Mindless Vs. Mindful

It’s one of those buzzwords we’ve all been hearing lately:  mindful.  Perhaps you are a little tired of it; buzzwords can indeed become tiring.

Perhaps, however, we should give it a second chance, and think of it a little differently. 

Most of us have used the term mindless for years; we all know what it means:  we are simply not paying attention.  Most of us are guilty of that.  So, to put it in a different light, let’s think of mindful as the opposite of mindless. 

Like, for example, I just mindlessly ate half a bag of potato chips as I was writing.  Well, not quite half.  But I wasn’t paying attention to how many I was eating because I was paying attention to writing.  So, I was being mindful of my writing, and mindless as I ate.  I couldn’t focus on two things at once, and because the chips were so tasty and gave me that temporary lift, I just kept eating them. 

**

Much of human behavior is automatic; we don’t think about what we are doing because we have done it so many times before.  Like eating the chips.  Plus, it’s no fun to count or measure how much we eat of such a good thing, so we focus on the pleasure—at least, I do.  Often, the easy, pleasurable things—like eating too many potato chips—are not the best things for our health.  But we are used to doing it, so we just keep doing it, as if the action is on autopilot.

“When our son moves out, and we are empty nested, I will stop buying chips,” I told my husband last fall. He moved out in October, and I am still buying chips.  Because they taste so good.  Because I have made it a mindless habit.  It’s an autopilot thing when I am in the grocery store, I simply go down the chip aisle and throw in a few bags.  

This isn’t the only less-than-healthy habit I have.  Since the onset of COVID, I find my default position on the couch almost every evening, scrolling through Netflix to find a good show.  For many months in the thick of the lockdown, this was expected, allowed, even sanctioned.  “Stay home,” we were all told.  So, I did my part and sat on my couch and watched TV. However, this habit wasn’t meant to last forever.  Life has had to return to some new semblance of “normal,” and I find that I mindlessly want to still sit on my couch every evening and watch a good Netflix flick—and mindlessly eat popcorn, of course.  My mind has created a new habit, a new pattern of behavior.  And it’s not necessarily a good one.  I could be doing something better for my brain or my body, like reading a book or taking a walk. 

This examination of my habit has prompted me to catalog a list of common human behaviors that many of us engage in that may not be the best for our bodies.  We mindlessly continue our patterns, when we could take a moment to be mindful of what it is we should be doing instead.  I am guilty of many of these, which is why I was able to list them:

  • Not getting enough sleep.  Going to bed at a late hour and rising before we have fully rested our bodies can take a toll on our health as those less-than-restful nights accumulate.
  • Spending too much screen time before bed. Any electronic device—TV, phone, tablet, computer—emits rays that tell our eyes it is time to be awake, and so our bodies respond accordingly.  To get that necessary amount of sleep, shut down your devices at least an hour before bed, and pick up a book or a magazine—like, a real one, made of paper and all.  They do still exist. 
  • Not drinking enough water. I will say that most days, I am on top of this goal.  However, when I decide to drink a large glass of iced tea with lunch, and then fill it up for the afternoon, this cuts deeply into my water consumption, as I am drinking tea instead of water.  Anything with caffeine counts against the recommended formula of “enough:” half your body weight in ounces of water daily (unless you are on fluid restrictions from your health care provider).
  • Indulging in too many sweets/bad carbs/alcohol, etc. Our bodies want more of whatever it is we put in them, so, if we choose to fill them with food and liquids that are not the best choices, we will likely continue to want, and do the same. 
  • Maintaining a habit of low physical activity:  It’s much easier to sit on the couch and watch Netflix instead of taking that walk or tuning in to that fitness video for a workout.  It is the path of least resistance, and it’s a habit too many of us are in, but take that extra moment to think about the difference between not moving your body, and moving your body.  The amazing human body was designed to move, so as much as you are able, Move it!

**

Lately, I have been having knee problems.  My left knee often revolts and locks up in pain, and my range of motion is limited.  I know I am at a greater risk to fall. I now have to think about nearly every step I take up and down stairs, and I have a three-story home.  My bedroom is upstairs; the laundry is in the basement.  I have to watch my feet on each step, being mindful of each step.  In addition, the two steps down in the garage require some mental gymnastics as well.  It is often darker in there, and I must exercise greater caution to ensure that my shoes—or my husband’s shoes—or the cat, or a package, etc., isn’t sitting on or near the steps, thus posing a greater fall risk. 

The ugly statistic is this:  thirty-two thousand Americans die annually of falls, mostly in their homes.  Untold thousands more live with the injuries, pain and limitations.  I desperately want to remain out of that statistical fact, and I don’t want you to end up in there, either.  So, in order to do that, being mindful is the best way to start. 

I found myself sitting on my couch last night, mindlessly eating popcorn.  Handful after handful.  I stopped, thought about what I had just written earlier, and starting taking only a few kernels in my mouth at once.  I was mindful of how I was eating, instead of mindless.  Once again, I was eating too fast. 

I stopped myself then, and I stopped myself again at lunch today.  I took a small bite, put my fork down, and savored the one in my mouth.  I thought about how good it tasted, and how I had the time to slow down.  I didn’t need to rush; I had plenty of time.  And that made me savor each bite, which, in the end, resulted in fewer bites.  I didn’t need to eat that much, that fast. 

Think about how you think about your habits.  It could improve your health, or maybe even save your life.