Mindfulness vs. mindlessness.

March 6, 2009

Because so many people seem to associate my guided meditations with Mindfulness, many of whom both use our CDs and listen to our podcast, I often find myself wondering exactly what Mindfulness is. I’ve often thought that my meditations have more to do with “mindlessness” than “mindfulness”, and have thought of writing a post about that. It took a really interesting blog post in the New York Times today to get me to begin to tackle that subject. Check it out — peoples’ comments are really interesting to read:

Being and Mindfulness – Judith Warner Blog –

Well, I said “begin to tackle that subject” and I am literally only beginning to try to formulate by thoughts about it and don’t know if I’ll ever get past the beginning on this one. For one thing, having practiced meditation for a long time before ever hearing of Mindfulness Meditation, I’ve never really be able to relate to mindfulness instructions when I come across them, so how can I compare it with what I do?

Also, it seems like Mindfulness isn’t just a technique of meditation, but is often (if not always) associated with an intention to be a certain kind of person or to behave in a certain way — a way that is better than ones current way of being or behaving. My involvement with meditation has had to do with self-awareness and with inner peace, but I’ve never been involved in order to be a better person. If anything, my hope has been to learn to accept myself the way I am. I’m not saying that I don’t want to be a “better” person. Who doesn’t (depending on how each person defines that)? I just never saw meditation as a means to that unless it came as a welcome by-product to greater ease with myself and with life.

As I write, I am beginning to understand some possible distinctions between Mindfulness Meditation and what I do. I say “possible” because  as I said I don’t really know Mindfulness Meditation. I also suspect that all Mindfulness Meditation is not alike. Certainly not every Mindfulness teacher understands and teaches it in the same way. Certainly not everyone who practices it understands it in the same way. Also, Mindfulness seems to involve more than a technique of meditation. It seems to involve a way of being in the world — something you apply outside of a period of meditation practice. While I do think meditation “my way” creates changes outside of meditation, there is no specific recommendation to try to consciously make something happen in daily life.

So why do I feel my meditations have to do with Mindlessness rather than Mindfulness? My sense is that in Mindfulness Meditation there is a kind of noting of things. There is the idea that here I am being mindful. So in Mindfulness there is a awareness of “me” sitting here “being mindful”. The difference I’d see is that in my meditations (the ones like “Simply Being” that don’t have a specific focus), there is a letting go of what is noticed. Noticing is not noting. It’s not a taking note of what you experience, or a labeling of it. It’s more of a letting go of what is noticed. We aren’t looking for anything. Noticing happens spontaneously. We are spontaneously aware of what is going on. We don’t need to try to notice something. It just comes into our awareness. Or it doesn’t. Doesn’t matter. It’s just a matter of letting go when we become aware that the mind has gotten involved, or tangled up with, what is being experienced.

As I write, I see the impossibility of conceptualizing what happens in meditation. And perhaps this is my difficulty with understanding Mindfulness Meditation. Perhaps it is the problem that is inherent when we try to put the meditative experience into words. It sounds like we mean something we don’t really mean. I can certainly see that what I was just writing in the paragraph above could sound like something other than what I mean.

So I’ll just stop. I began to try to write about Mindlessness vs Mindfulness, and I found that I can’t really. But I think you might enjoy the New York Times piece I mentioned, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with this subject. So for that reason, I’ll go ahead and publish this post about what I can’t really put in writing. I think this has liberated me from any compulsion to explore how what I do is different than Mindfulness (if it is). It doesn’t really matter in the end. I’m happy with what I’m doing!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and welcome your comments.


23 Responses to “Mindfulness vs. mindlessness.”

  1. Lotus on March 7th, 2009 12:42 am

    I agree, we are a culture of doers and that includes me. Every single day, I am consciously making decision to give myself the space and time to be. It is still sort of a struggle, there are so many mundane chores to be done. But I will not give up reclaiming that sacred hour for my soul – To LET GO and just let BE”. And when I do that and do that well enough, I feel a sense of indescribable deep fulfillment of being so in tuned and connected. It is like when I have that, I feel I have everything. And doing less or more does not seems so important anymore. However ironically, despite knowing that, it is still a daily struggle between my ego and my soul, to let go of that doing.

