Mindfulness Caveats II: “Always Be Mindful” – Good Idea?

“Chopping wood is meditation. Carrying water is meditation. Be mindful 24 hours a day, not just during the one hour you may allot for formal meditation… Each act must be carried out in mindfulness.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness!, p.24.

As I described in my last post, mindfulness involves keeping your attention in the present moment, and when it wanders off elsewhere, you note it and patiently bring it back. If you’re cutting vegetables, you’re cutting vegetables, not also thinking about what your boss said earlier in the afternoon. And this is good, both because you’ll be safer with that knife you’re using, and because you’re then attending to the sensory experience of interacting with the vegetables, which can be pleasurable, and you’re not taking food for granted, either. But if you’re always mindful, then what time is left for thinking about what your boss said? Or for planning something, solving a problem, or thinking about situations you’re not currently bodily right in the middle of, like the latest Supreme Court decision?

A recent New York Times article (1/14/2014) talked about several issues with mindfulness and noted some contrary research. The mind-wandering that is so scrupulously cut short during mindfulness exercises is an important element in creativity, for one thing. (Mindfulness also inhibits “implicit learning,” which is the kind of learning you do by just picking things up through exposure and effort; I’m not going to follow up on that here.)

What happens when the mind wanders? In essence, it’s engaging imaginatively with some situation that’s not in the here and now. It can be stressful and counterproductive when the mind keeps wandering off to obsess about something that’s in the past and can’t be changed, or to fret about things that are beyond your control and may never come to pass. In these cases, a dose of mindfulness can help us notice these patterns and sometimes learn to let go of them. At other times, though, more positive forms of mind-wandering like daydreaming can help us see what our real priorities are and can even help with problem-solving.

But I want to think some more about this matter of “engaging imaginatively with some situation that’s not in the here and now.” Remember when I made the distinction between focusing exclusively on activity (“Just do X”) and being mindful about an activity (“Just do X and know that you are doing X”)? Well, here’s a good example: reading a really good book. If you’re fully absorbed in what you’re reading (or watching on a screen, or listening to someone tell you), then your mind is fully in that narrative world – you’ve tuned out your physical environment. You don’t necessarily notice what someone else is doing right beside you, or whether you’re hungry or thirsty, and if you do happen to notice these things, they’ve disrupted your immersion in the story world.

When we’re absorbed in a book, we are “just doing X” but we clearly are not “knowing that you X” because we’ve lost all awareness of ourselves at all. In fact, not possible to read properly while at the same time maintaining a full awareness of self/body/etc., and experiences that bring us back to awareness of self/body/etc. destroy this immersion experience; we have to take moments to regain it.

In other words, immersion is a “just X” experience, and it can even be a less distractable one than ones where you’re making an effort to focus on something. Along with reading, any other sort of involvement in a story – like listening to a storyteller, watching a film or TV show, or playing some kinds of video games – also qualifies as immersion (which in psychology is also called absorption, or “narrative transportation,” because you’re “transported” to a different world).
But immersion is a much broader phenomenon than that. It happens every time we put some context at the forefront and tune out the rest. When friends meet up in a supermarket and get involved in a conversation, they’re often oblivious to the people trying to maneuver their carts around them, and they may even temporarily forget that they’re shopping. When we’re really involved in a project for work, or a recreational activity, we set aside the other things going on and can lose track of time and our bodily needs.

Even dogs and cats do this. A few days ago, I saw a dog so excited about interacting with his humans that he completely didn’t notice he was jumping into the street, with oncoming cars. (He was fine.) And when my kitten Sorin is plotting a particularly challenging jump, it’s next to impossible to get his attention with the toys or treats that normally would fascinate him.

Immersion is a really important aspect of our lives. It’s not just reading or watching a movie, it’s also any sort of real give-and-take conversation, and pretty much any activity that involves thinking. All of those involve immersion. This brings us to our second caveat.

Caveat Two:
Non-mindfulness can also be valuable.

The Buddhist writings I described above may seem to imply that the ideal is to be mindful all the time, and encourage us to build up to this ideal by practicing mindfulness during lots of specific times. But I’d like to suggest that the skill we should be building is to know how to optimally integrate our mindful time with our non-mindful time, and to know when the latter may be the better choice for us.

In an earlier post, I talked about times that it can be much better for us not to be mindful. As one friend described it, mindfulness privileges the body and the now. Sometimes it’s best to have our attention elsewhere.

If we’re experiencing moderate or chronic pain, then mindfulness can be very helpful, because it strengthens the part of us that can experience the pain without getting caught up in it. But if we’re experiencing severe physical or emotional pain, it may be better just to put our minds elsewhere and get through the experience with as little awareness as possible. Going into shock, for example, is part of the wisdom of our bodies that lets us function when a full awareness of our situation might easily disable us.

