These days people are increasingly becoming aware of mindfulness and its myriad benefits. You may have heard about it from a professor, a therapist, a doctor, or even from Fox News. From addiction recovery, marriage satisfaction, to physical and mental health, mindfulness is pretty much good for everything. However, what most people are not aware of is that you actually don’t need to meditate in order to become more mindful.
Many meditation practices do strengthen mindfulness, which I will simply define as awareness of the present moment with curiosity and kindness. However, according to Dr. Ellen Langer, the renowned mindfulness expert, author, experimental social psychologist, and Psychology Professor at Harvard University, meditation is not necessary to cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness is actually accessible to everyone right now no matter their religious affiliation, cultural background, belief system, or meditation experience. This may come as quite a surprise; nevertheless many of the neuroscience based mindfulness studies conducted over the last decade have corroborated Dr. Langer’s findings from as far back as the 1970’s. This is good news for anyone who may believe that mindfulness is out of reach because meditation feels daunting or mysterious and unapproachable.
Before we jump into some of Dr. Langer’s recommendations for cultivating mindfulness without the use of meditation, let’s take a closer look at its opposite, mindlessness.
Without Mindfulness There is Only Mindlessness
Dr. Langer, known as The Mother of Mindfulness to many, believes you are always either in a state of mindfulness or mindlessness and defines mindlessness as an inactive state of mind characterized by the following:
- The past over-determines the present
- Trapped in a single perspective
- Insensitive to current context
- Governed by rule and routine
Let’s look at an example of mindlessness. Perhaps a friend says to you, in parting, “Hey, good luck with your presentation next week!” and you respond, “Thanks you too,” though they of course don’t have a presentation coming up. We can see here all of the above criteria of mindlessness being met. You were insensitive to the present context, which was a specific mindful goodbye and instead trapped in a single perspective and a routine of replying to a standard goodbye of, “Have a good day,”etc, all of which is governed by the past. Though perhaps embarrassing, this is a fairly harmless example of mindlessness. However, Dr. Langer believes that ultimately,
“. . . all of our suffering — professional, personal, interpersonal, societal — is the direct or indirect result of our mindlessness.” Take a moment to think about that one.”
Dr. Langer also sees mindlessness as a pervasive phenomenon, stating that, “Virtually all of us are mindless most of the time,” and that, “We don’t see what is right in front of us. We think we know but we don’t.” She believes that mindlessness occurs in large part when we follow routines, which we do out of fear of making mistakes, “because if we make a mistake we are going to look stupid.” However, many mistakes lead to innovation when we can let go of the judgment and get curious, which I will look at more thoroughly in just a moment.
Additionally, I see mindlessness as becoming ever more pervasive with the help of technology in fueling our distraction saturated society. More than ever before we are in need of a mindfulness movement, for thousands of people to let go of what keeps them from being present and to intentionally cultivate mindfulness.
Stepping Into Mindfulness
In her research, Dr. Langer has found that increasing mindfulness results in increases in health, competence and happiness. More specifically,
When people become more mindful, they become more charismatic, more innovative, and less judgmental. Memory and attention improve, relationships expand, and mindfulness even leaves its imprint on the products we produce.
Who wouldn’t want that?
The good news is that because we are taught to be mindless and we can unlearn these habits and teach ourselves to be mindful. Dr. Langer’s definition of mindfulness is anything that does all of the following:
- Puts you in the present moment
- Makes you sensitive to context and perspective
- Creates a sense of being fully engaged and enlivened
Noticing new things and participating in novel behaviors reveals the fluid ever-changing nature of reality. This is because you are stepping into the present moment and letting go of the preoccupation with the idea of past and future. Dr. Langer believes that the simplest way to becoming mindful is to, “adopt the understanding of the inherent uncertainty in everything,” because in actuality everything you think you know is wrong at least some of the time. From different perspectives things change. Science can only give us probabilities, not absolutes. This shift in perspective is of course easier said than done. Let’s look at the example of traveling on holiday to get a better idea of this.
On holiday you expect to see and do new things and so you open and even rejoice in the uncertainty. However, when you get home you might turn the blinders back on and sink back into mindlessness and reliance on routine, when the truth is there are new things and opportunities for new choices and behaviors all around us everyday. In his inspiring book The Way of The Peaceful Warrior Dan Millman writes about his journey to understanding one of his most profound insights, “There are no ordinary moments.” Each time we step out of mindlessness and into mindfulness this truth is revealed. But how do we get there?
