This Science News article, Many unhappy returns for wandering minds, packs a big punch for its small size. It’s so short I’ll paste it at the end of this post. Left-brain science and right-brain Taoist thought are my two best resources for reducing the risk of the blind spot. Together they offer points of view from opposite ends of the awareness spectrum. Each balances the other. Alone, either one can mislead. Better yet, having an eye on both keeps my mind from wandering too far off field.
I have wondered at times why I’m such a stickler for what I call watchfulness. By that I mean, paying attention, mindfulness, seeing what I’ve not seen, being moment to moment. Clearly, all the common ‘spiritual’ reasons were too pie-in-the-sky for me.
My practical rationale has long been that watchfulness is a core survival asset for all life. Any prey’s wandering awareness is its predator’s windfall. Likewise, any predator’s wandering awareness is its prey’s windfall. Although in truth, I haven’t advocated watchfulness because of that. I’ve felt watchfulness as vital for as long as I can remember. I increasingly see why as time goes by. This research helps show how nature entices my mind to value watchfulness. Obviously, paying attention focuses my wandering mind and that makes me feel happier.
Survival can also benefit from a lack of watchfulness, besides the advantages mentioned above for predator and prey. Wandering awareness is a source spring of creativity. Simply put, I only see what I haven’t seen by taking my eye off the ball. This allows my mind’s gaze to wander outside its box. Therefore, I imagine life’s goal is finding an optimal balance between focus and wandering. Indeed, finding an optimal balance across all aspects of life must be the true definition of health. This pursuit of optimal balance must also account for the bewildering array of diversity we see throughout nature.
The fact that a wandering mind is an 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. While this isn’t the most attractive rationale for our love of music, it could be closer to the truth. As chapter 81 hints, Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful.
When I finally returned to this country to settle down, I listened to lots of talk radio. At the time, I thought I was just reacquainting myself with this culture after being absent for so many years. Looking back, I can see how it also kept me feeling happier (I’ve never been one for listening to music). These days, my mind is more engaged with the moment, intuitively watching to spot connections and this blog reports some of what I stumble upon. I imagine a growing curiosity to catch sight of what chapter 56 calls mysterious sameness keeps me interested and ‘happy minded’.
Importantly, I don’t choose to use my mind this way; it happens naturally and perhaps this research explains why. It is how my mind avoids wandering around in the ‘void’ feeling bored or lonely. Come to think of it, the yearning to notice connections conceivably plays a large role in every activity humans engage in: music, games, science, literature, gossip, sex… you name it!
A wandering mind is really a lost, empty mind. It is 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 for so long. When that awareness wanes, meaningfulness ebbs, which causes the mind to wander off 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 depends on one’s innate personality. It is not subject to free will despite our beliefs and wishes to the contrary!
Our troubles as a species arises from our ignorance of how thoroughly nature is in charge. We only feel we are in control. I’m sure all animals feel likewise. The universal drive to control, which all animals share, then cause us to think and believe we have control. As chapter 71 warns, To know yet to think that one does not know is best; Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty. To compound matters, we have an illusion of free will that I assume originates in the ego, i.e., the illusion of self (see Buddha’s 2nd Noble Truth). Thankfully, science is steadily revealing the animal we actually are.
(1) I notice a synergy between the two sides of awareness. One side can articulate, but can’t see beyond what is ‘thinkable’ — the trees. The wandering side can see beyond what is ‘thinkable’ — the forest. And the forest is Murky like muddy water as chapter 15 notes. They are complementary — clear and muddy. They work together well as long as we don’t expect one to walk in the other’s 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.