Mindfulness of Indifference: Finding Refuge in Neutral

Photo by Meredith Hunter

When we’re on autopilot and we encounter stimuli that’s neutral to us – that has no strong emotional charge – one tendency is to respond with indifference. Indifference is a reaction characterized by unconcern or apathy. It’s far removed from the calm and balanced interest (equanimity) we cultivate when we are mindful. Rather than noting our experience, when we feel indifferent, we tend to ignore or disregard it – we disengage, become disconnected, and are ultimately not fully present.

When we are paying attention, we may notice that the vast majority of our lives are spent in the feeling tone of neutral – neither pleasant nor unpleasant. However, it’s the emotionally charged experiences that we remember most. This makes life seem like a rollercoaster ride defined by great heights of joy and deep pits of discouragement. Noticing the neutral more often can be very useful. Neutral experiences can even become a place of refuge when we are in pain or feeling overwhelmed, but we rarely fully appreciate them. At the very least, if we habitually ignore the neutral, we are cut off from huge swaths of our experience.

When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is happiness. But later, when we don’t have a toothache, we don’t treasure our non-toothache. Practicing mindfulness helps us learn to appreciate the well-being that is already there. – Thich Nhat Hanh

Indifference has been called the “near enemy” of equanimity because the two can be mistaken for one another. To me, indifference has a feeling of flatness, aloofness, and coolness while equanimity has a feeling of openness, warmth and interconnection. Often we react with indifference when we are experiencing aversion – boredom, disgust, or fear that causes us to want to withdraw our attention. With practice we can learn to stay with it – to explore our discomfort, to understand our own habits and patterns, to begin to appreciate neutral, and to perhaps even find some gratitude for the unexceptional moments – the blank canvas experiences in our lives.

Home Practice Suggestions: 

  • Be aware of times when your mood is neutral and notice any associated thoughts, emotions and urges
  • Pay attention to when indifference arises and how this response impacts your actions
  • Practice formal sitting meditation with a focus on feelings and emotions

I exist as I am, that is enough.
If no other in the world be aware, I sit content.
And if each and all be aware, I sit content.

One world is aware, and by far the largest to me,
And that is myself.

And whether I come to my own today or in ten thousand
Or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness,
I can wait.

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

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