Going From Mindless to Mindful
The following are 5 key steps to cultivating mindfulness in our everyday lives without the use of meditation, sourced from Dr. Langer’s work:
1- Look for, create, and notice 6 new things everyday: This is actually the most simple and the most powerful step. Having the intention to notice what you haven’t noticed before each day creates a potent daily reminder of the ever-changing reality of the present moment. You can do this by noticing new aspects of people, looking at multiple angles of a problem and coming up with creative out the box solutions, or even noticing new things on your commute to work. These new things do not of have to be earth shattering mind you, they can be as simple as a noticing a fountain in the neighbor’s yard or a certain way your coworker looks when they are proud of their accomplishment.
2- Pause before you react and consider how behavior can be understood differently in different contexts: The next time you have an interaction with someone that would typically anger or embarrass you try thinking of three reasons that individual might be acting that way. Consider how their actions might make sense out of his or her perspective. For example, if someone cuts you off on the road: They might be elderly and with less than optimal vision; they might be driving their pregnant wife to the hospital; they might have gotten into a fight with their partner that morning and are acting aggressively out of feelings of hurt. Notice what happens to your own knee jerk reaction when you pause, create space, and consider the possible context. Generally if people are acting out on others it is coming from their own hurt, confusion, or anger in their lives and it isn’t personal. You don’t have control over this, but you do have control over how you choose to react.
3- Reframe mistakes into successes: Many great innovations have actually come from what was originally perceived as a failure. For example the microwave, penicillin, and even the slinky were all conceived out of failure. Reframing failure means taking a fresh creative look. We often focus on the personal ramifications of a perceived failure, “I’m a failure,” or “I have failed and people will think less of me.” However, when you take a fresh objective look at the actual perceived “failure” and ask questions like, “How else could this be used?” or “How might this be leading to a success?” you remove the personal judgment and free creative energy for new possibilities.
4- Take a deep breath and remember that stress is a choice: Stress is one of the biggest factors in inducing mindlessness. Have you ever walked around an airport and simply noticed all the mindless non-present people rushing around? When you understand that stress, and indeed all your emotions, arise from your mindset and perspective, you can gain control of your reactions. The key here is to begin to experientially understand that stress is created by your interpretations of events and not the events themselves. For example, having the thought/belief “I have a lot of demands on me and that stresses me out,” gives the power to those placing the demands and removes it from you. However, if you take a deep mindful breath and say, “I am choosing to feel stressed in this moment and I can choose to let it go and let in other feelings,” you may find that things shift. If we open up our single-minded way of looking at a situation, we will find opportunities may have been hidden from us.
5- Be authentic: Being authentic means being honest with yourself and the world around you. It means expressing what is true for you in any given moment, which can sometimes feel like going against the tide. However, when you take a risk and act in an authentic way you become aware of the fact that there are so many more possibilities for thinking, feeling, acting, and relating than you perhaps thought. For a practical way to begin to examine those qualities that you may be hiding from the world and are thus preventing authenticity, try the following: Today, identify three things you don’t like about yourself. What is the positive version of each of these traits? Can you reframe what you don’t like to create a more positive interpretation of your qualities and traits? For example, are you “slow” or merely contemplative? Are you “impulsive and rash,” or simply spontaneous? Are you “obstinate” or determined and tenacious? Ultimately authenticity leads to more presence, happiness, and fulfillment in all areas of your life. To learn more about this particular step check out my previous blog post titled: Living in Congruence.
If you are interested in experiencing the benefits of increased mindfulness but feel daunted by the thought of sitting down to meditate everyday, I encourage you to put these 5 steps into action. Of course mindfulness meditation practice can only strengthen your ability to be mindful in every moment, and there may come a time where you want to include a structured meditation practice. However, it is important to keep in mind that you don’t need to meditate to become more mindful.
If you find yourself struggling to put these steps into action you may want to consider scheduling an appointment with a counselor trained in mindfulness based psychotherapy. There are many in Boulder, CO including myself.
For more information on Dr. Langer and the source material for this post go this article and video from the Aspen Institute.