Mindfulness has experienced a wandering backlash. Every few years, a study or a Goop “wellness protocol” (pick your poison) seeks to recalibrate our relationship to the present moment. Fifty per cent of our time is spent with our head in the clouds, they say. Too much of our time is spent watching our favorite bands lovingly compose songs from Game of Thrones accompanied by an orchestra, they say.
But what if I told you the pioneer of mindfulness himself regarded an inquisitive brain that followed its natural instincts not as the enemy of mindfulness, but as another form of practicing awareness? It’s practiced as part of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) curriculum as a technique called choiceless awareness, which roughly translates into being open to what unfolds in front of you, what emerges in your mind.
Aimless wandering is also one of those practices.
Going Nowhere as a Mindfulness Practice
In the video below, Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce takes us on an aimless walk. On a park bench between locations, he provides some insight into why we can meander down a park path admiring trees, bother strangers for plantain chips, and call this random cluster of activities a mindfulness practice—one that some meditation teachers actually consider more advanced.
Stephany Tlalka: One of the key definitions we talk about is “mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, non-judgmentally,” but here we are engaging in a practice that is intentionally letting the mind wander.
The mind has a capability to focus and it has a huge capability for spaciousness. Why mindfulness practice, particularly in the beginning, pays so much attention to focusing in the present moment is because our minds get caught up in thought loops that we can obsess over and we are not present for what’s around us.
When we allow ourselves to be a bit spacious it’s also a way to be present. You don’t have to focus on anything in particular.
When we allow ourselves to be a bit spacious it’s also a way to be present. You don’t have to focus on anything in particular. You have a kind of a natural ease and natural awareness that’s there in the background, what Jon Kabat-Zinn teaches later on in MBSR as choiceless awareness: You really have no choice but to be aware, so you can let your mind wander around freely because you’re basically aware. We trust that awareness is fundamental and agitated distraction is an imposition on that. It obscures it but does not obliterate it.
How do you distinguish aimless wandering or walking from formal meditation, where you sit and practice for five or 10 or 20 minutes or more, and informal mindfulness practices like being mindful while brushing your teeth or bringing mindfulness to daily activities like listening.
Let’s talk about everyday mindfulness practices such as paying attention while you’re washing dishes. So with washing the dishes, you start to feel like Oh, this is a chore. You let your mind go and it might catch the first thing to obsess on and before you know it, you’re not washing dishes anymore. So those are opportunities to use the thing that you’re doing as the anchor for coming back to the moment you’re in, back to your body and mind. In seated formal mindfulness meditation, we tend to use the breath as an anchor.
But this kind of practice, aimless wandering, is more about trusting that the basic awareness is already there and it doesn’t need to be worked on. So you give yourself an opportunity to refresh your mind and life by just hanging out and being there and going with the next thing.
Aimless wandering is more about trusting that the basic awareness is already there and it doesn’t need to be worked on. It emphasizes spaciousness more than focus or concentration.
Aimless wandering emphasizes spaciousness more than focus or concentration. Mindfulness altogether contains mindfulness and awareness, in the vernacular that I use. Awareness is kind of a larger thing—aware of everything that’s around without it having to be about you. That’s the key. So as you’re walking around, you loosen the focus on yourself—you just start to notice things and you go toward them and enjoy them and appreciate them.
Some people would say it’s a more advanced practice. Maybe that’s true to a certain degree but it’s also a practice that’s accessible to anybody at any time. And I’d say it falls under the category of natural mindfulness and awareness, not something you earnestly have to work on and struggle to maintain. It most definitely doesn’t replace basic mindfulness practice; it’s a complement to it.