What is mindfulness? Phenomenologically, it is the feeling of involvement or engagement. How do people achieve it? Learning to be mindful does not require meditation. It is the simple process of actively noticing new things. It doesn’t matter how smart or relevant the new distinctions are; just that they are novel for the person at the time. By actively drawing novel distinctions, people become situated in the present, sensitive to context and perspective, and they come to understand that although they can follow rules and routines, those rules and routines should guide, not govern, their behavior. It is not difficult to understand the advantages to being in the present. When in the present, people can take advantage of new opportunities and avert the danger not yet arisen. Indeed, everyone thinks they are in the present. When they are mindless, however, they’re “not there” to know that they are not in the present.
What is mindlessness? It is not the same thing as ignorance. Mindlessness is an inactive state of mind that is characterized by reliance on distinctions drawn in the past. When people are mindless, they are trapped in a rigid perspective, insensitive to the ways in which meaning changes depending on subtle changes in context. The past dominates, and they behave much like automatons without knowing it, where rules and routines govern rather than guide what they do. Essentially, they freeze their understanding and become oblivious to subtle changes that would have led them to act differently, if only they were aware of the changes. As will become clear, mindlessness is pervasive and costly and operates in all aspects of people’s lives. Although people can see it and feel it in other people, they are blind to it in themselves.
Mindlessness comes about in two ways: either through repetition or on a single exposure to information. The first case is the more familiar. Most people have had the experience, for example, of driving and then realizing, only because of the distance they have come, that they made part of the trip on automatic pilot, as mindless behavior is sometimes called. Another example of mindlessness through repetition is when people learn something by practicing it so that it becomes like second nature to them. People try to learn the new skill so well that they don’t have to think about it. The problem is that if they’ve been successful, it won’t occur to them to think about it even when it would be to their advantage to do so.
People also become mindless when they hear or read something and accept it without questioning it. Most of what people know about the world or themselves they have mindlessly learned in this way. One example of mindlessness is described in the book The Power of Mindful Learning. The author was at a friend’s house for dinner, and the table was set with the fork on the right side of the plate. The author felt as though some natural law had been violated: The fork “goes” on the left side! She knew this was ridiculous. Who cares where the fork is placed? Yet it felt wrong to her, even though she could generate many reasons it was better for it to be placed on the right. She thought about how she had learned this. The author didn’t memorize information about how to set a table. One day as a child, her mother simply said to her that the fork goes on the left. Forever after, that is where she was destined to put it, no matter what circumstances might suggest doing otherwise. The author became trapped without any awareness that the way she learned the information would stay in place in the future. Whether people become mindless over time or on initial exposure to information, they unwittingly lock themselves into a single understanding of information.
Costs of Mindlessness
With this understanding of the difference between mindlessness and mindfulness, the next step is to understand the costs of being mindless. For those who learned to drive many years ago, they were taught that if they needed to stop the car on a slippery surface, the safest way was to slowly, gently, pump the brake. Today, most new cars have antilock brakes. To stop on a slippery surface now, the safest thing to do is to step on the brake firmly and hold it down. When caught on ice, those who learned to drive years ago will still gently pump the brakes. What was once safe is now dangerous. The context has changed, but their behavior remains the same.
Much of the time people are mindless. Of course, they are unaware when they are in that state of mind because they are “not there” to notice. To notice, they must have been mindful. More than 25 years of research reveals that mindlessness may be very costly to people. In these studies, researchers have found that an increase in mindfulness results in an increase in competence, health and longevity, positive affect, creativity, charisma, and reduced burnout, to name a few of the findings.
Absolutes and Mindlessness
Most of what people learn they learn in an absolute way, without regard to how the information might be different in different contexts. For example, textbooks tell us that horses are herbivorous—that is, they don’t eat meat. But although typically this is true, if a horse is hungry enough, or the meat is disguised, or the horse was given very small amounts of meat mixed with its feed growing up, a horse may very well eat meat. When people learn mindlessly, they take the information in as true without asking under what conditions it may not be true. This is the way people learn most things. This is why people are frequently in error but rarely in doubt.
When information is given by an authority, appears irrelevant, or is presented in absolute language, it typically does not occur to people to question it. They accept it and become trapped in the mind-set, oblivious to how it could be otherwise. Authorities are sometimes wrong or overstate their case, and what is irrelevant today may be relevant tomorrow. Virtually all the information people are given is given to them in absolute language. A child, for example, may be told, “A family consists of a mommy, a daddy, and a child.” All is fine unless, for example, daddy leaves home. Now it won’t feel right to the child when told, “We are still a family.” Instead of absolute language, if told that one understanding of a family is a mother, father, and a child, the problem would not arise if the circumstances change. That is, mindful learning is more like learning probable “truths” rather than mindlessly accepting absolutes.
Language too often binds people to a single perspective, with mindlessness as a result. As students of general semantics tell us, the map is not the territory. In one 1987 study, Alison Piper and Ellen Langer introduced people to a novel object in either an absolute or conditional way. The subjects were told that the object “is” or “could be” a dog’s chew toy. Piper and Langer then created a need for an eraser. The question Piper and Langer considered was who would think to use the object as an eraser? The answer was only those subjects who were told “it could be a dog’s chew toy.” The name of something is only one way an object can be understood. If people learn about it as if the “map” and the “territory” are the same thing, creative uses of the information will not occur to them.
Meditation and Mindfulness
One way to break out of these mind-sets is to meditate. Meditation, regardless of the particular form, is engaged to lead to post-meditative mindfulness. Meditation grew up in the East. Whether practicing Zen Buddhism or Transcendental Meditation, typically the individual is to sit still and meditate for 20 minutes twice a day. If done successfully over time, the categories the individual mindlessly accepted start to break down. The path to mindfulness that Langer and her colleagues have studied may be more relevant to those in the West. The two paths to mindfulness are by no means mutually exclusive. In their work, Langer and colleagues provoke mindfulness by active distinction-drawing. Noticing new things about the target, no matter how small or trivial the distinctions may be, reveals that it looks different from different perspectives. When people learn facts in a conditional way, they are more likely to draw novel distinctions and thus stay attentive to context and perspective.
Most aspects of American culture currently lead people to try to reduce uncertainty: They learn so that they will know what things are. Nevertheless, things are always changing. Even the cells in the human body are constantly changing. When people experience stability, they are confusing the stability of their mind-sets with the underlying phenomenon. Instead, they should consider exploiting the power of uncertainty so that they can learn what things can become. Mindfulness that is characterized by novel distinction-drawing and meditation that results in post-meditative mindfulness will lead people in this direction. When people stay uncertain, they stay in the present and they notice; when they notice, they become mindful.
- Langer, E. (1997). The power of mindful learning. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Langer, E. (2005). On becoming an artist: Reinventing yourself through mindful creativity. New York: Ballantine.