If you guessed that mindlessness is the opposite of mindfulness, you get a big gold star :-).
In these hyperbusy times, mindlessness tends to be our default state. We look without seeing. We hear without listening. We react rather than respond.
Another mindfulness pioneer — Ellen Langer, PhD — has described mindlessness this way:
“Most people are just not there, and they’re not there to know that they’re not there.”
In her classic book Mindfulness (still in print), Langer provides three explanations for mindlessness:
- We get trapped by labels and categories.
- We get stuck in automatic behavior.
- We act from a single perspective.
She shares an interesting study from her graduate school years (with a pharmacy connection!) to illustrate the third kind of mindlessness. A researcher stood on a busy sidewalk and told passersby that she had sprained her knee and needed help. If a person stopped to assist her, she would ask the person to go into the nearby pharmacy and get her an Ace bandage. The pharmacist — part of the study — would tell the do-gooder that the Ace bandages were sold out. A total of 25 people stopped to help the researcher but returned to her empty-handed, sadly reporting that they could not get an Ace bandage. None thought to ask the pharmacist if he could recommend something else for a sprained knee; they all acted from the single perspective that a sprained knee needs an Ace bandage.
Langer defines mindfulness as “the simple act of actively noticing things.”
So thanks to Jon Kabat-Zinn and Ellen Langer, we can think of mindfulness as awareness and noticing.