    Your meditation podcast does really help.

    Thank you so much for such great gifts.

    May all beings find deep Peace and Joy.

  2. Lotus on March 7th, 2009 12:53 am

    Sorry Mary, that reply from me “culture of doers” are intended for the “Deep Rest Guided Meditation” Blog. Don’t know how it got here – is this a sign of mindlessness or what? :)

  3. Lotus on March 7th, 2009 1:50 am

    By the way, mindfulness like the previous discussion of what it mean by being spiritual – is different side of the same coin. Like many such words, it is open to different interpretations according to what one see and feel.

    What I could see (which is by no mean definitely what it is)- mindfulness just mean being aware. It does not ask you to behave in any certain ways. However, by being deeply aware, we are tapping into the windows of our souls. Sometimes that help us gain wisdom energy from our soul, and make us act wisely.

    I think you got the point – it does not really matter in the end. What matters is that you are happy with what you are doing, which is a joy, a form of making peace with yourself. To me, that is All it Matters.

    It takes too much of energy to figure out the complications of this world.

    May all beings be Happy.

  4. Mary on March 7th, 2009 10:14 am

    First, Lotus, you are welcome for the podcast. I’m so glad it helps.

    I love what you said: “It takes too much of energy to figure out the complications of this world.” I’ll take that with me into this day!

  5. Mel on March 11th, 2009 3:19 am

    Dear Mary,

    It seems to me that we, as humans spend so much time being mindful of everything around us: what the kids are doing, what might make our boss happy, how rude that the person driving in front of us was that we become too mindful and end up feeling scattered and frustrated.

    I think it’s important to accept that reality is what it is, but not to lose hope that even if times like these that things can turn around.

    For myself, I’ve found your particularl brand of “mindlessness” to be calming and it has helped me have more faith in myself, my life and helped me feel more connected to God in a lot of ways.

    As important as it can be at times to be mindful, I’ll take simple mindlessness and calm over that any time.

  6. Mary on March 11th, 2009 4:00 pm

    How beautiful, Mel. “To accept that reality is as it is” has been a big part of my path. It does give us more faith in ourselves and life. Thank you for reflecting that back to me!

  7. Vincent on March 16th, 2009 11:31 am

    Hi Mary,

    Thank you very much for your podcast guided meditations. I really find them useful and really well done.

    Can you help me understand what you mean when you say “not minding the stories of the mind”, “not minding that effort has come” or “not minding anything at all”.

    What do you mean by “not minding”? Not paying attention to something or rather not letting it bother you? Or perhaps something else?

    Thanks for your help.

  8. Mary on March 16th, 2009 3:23 pm

    You are welcome, Vincent. Good question! I’ve never given a precise definition to what “not minding” means and probably can’t. It does have to do with not paying attention to something — just letting it go without focusing on it. It does contain an element of “not letting it bother you” as well. Of course, if something bothers you, it does, and there’s nothing you can do about that reaction arising. “Not minding” is a way of saying whatever comes up is OK — you don’t need to do anything about it. Hope that helps!

  9. Remko on April 8th, 2009 12:59 pm


    Thanks a lot for your podcasts. I had trouble keeping my mind to it in the beginning but now I am starting to experience the benefits of it. It really helps me relax and clear my head before I go to bed or get up in the morning.

    Just wanted to let you know.


  10. Mary on April 8th, 2009 1:52 pm

    Thank you, Remko, for taking the time to comment. You are welcome! I’m so glad the podcast is helping. As far as having had trouble keeping your mind on it, it sounds like it’s gotten easier for you. It’s also good to remember that it’s OK if your mind wanders off and you lose the focus. Don’t strain to keep your mind on it. Just be easy about it and when your mind has wandered easily bring it back.

