In my last post titled “ZEN AND THE ART OF MINDFULNESS/CREATIVENESS/BEINGNESS“, I drew upon the personal experiences of composer/artist John Cage, LA Times music critic Adam Baer and myself to argue that actively exposing ourselves to new musical experiences can broaden our listening experiences. I used some of the ideas from Ellen Langer’s book “On Becoming an Artist” to argue that by allowing ourselves to have new listening experiences we are becoming more “mindful”. Personal testimonies such as those used in that post are great, but as a retired experimental social psychologist (like Langer), I appreciate it when I find more rigorous evidence to support my assertions. When I wrote that post I had not read all of Langer’s book and so was later delighted to find that she has conducted some experiments that provide support for the ideas developed there.
Let me first provide a brief overview of “On Becoming an Artist” and then provide a summary of some of Langer’s reseach findings. For Langer, creativity and mindfulness go hand in hand. As I wrote in my previous post: According to Langer: Mindfulness is simply the process of noticing new things. It is seeing the similarities in things thought different and the differences in things taken to be similar” (p. 16). She goes on to say: “the more mindful we are, the more choices we have and the less reactive we become. We don’t realize when we are mindless. We’re not there to notice. If, however we allowed ourselves to become fully engaged in some new activity, over time, we could more easily compare how we feel when we are mindfully engaged with how we feel at other times. The more experience we have with being mindfully creative, the sooner we will recognize when we are simply acting out a script and the sooner we can return to being centered. When we are mindfully engaged, we essentially are writing our own script and are free to choose to make changes at any point. When we are mindfully creative, we are being authentic.” (p. 10-20)
Based on her research, Langer has concluded that there are two main ways that we “teach ourselves to become mindless”. (pg 10) The first is by learning a skill until it becomes “second nature” such as when we go on “autopilot while driving. The problem with this, says Langer, is that it might not occur to us to question the way we are doing things when in fact it may be to our advantage to do so. The second way of learning mindlessness is to accept something we read or hear without question. This is the way we learn many of our cultural norms and values. The problem with this, says Langer is that “we unwittingly lock ourselves into a single understanding of that information”. ( pg 11) In other words we become “set in our way” and this prevents us from engaging each new situation mindfully or creatively. Langer provides evidence that this results in general failure to appreciate life and I will provide some of this in later posts,
What I especially like about Langer’s book is that what she has to say about mindfulness applies to all aspects of life, not just painting or other so called “artistic practices”. But, let’s go back to my previous post, where I wrote about how most of us, most of the time, limit our appreciation of music through mindless listening (e.g. Tom likes Punk Rock and listens to nothing else). As I said above, although I used Langer’s ideas to discuss this topic, I had not yet read the chapter of her book that most directly relates to the topic. The remainder of this post will do so. For Langer, mindfulness primarily entails taking notice of things and this, she suggests “expands our appreciation of them”. (p. 197) This view is based on a series of social psychological experiments conducted by Langer and her students at Harvard. For instance, in one study that directly connects to my last post on John Cage, experimental subjects were convinced to listen to music they said they did not like (either rap or classical). Some of the students were asked to note a number of new things about the music as they listened and others were not asked to make any new distinctions. The experimenters found that the more new things the participants found, the more they said they liked the previously disliked music. In a related experiment, women who thought watching football was boring came to like football more if they were instructed to notice new things about a football game they watched in the experimental laboratories. Similar results were found among students exposed to a painting they were unfamiliar with and with chocolates, regardless of whether they were given samples of inexpensive chocolate or Godiva. When prompted to make distinctions or to find something new about whatever they were doing, students showed greater appreciation for the activity.
Going further, Langer conducted similar kinds of experiments to see whether mindfulness could affect her subjects’ perceptions of other people. According to Langer: “Asking subjects to make mindful distinctions about people tended to mitigate their negative assessments of them…Mindfully drawing new distinctions, thus, helps us to come to know and like others.” ( p200)
Although Langer is not a Buddhist and declares that she is not using the term “mindfulness” in exactly the same way as it is in Buddhism, these results suggest and interesting line of thought. One of the values in all strains of Buddhism (probably in all spiritual/religious perspectives) is the importance of developing Compassion and I know plenty of Zen students, including myself, who feel overwhelmed by idea of having to live up to the Buddhist vow to be compassionate towards all people. Langer’s book led me to a thought train that makes this vow somewhat less daunting. There are studies that show that people are more likely to experience compassion towards another person to the extent that they see this other as similar to them.( http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/opinion/sunday/the-science-of-compassion.html?_r=0)
Extrapolating from Langer’s experiments, it seems reasonable to say that being present with another person and fully “listening” to (i.e. being “Present” with) that person would allow us to become aware of ways in which they are not different from us and make it more likely that we experience compassion for them. (See “The Artist is Present”) By allowing ourselves to perceive the other in depth, we can come to see the arbitrary nature of any single criterion we may have been using to judge and separate ourselves from that person. We come to see that there is no single viewpoint that can capture the other, allowing us to acknowledge that they are not, then, so different from ourselves. If so, compassion is not so much an isolated trait to be somehow “worked on” or “acquired” but rather a natural consequence of becoming more mindful. Just as mindful listening to music or mindful viewing of art allows us to break out of restricting perspectives, we can also learn to mindfully include and thus accept a wider range of humanity.
I think Langer is correct that engaging oneself in a creative practice is a safe way to begin practicing mindfulness and that this mindfulness will expand to other areas of life. But, I also see the practice of Zazen (zen meditation) as providing a similar, perhaps complementary experience. In a later post, I will explore some of the differences between the path that Langer suggests and Zen; for now I will emphasize the similarities.
Langer says that mindfulness is “simply the process of noticing new things” In Zazen, the student practices noticing whatever is happening internally or externally moment by moment which seems to be the essence of mindfulness. According to Langer, when we are mindful we are not “self-conscious. By learning to “let go” of the thoughts that reinforce self-consciousness the Zen meditator is learning the basics of mindfulness. Most of the thoughts we experience during Zazen entail the kinds of comparisons with others and the self-evaluations that Langer says block us from Mindfulness and true creativity (to be looked at further in later posts). To the extent that we can learn to “be still” and fully experience a wider range of situations, activities and people, we chip away at the narrow egocentric viewpoints that keep us feeling separated and unengaged from life.