We seem to be in the grip of something called mindfulness.
As I understand it, this is a form of meditation in which you are urged to focus on the present, and on your own body. You might start by focusing on the toes, and move systematically up the body—toes, knees, hips, chest, jaw, tongue, before exiting through the top of the head, or perhaps setting out on the return voyage. I believe it’s best to sit cross-legged on a cushion, and you might then vary the routine by focusing intently on the pressure exerted by the cushion on your behind. Mindfulness, they say, relieves tension and promotes well-being.
It is in many respects the opposite of mind wandering, in which we mentally move away from the present, to different places at different times, and even into the minds of others. Unlike mindfulness, mind wandering has something of a bad reputation. Most of us were chastised as children for not paying attention in class. A 2010 article in Science magazine carried the title “The wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” casting further disfavour on mind wandering. It was based on an iPhone survey of over 2000 people, who were simply asked what they were doing, and then asked to rate their happiness. Just under half of them reported that their minds had wandered away from what they were supposed to be doing, and those whose minds had wandered declared themselves less happy that those who were on the job at hand.
One reason for unhappiness is that mind wandering is often comprised of ruminations over past indiscretions or failures. We tend to brood unhappily on the past. But of course not all mind wandering is unhappy. We can revel in past triumphs, make plans for a productive future, or dream up glorious if unrealistic fantasies—although we might later feel a bit guilty that we hadn’t dealt with some matter of, um, importance. It should be said, too, that unhappiness itself is not always a bad thing, even in the hedonistic modern world, because it may help us avoid things we wish we hadn’t done.
I don’t want to deny people whatever pleasure or strength they may derive from mindfulness, but it does seem to me to be a bit like being locked into a dark cell, when you could allow your mind to wander into the wide worlds of time and space, or into the minds of others, including those gods and goddesses we create in order to indulge our fantasies or raise our hopes. Mind wandering is the basis of storytelling—literature, movies, TV soaps, everyday gossip. We are blessed with the facility to mentally wander almost instantly to other parts of the globe. In the blink of an eye you can be in Paris again, or somewhere in the Andes, or even in some purely imaginary Eden. Of course mind wandering doesn’t give us quite the richness or detail of an actual journey, but it’s fast and you can add your own frills.
Mind wandering is the essence of creativity. Carlo Rovelli, in his book Nine Brief Lessons on Physics (Penguin, 2015), writing about Albert Einstein, remarks that “You don’t get anywhere by not ‘wasting’ time.” Einstein was a notorious mind wanderer, but his creativity was legendary. Whether we like it or not, it seems our minds are programmed to wander, maybe about half the time. We even do it while asleep, as we dream. Mind wandering is the brain’s access to random thoughts and connections, the unexpected ideas that have driven human progress and made us what we are.
Go for it.
Featured image: Flickr CC, Irmeli Aro.