Mind-Wandering and Mindfulness
Let us examine the differences between mind-wandering and mindfulness.
Very often, these two ways of being are described as divergent mental states with opposing effects on mental performance and mental health.
When our minds wander, we are in a self-reflective state; where usually we are engaging in mental time-travelling into the future or the past. Mental time-travelling keeps us out of the present moment and disrupts our performance .We are not paying attention to what is in front of us, rather we are preoccupied with things that have already happened or what is yet to come.
Mindfulness on the other hand, means to be engaged with the present moment — to the sensory input that is coming in, without cognitive elaboration of trying to understand it, and without emotional reactivity to what you are feeling or seeing. When we practice mindfulness, we practice a non-judgemental awareness to what arises in the present moment.
It is important to understand that both states are important functions of the brain. We need both to be able to operate and to be healthy. So when we speak about these states of mind, it is important to recognize that the relationship between mindfulness and mind-wandering is deeply interrelated. Both states support the other and each state has its proper place and function. Mindful awareness and mind-wandering both have adaptive contributions.
The restful mind consists of both states. But what exactly is the so-called “restful mind?” To understand that, we need to understand the natural tendency of the mind to be restless.
The “Monkey Mind” is a widely used metaphor for a constant incoming stream of thoughts, emotions, and feelings without effort. The mind is jumping around, just like a little monkey! So, when we aren’t directing our attention on a particular task, our mind engages in this stream of ongoing thoughts and emotions. Our “Monkey mind” hops from trigger to trigger. You’re thinking about what you ate for lunch, when is that friend going to call you back, if you’ll be able to take that vacation this year… but aren’t paying attention to what is right in front of you at the current moment.
In our modern life, we are constantly bombarded with ongoing sensory and mental events. This is called the “cognitive load.” No wonder we are trapped in the restless mind! We are always trying to deal with all the demands, jumping between all the information and tasks we need to accomplish. It is of more importance than ever to learn how to cultivate the restful mind, which is ultimately the stillness of mind. We want to cultivate a feeling of relaxation, a state of concentration, and non-judgmental observation and discernment.
It is also important to remember that the tasks unrelated to the wandering brain have critical importance too. The brain never truly rests and we need to find a balance between being “mindful” and “mind-wandering.” The key here is to cultivate mindful awareness, so we can direct our attention to specific tasks or even allow our brain to deliberately engage into mind-wandering.
The valuable skill here is being able to shift from reflexive (re)acting to a deliberate choice, learning how to move from reacting mode into responding mode. We want to learn how to direct our attention, so that we can choose when we want to allow our mind to wander or when we want to be mindful.
It is very important to understand that the “resting state” of the brain with its ~unrelated or stimulus~ independent thought (SIT) may be crucial to organising brain function and supports brain plasticity. This state also seems to have a purpose for creativity, problem-solving, and goal-setting. However, the inability to focus and filter our irrelevant distractions may be problematic.
One must be able to differentiate between various types of mind-wandering. One can lead to negative rumination, where we simply fall into a pessimistic rut of thinking. The other form of mind-wandering is necessary for our brain to integrate information. While it can be subtle, it is an incredible difference. Unfortunately, our restless mind during this mind-wandering time is very rich and self-relevant, characterised by spontaneous thoughts and emotions, concerned with the past and hopes, fears and fantasies about the future. It often includes interpersonal feelings, unfulfilled goals, unresolved challenges, and intrusive memories. It is in this state of mind when our past conditioning and programming takes over. We are on automatic pilot.
This intrinsic stream of spontaneous and self-generated thoughts during ongoing tasks comes up in the form of interference, distraction, or rumination. This takes up a lot of our mental capacity. Those forms or stimulus-independent thoughts (SIT) interfere with the ability to be vigilant, remain focused, or concentrate at the tasks at hand. It can keep you from being able to listen, perform, or even sleep. There is much research that links the majority of self-generated thought to negative mood states, future unhappiness, even anxiety and depression.
The key to solving these issues is to simply practice mindful awareness. To do this, you need to keep an observing mind and balance the states of when you are mindful and when you allow your brain to wander for adaptive purposes.
This is what practicing mindfulness means! It is to pay attention, on purpose, to the present moment. It is to understand when we want to focus on the task ahead, or when we want to let our mind wander, daydreaming and flowing with a stream of consciousness. Both states are needed in the context of mental rest. It is a subtle difference between awareness and engagement where the flow of mental objects might determine the adaptive or maladaptive nature that can affect current mood and future behaviour.
The resting mind is crucial for our development. Make sure you practice the mental skill of deliberately directing your mental states to engage in both mindfulness and daydreaming whenever it is adaptive 🙂