Mindfulness: Is It Real Or Just a Neat Idea?

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I have been following the rise of “mindfulness” for awhile now, not without a degree of skepticism.

Observe: The literal rise of mindfulness.

Observe: The literal rise of mindfulness.

I tend to be a bit unsure about any philosophy that claims to dramatically improve your life, although mindfulness had some convincing advocates.

The first place I heard of it was on the podcast Invisibilia, where they talked about its rise in modern therapy. Now many contemporary therapists, instead of teaching people to overanalyze every thought (Freud-style), encourage people to acknowledge and accept their thoughts, and then let them float by (mindfulness-style). I was intrigued.

Then I happened upon the idea again when interviewing eating disorder foundation The Emily Program for work. They referred to a concept called “mindful eating,” which I had to go to the Eating Disorder section of Barnes and Noble to find a book about (Eating Mindfullywhich I would definitely recommend to anyone with a mouth).

I went down the rabbit hole a little more reading about mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy, but eventually hit a dead end with its constant prompts to meditate. I just can’t do it. Whatever miraculous benefits it’s supposed to have, I just don’t think meditation is for me. I eventually concluded that anyone as anxious and overanalyzing as I am is at least somewhat mindful, and forgot about the concept.

That is, until I heard early mindfulness thinker Ellen Langer talking to On Being’s Krista Tippet about her book called Mindfulnesswhich was originally written almost three decades ago. Langer not only has a cool voice and a sharp sense of wit, but she talked about mindfulness in a dramatically different way. To her, it wasn’t about meditating at all, although she thinks that’s a nice thing to do. It was about understanding your frame of mind from a psychological perspective, and consciously remaining open-minded. She didn’t take the idea from Eastern philosophy, but instead backed into it by studying its opposite: mindlessness.

I bought her book to try to understand her idea of what mindfulness is. Here are my main takeaways:

1. Mindfulness is less a spiritual state and more about doing three simple things:
1. Constantly re-categorizing the world the way children do. This leaves us much more open minded and less likely to put things into boxes we can’t take them out of.
2. Staying open to new information instead of deciding we know about something and constantly returning to old ideas.
3. Realizing there are multiple perspectives on everything. There aren’t just two ways to look at something, but as many ways as there are people to see it.
2. One of the biggest concepts is the breakdown of mind/body duality.
We’re raised being told our thoughts operate on a different plane than our bodies, but this isn’t actually true. She’s conducted many studies that showed how changing people’s mindsets led to measurable differences in their physical health. (For example, telling house cleaners to view their work as physical exercise led to weight loss and lower blood pressure.)
3. Start valuing process over outcome
Langer notes that people tend to talk about their successes as if they came easily to them, and we actually admire them more for doing this. (That would explain the annoying lack of specific advice in the creative profession.) She says if we look at people we admire or envy, we need to imagine the process they underwent to get where they are, and understand how we can follow that process. This demystifies some of the more paralyzing aspects of ambition and success. It also has implications for education, where outcome is everything and the process, thinking and play in getting to that outcome is undervalued.
4. Try to see people as they see themselves
This is the most interesting idea for me. If you see someone as impulsive, understand that they might see themselves as spontaneous. Is a friend too rigid? Maybe they see themselves as stable and dependable. When it comes to yourself, understand how some of your traits are less likely to be rationalized by others.

So do I understand mindfulness now?
At the end of this book, I felt like I had been reminded of a few cool ideas in psychology rather than given a new way of thinking that feels incredibly cohesive. I have to confess that I still don’t exactly understand what mindfulness is. It seems like it’s mostly about stopping to think about what you’re doing rather than giving in to habit. But on the other hand, our habits are a major key to quality of life. (I’ll write about this some other time.)

I like the idea that mindfulness is the lifelong pursuit of understanding your own mind. There’s something nice, poetic and artistic about that, although I don’t think that’s what it actually is. According to this book, it’s more about mastering your own mind by understanding that there’s a lot it doesn’t yet know, and accepting that this is a good thing. It’s humbling to admit that, and the writer in me misses the Freudian view that our minds are murky depths filled with all kinds of mysteries for us to unearth. But mindfulness seems to lead to actual results, both psychologically and physically, whereas the Freudian perspective mostly just makes people really mad at their families.

So would I recommend this book for people curious about mindfulness? Absolutely. Just realize it’s only the beginning of trying to figure out what this way of life, or at least a popular buzzword, is all about.