Balance. Not going to extremes. Yin and yang. Goldilocks' (and Buddha's) middle way.
A New York Times essay, "Breathing In vs. Spacing Out," applies this to mindfulness and paying attention. There's a time to do this, and a time to let the mind scatter to the far corners of the cosmos. Or at least, to daydream about what we'll do when we win the lottery.
But one of the most surprising findings of recent mindfulness studies is that it could have unwanted side effects. Raising roadblocks to the mind’s peregrinations could, after all, prevent the very sort of mental vacations that lead to epiphanies.
In 2012, Jonathan Schooler, who runs a lab investigating mindfulness and creativity at the University of California, Santa Barbara, published a study titled “Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation.” In it, he found that having participants spend a brief period of time on an undemanding task that maximizes mind wandering improved their subsequent performance on a test of creativity. In a follow-up study, he reported that physicists and writers alike came up with their most insightful ideas while spacing out.
“A third of the creative ideas they had during a two-week period came when their minds were wandering,” Schooler said. “And those ideas were more likely to be characterized as ‘aha’ insights that overcame an impasse.”
The trick is knowing when mindfulness is called for and when it’s not.
“When you’re staring out the window, you may well be coming up with your next great idea,” he said. “But you’re not paying attention to the teacher. So the challenge is finding the balance between mindfulness and mind wandering. If you’re driving in a difficult situation, if you’re operating machinery, if you’re having a conversation, it’s useful to hold that focus. But that could be taken to an extreme, where one always holds their attention in the present and never lets it wander.”
During my intensely meditating years, when I'd spend about two hours a day in disciplined meditation, I also tried to repeat a mantra as much as possible during the rest of the day.
I'm not sure how to classify this activity, as mindfulness or mind wandering. Repeating a mantra while doing everyday activities like driving a car, washing dishes, or even talking to someone, seems to have characteristics of each.
For example, I started to do my mantra meditation thing seriously just after I graduated from college with a degree in psychology. While waiting to start in a master's of social work program, I had a job as a teacher's aide at Santa Clara High School.
Part of that job involved counseling students with behavioral problems. I didn't really know what I was doing when I talked with a student. Plus, I was so enthused about repeating my mantra as much as possible during the day, even at work, often I wouldn't be listening very attentively to what a student was telling me.
Looking back, I wasn't very mindful of the moment in which I found myself. My mind wasn't wandering, but it also wasn't paying full attention to the here-and-now of sensory/external reality. I was focused on repeating some words in my mind, my internal subjective reality.
So I can see the wisdom in the New York Times piece. It's good to let the mind wander, and it's good to let the mind be concentrated. No hard and fast rule here. Whatever seems appropriate at the time.