Why You Can Zone Out and Still Be Mindful

Mindfulness and mindlessness are not actually at odds with each other. 


Recently, mindfulness has been equated with paying attention. All the time. Full stop. Writer Melissa Dahl published a piece yesterday in New York Magazine titled “In Praise of Zoning Out,” suggesting that she feels especially bad about the times she zones out because of all this talk about mindfulness.

She writes:

The cult of productivity continues to grow. We’re encouraged to have more productive mornings and commutes, and even Sundays are becoming a day to squeeze in just a little more structure.

But zoning out isn’t the issue here. Equating mindfulness with paying attention sells the practice short. It also suggests that mindfulness requires a Jedi mind—that all the folks Dhal imagines commuting and practicing mindfulness are doing so with the intention of levitating their crashed spacecraft out of a bog. Maybe they’re just taking a break from the constant rat race of productivity and “structure” Dhal refers to. But who can know.

Judson Brewer, research director at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts, has been following studies on mind-wandering and its relationship to mindfulness. He’s also noticed a tendency to equate mindfulness with rigorous attention-giving.

He writes:

Superficially, mindfulness has been equated with paying attention. But in fact…we pay attention not just for the sake of paying attention, but to see clearly the results of our actions. Do they increase or decrease our suffering? And this has very little to do with deliberate effort.

Mindfulness doesn’t have to be all about working hard. It can come to us out of thin air. An interruption or a distraction, for instance, might be exactly what we need when our thoughts have overtaken us with their momentum. Brewer writes:

This is how experienced practitioners describe mindfulness—it is effortless. And at the far end of the spectrum, when we are completely out of our own way, we are in “flow.” […] This is pretty different than never letting our minds wander (which is obviously pretty effortful—just try it for yourself).

In other words, mindfulness and mind-wandering aren’t actually at odds with each other. “The absence of mind wandering likely does not equal the presence of mindfulness, and that effortlessness may be a key aspect of cultivating the fertile soil for creativity to grow,” Brewer notes.