Mindfulness Wars: Langer Versus Buddha?
Reading this post might make you more mindful. Here is how. The term “mindfulness” is used differently by Langer and by those in the Buddhist tradition. Langer says one way to become more mindful is to see “similarities in things thought different and the differences in things taken to be similar” (pg. 16, On Becoming An Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity). Here is an opportunity for you to play with that notion and hopefully become more mindful. Or, you could choose, mindfully of course, to check out what has gone viral on YouTube today.
In my last blog post I described the Genjo Practice at the Vista Zen Center as having certain parallels to Ellen Langer’s “program” for “personal reinvention”. The arts have long been associated with Zen practice and, although I don’t have any hard evidence to support this, I suspect that these art practices have been used as sort of a practicum where Zen Monks could apply what they learn sitting on a cushion to everyday life. As Langer points out, learning to make mindful choices is easier when these choices are regarding activities that are seen as not having “serious” consequences. (See last blog). I also asserted my belief that engagement in so called non-serious activities as a way of developing creative mindfulness is likely to be more effective (at least for most people) if carried out as a complement to more formal meditation practice.
Is the glass half mindful or half mindless?
Here, I want to lay out why I think this may be the case, but to do so I need to deal with the fact that not everyone agrees on what the term “mindfulness” means. Almost every contemporary review of the mindfulness literature suggests that Langer’s concept and that developed within the context of Buddhism are not the same.
For Langer, creative mindfulness is a way of making choices that are not determined by from old established “rules, routines and mind-sets” (pg.16) , to use her words. She recognizes that her understanding of the concept has some relationship to the term “mindfulness” as it has developed in the Buddhist tradition but does not feel that two are the same. According to Langer:
“For me the two way of becoming mindful are not at odds with each other. Becoming more mindful does not involve achieving some altered stat of consciousness through year of meditation. It requires, rather, learning to switch modes of thinking about ourselves and the world. It is very easy to learn to be mindful, which makes doing so appealing to those unwilling to sit for twenty minutes twice a day. Mindfulness is simply the process of noticing new things.” (pg. 16)
I am not certain why Langer associates Buddhist mindfulness practice with “altered states of consciousness, unless she sees what I have been referring to in this blog as being “alive/awake/present” as an altered stated. In some way it is an altered state in the sense that most of us, most of the time are not fully alive/awake/present. Yet as I look throughout Langer’s book, it seems to me that when she describes people acting mindfully, she is describing precisely someone who is alive/awake/present and so is talking about the same thing that I see as the ideal of most spiritual disciplines.
When Langer writes about her (and others’) experiences when she started creating art, she uses terms like “enlivening”, “engaging” “being there” and “being fully present” as she describes mindfully making choices required in such projects. She presents evidence from experiments that suggest that engaging in mindful creativity leads to the creators to feel more “authentic, and prompts others to perceive the mindful creators as more “charismatic” and their creations as “more interesting”. All of this suggests that Langer’s concept of mindfulness is closely related, if not the same as what I have been referring to as being alive/awake/present. Since I see becoming more alive/awake/present as being the ideal of the kinds meditation practices that have been associated with Buddhism, including Zen, I would suggest that the process Langer calls “Reinventing Yourself through Mindful Creativity” is in accord with this ideal.
Langer argues that immersing oneself in a creative practice , like painting, can lead to a gradual development (“Reinventing Yourself”) of mindfulness in all areas of one’s life. I do not dispute this possibility but would suggest that for many people, the generalization of mindfulness into other aspects of life will be limited. One need only point to the biographies of numerous creative people who also lead miserable self-destructive lives as evidence to support my contention. I also know from my own experience that simply doing art does not generally make one consistently mindful in either art or other areas of life. I am also aware of many people who have taken up an artistic practice and are satisfied to produce pieces over and over again, that may display their new-found skills, but not much in the way of “mindful creativity”. This is why I suggested in my last post that for most people a creative practice, as prescribed by Langer, plus mindfulness meditation/training would be more effective in leading to the development of more widespread and consistent mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation is the central practice in the Hinayana branch of Buddhism and these techniques have recently found their way into Western psychotherapy. Kabat-Zinn, who has been a leader in this development defines “mindfulness as :”the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment — non-judgmentally.” There are various techniques for doing this but they all require setting aside a time for a meditative practice in order to foster and learn to consistently apply this purpose. The Zen literature does not often use the term “mindfulness” but it seems to me that the practice of Zazen, often referred to as “just sitting” also fosters this non-evaluative attention that Kabut-Zinn describes above.
Kabut-Zinn goes on to say:
Mindfulness isn’t about getting your way or meditating so that you can be better at something. My definition of healing is coming to terms with things as they are, so that you can do whatever you can to optimize your potential, whether you are living with chronic pain or having a baby. You can’t control the universe, so mindfulness involves learning to cultivate wisdom and equanimity— not passive resignation—in the face of what Zorba the Greek called the full catastrophe of the human condition.
Read more: http://healthland.time.com/2012/01/11/mind-reading-jon-kabat-zinn-talks-about-bringing-mindfulness-meditation-to-medicine/#ixzz2ZuGSEOXG
This sounds very much as a way of describing the ideals of Zen as well as those put forth by Langer. Langer’s work seems to focus on making decisions that are based on being awake/alive/present, while the meditation routines described as mindfulness training and Zazen, may be seen as a practice for acquiring the micro-skills necessary to learn to become awake/alive/present moment by moment. One way of thinking about what happens in mindfulness training is that one acquires the skills to awaken or enliven themselves over and over again in meditation, when demands are few, with the idea that eventually these skills will “spill over” into more active situations.
