Our teachers were right.  It’s really important to pay attention.  In fact, mindfulness — paying attention — is one of life’s best practices.

Ellen Langer writes about this a lot.  The Harvard psychologist (and artist) has long been an advocate of what she calls “mindfulness.”  That’s the name of her most widely read book, and she spends much of her time studying and explaining the benefits of mindful activity.

I’m not writing about religion in this post.  In ordinary conversation, mindfulness is often associated with meditation, with centering one’s self and cutting out distraction.  That has religious overtones for many, and for good reason.  I’m not against mindfulness in its spiritual manifestations – far from it, I practice such mindfulness and get substantial benefits from it.  Still, here I’m addressing mindfulness as simply paying attention.

Langer identifies five domains of this sort of mindfulness:  creating new categories, searching for and accepting new information, adopting multiple perspectives, paying attention to context, and focusing on process.  Each of these is important, and each creates opportunities for life enhancement.

Creating new categories.  Rather than trying to fit new situations and interactions into familiar categories and stereotypes, mindfulness urges us to divide, rather than group.  Why is this new person not within my accepted notions of her “type”?  What makes her different?  Is the “type” itself an accurate portrayal of the group I’ve habitually assigned her to?  As we accept limitations and qualifications of our stereotypes, those barriers to understanding may weaken or disappear.  This, in turn, permits us to actually see things that we did not see before.

Creating new categories not only applies to everyday behavior.  We can also re-explore our past.  Langer notes, “Without psychotherapy or a crisis as motivation, the past is rarely recategorized.  We might from time to time call upon different episodes from the past to justify a present situation or grievance, but it rarely occurs to us to change the way the events or impressions were initially stored.”  Ellen J. Langer, Mindfulness at 64 (1989).  It healthy to evaluate how our memories may have been tinged by stereotypical categorizations, bias, or the stress of the moment.

Accepting new information.  Most of us move through our lives without noticing the details that make each experience different.  It enhances overall effectiveness to do the opposite:  focus on what is new and different.

A morning commute can be a learning experience: this is not one more trip to the office, but rather an adventure.  The early spring morning is creating patterns of light and shade that are what color?  How many hybrid vehicles are on the road, and how does that compare to a year ago?

Adopting multiple perspectives.  We enhance interpersonal effectiveness by accepting that different people will have differing perspectives — whether or not we “adopt” those alternative perspectives. According to Langer,

“Once we become mindfully aware of views another than our own, we start to realize that there are as many different views as there are different observers.  Such awareness is potentially liberating.  For instance, imagine that someone has just told you that you are rude.  You thought you were being frank.  If there is only one perspective, you can’t both be right.  But with an awareness of many perspectives, you could accept that you are both right and concentrate on whether your remarks had the effect  that you actually wanted to produce.  If we cling to our own point of view, we may be blind to our impact on others; if we are too vulnerable to other people’s definitions of our behavior, we may feel undermined, for observers are typically less flattering of us than we are of ourselves.”

Ellen J. Langer, Mindfulness at 68-69 (1989). There are at least two benefits of being willing to try out different perspectives:

“First, we gain more choice in how to respond.  A single-minded label produces an automatic reaction, which reduces our options.  Also, to understand that other people may not be so different allows us empathy and enlarges our range of responses.  We are less likely to feel locked into a polarized struggle. Second, when we apply this open-minded attitude to our own behavior, change becomes more possible.”

Ellen J. Langer, Mindfulness at 71 (1989).

Paying attention to context.  Too often, we apply “facts” learned in one context as if they were relevant in all others.  Because honking the horn “worked” once, we use it as our sole method of interaction with other drivers.  Because intervention in Vietnam ultimately failed, America can never intervene militarily in another country without it being “another Vietnam.”

As Langer noted in a 2000 article, most teaching “unintentially fosters mindlessness” because facts “are typically presented as closed packages, without attention to perspective.”  We too often forget Karl Popper’s famous dictum that scientific” theories deserve the label “scientific” if and only if they are subject to testing and, possibly, being proved false:  “Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.”

We should question the underlying bases for assertions of fact.  Furthermore, even if a fact is established in one context (as “verified information about past or present circumstances or events which are presented as objective reality”), we should be alert to how new circumstances may render prior conclusions untenable, or at least uncertain.

Focusing on process.  We often focus on results, rather than process.  I am, of course, all in favor of goals, as I have explained repeatedly (e.g., the series that begins with this post).  But it is important as well to focus on the doing that generates the goals.  Achieving mastery in a discipline, as I’ve noted elsewhere, requires finding ways to enjoy the doing.

Moreover, as Langer notes, focusing on process instead of outcome permits us to progress in the face of potential inhibitions.

“[A] process orientation . . . asks ‘How do I do it?’ instead of ‘Can I do it?’ and thus directs attention toward defining the steps that are necessary on the way.  This orientation can be characterized in terms of the guiding principle that there are no failures, only ineffective solutions.

Ellen J. Langer, Mindfulness at 34 (1989).  Obviously, mindfulness increases our desire to learn, and our capacity for life-long learning.

In another post, I will talk about exercises that enhance mindfulness.  For now, let me know whether you try to practice mindfulness in your everyday activities — and if you succeed, how you do it.