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Ellen J. Langer: Mindfulness, Da Capo Press 1989

Ellen J. Langer: Mindfulness, Da Capo Press 1989


This book, based on the author's extensive research, is mindblowing and eye-opening. Accessibly written, it is one of the best books I know on the impact of thinking upon the way we conduct our lifes. The book is highly relevant philosophically and from the point of view of one's personal approach to life.

The key concept is "minfulness" as opposed to "mindlessness". The book starts with the following startling description:

"One day, at a nursing home in Connecticut, elderly residents were given a choice of houseplants to care for and were asked to make a number of small decisions about their daily routines. A year and a half later, not onjly were these people more cheerful, active, and alert than a similar group in the same institution who were not given these choices and responsibilities, but many more of them were still alive."

This is the effect of mindfulness, in the sense described and documented in this groundbreaking book.

One key idea in the book is to observe that as we experience the world, we make distinctions and categories. But "once distinctions are created, they take on a life of their own", "the categories we make gather momentum and are very hard to overthrow" (p. 11). Instead of being a door, they become a trap. We "tend to cling to these rules and the categories we construct from them in a mindless manner" (p. 19).

But life is more than the categories we have made. We lessen life and our own choices by mindless behavours of becoming "entrapped in the absolute categories we create" rather than "accept the world as a dynamic and continuous" (p. 27).

A key form of mindlessness is due to what Langer calls "premature cognitive commitment". This results from "forming a mindset when we first encounter something and then clinging to it when we reencounter that same thing" (p. 22). But once a person observes "how much of our reality is socially constructed", more personal control and better results may result (p. 31).

Mindlessness threatens us constantly. "The various causes of mindless that we have just discussed - repetition, premature cognitive commitment, belief in limited rseorces, the notion of linear time, eduction for outcome, and the powerful influence of context - influence each day of our lives." (p. 41)

"The consequences of mindlessness range from the trivial to the catastrophic." (p. 44) One of the most troubling and touching chapters in the book, "Mindful Aging", is devoted to studying the various mindful interventions the author and her reserach associates have created in the lives of the elderly, often with stunning effects for a better and more dignified life.

"Mindlessness limits our control by preventing us from making intelligent choices." (p. 50) Thus the book is about more intelligent life which results by interventions that stem from paying attention, being more conscious, more sensitive, more tuned to the specifics of a given situation - by being (in our terminology) more systems intelligent. (Langer does not use the systems terminology.)

A true follower of the great American pragmatist psychologist-philosopher William James, she very much reinforces the principle to which she refers in these words: "William James claimed that almost all of us use only the tiniest fraction of our potential." (p. 55) "Mindlessness, as it diminishes our self-image, narrows our choices, and weds us to single-minded attitudes, has a lot to do with this wasted potential." (p. 55)

At the same time as Langer pinpoints illuminatively many of the mental traps to which we daily fall as a result of absolute and uncritical mindless mindsets, she also points the way forward. "Just as mindlessness is the rigid reliance on old categories, mindfulness means the continual creation of new ones." (p. 63) "The key qualities of a mindful state of being" are: (1) creation of new categories; (2) openess to new information; and (3) awarenss of one more than one perspective." (p. 62)

Sensitivity is the key here. "When we make new categories in a mindful way, we pay attention to the situation and the context." (p. 65) A key idea here is to observe that the context is not something that is "out there" but something that is constructed - and thus could be constructed anew.

This is one of the books I shall  my 18-year old twin boys to read. I believe it affects positively and productively our self-perception and guides us to a richer examined life.

Kirjoitti Esa Saarinen, 12.05.2007

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