Mindlessness Versus Mindfulness

Ellen Langer and mindfulness

Ellen Langer studies the Science of Mindlessness and Mindfulness. She asserts that the idea of being in the moment doesn’t feel very instructional because when we are not in the moment we don’t notice. Same with the idea of being present.

Instead, Ellen suggests “noticing.”

As children we have a very instinctual, natural way of noticing things and people. Then they begin to teach us that these things are called names and then they give us their opinions about them which we take as being the facts, or the truth.

Our Experience of Everything is Formed by the Words and Ideas We Attach to Them

Dr. Langer’s take on mindfulness has never involved contemplation or meditation or yoga. It comes straight out of her provocative, unconventional studies, which have been suggesting for decades what neuroscience is pointing at now: our experience of everything is formed by the words and ideas we attach to them. What makes a vacation a vacation is not only a change of scenery — but the fact that we let go of the mindless everyday illusion that we are we need to be in control. Ellen Langer has shown it’s possible to become physiologically younger through a changed frame of mind; and to find joy in what was experienced as drudgery by renaming it as play.

But if you go home tonight and pretend you don’t know anything, no words, no concepts, you will experience a new level of being alive! My husband and I did this for fun the other day. We looked at our houseplants with as few concepts as we could muster. Suddenly the various colors (of green) became vivid. The textures were also alive.  The light danced on the leaves, revealing various twists and bends, shine and mute-tones. It was amazing.

As we evolve, we eventually have the wisdom that there are different ways of looking at things yet our personal way of looking at things remains somewhat constant. When we become aware that there are different ways of looking at things, she calls it “awareness of uncertainty.”

Awareness of Uncertainty

Ellen suggests that we look at uncertainty in two ways – there is personal uncertainty and universal uncertainty.  

Personal uncertainty is “I don’t know – maybe you know” or “I don’t know and I’m gonna pretend I know.”  These are ways of organizing and stabilizing the universe.

Universal uncertainty is “I don’t know you and you don’t know me. In fact in some ways we can’t ever know.” 

From a place of universal uncertainty the conversation proceeds very differently. For example if you do something and I look at it in a kind of a mindless way I’m going to resort to my personal uncertainty and I’m going to think that I know your motives and make all kinds of conclusions about why you did what you did and whether not it meets my approval.

From the universal perspective I can’t know what you did or why you did it, but I can know that, for you, given your life, it makes sense for you, from your perspective. From here ask yourself “why would a reasonable, logical person do such a thing?”

Ellen Langer is a social psychologist who some have dubbed “the mother of mindfulness.” But she defines mindfulness with counterintuitive simplicity: the simple act of actively noticing things — with a result of increased health, competence, and happiness. Her take on mindfulness has never involved contemplation or meditation or yoga. It comes straight out of her provocative, unconventional studies, which have been suggesting for decades what neuroscience is pointing at now: our experience of everything is formed by the words and ideas we attach to them. What makes a vacation a vacation is not only a change of scenery — but the fact that we let go of the mindless everyday illusion that we are we need to be in control. Ellen Langer has shown it’s possible to become physiologically younger through a changed frame of mind; and to find joy in what was experienced as drudgery by renaming it as play.

DR. LANGER: I don’t think you can make a decision that I’m going to be present. What does that mean? People who tell you to meditate assume that over time,  you will become “present”.

But if you’re actively noticing things, you’re going to go home tonight and if you live with somebody, notice five new things about that person. Be very specific. What will happen is the person will start to come alive for you again. And that will improve the relationship.

Article Sources:

Mindlessness and Mindfulness – On Being with Ellen Langer

Ellen Langer and Mindfulness -Harvard

Books by Ellen Langer

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