Here’s another example. One way of thinking about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is being so immersed in a painful context that the person can’t really leave it, even when it’s years in the past and maybe thousands of miles away. Veterans describe programs for working with horses and dogs as helpful for PTSD because they have to bring their awareness fully into this new context in order to take care of the animals. If they immerse themselves into “conversations” with the animals in their care, they gain that many moments of respite from falling back into immersion in their prior traumas. Simply focusing mindfully on the sensations that come up when they have these memories doesn’t have the same healing effect as replacing a harmful immersion with a healing one.

Or, in a more common situation, sometimes we need to think about the future, or the rest of the world, which can both be pretty abstract. If we’re focused on our immediate physical selves, then we’re not doing that, and we might be biasing our thinking undesirably (more hedonistic or self-focused than we want to be, for example).

So what I’m saying is, being “actively immersed” in one context, giving it your full attention, precludes being “open to experience” in another. (Later I’ll make a distinction between being “actively immersed” and “passively immersed,” where you’re not necessarily paying attention, but where you take your immersion in the context for granted, so that it colors your perceptions and evaluations.)

I don’t want to imply that Buddhism, the source of mindfulness-thinking, has no place for imagination. It certainly does. In Tibetan Buddhism, guided visualizations are one of the main ways to receive advanced teachings. The Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the leading proponents of mindfulness practices, has offered numerous imaginative exercises for observing one’s negative feelings, such as anger and fear, and learning to treat oneself more kindly. In these contexts, I think they’re teaching how to integrate mindfulness and imagination, through specific immersive practices.

For the rest of us, if we see a value to mindfulness, but we also have things we want or need to immerse ourselves in, how can we combine them? I don’t know any specific techniques, but there’s an interesting way to think about it, from the psychology of reading.

When you’re reading fiction, there are roughly three degrees of immersion you might experience. The first is being fully immersed in the story, completely caught up in it, not aware of anything else. This quality is what makes for good popular fiction, like a thriller or a romance novel – it’s purely recreational, and the author’s skill puts you completely in her world. Then at the other extreme, you’re resisting immersion. The story is too boring, too alien, or too poorly written, or you’re too distracted, and although you can make sense of what’s going on in the story, you’re not inside its world at all.

But there’s also a third way to read, the way that “real” literature aspires to, which we can call “reflective immersion.” You’re immersed in the story world, but your mind is also busy. You’re relating current events in the story to things that happened earlier in the story, or you’re thinking about how things happening to one character might affect another, or maybe you’re even relating things about the story to things in the real world, or a completely different book you once read.

It’s possible that the more you exercise this skill of integrating across contexts, the better you’ll be at it altogether. Reflective immersion isn’t normally mindful, since we’re not usually conscious of it, but it would be interesting to see what results we’d get it if we experimented with making it so.

Tomorrow, Caveat Three: Mindfulness and Alienation

This post is one in a four-part series:

Mindfulness – Four Caveats
Part I: Why Mindfulness?
Part II: “Always Be Mindful” – Good Idea?
Part III: When Mindfulness Sets Us Adrift
Part IV: Making Choices – Ethics and Mindfulness

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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5 Responses to Mindfulness Caveats II: “Always Be Mindful” – Good Idea?

  1. Pingback: Mindfulness IV: Making Choices – Ethics and Mindfulness | Living In Dialogue

  2. Pingback: Mindfulness III: When Mindfulness Sets Us Adrift | Living In Dialogue

  3. Pingback: Mindfulness – Four Caveats / Part One: Why Mindfulness? | Living In Dialogue

  4. Jacqueline says:

    The immersion that you write about reminds me of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as “Flow”. This flow state he describes as something that contributes to a life worth living. He came to learn about psychology through a chance presentation by Carl Jung, whom he did not know. He then studied psychology and tried to understand when humans experience “happiness”. He studied creative individuals and tried to understand the sense of meaning these individuals ascribed to their work. The experience of “ecstasy”, spontaneity, and the loss of identity is something that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified through his interviews. The inner (joyful) state of “merging” with the task at hand eventually he defined as a sense of “flow”. The immersion you described sounds related to this concept.

    • LauraA says:

      Thanks for commenting! In fact, I’ve been thinking about the connection between “flow” and the type of immersion one gets from reading or watching a movie. Csikszentmihalyi described “flow” as a process that requires a high degree of skill – while one is still learning how to play music or do rock-climbing or whatever, flow isn’t possible, but eventually it is, reflecting the person’s competence. Maybe the kind of immersion one gets from reading also requires a fair amount of competence, in basic reading skills but also in creating the imaginary world in one’s mind, so it could be a form of flow too. Two main differences, I think, would be that immersion in a movie doesn’t seem to require much skill at all, and immersion in books can happen in snippets, if one picks the book up and sets it back down again a few minutes later, whereas Csikszentmihalyi’s flow seems to require a more sustained effort. I wonder if researchers have been looking at this possible connection.

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