  11. Wadi on April 13th, 2009 10:20 pm

    The way I understand meditation is this, meditation is the art of being in the present moment, and real mindfulness takes you straight to where that present moment shines in all its dimensions, so (real) mindfulness and meditation are interchangeable at least for me. And sitting and observing your body/mind is one aspect of this mindfulness, it is just the tip of the iceberg that takes you from accepting any thoughts that come to your mind to accepting any event in your life with total mastery. From the inner world to the outer world.

  12. Mary on April 15th, 2009 8:48 am

    Thank you for adding your perspective, Wadi. Your words, “from the inner world to the outer world” sum up the link between meditation and how experience our daily lives so beautifully…

  13. Rowena Nichols on April 19th, 2009 10:51 am

    Peace. Be still. Be. These are my first thoughts regarding meditation. Meditation should never be a chore – rather a peaceful interlude in one’s day.
    Defining ‘Mindfulness’, and ‘Mindlessness’ requires effort that may not be important. When one enters a time of meditation he/she knows whether a problem, requiring the mind for solving, is the issue or not.
    Having used labyrinths as tools for meditation (and other things) for years, my first thought was my response to those who ask, “How do you use a labyrinth?” The answer is you don’t have to, or you can. If you ‘use’ it, then you are involved in ‘mindfulness’. You enter the labyrinth with a specific problem in mind that you wish to solve. If you don’t use it, then you are involved in ‘mindlessness’. You merely clear your mind, and “be” in the moment. Whatever the results, they will be precisely what was needed for that moment.
    God bless you, for your participation in helping others.
    New Mexico, USA

  14. Mary on April 19th, 2009 12:06 pm

    “Peace. Be still, Be.” does seem to sum up the essence of meditation. I’ve walked a labyrinth a number of times and found I always preferred not to have a specific intention or agenda, so I really appreciate your comment on that. Thank you for adding your voice to the discussion, Rowena.

  15. John Neyman Jr. on September 8th, 2009 4:24 am

    Great post! I believe that meditation helps manage stress. This is very important since it is inevitable that we sometimes encounter things that cause us stress that affects our well-being.

  16. Swami Collins on March 13th, 2010 9:34 am

    Mindlessness as a word is often misused instead of other words like ” uncaring” or “nasty” or “insensitive etc etc.The popular Media gas turned this word,which is in reality descriptive of a Physiological state of Being into a perjorative insult.A reading of ancient Indian texts concerned primarily with Raja Yoga reveals that this state was a concomitment of realising (usually temporarily) the state of Union with Creation.THis State of Mindlessness is the “OCEANIC” state achieveable by very few “meditators(I prefer to Contemplate be4cause the psychic space of “meditation” is filled with entities playing Mind Games and the Mind can PRETEND to be Creation in ways that can and do confuse even the most adept person in the “techniques! of Meditation)
    Mindlessness is a PHYSIOLOGICAL state that is akin to the state that the foetus is in during its time in the Womb MINUS the Krama both Good and Bad carried from life to life–this state is delineated by Maximum Brainblood volume carrying Maximum Glucose and Maximum Oxygen-minus the accumulated Karma of the many lifetimes we all pass through)
    I cover the ramifications of this the Ultimate state of beingness available to Humanity (the State of Union with Creation-which is NOT a “god” in any sense or attribute of any “god”–)on my Website —
    Please take the time to read this from begining to end–preferably alone with distraction of sound or smell or sight.
    Thank you

  17. maggie on February 6th, 2013 2:11 pm

    I’m on Week 4 of following the CD – M/Meditation. But I’ve developed a cold – a stuffed and runny nose. Do you think this would have anything to do with the mediation?

    Many thanks

  18. Mary on February 7th, 2013 5:20 pm

    Maggie, It is highly unlikely that you would have a stuffy, runny nose because of meditation.