In Zazen and other mindfulness meditation practices, the practioner learns to “catch” themselves as they drift off into protracted thought-trains and learn to refocus their attention on bodily sensations that are happening in the moment. In earlier articles I referred to this as “remembering to remember”. Having such skill would help immensely in making the kind of mindful decisions that Langer calls for in her book.
In comparing Langer’s notion of “mindfulness” with how that term is used in Buddhist meditation and the subsequent uses in Western therapy, Scott Bishop says the following”
Langer’s mindfulness involves the active construction of new categories and meaning when one pays attention to the stimulus properties of primarily external situations. While our own definition emphasizes the inhibition of such elaborate processes as one pays attention to primarily internal stimuli (thoughts , feeling and sensations). Bishop et. al. pg. 6 (.http://www.prevention.psu.edu/projects/documents/Bishopetal.article.pdf)
I think it is possible to see the interconnection between these two facets of mindfulness if we remember that creativity involves dropping old ideas or approaches as well as developing new ones. The literature on creativity shows again and again that new ideas and solutions are most likely to develop when we stop engaging in rational thought processes See( Sudden Insight)
What is learned in mindfulness training is how to let go of old persisting thoughts, ideas, rules, mind-sets etc. by expanding one’s awareness into the somatic realm, as described by in To Know Flow or No Flow. This form of meditation is sometimes referred to as “insight meditation.” The idea here is that new ways of seeing things can result from letting go of thoughts, mirroring the results of studies in the creativity literature.(Sudden Insight and Creativity)
In previous posts on refocusing and reframing, I argued that this skill makes in easier for people to make creative choices in everday situations. So someone who has consistently honed the ability to “drop” out of the “thought realm” and into the “realm of bodily sensations” by practicing meditation, should have an advantage of making mindful decisions in the heat of everyday life, whether making art or making a living.
Langer’s focus seems to be on what happens when people are actively engaged in daily activities and does not really write about the mechanism of “letting go” that is the essence of mindfulness training. Yet, if you look closely at what she says, there is nothing to contradict or dispute the importance of this “letting go”. In fact she speaks directly about the importance of dropping social comparisons and subsequent self evaluations, – a process she describes as replacing our “evaluating self” with our “experiencing self”. This latter term seems to refer to our innate capabilities to pay attention to the kind somatic awareness that is emphasized in mindfulness training/meditation. What she is writing about here is the importance of becoming “non-judgmental” in the same sense as practiced in the daily practice of mindfulness meditation/training (see Kabat-Zinn’s quote earlier).
In her experiments Langer prompts some subjects into becoming more mindful by asking them to look for things that they would not otherwise look for before making decisions. Langer’s assumption is that by engaging in artistic pursuits, people can learn to do this on their own. I believe that this can happen but have doubts about often and how consistently the general population will be able to learn to “awaken” themselves from being caught up in old habitual thought forms so they can discover mindfully creative solutions to everyday problems.
I believe that some people may naturally have developed these self-awakening skills naturally. and find it easy to move mindfully into new activities with no need for mindfulness training. However, most of us have not I suspect that Langer is one of those who may not feel the need from a daily regime of mindfulness training based on what she says in the quote below (and others in the book)–which would help explain why she has little interest in meditation practice:
To my good fortune, I’ve never thought to ask myself whether I have the talent to do something. If the activity- academic, artistic , or physical- seemed interesting, I tried it. If I didn’t quite get it, I tried it differently. Why should I know how to do something I’ve never done before?”
Langer says that it is easy to learn to be mindful because it is simply the process of noticing new things, and it is easier than meditating twice a day. However, I would argue that most of the population will not find themselves becoming significantly more mindful in all areas of their lives simply by taking up painting or gardening. On the other hand I feel that such “creative pursuits can be excellent ways of allowing one’s growing mindfulness as developed in meditation to “spill over” into daily life activities. By engaging in activities that are generally perceived as “less serious”, there is the opportunity to face challenges that will help reveal one’s degree of mindfulness or mindlessness moment by moment without worrying as much about whether one is making right or wrong decisions.
I agree with Langer’s general idea that engaging in various forms of creative endeavors can help propel one on a path of self-regeneration. Langer seems to say that we can become more mindful simply by “learning to switch modes of thinking about ourselves and the world.” This “switching” for Langer can occur simply by remembering : 1) that any rules were made by a person at some point and that those rules may not apply in the present situation and 2) to look for differences in similarities and similarities in differences. But this is not always easy when we are in the midst of everyday interactions and activities. Most of us, most of the time do not “remember to remember”, which I see as key to this “switching” process that Langer refers to.
This is why the techniques learned in meditation practices like Zazen can help in this process of “Remembering to Remember”. One who has spent the necessary time in meditation practice, watching how his or her thoughts form and disappear and learning techniques that allow “refocusing/reframing” when they catch themselves can help them to “remember to remember” in a wide range of situations. This ability to “awaken” oneself before getting caught up in the thought- streams that reinforce the perceptual and thinking habits that foster mindless reactions is not really the focus of Langer’s work, although nothing she writes contracticts it’s importance. However, this skill is exactly what Zazen and other mindfulness training practices could provide to add depth to the kind of self-reinvention that Langer purposes.
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