Trying To Understand Mindfulnesses

I’ve been reading a couple books by Thich Nhat Hanh, including Being Peace and The Miracle of Mindfulness. I’m trying to sort out what Hanh’s Zen Buddhism means by mindfulness vis-a-vis what Ellen Langer means by mindfulness.

It’s tough, because there is a lot of overlap:

  • mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness
  • mindfulness involves being present in the moment
  • mindfulness is not about judgment
  • mindfulness means not holding on to theories, preconceptions, doctrines, ideas
  • mindfulness is about focusing on things/activities in themselves rather than as means to ends

There are differences though. The Zen mindfulness thing seems to be about transcending categories altogether, but Langer’s mindfulness is just about letting go of fixed categories; in fact, for her, mindfulness involves constantly being ready to create new categories based on new information, with a recognition that all categories are contextually bound and inadequate to capture reality fully. Hanh has an emphasis on breathing that’s not there in Langer. Hanh also has an emphasis on human connection and compassion that is not obviously there in Langer. The compassion aspects of it remind me of nonviolent communication. Zen mindfulness seems to be assumed to be something you reach in stages through assiduous hard work, while Langer assumes mindfulness is available to everyone and can in fact by elicited in experimental subjects by asking mindful questions.

I think overall I find Langer’s discussions of mindfulness more helpful to me in the context of creativity, but I find Hanh’s more helpful in connection with NVC and emotions and people.

And there’s something important with that breathing thing. Not necessarily the “following a regimen, learning to breathe a special Zen way that’s better than normal breathing” thing, but being in contact with your breathing. Breathing = spirit, literally/etymologically speaking. There is a way in which letting your mind get in touch with your breathing can help you out of being trapped in negative thoughts and feelings and into the present moment. That’s something important I’ve gotten from Hanh.

Despite them both saying they’re against judgment, I get a more nonjudgmental vibe off Langer than Hanh. (Though both are pretty great that way.)

I guess I’m glad I’ve read them both.

I’ll add Hanh to the list of people whose ideas interrelate in complex and interesting ways, including Ellen Langer, Marshall Rosenberg, Carl Rogers, Alfie Kohn, Gerard “Killing Monsters” Jones… that’s all I can think of right now. :)

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