Mindfulness: What is it Good For?
Mindfulness is a concept that has garnered a lot of attention lately. It is referenced in books and movies, and you’d be hard-pressed to log onto Facebook or Pintrest without finding a picture of a flower or a meadow inscribed with a quote about Mindfulness from Tich Nach Han or John Kabot-Zinn advising us to slow down and be in the present moment (or maybe that’s because I have a lot of therapist friends on social media!). But what is Mindfulness? Why is it important? And why is it so darn difficult?
Well let’s start with what it’s not. The opposite of Mindful is Mindless. We have all experienced this. Driving a long a stretch of freeway or route you know by heart and you begin thinking about something else. After a while, you might suddenly realize you don’t remember the last 20 miles. Or maybe you have had this experience eating popcorn at the movies. You notice the first bite or two and then you get wrapped up in the film, and your suddenly scraping the bottom of the bag, not realizing that you were continuing to eat. Mindlessness is like going on “autopilot.” Part of our brain accomplishes a task we know well, such as eating or driving, outside of our complete awareness.
You might say, “Well Kristine, what’s wrong with that? Driving is the best time for me to think!” or “Getting lost in my thoughts on the bus makes the ride go such much quicker!” or “I have to multitask, or I won’t get everything done!” My answer to this is that there is nothing really wrong with mindlessness (I am in no way promoting distracted driving here, by the way). Mindlessness, or habitual learning, allows us to accomplish more complex tasks because we began to make the various simple tasks automatic. Riding a bike is a good example of this. When you first learned how to ride a bike, you really have to pay close attention to each step. Getting started, pedaling, braking – those were the first tasks you had to master. Then you had to get balance down (hopefully with the help of training wheels) before you could begin to master shifting. Without habitual learning, we would start at square one every time. In fact, without the ability to learn things habitually, something as seemingly simple as tying our shoes would become difficult.
If habitual learning is so great, why all this talk of Mindfulness then? Well there are a couple downfalls to living our lives completely from a place of habit, as you can imagine. One is that we miss out on a lot. If you have ever traveled, you can attest to this. Go to a new place, and you notice so much, because everything is fascinating, right? The sights, the sounds, the smells all are captivating. Is the new place really that much more interesting than your own town? Maybe. But it is more probable that you become captivated, at least in part, because it is new. You become more mindful naturally. You don’t have habits about that place yet. This new place is not automatic. You can’t take it on autopilot. Because of this, you are more present with your experience – every sensation draws your attention.
Kristine Nystrom, LPC
I am a mental health therapist, teacher, writer, photographer, nature-lover, explorer, fellow human being along on the journey toward self-discovery and inner peace.
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Kristine Nystrom, LPC, LMHC5404 N. Montana Ave. Portland, OR 97217