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.

6 thoughts on “Mindfulness”

  1. Ed,

    I don’t know if it really connects, but your post made me think of something that I’ve been looking into lately…the state of “nepsis” or “watchfulness/wakefulness” of ancient christian desert mystics. Seen properly, their spiritual task, what they themselves refered to as a “science of thoughts”, or a sort of spiritual psychology, dealt with eliminating those things that darkened the mind, so that one’s cleansed “nous” would be able to discern the true nature of reality, and God’s presence within it. In Eastern Orthodoxy some of these folks are referred to as the Wakeful Fathers.

  2. I have never heard of the Wakeful Fathers but would love to know more about them.

  3. Hey ed i am from mich, grand ledge to be exact.
    I love that you have read Marshall’swork and Kelly Bryson as well. do you know of any NVC groups happening in GR?

    I will be there for xmas and hopeing to connecting with other mindful compassionate folk.

  4. Hey Mercedes! I’m not aware of anything in GR, but I haven’t really looked that hard. I’m mostly in touch with people on the nvc-parenting mailing list. Do you know of anything NVCish going on in MI?

  5. Most of their ideas are in the Philokalia. I’d also recommend “Discernment and Truth: The Spirituality and Theology of Knowledge” by Mark McIntyre, an Episcopal theologian.

    In a nutshell, the desert fathers and mothers understanding of theology was that it was a therapeutic science. Its aim was to cleanse the “nous” or power of apprehension. Part of this cleansing was becoming aware of thoughts themselves as they entered the mind and progressed into the will. The “bad thoughts” were known as “logismoi”, which they thought were demonically sent, or arose from our own fallen nature.

    The best way to undestand the concept of “logismoi” is to think of them as obsessive thought viruses, addictive and circular. If they were allowed into the mind, they would attach themselves to the nous and darken it. The effect of this would be to make the person ever more compulsive and non-reflective in his actions, with eventually no contemplation between the logismoi’s provocation and the human agent’s action and response…no “thinking about thinking”.

    Even if a person doesn’t like the metaphysics of it, its interesting stuff. Kind of an ancient desert memetics.

    One of the Wakeful Fathers might say that what you sketched was the “face” of a logismoi, so to speak, circling around your nous.

  6. Regarding logismoi, a monk told a friend of mine that one should view the mind as a stream, with many thoughts floating in it. One observes the thoughts without becoming attached to them. This practice can lead to discernment, being able to recognize the “obsessive thought viruses” for what they are. In that sense, I suspect Langer’s view of watchfulness is closer to the Orthodox understanding than the Buddhist view. For an in-depth discussion of nepsis, the nous, logismoi, etc. see “Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers,” by Metropolitan Hierotheos (available on Amazon: see http://tinyurl.com/mohf7).

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