Ellen Langer – on mindfulness and the art of noticing things at work and play

 Are you noticing things in the moment? If you are, here’s why it’s so good for you; if you aren’t, here’s why you should be: in the first of a three-part series, Dr Ellen Langer, Harvard University professor of psychology, talks about her research into among others the illusion of control, decision making, ageing and mindfulness theory. In an interview with my colleague, BizNews editor and publisher Alec Hogg, Langer, the recipient of four distinguished scientist awards, talks about the benefits of mindfulness in and out of  business. Here, she defines mindfulness, and why it is so important to notice things. Don’t be put off by thinking mindfulness is a mission that involves hours of daily meditation. Langer’s work involves moving into ‘post-meditative mindfulness’,  for health at work and at play. In Part Two, she  looks at mindfulness and ageing, and in Part Three,  mindfulness and cancer. MS 

MARIKA SBOROS: Welcome listeners, to this next edition of Health Matters. I have one of the most fascinating guests I think I’m ever going to have– Dr Ellen Langer. She is a psychology professor, the longest-serving psychology professor at Harvard University in the US. She is also is the recipient of four Distinguished Scientist awards in a stellar career over four decades. Dr Langer has very kindly, made herself available to us over the phone. Dr Langer, are you there

DR ELLEN LANGER: I am.

MARIKA SBOROS: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

DR ELLEN LANGER: I’m pleased to do it.

MARIKA SBOROS: Thank you. Dr Langer, you are known as the Mother of Mindfulness. I am very interested in Buddhist psychology, psychotherapy, and philosophy so I know a fair bit about mindfulness from that perspective, but I do know that you’re coming to it from a very different angle. Give me your definition of mindfulness.

DR ELLEN LANGER: Okay. I did research many, many years ago on meditation, but this is mindfulness that gets you to the same place, but by a different set of circumstances. Mindful meditation is simply a tool. It’s way to lead to post-meditative mindfulness. Ours is more direct. It’s so simple that it almost mystifies belief in that you actively notice new things. What happens is you come to see that the things you though you knew, you didn’t know because everything is always changing. Everything looks different from different perspectives.

MARIKA SBOROS: Right.

DR ELLEN LANGER: This very simple process of noticing, puts you in the present, and makes you sensitive to context and perspective. It’s the essence of engagement. Too many people wait for something to pull them into an activity, a friendship, or whatever they’re doing when in fact, if you just notice new things about it, you become immediately interested. Noticing turns out to be literally and figuratively enlivening.

MARIKA SBOROS: Excuse me for interrupting you there. I know from the interview that my colleague Alec Hogg did with you, you spoke about meditation as a tool but the way you work with mindfulness is a much more direct route. Is it correct to say it’s a faster route?

DR ELLEN LANGER: I think so, yes. Certainly, for the particular instance where you’re being mindful, to meditate you sit quietly and focus on breath or a mantra. When you get thoughts that pull you away from that, you recognise the thought, you come back to focus on the mantra or the breath. Over time, you come to see that the thought is just a thought. For us, we attack the thoughts directly. Much of the world is now suffering with an inordinate amount of stress. Stress is based on the assumption that something is going to happen, and when it happens, it’s going to be awful. We attack both parts of that. If you think it’s going to happen, give yourself four reasons why it might not happen. Then it’s gone from “it’s definitely” to “maybe it will happen”. If it does happen, how will this be a good thing?

At the end of this process, what ends up happening is the event may or may not happen, and when it happens, it will be both good and bad, and it will loose its grip on you. People need to understand that events don’t cause stress. What causes stress is the view we take of the event, so we very directly, open up those views to be more mindful, and stress dissipates quickly.

MARIKA SBOROS: It’s a very interesting concept about stress where you say an event does not cause stress, but I would presume that there must be some events that practically of themselves can cause stress.

DR ELLEN LANGER: No. Those are beliefs, which we have of events. There’s some interesting data: when people have heart attacks or people are first given a diagnosis of some dreaded disease that would seem to be a situation where “oh my goodness, stress necessarily follows”, but what happens is many people, under those circumstances, begin to come alive. They realise we’re not going to be living forever. “I’m no longer going to be sealed in this unlived life”, so then they break through that seal and first come alive, and I would say that that is probably a very positive thing.

MARIKA SBOROS: Yes, so it is all to do with the power of thoughts, and living in the present moment can undo the negative power of thoughts, is that correct?

DR ELLEN LANGER: Yes but it is also that everybody says “to be in the moment”. The problem with that instruction is that when you’re not in the moment, you’re not there to know that you’re not there. It is almost an empty instruction. If you are actively noticing new things – that puts you in the present. That reveals to you the uncertainty that is all around you, which then necessarily draws your attention.

What people now are frightened of  and confused, when I say the stability of their mindsets, with the stability of the underlying phenomenal. Things are changing. You want to hold them still in your head, fine, but they’re changing, and if we can embrace those changes, then we’re necessarily going to be in the present because it is unfamiliar to us.

When we recognise that outcomes are neither good nor bad, those are in our head, then we are less resistant when we are aware of all of this uncertainty. It was frightening because we can make it feel whatever way we want it to feel.

People, right now, too often are living in an a way, or cheating by numbers, where they want to know exactly what’s going to happen next. As a result, they’re bored, they’re depressed, and they’re stressed – rather than recognising that the fun in life is not knowing exactly what is going to happen next, but knowing that whatever happens, we’ll be able to deal with it.

MARIKA SBOROS: Right, it is also all about the unknown, and the unknown can be very frightening. Dr Langer, I see that we’re running out of time, and there are all sorts of other things that I would like to speak to you about, for my listeners as well as myself, and I intend this to be the first of, at least, a three-part series and perhaps even more, if you have the time. Thank you for taking the time to speak to us.

DR ELLEN LANGER: It’s my pleasure.

MARIKA SBOROS: I’m Marika Sboros, from Biznews Health Matters. Thank you and goodbye.