Psychologist “Ellen Langer”:http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~langer/ has been studying something she calls “mindfulness” for a couple decades now. She’s written a lot of technical work on it and three popular books, ??Mindfulness??, ??The Power of Mindful Learning,?? and ??On Becoming an Artist??.
??The Power of Mindful Learning??, in particular, turned my head inside out when I read it. It questions a series of “myths” about learning (and by implication, knowledge and skill), which I had never in my life questioned. And the vision of “mindfulness” in it is a powerful one.
It goes something like this. When one does something according to routine, without consciousness of it — by rote, without awareness of other options — as if a computer was doing it — that is _mindless_ action. What you’re doing when you’re not being mindless, is being _mindful_. Mindfulness involves looking at something from different perspectives, questioning received knowledge, considering other options, creating new categories of thought rather than relying on old ones, things like that.
What was new for me here is that, growing up with a lot of “the mind is the brain” and “the brain is a biological computer” metaphors around me, I had always thought of mind as a sufficiently complex agglutination and organization of routines, rules, and categories, not as something which transcends (I can’t think of a better word) the rules, routines, symbols, and categories, which creates and uses them but cannot be reduced to them.
This turned my whole concept of mind inside out.
Before, I’d thought of rules and procedures as the building blocks of mind; now I saw the violation, transformation, and recreation of rules and procedures as the locus of the activity of mind.
Suddenly computers seemed like a lot less useful metaphors for the mind.
In my reading and life since then I’ve come across many places where people talk about mindfulness or share mindful assumptions — many times they were people I’d read before and never quite understood; or I hadn’t understood their significance.
To rhapsodize a bit it becomes a matter of thinking of the world and life as a mystery that we can only provisionally and incompletely understand, and which we are constantly re-encountering, and thinking of the world and life as systems which can eventually be completely comprehended, and where existing knowledge is relatively solid, and can only be built on.
Anyway, it all sounds very idealistic, but it’s not philosophy, it’s empirical science. Langer has been doing experiments on mindfulness for years, and for the purpose of the experiments she’s found simple ways to induce a state of relative mindfulness.
One way to induce mindfulness, for example, is to pay attention to the unique context of the moment. Consider the ways in which the situation you are observing in the present moment is unlike any other in your life. Mindlessness comes from ignoring uniqueness and context-situatedness and classifying things in preexisting categories, so a way to elicit mindfulness is to consider how things fail to fit preexisting categories.
I’ve posted many a blog post before, but I haven’t made very many from the D&W cafeteria in Cascade, MI. When I have been in that cafeteria, it hasn’t usually been on days where I was inentionally taking a personal day to help myself rest and relax. Nor when I’d been happy with the response to a fairly personal post of a few days ago, and determined to write more things that really mattered to me.
Langer’s work on mindfulness really matters to me. Her books are one of several groups of books which have really challenged and expanded my thinking lately, and which interrelate in ways I don’t entirely understand.
Speaking of interrelation… Mindfulness is also very important in Buddhism. Langer has said that people often remark on the relevance of her work for Buddhism, and vice versa, but she has never intentionally drawn on such sources for her work and she is not expert in them at all. To her, mindfulness is simply the opposite of mindfulness, not part of a Dharma or anything. She’s interested to see the connections but is a Western scientist, not a Buddhist.
So are they the same thing — Langer’s “mindfulness” and Buddhist “mindfulness”? There is certainly a lot of overlap. Both eschew judgment in favor of simple observation. Both involve escaping the stranglehold of existing categories. Both involve engagement in the present moment.
However there seem to be important differences: Langer sees mindfulness as involving the constant _creation of new categories_, and _drawing of new distinctions_, while Buddhist mindfulness seems to be about escaping categorization altogether. Langerian mindfulness asks you to see a Y or a Z where you once saw an X, while Buddhist mindfulness asks you to just _see_.
Buddhist mindfulness is also assumed to be a quality that one pursues through years of meditation, whereas Langer assumes that anyone can be mindful at any time, by choice or through an appropriate outside stimulus.
The similarities are too great to say they’re talking about different things, and the differences too great to say they’re talking about exactly the same thing.