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Getting Off to a Mindful Start

By Ellen J. Langer

The bizarre tragedy of the University of California, Irvine, professor who forgot that his infant son was in the back of his car and, instead of driving the baby to child care, went to work—unwittingly leaving the baby to die in the car—is symptomatic of something far more common at Harvard and beyond. It is the result of mindlessness, an affliction not confined to the proverbial absent-minded professor who has more important things to think about. It is hard to imagine that for him, an apparently loving father, there was anything more important than his son.

Whatever we are doing, we are doing it mindlessly or mindfully, and mindlessness is more ubiquitous than most people realize. When we are mindless, for all intents and purposes, we’re not there to notice. The body essentially turns off as we mindlessly disengage, but the consequences of mindlessness are real and often important. Accidents, burnout, poor performance, memory problems and interpersonal difficulties may not be far behind. Dramatic events like the loss of the professor’s son are often necessary to force us to take notice.

Even though our minds are exercised when we are at school, mindlessness is just as common on college campuses. Do any of these sound familiar?

•reading lengthy assignments and, after several pages, realizing that you have no idea what you just read

•falling asleep in lecture

•not feeling interested in course material

•missing appointments because you are too overwhelmed to remember them

•realizing that you need to do laundry only after you find that you have no clothes left to wear

The antidote to tragedies, dramatic and mundane, is to be more mindful. When mindless, we let the past determine the present. We mistakenly seek certainty. We hold things still in our minds and then confuse the stability of our mindsets with the stability of the underlying phenomenon. We look for the ways things are the same and miss all of the subtle ways in which things are different, despite the lip service we pay to the idea that things are always changing.

We may pay attention to subtleties when we meet new people, but then we only notice dramatic changes after we think we know them well. As a result, our relationships suffer. We are startled by the “freshman fifteen” as if we’ve gained that weight overnight, because we did not notice the smaller accumulation of ounces and pounds.

For over 25 years, my students and I have been researching the price we pay for our mindlessness and trying to find ways to prevent it. In research with elderly patients at nursing homes, we found that by increasing mindfulness, people actually lived longer. In the best known of these studies, my colleague University of Pennsylvania President Judith Rodin and I found that when we encouraged mindful decision-making and gave the patients a plant to care for, they were more likely to still be living 18 months later, when we returned for our follow-up study.

Mindfulness is actively noticing new things. It doesn’t matter if what we are noticing is smart or silly. When we actively notice new things, we are situated in the present and more sensitive to perspective and context. We do ourselves a disservice when we mindlessly memorize information or accept it as true without considering the perspective(s) from which it may not be. When mindful, we are figuratively and literally more alive.

Rather than wait for a course to engage us, we can engage the course. We can make it meaningful by asking when is a so-called fact not true?  Who decided that it is true, and why? How, not if, is it meaningful to me?

If we find that we don’t know something, instead of mindlessly concluding incompetence, we might ask why we don’t know it and realize that we are probably not alone in that particular ignorance. The more we hide, the more we feel that we don’t really belong at a place like Harvard. Useful information about course content and campus life is not availed to us and deadening mindlessness replaces authenticity.

If we let ourselves be more authentic, others will find us more attractive. Our recent research suggests that even dolphins find people more attractive when they are mindful. If others find us attractive, we’re more likely to be able to share in their perspective and notice new things, which perpetuates the cycle of greater engagement.

If every day when I go to class or drive to work, I am mindful of the fact that today, though similar to yesterday, is also different, I am in the present, averting potential tragedies of all kinds. When we begin this positive cycle of mindful engagement, we may even notice that we like what we read, that our courses are relevant to our daily lives, and even—just maybe—that we are running out of clean clothes.

Professor of Psychology Ellen J. Langer is the author of The Power of Mindful Learning and Mindfulness.

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