This Science News piece, Many unhappy returns for wandering minds, packs a big punch for its small size. (It’s so short I’ll paste it below.) Science News and the Tao Te Ching are my two best resources for reducing the risk of ‘the blind spot’. Together, they offer point of view from opposite ends of the awareness spectrum. Each balances the other. Alone, either can mislead. Better yet, having an eye on both keeps my mind from wandering too far.
I have wondered at times why I’m such a stickler for what I call watchfulness (paying attention, mindfulness, seeing what I’ve not seen, being moment to moment, and so on). Frankly, all the common ‘spiritual’ reasons were too pie-in-the-sky for me.
My more practical rationale has long been that watchfulness is a core survival asset for all life. A prey’s wandering awareness is its predator’s windfall; a predator’s wandering awareness is its prey’s windfall. Although in truth, I haven’t advocated watchfulness because of that. I’ve felt watchfulness vital for as long as I can remember. As time goes by, I see increasingly why. This research now helps show how nature entices my mind to value watchfulness. Clearly, paying attention focuses my wandering mind making me feel happier.
On the other hand, survival can benefit from a lack of watchfulness, besides the advantages mentioned above for predator and prey. Wandering awareness is one (perhaps ‘The’) source spring of creativity. Simply put, I only see what I haven’t seen by taking my eye-off-the-ball, so my mind’s gaze can wander outside-its-box. Therefore, I imagine life’s goal is finding an optimal balance between focus and wandering. Heck, I’d even say seeking an optimal balance across all aspects of life is the true definition of health. It is a tug-of-war alright, and certainly gives reason for the bewildering array of diversity we see throughout nature.
The wandering mind is unhappy mind may also explain why we are so drawn to music, in the listening as well as the playing. Rhythm holds our attention, almost hypnotically for some. To this beat, add a flowing melody to hold our attention and the mind has a surefire path to follow, avoiding its unhappy wandering. Not the most romantic or beautiful rational for our love of music, but perhaps closer to the truth (i.e., truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful).
When I returned to this country I listen a lot to talk radio. At the time I thought I was just reacquainting myself with this culture. Looking back, I can see how it also kept me feeling ‘happier’ (I’ve never been one for listening to music). Now a days my mind is usually either watching to spot connections (incidents of mysterious sameness) or resting at various levels of silent wandering awareness (with this blog simply reporting what I stumble upon).
Importantly, I don’t choose to use my mind this way; it happens naturally, and perhaps this research explains why. It is how I avoid a lost, wandering mind is unhappy mind. Come to think of it, a yearning to notice connections conceivably plays a large role in every mental activity humans engage in: music, games, science, literature, gossip, sex, you ___(name it)___!
A wandering mind is really a lost, empty mind—a mind wandering around looking for any way to avoid the void. The reason it is less ‘happy’ is that it feels life less meaningful when awareness is wandering around, essentially looking for something meaningful. Of course an ’empty mind’ filled with awareness of the flowing moment feels meaningful, but only as long as that lasts. The moment the sense of meaningfulness is lost, attention will wander away looking for another meaningful engagement. The process of a meditative life is feeling ‘the’ meaningful flowing moment, then wandering away, then returning—a cyclic ebbing and flowing(1). How long each cycle lasts just depends on one’s innate personality (i.e., despite our dreams to the contrary, it’s not subject to free will.)
One major mistake we make as a species is our ignorance of how thoroughly nature is in charge. We only feel we are free to choose and in control (the illusion of free will). I’m sure all animals feel likewise. Our core difficulty is that we also think that we know. The universal drive to control which all animals share, causes us to believe we have (or can have) control. This myth accounts for much of our trouble. Thankfully science is steadily, if slowly, revealing the animal we actually are. Yahoo!
(1) I notice a synergy between the two side of awareness. One side can articulate, but can’t see beyond what is ‘thinkable’. The wandering side can see beyond what is ‘thinkable’ (the forest, the big picture), but is as dumb as a doornail. They are complementary. They work together well as long as I don’t expect one to walk in the others shoes.
Wandering Mind Is Unhappy Mind
A wandering mind often stumbles downhill emotionally. People spend nearly half their waking lives thinking about stuff other than what they’re actually doing, and these imaginary rambles frequently feel bad, according to a new study that surveyed volunteers at random times via their iPhones.
People’s minds wander at least 30 percent of the time during all activities except sex, say graduate student Matthew Killingsworth and psychologist Daniel Gilbert, both of Harvard University. Individuals feel considerably worse when their minds wander to unpleasant or neutral topics, as opposed to focusing on current pursuits, Killingsworth and Gilbert report in the Nov. 12 Science.
These new findings jibe with philosophical and religious teachings that assert happiness is found by living in the moment and learning to resist mind wandering, Killingsworth says.
Mind wandering serves useful purposes, he acknowledges, such as providing a way to reflect on past actions, plan for the future and imagine possible consequences of important decisions. “We may tend to reflect on things that went poorly or are a cause for worry,” Killingsworth proposes. “That’s not a recipe for happiness, even if it’s necessary.”
In his new study, people’s minds actually wandered more often to pleasant topics than to unpleasant or neutral topics. But those reveries offered no measurable mood boost over thinking about tasks at hand, the researchers found.
It’s important to note that the new data apply only in the short run, comments psychologist Jonathan Schooler of the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Positive flights of fancy may lead to creative problem solving and planning that makes people happier down the road,” he speculates.