From mindless busyness to mindful business (Part 1)

Many of us rush through our days, paying little attention to what’s happening around us. Is that you? When was the last time you took a moment to smell a flower (it doesn’t have to be a rose)? Or paid attention to the flavors and textures in your food? Enjoyed a breeze on your face? Listened to birds sing? Looked at the night sky?

Too often, we do things without thinking, without considering the results of our actions. When did you last take stock of your day, thinking about what you accomplished? Did you list the tangible outputs you’d created? Perhaps you thought about why you took on an assignment that you didn’t enjoy, weren’t good at, and felt was the wrong thing to do.

In this column and the next, we’ll see why mindlessness prevents you from becoming a creative leader and developing your genius, and why focusing, and paying attention, are essential.

Mindlessness: Trapped in the past, fearful of the future

Lack of focus is hardly new. Five centuries ago, Leonardo da Vinci said, “The average human looks without seeing, listens without hearing, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance, and talks without thinking.” Is this true of you, too? How many of the things I asked above have you done in the last week?

Why don’t we pay attention? Why don’t we see what is in front of us? We are trapped inside of our heads. Instead of focusing on life as it happens, we get lost in the endless stream of our thoughts. We ignore present reality and instead pay attention to the past and the future.

Do these sound familiar? “I should have closed that deal yesterday.” “I wish it was Friday.” “Why didn’t I buy a ticket for the last lottery?” “What should I eat for lunch today?” “If only I had said ‘no’, I wouldn’t have to do this stupid project.” “When I get promoted, I’ll buy that sports car.”

Do you relive the past, or concern yourself with the future? Of course you do — we all do. But ask yourself this — does thinking about the past or the future make you happy? Probably not. In his book The Power of Now, the German author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle said, “Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry — all forms of fear — are cause by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.”

What’s wrong with remembering the good old days and dreaming about the future?

“The reason people find it so hard to be happy is that they always see the past better than it was, the present worse than it is, and the future less resolved than it will be,” said the French writer and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol. The good old days are irretrievably in the past, and missed opportunities will always remain missed. Richard Branson said, “I believe the one thing that helps you capture the moment is to have no regrets. Regrets weigh you down. They hold you back in the past when you should move on.”

On the other hand, if you worry too much about the future, you’ll miss opportunities to do something now that will create your future. If you always expect your life to start tomorrow, you will never live. As the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., said, “Many people die with their music still in them. Why is this so? Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it, time runs out.“

Many people never realize that life only happens now. They squander “the power of now.” To ignore the present is to live mindlessly, and mindless living prevents the development of your genius.

Mindless being leads to mindless doing

Ignoring the present is a state of mindless being, but mindlessness is also expressed as mindless doing, which can take these forms:

1. Taking action, without knowing why. For example, attending time-wasting meetings. Why aren’t you using your time more productively? Management guru Peter Drucker said, “There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.”

2. Taking action, heedless of the consequences. When you see someone spitting out their gum onto the sidewalk, not caring if someone might step on it, or if a bird might swallow it and choke, you’re seeing an example of this. Have you ever wondered what was on the mind of the man who chopped down the last tree on the Easter Islands?

3. Taking action automatically, without paying attention. When you’re eating potato chips while watching TV, and find that you’ve eaten the entire bag without noticing, you’re guilty of this.

What’s wrong with mindless doing?

“We all have time to spend or waste, and it is our decision what to do with it; but once passed, it’s gone forever,” said Bruce Lee. Every hour wasted mindlessly is an hour that could have been used for productive creative work — or for mindful being. How much productive time did you mindlessly waste in the last week? In the last month? In your life? What great things could you have done, what could you have created, had you spent all those wasted hours in mindful activity?

When you do things mindlessly, you don’t pay full attention to the present, or to your environment. You don’t use your senses. You do things without knowing why. You perform meaningless actions that, to whatever extent, make the world worse. When you do things automatically, mechanically and mindlessly, you are nothing but a robot made of meat.

Mindless people who do not appreciate, live in, and work in the present are controlled by their Ego. Such people will never realize their hidden genius. In the next column, we will turn this topic around, and learn how to live and work mindfully.


© Dr. Detlef Reis 2013
This article was published in parallel in the Bangkok Post under the same title on November 7 2013.