our mind, but we have little awareness of how our mind functions.
Most of us simply have not taken the time to observe the operation of our minds. In general, we pay about as much attention to our minds as we do to the rest of our lives, which is to say, of course, not very much.
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II. Mindlessness in Perspective: Attending to the Present
Most of our daily lives are essentially governed by routine. The great value of these habits is that they free our minds to do other things; we do these things without having to expend precious energy trying to make up our minds.
Unfortunately, the freedom such routines afford the mind is not well used. If they find a moment when complete attentiveness to the present is not demanded, our minds tend to gravitate to one of two places: the past or the future.
Your thoughts may even alternate between past and future, but they will tend to avoid the present as much as possible. If you pay attention to your ordinary thought processes, you will discover that you probably spend very little time living in the present.
Even when we find ourselves attending to the present, we may discover that what our minds churn out is fairly worthless. Most of us are constantly making instantaneous judgments about what we experience. If you allow these trains of thought to continue, you may find them leading to other thoughts and judgments that do not have any real substance.
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III. Mindlessness in Perspective: Controlling the Mind
We’re not ordinarily in control of our minds, despite what we may think. We can’t turn them off, and we can’t always make them do what we want. Judgments, thoughts, and emotions seem to arise unbidden and often unwelcome.
Rather than being in control of our minds, our minds seem to control us—compelling us, driving us, urging us in the directions it deems fit.
Mindlessness comes at a very high cost: Living with a mind that we don’t know very well, that is often out of control and semiconscious much of the time, causes us and others to suffer greatly—probably far more than we realize.
The Buddha, an individual who knew the mind far better than most of us, put it this way:
“Whatever an enemy might do to an enemy, or a foe to a foe, the ill-directed mind can do to you even worse.”
Is it any wonder we so frequently attempt to silence or alter our minds with drugs, amusements, and other forms of distraction? Fortunately, most of us don’t reach a mind-driven point of despair, but we nonetheless endure the consequences of an immensely powerful but unruly mind.
We find ourselves entertaining thoughts that serve no wholesome value in our lives. All of us make snap judgments about individuals based on the slimmest and most trivial of evidence. And we also spin out falsehoods that we come to believe. We’re constantly comparing ourselves to others, a practice that inevitably leads to pain. All of this, and more, drives us to lead frenzied lives—often on the verge of misery.
Mindfulness is the power of heightened awareness and sensitivity to ourselves and our world.
This sense of dissatisfaction, of which we are more or less conscious at different times in our lives, impels us to find something— anything—to bring relief. Unfortunately, our minds have been conditioned to seek solutions to its torment in the most unhelpful ways.
The beliefs that compel us to keep looking somewhere else for something to bring us relief are so common that we rarely consider that it might be time to try another approach. Rather than seek happiness through the usual ineffective and often counterproductive means, this course will offer you a different way.
It’s possible to cultivate a wholesome mind that will produce thoughts that contribute to our well-being and the well-being of the whole world. We can shape our mental functions in ways that will remove the frantic, driven, distracted, semiconscious qualities from our lives—but it will not be easy.
Meditation Track #3:
IV. Mindlessness in Perspective: Conditioning the Mind
Our minds are malleable realities; they are plastic and can be reshaped in ways that we choose. The mind, in other words, is a conditioned phenomenon.
Perhaps we are born with certain dispositions to act and think in particular ways. Many Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains think that karma—our thoughts, deeds, and words from previous lives— profoundly influences the mental states we have at birth.
Essentially, the idea of karma suggests that the way we are now is the consequence of the ways we have thought and acted up to this point. In short, we have been conditioned by ourselves and by others—whether we believe the conditioning process began in former lifetimes or whether it simply began in this lifetime.
The term conditioning is a very useful one for describing this process. Habitual thinking significantly determines what we think, feel, and perceive. The more we entertain a particular thought or a particular kind of thought, the more our minds are prone to generate thoughts of that nature.
The process of mental conditioning is so powerful that it may seem at times that our whole cerebral function is entirely determined by the factors of our biological makeup or our upbringing. However, we have a small but extremely important capacity to redirect our mind in ways that allow us to recondition it.
In traditional philosophical terms, we are largely determined but we have a modicum of free will. In this sense, free will is not just a feature of our makeup; instead, it is something that must be exercised and developed. Without cultivation, we are vulnerable to losing the ability to act and think freely altogether.
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V. Mindlessness in Perspective: The Mind as an Instrument
This course will be unlike most other courses you’ve ever taken, in which your mind is deliberately stimulated. Stimulating the mind is valuable for many things, but it is not what this course is about. This course is for people whose minds are overstimulated and need a respite from too much thinking.
In this course, you’ll learn to think of the mind not as the center of your personality but as an instrument or tool that you can use for your happiness. Like any instrument, it’s essential to learn how to use it properly and to practice using it until the skill becomes second nature.
Throughout this course, there will be sitting meditations, guided meditations, and other exercises to do. You will need to carve out a time and place to practice them.
Whether or not this course makes you happy or improves the quality of your life is entirely up to you. Throughout the ages, individuals who have seriously employed the methods we’ll discuss have claimed to have discovered something deep and enriching by using them.
The Buddha, who warned of the tremendously harmful potential of the undisciplined mind, also proclaimed the tremendous benefits of a well-trained mind: “Whatever a mother, father or other relative might do for you, the well-directed mind can do for you even better.”
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VI. Important Terms:
The process of habitual thinking significantly determines what people think, feel, and perceive. The more people entertain a particular thought or a particular kind of thought, the more their minds are prone to generate thoughts of that nature.
The belief of many Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains is that thoughts, deeds, and words from people’s previous lives profoundly influence the mental states they have at birth.
A mental state in which the mind generates a constant swirl of remarks and judgments that create a barrier of words and images that separate people from their lives. This condition makes it difficult to be mindful—or attentive—of life’s experiences.
VII. Mindlessness in Perspective: Things to Consider:
1. How would you characterize your relationship to your mind? Is the mind something you possess, something you are, or something else?
2. Throughout your day, pay attention to your internal dialogue. Ask yourself as many times as you can remember, “What am I thinking?” Are there patterns of thought that correlate to the state of mindlessness?
(Related: Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation)
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