Mindlessness: the default setting

Mindlessness: the default setting

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Our natural brain functioning most of the time is generating the constant remarks and judgments that usually create a barrier of words and images.  That separates us from our very lives, and we end up attending more to the internal cacophony than we do to the world around us.

This condition is often referred to as MINDLESSNESS. Not because the mind is uninvolved but because we find it difficult to be mindful or attentive to the experiences in our lives.

The very dynamics that lead to mindlessness, I content 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.

I.      Mindlessness: the introduction

Mind is a notoriously elusive concept. we all have an intuitive idea or philosophy about what we mean by that, but trying to define it concretely seems almost impossible.

Throughout the centuries, philosophers, psychologists, and other thinkers have offered various ways of conceiving it and trying to bring some specificity to the notion.

The mind has been identified or associated with such functions as:

  1. Consciousness
  2. Thoughts
  3. Perception
  4. Memory
  5. Emotion
  6. Willing
  7. Reasoning
  8.  And imagination

And with various combinations, thereof none of these proposals needless to say has gained universal acceptance. For our purposes, these many fine distinctions need not detain us.

In this article, the mind will refer to all of these mental processes. At times we will focus on one, or two, or three to the exclusion of others but we will always think of the mind as a society to use an image suggested by cognitive scientists Marvin Minsky.

A society comprised of all of these processes, in short, we remain content with a rather vague conception of the mind. As we proceed, we will begin to see the value of allowing this concept to remain broad.

II.   With this general definition as our basis let us now consider: how we experience our minds?

Perhaps the first and most obvious thing we can say is that we ordinarily think of our minds as our own. My mind is mine; it doesn’t belong to you or anyone else. Likewise, I suspect you experience your mind in the same way as something belonging to you and no one else.

No one else apparently has access to our minds, no one really knows what goes on in our minds unless we tell them. 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 technology and techniques but they cannot perceive what our minds are thinking or feeling. Or our minds may be controlled by the Domonique beings, alien life forms like in the movie matrix. 

Our ordinary mental experience does not suggest this, and we think of ourselves in control of our thought process. Our minds are in fact are most private domain, so important are they that we tend to identify with our minds by thinking of them as the center of our personality.

Most people will readily regard their minds or some aspect of it such as intellect or consciousness as the locus of their true or real selves rather than say their bodies.

To such people mind isn’t just what they possess, it is who they are.       

Yet we usually experience our minds as somehow connected to our bodies. Despite the obvious importance that we accord the mind and intimacy, it has with our physical nature. We don’t really understand it or use it very well because most of us simply have not taken the time to observe the operation of our minds. We pay some attention to the content of our mind but we have little awareness of how our mind functions.

  • Consider for a moment where your thought come from?
  • Do you know why you have particular thoughts?
  • Or thoughts that continuously recur?

Can you explain why one moment you are contemplating the sobering fact that you may die at any moment and two seconds later you are wondering what’s on TV tonight? Most of us cannot give satisfactory answers to these questions.

Our faltering ability to provide good answers drives from inattentiveness, 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.

Reflect on the passage of an average day in your life, for how much of those 24 hours are you there?

If you are like most of us your daily life is essentially governed by routine, like-

You wake up, you get dressed, you have breakfast, you go to work and you do whatever it is you do and your existence is driven along by well-established habits. The value of these habits is that they free our minds to do other things. It’s not necessary to go through a lengthy intellectual process and try to decide whether or not to take a shower.

We just 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 moment present is not demanded our minds tend to gravitate to one of two places: either the past or the future.

If this claim has not rung a bell of truth for you, I invite you to perform this experiment at your convenience. 

Simply stop whatever you are doing, sit quietly on a chair, and allow your mind to go wherever it wishes. Try to pay attention to the flow of your thinking. If you are like the vast majority of human beings, you will soon find yourself dwelling on a past event, perhaps a conversation you had that didn’t go as well as you would’ve liked, or a future event that you are anticipating like what’s for dinner tonight.

Your thoughts even may alternate between past and future but they tend to avoid the present as much as possible. 

If you pay attention to your ordinary thought process, you will know you have spent very little time living in the present. Even when we find ourselves attending to the present, we may discover what our minds churn out is fairly worthless.

Most of us are constantly making instant judgments about what we experience.

For instance-

Imagine sitting in a committee meeting, somehow you have avoided drifting to the past and you are paying attention to what is being said, well to some extent. If you watch your mind carefully, you’ll probably notice that it’s only half attentive if that much.

The rest of the time it’s furiously accessing and evaluating not just the content of what’s being said but the most trivial insignificant things about how it’s said and by who.

You may find yourself looking at the new haircut of the woman across the table and thinking it doesn’t fit her face at all and suddenly you become aware that you haven’t said anything in a while, and you are desperately trying to find something that will impress the others or at least make them laugh.

If you allow these trains of thoughts to continue, you may find them leading to other thoughts and judgments. Your difficulty in coming up with something valuable to say brings you back to that familiar anxiety you have about not being as competent as others. And to avoid that unpleasant thought, you focus on someone else in the meeting.

And strangely seeing the women with the odd haircut temporarily soothes your fears of incompetence, at least you don’t look hideous.

As this scenario suggests, we are not ordinarily in control of our minds despite what we may care to think. We just 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.

So rather than we controlling our minds, our minds seem to control us. Compelling us, driving us, and urging us in the directions it deems fit.

III. Conclusion-

We are like a hopeless cowboy, strapped to a potent beast of a mind and bound to go in a direction of its choosing and enduring the unavoidable ups and downs on a back-cracking buck.

P.S. Stay tuned for the next article, in which we will discuss the Perils of Mindlessness.

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