Becoming mindful is not as complicated or effortful as many people think. According to Ellen Langer, a pioneering researcher in the field, mindfulness is simply the process of actively noticing new things.
When we approach the world with mindful awareness we can more accurately assess and respond to situations, release judgement and stay open to possibilities. We separate ourselves from limiting beliefs and stay awake in the moment. It’s the essence of engagement, and is energising rather than energy depleting.
This is a new lens on the mindfulness practices that arose from contemplative traditions, which typically involve training the mind to focus by resting awareness in one place for an extended period. This skill takes time to learn and discipline to practice. Both offer immediate and long-term benefits, yet the differences are significant. The traditional concept of mindfulness sees ‘meditation as an activity you try to embed into your life’. In the Langerian approach ‘life becomes embedded in your meditation.’
Langer explains that mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness. Being mindless is like being on autopilot, which is something most of us are, most of the time. We don’t always stop to think about what we are doing and why we are doing it. We often fail to notice the assumptions around us, and the ones we mindlessly make.
“Noticing puts us in the present, makes us sensitive to context, and aware of change and uncertainty,” says Langer. “When we are mindless we hold our perspective still, allowing us to confuse the stability of our mindsets with the stability of the underlying phenomena. Hold it still if you want but it’s changing nonetheless.”
Mindlessness arises in several ways. We form mindsets or perspectives about everything we encounter and these impressions settle in our mind regardless of how relevant the information is to us. When we are committed to a predetermined mindset, the next time we encounter the same thing, we do not explore other ways of seeing things or applications. We miss new perspectives and emerging possibilities. For leaders in the workplace, this can create blinkers that block innovation and prevent people from pivoting in new, more effective directions.
A common mindless assumption we accept is the belief in limited resources. This leads us to create rules about how to manage those resources, which in turn limits our ability to be mindful and make good decisions. Linear time is also another limiting mindset. For example, we create fixed mindsets around such things as how long it takes to heal, and this can have an enormous impact upon the person’s health and wellbeing. Our education can also engender a mindless mindset. From a very early age we are introduced to a learning environment oriented towards achieving certain outcomes. This orientation forces us to focus on the end result rather than our ongoing development, and we can find ourselves mindlessly participating. Our natural curiosity and engagement with our learning and experience is diminished.
By not interacting mindfully with the world around us, we can perform far below our actual levels of intelligence or potential. For example, we can create mindless categories about people that make it acceptable to harm others under certain circumstances; or we make unintelligent choices and experience a loss of control. In extreme cases it may lead to learned helplessness.
Approaching the world mindfully requires continually creating new categories, labels and contexts in line with our emerging experience. This is done by paying mindful attention to the situation and context we find ourselves in moment by moment. Learning to operate in a mindful state provides room for new information and allows us to be accurately receptive to changed signals and stimulus. This leads to more effective behaviour that is mindfully matched to the ever-changing cues around us. By mindfully accepting new information, we become open to more than one view. From this we gain more choices, allowing us to behave and respond differently. All these things give us more space to focus our attention on experiencing and moving toward the life we want to lead.