  19. A P on October 5th, 2013 11:54 pm

    Nice. Here’s a section from ancient Zen master Dahui Zonggao:

    An ancient worthy had a saying: “To look for the ox, one must seek out its tracks. To study the Path, seek out Mindlessness. Where the tracks are, so must the ox be.” The path of Mindlessness is easy to seek out. So-called “Mindlessness” is not being inert and unknowing like earth, wood, tile, or stone; it means that the mind is settled and imperturbable when in contact with situations and meeting circumstances; that it does not cling to anything, but is clear in all places, without hindrance or obstruction; without being stained, yet without dwelling in the stainlessness; viewing body and mind like dreams or illusions, yet without remaining in the perspective of dreams’ and illusions’ empty nothingness. Only when one arrives at a realm like this can it be called true Mindlessness.

  20. Luc Watelet on July 8th, 2014 2:48 pm

    I think you are right when you say that mindfulness has as many definitions as people who attempt to define it. I think in its origin mindfulness was not meant to be anything else than what you call mindlessness, or what some call the space of no-mind. But in the West we have added intentions to mindfulness.

    I have started to tap into that as a psychotherapist and a yoga teacher. I noticed that I could heal by paying attention to, and experiencing without judgment, pains and tensions in my body. I could completely free myself of past trauma. I noticed that as a psychotherapist I could guide people to releasing trauma by guiding them mindfully through what is going on in their body as they are expressing frustrations or emotions. Mindfulness used in this way is a synonym to bringing attention to something specific and it is always without judgment.

    As I guide my students and my clients through a “mindful” experience there is an intention to release, or at least make peace with, something that is trapped in their body/mind that is limiting or painful to them and that they have not yet been aware of.

    This is very different from your “mindlessness” meditation which is simply being with what is.

    As I see it, some people are not aware of how attached they are to burdens and that that attachment makes these burdens theirs… and of course that these burdens are only theirs because they are attached to them. The burdens themselves are not the problem, only the attachment to them is.

    If a mindlessness meditation, such as what you describe, helps people release attachments without the need to first become aware of them that is wonderful and, I would say, all that is needed! That is so freeing and healing!

    But if a problem keep reoccurring in one’s life then one may want to place an intention during one’s meditation to specifically address that problem and experience fully the attachment(s) associated with that problem. This becomes what I think of as a mindfulness meditation.

    Blessings and peace! Luc

  21. Mary on July 9th, 2014 1:47 pm

    Thank you for sharing your perspective, Luc. Your approach to healing — paying attention to and experiencing without judgment — is so direct and powerful. To me, it honors the self-healing capacity of the body and mind. The body-mind is always trying to release trauma, and this approach helps us get out of the way of that natural process. Some of the guided meditations in our podcast use that principle — for example the Emotional Ease guided meditation. This mindlessness post refers more to some of my meditations, like Leting Go, which simply allow us to relax the focus of the mind to allow it to rest deeply and also to expand and experience its essential nature as consciousness or pure awareness.

    Your comment has gotten me revisiting this post and I’d write it quite differently today. I don’t feel we can release “attachments” without being aware of them, at least on some level. We may not have an intellectual understanding of what is being released, but it seems we would at least have to feel it (the emotions, body sensations, etc).

    Thanks again for commenting!

  22. Luc Watelet on July 10th, 2014 11:40 am


    Thank you! After reading your post and people’s comments and trying to express what I think of as mindfulness meditation, I went to my yoga class with more clarity. I had taught them mindfulness and I decided to teach them mindlessness. One of my students told me that she wished she could practice mindlessness… but could only do mindfulness at this time… But she had a breakthrough and a beautiful mindless experience by chanting “SA TA NA MA.” A chant we do in kundalini yoga that has the purpose of facilitating changes by loosening the nervous connections in the brain. The chant brought her to completely disconnect from all of her burden for 12 minutes. Something she had never been able to do. And she experience the beauty of being. her face was relaxed and glowed. Thanks for your engaging blog!

  23. Mary on July 10th, 2014 12:38 pm

    How inspiring, Luc! Thank YOU for sharing this. I find that my experience creating guided meditations and interacting with those who listen keeps taking me deeper. Wonderful insights come sometimes from the interactions on this blog. I need to spend some time on your website as well!

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