Essay

Mindless Mindfulness and Sorting for Novelty

By Duff McDuffee on May 22nd, 2012

Ellen Langer’s perspective on mindfulness continues to blow my mind the more I think about it and do it.

Mindfulness is often defined as “bringing all of one’s attention to the present moment” or “paying attention in a particular way.” But how should one bring all of one’s attention to the present moment? And what should one pay attention to in order to be “mindful”? And for what purpose does a person engage in mindfulness?

A frequently used mindfulness meditation technique is to notice the breath as it goes in and out. This task is very boring and done over long periods sitting upright can be very painful. They don’t tell you that in the marketing though! The benefits emphasized are things like gaining a more peaceful mind, “changing your brain,” reducing stress, and improving concentration. Let’s take the last claim. What is concentration exactly, and what kind of concentration do we want to develop?

Langer, professor of Psychology at Harvard, challenges the conventional notions of concentration in the context of learning in her book The Power of Mindful Learning and in research she discusses in that book. Interviewing both students and teachers about what they think concentration entails, both students and teachers reported that concentration means fixing an image in your mind about something, and not seeing something from multiple perspectives or in several possible ways. This is frequently how information is presented in the classroom–there is one right answer, so memorize it and regurgitate it back on the test.

This kind of rigid thinking has been shown less useful for creative tasks–so-called “outside of the box thinking”–the kind of thinking that is essential for any application of information, even things like applying mathematics skills towards an engineering problem. Langer’s research has shown that teaching so that students are encouraged to see something in their minds in several ways or from several perspectives increases ability of students to creatively use such information in novel environments. It also makes learning more fun, and students taught in this way perform just as well on standardized tests.

Let’s face it–sitting in a rigidly upright posture and putting all of one’s attention on the sensations of the breath as it goes in and out is boring. Don’t believe the hype: there is nothing wrong with your mind if you don’t find this task inherently interesting. Perhaps the problem is with the task, with the kind of concentration being trained, like in the classroom when students fix a single image in their mind. Maybe it could be more fun and more useful to train a different kind of concentration or mindfulness.

Sometimes the instructions involve counting breaths or silently noting “breathing in, breathing out.” This is also boring. The instruction usually includes the injunction to let go of thoughts and bring the attention back to the breath, over and over. Most people find this task very difficult, nearly impossible at first. Almost nobody finds this activity naturally interesting and engaging.

Personally I get rigid and short-tempered when I do this too much, or even peacefully rigid and boringly concentrated. Langer herself points out how poor this task is for training an ability to pay attention in other environments because most contexts involve switching of attention from one thing to another, not focusing on just one thing for long periods. She still thinks the task might be useful for other reasons, but I have to agree that the positive carryover from such a task to the rest of life is minimal at best.

A much more fulfilling and naturally interesting task is to search for novelty, to purposely seek out the unexpected and new in ordinary experiences–even in very subtle ways. Here’s an example:

Take 30 seconds to close your eyes and imagine a tree. Notice everything you notice about that tree. Now go outside and compare your image of a tree to some actual trees. Pay attention to all the details that are different from your mental image, things you didn’t expect. When I did this I noticed my mental image was still, whereas all the trees I checked out had leaves and branches moving in the breeze. Futhermore, the trees are constantly changing, day by day, season by season. And these things are not just true for trees! Everything and everyone is constantly changing, albeit at different rates, ranging from the imperceptibly slow to the blazingly fast.

Langer’s version of mindfulness involves paying attention to novelty–how things are actually already always new and changing, and responding in a context-sensitive way to present-moment circumstances, instead of fixed ideas about things. Watching my breath is boring, but looking for novelty is always completely interesting.

Many mindfulness fanatics seem zombie-like to me. Groups of quiet people walking painfully slowly, a vacant smile upon their faces–what are they doing, exactly? That ever-quotable Albert Einstein is said to have said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?” Einstein was notoriously messy, so we can read this quotation not as “thou shalt clear thy desk” but that a perpetually clean desk indicates someone devoid of thought, a thoughtless and uncreative individual.

Interestingly, the mindfulness crowd overlaps with the minimalist desk crowd. Clean desk porn abounds online, with beautiful pictures of people’s meticulously organized, high-tech workspaces photographed and ogled by other connoisseurs of cleanliness. Nobody cares how messy Einstein’s desk was now though. In addition to his quotability, he is revered for his brilliance, creativity, and contribution to society. Do you want to be remembered for the cleanliness of your desk or for what you created when you sat there?

Langer’s kind of mindfulness doesn’t for me require the same kind of painful discipline of bringing one’s attention back to the breath, over and over like some sort of zombie. Nor does it end up with conforming to any fixed idea about enlightened living. Instead, in noticing how my fixed ideas about the world don’t quite correspond to what I actually observe, I am on the lookout for novelty. This naturally generates in me an attitude of curiosity, and doesn’t require any stillness or slowness or quiet whatsoever (nor does it necessarily advise against it). When I am mindful in this way, I am taking a dynamic and naturally creative stance towards a world packed with possibility.

Many people advocate mindfulness meditation in order to “tame the mind.” Taming the mind has long seemed problematic to me. Why would I want my mind to be tame? Such an approach presupposes that tame is better than wild, and puts me in a struggle against a playful monkey-like mind, swinging joyfully from limb to limb. Everyone I’ve ever met who says they have ADHD says so with a sense of shame in their voice, yet all of those same people are wildly and wonderfully creative individuals. Why control a wild mind? Why not utilize the wildness of our minds, use the novelty-seeking of compulsive Facebooking and Twittering to notice the novelty that is already present in daily life? …in the way the light casts a shadow on the desk? …in the way your ideas about a problem you have don’t quite fit the actual situation when you pay very close attention to the subtleties, thus freeing you from a fixed notion as to the resolution of the problem?

If you sit in the same position and notice the same breath and it feels the same, day after day, how can you call this mindfulness meditation? Unless you are noticing something new, or noticing the same thing in a new way, then what is being practiced is a fixed and rigid set of bodily postures and mental states. But if truly nothing is permanent as Buddha sayz, then trying to fix any state is ultimately futile and a cause of suffering. So if you choose to meditate, every day notice something new, because every day in every way something is new. No two days are the same, no two sits, no two breaths.

We can see Mindfulness then as the recognition of the continual newness of everything which comes from sorting for novelty. It is looking for things that you wouldn’t expect based on your ideas of the world, often which are very subtle. Reality is not subject to the dictates of our desires, so we’d better pay attention to what’s actually going on. And when we do, it’s always new!

Mindfulness has little to do with noticing your breathing, or moving slowly, or silence, unless those activities help you to notice or do new things. The point of a gaining a quiet mind is that you can think new thoughts, to stop thinking repetitively in fixed patterns, not so that you can rigidly repress thinking. If you notice the same things about your breath as you did yesterday when you meditate, you aren’t doing mindfulness meditation, more like mindless breath watching.

Mindfulness is noticing that my lady is not the same as she was yesterday, or five minutes ago, and responding to who she is now.

Mindfulness is noticing that each day at 6:10 when I drive home, the amount and angle of sunlight is subtly different than it was yesterday.

Mindfulness is questioning fixed rules and habits, whether they apply any more to the present context, and responding to what’s happening now.

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