First Chapter, Section 6
Tools: Creation of new categories; Openness to new information; Awareness of more than one perspective
In her outstanding book Mindfulness, social psychologist Professor Ellen Langer defines mindfulness as the study of the link between the mind and human behaviors.
In the context of eastern meditation practice, Professor Langer does not use the term mindfulness. Her research on the issue started with a study of mindlessness, or the kind of habitual, unthinking action that can create so much trouble in everyday life. She shows how maintaining fixed perspectives may cause us to miss things that are right in front of us, and how we pay a heavy price for this.
Mindlessness is when we depend too firmly on mental categories and distinctions formed by previous experiences. The categories we create in our lives gain momentum over time and are difficult to overcome. We construct our own realities out of these categories, and then we become victims of them.
For example, we assume that everything we read in newspapers, including advertising, is written with good intentions, is truthful, and can never be incorrect. We have a tendency to accept everything we hear or read as gospel truth. When we join a group, follow a teacher, or practice a discipline, this attitude typically develops stronger. All of the lessons of books, maps, and beliefs, however, have nothing to do with knowledge or compassion. At best, they are a signpost, a finger pointing to the moon, or the remnants of a conversation in which someone gained genuine spiritual sustenance. To bring spiritual practice to life, we must find within ourselves our own path to being aware and living a spiritual life.
Another consideration is automatic behavior. Psychologists believe that the great majority of what we consider cognitive behaviors, such as reading and writing, may be performed automatically and without conscious intention.
Another component is “acting from a single point of view.” So many times in our lives, we behave as though there was only one set of rules. For example, when it comes to cooking and following recipes, we have a tendency to stick to the rules with zeal. We add substances as if by official order. We fear if the recipe asks for a pinch of salt and two pinches fall in, as if the bowl is about to burst. This is the polar opposite of doing or cooking with passion (mindfully), when your enthusiasm encourages you to be creative and experiment with new components.
Mindlessness may be amusing and entertaining. This is a fun, humorous three-generation narrative. A young or freshly married lady was ready to make a roast one day. She chopped a little piece before placing it in the saucepan. When asked why she did this, she stopped and answered it was because her mother always did so when she made a roast. Her own curiosity was piqued. She contacted her mother to inquire as to why she usually chopped off a little portion. The mother’s response was the same: “Because that’s the way my mother did it.” Finally, in need of a more useful response, she inquired of her grandma as to why she usually chopped off a little piece before cooking a roast. Her grandma said without hesitation, “Because that’s the only way it would fit in my pot.”
Mindlessness has deeper origins in repetition, early cognitive commitment, belief in finite resources, the concept of linear time, schooling for result, and the tremendous effect of circumstance. Here’s an example of context’s potent influence:
Shaw’s Professor Higgins (also portrayed in the film My Fair Lady) highlighted how our ideas of beauty change greatly depending on the circumstances. Eliza Doolittle is a shabby, cockney-accented girl selling flowers on the streets of London at the start of Pygmalion. Professor Higgins enters her life and intends to redo her life. Realizing that context is everything, he begins to work on Eliza, changing her voice, language, wardrobe, and habits. He resets her in a fresh setting, much as a jeweler would. Eliza is a smashing success in London, praised as a beauty and a princess. The plot’s appeal is increased since the tremendous shift in setting results in an equally significant change in Eliza’s self-esteem, or what we would call Eliza “herself.”
What results from increased focus? Mindfulness!
A thoughtful state has the following characteristics:
(1) the development of new categories;
(2) receptivity to new information; and
(3) knowledge of more than one point of view
You’ll note that the first component in obtaining these three attributes is increased attentiveness.
So far, we’ve been debating how to alter the machinery of awareness.
As previously explained, consciousness is more like a productive factory (really more of an information processing system); if certain components are supplied and the equipment is set up to generate a certain end, the output is that outcome.
The input (observation and attention) and the machinery (awareness) are the two most significant parts of this factory. The shift in perception is more akin to preventing the improper materials from entering your manufacturing. The next step is to replace the machinery. By modifying the machinery, we mean creating new regions in the brain and establishing new patterns of intuition. To build these new areas, first understand how you may be more:
2) open to new information, perhaps with childlike insights
3) be aware of another point of view,
4) self-sufficient and
5) Spend more time with individuals you trust and respect.
The development of new brain regions is increasingly focused with the desire for autonomy and the development of meaningful connections.