Mindful Living, one of our 10 Trends for 2014 and Beyond, points to consumers developing a quasi-Zen desire to experience things in a more present, conscious way—that is, more mindfully. To explore this topic, we interviewed pioneering mindfulness researcher Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychology professor and author of 11 books, including the best-seller Mindfulness, which has been translated into 18 languages. She discussed what it means to be more mindful, how to go about it and what advantages it brings—including its many benefits for businesses—as well as why mindfulness is now finding a foothold in the West.
Can you explain what you mean by the term “mindfulness”?
Mindfulness, as I have studied it now for over 35 years, is a remarkably simple process of noticing new things. When you notice new things, what happens is that it puts you in the present—oddly, everybody says we should be in the present, but when we are not in the present, we are not there to know we are not there. This is the way to be there. You notice new things, then that makes you more sensitive to context and perspective.
The act of noticing new things feels enlivening and is literally, not just figuratively, enlivening. As you notice new things, you come to see that you didn’t know this thing as well as you thought. Then with this modicum of uncertainty, your attention naturally goes to whatever is the topic.
It is not at odds with meditation, but it is very different. Meditation is a tool that sets you up for post-meditative mindfulness. There are two ways of getting to the same place, and the place you get to is a place where you’re responsive to the world around you but not reactive. Right now, people are pulled: When they think something is good, they must have it. When they think it is bad, they must stay away from it. However, evaluations are in our heads and not in the things we are evaluating. The more mindful you become and the more you look at this thing and you see, “Well, in these ways it is good, and in these ways it is bad,” then you are not pulled in either direction, and you can just be.
Mindless, by contrast, here you are letting the past overdetermine the present. You are not there, and, again, you are not aware you are not there. Your behavior is dictated by the sense it made at an earlier time. Therefore, you are trapped in a rigid perspective, and you are oblivious to the fact that you are not seeing much of what is there to be seen. When we are mindless, we are acting like robots, more or less. We don’t hear what is being said that is slightly different from what we expected. We don’t see what there is to be seen, we don’t taste, we don’t feel, and so on—the past governs what we are doing.
Would you say mindfulness stems from meditation, or is that just one route to mindfulness?
[My study of mindfulness] is not based on meditation at all. It is very different. Mine comes from a Western scientific perspective. It was very rewarding for me studying this from this Western scientific perspective to say that I come to so many of the same conclusions as the old masters in the East. There are ways of becoming mindful without drawing new distinctions or meditating, and that would be if we learned about the world in a conditional way from the start. That means that rather than see things as they, in a particular way, we realize that it is only one of several ways it could be.
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