First Chapter Section 6
Tools : Creation of new categories; Openness to new information; Awareness of a more than one perspective
Social psychologist, Professor Ellen Langer in her excellent book called Mindfulness describes the word mindfulness in studying the relationship between mind and human activities.
Professor Langer does not use the word mindfulness in the context of eastern meditation practice. Her work on the subject began with the study of mindlessness, or the sort of automatic, unheedful behavior which can cause so much difficulty in daily life. She explains how holding fixed views can make us blind to things right in front of us, and how we pay a high price for this.
Let us examine mindlessness from her point of view. According to Dr. Langer, mindlessness sets in when we rely too rigidly on certain categories and distinctions created in our mind from the past experiences. The categories we make in our lives, slowly gather momentum and are very hard to overthrow. From these categories we build our own realities and then we become victims of them.
For example we believe everything we read in newspapers, even the advertisings, are written with good intentions and are true and can never be wrong. We tend to take every thing we hear or read as the gospel truth. This attitude often becomes even stronger when we join a community, follow a teacher, undertake a discipline. Yet all of the teachings of books, maps, and beliefs have little to do with wisdom or compassion. At best they are a signpost, a finger pointing at the moon, or the leftover dialogue from a time when someone received some true spiritual nourishment. To make spiritual practice come alive, we must discover within ourselves our own way to become conscious, to live a life of the spirit.
Another factor according to Dr. Langer is Automatic Behavior. Psychologist believe the a vast number of actions that we think of as intelligent, such as reading and writing, can be done automatically and to act without any conscious volition.
According to Dr. Langer, "acting from a single perspective" is another factor. Dr. Langer explains that so often in our lives we act as though there were only one set of rules. For instance in cooking and following recipes, we tend to follow the rules with dutiful precisions. We add ingredients as though by official decree. If the recipe calls for a pinch of salt and four pinches fall in, we panic as though the bowl might now explodes. Notice this is completely opposite of doing or cooking with passion (mindfully) where your passion dictates to be creative and experiment with different ingredients.
Mindlessness can be cute and light hearted. Here is a nice, lighthearted three generation story. One day a kind woman was about to cook a roast. Before putting it in the pot, she cut off a small slice. When asked why she did this, she paused, and said she did it because her mother had always done the same thing when she cooked a roast. Her own curiosity then aroused. She telephoned her mother to ask why she always cut off a little slice. The mother’s answer was the same: "Because that’s the way my mother did it." Finally, in need of a more helpful answer, she asked her grandmother why she always cut off a little slice before cooking a roast. Without hesitating, her grandmother replied, "Because that’s the only way it would fit in my pot."
Dr. Langer explains the deeper roots of mindlessness as repetition, premature cognitive commitment, belief in limited resources, the notion of linear time, education for outcome, and the powerful influence of context. If you like to know more about these roots, I strongly suggest all her books. Here is an example of powerful influence of context:
Shaw’s Professor Higgins (was also depicted in the movie My Fair Lady) demonstrated that our perceptions of beauty shift dramatically with context. In the beginning of Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle is a ragged, cockney-accented girl selling flowers in the streets of London. Professor Higgins walks into her life and decides to do her over. Realizing that context is all, he goes to work on Eliza and changes her voice, her diction, her dress, her habits. He puts her in a new setting, the way a jeweler would reset a gem. Eliza becomes a grand hit in London, hailed as a beauty and a princess. The interest of the plot is heightened because the dramatic change in context causes an equally dramatic change in Eliza’s self-esteem, indeed in what we would call Eliza "herself."
What does a heightened attention brings? Mindfulness!
According to Dr. Langer the key qualities of a mindful state of being are:
(1) creation of new categories;
(2) openness to new information; and
(3) awareness of a more than one perspective.
If you notice deeply, a heightened attention is the first ingredient of achieving these three qualities.
So far we are still discussing how to change the machinery of consciousness.
Helping Human Consciousness
Human consciousness is more like a productive factory (it’s actually more of an information processing system); if you input certain ingredients and the machinery is set up to produce certain outcome, the output is that outcome.
The two important aspects of this factory are the input (observation and attention) and the machinery (consciousness). The change in observation is more like stopping the wrong ingredients to enter your factory. The next thing is to change the machinery. The way to change the machinery is to start understanding how you can be more:
2) receptive to new information, perhaps with child-like observations
3) aware of other perspective,
4) autonomous and
5) relate more to people you trust and respect.
The change in machinery concerns more the need for autonomy and developing meaningful relationships.