October 18, 2005

A Series on Mindfulness: Part 1

Upon the recommendation of Charles Young (Chair of Achitecture, Calvin College) I am reading a book by Ellen Langer titled Mindfulness. I sense that the text represents Langer's primary work - her theories about a concept which she has dubbed "mindfulness". In the following series of posts I plan on summarizing what I have read and focusing specifically on ideas which I found to be particularly relevant.

The first few chapters of Mindfulness primarily discuss the distinction between mindfulness and mindlessness. Thus far Langer has only hinted at the definition of mindfulness; rather she has concentrated mostly on its opposite, mindlessness.

Mindlessness is propogated by three categories or factors:

1. Entrapment by category
2. Automatic behavior
3. Acting from a single perspective

While the creation of new perceptual categories is a mindfull process, mindlessness takes over when we rely too heavily on pre-set paramaters which often do not do justice to the dynamic nature of many aspects of life. I suppose an example of such categorization could be the typical traits assigned to genders. In poker, it would be mindless to assume that Annie Duke is going to play passively just because she is female. Mindfulness, on the other hand, would include observation and situational analysis within a specific context. In that sense, the concept of mindfulness is very applicaple to poker strategy in general. All of the "rules" for correct play are flexible and depend heavily on the situation. So to rely too heavily on inadequate categories is an act of mindlessness.

Automatic behavior is another device, similar to categorization, which is naturally helpful for human cognitive and active processes. Our brains are capable of "auto-pilot" for many activities such as typing which would be impossible to complete with such efficiency without it. Again, this is useful and necessary for many tasks - the trouble arises when that function invades other areas which are more important. When regular practices become so routine that we no longer even know what we are doing, that is mindless. Another way of generalizing this category would be inadvertant attention to structure as opposed to conscious attention to content.

The following is a good example of automatic behavior from my own experience:

When I was learning how to drive we only had two cars and they were both manual transmission. My parents were confident that I could handle learning the rules of the road and stick-shift at the same time. I specifically remember how frustrated I was with my mom when she was trying to explain the concepts of working the clutch. She was proficient at it herself, but when it came to explaining what to do she effectively had no idea. She knew she could do it, but she didn't know how.

Thirdly, acting from a single perspective. A good analogy is following a recipe as if it were necessarily the only possible way of preparing that dish. According to that m.o., if a little extra salt gets added the recipe is ruined and must me thrown away. As with both of the previous catergories, the crux of the issue has to do with disregarding the dynamic quality of many situations.

Next time: Education for Outcome

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