Absence of mind

I’ve spent the weekend doing things to nourish myself after a crazily busy few weeks at work which doesn’t look set to change until after Easter. Hence me indulging in the things I know that rest and recharge me – cooking and eating sumptuous food, watching films, taking a particularly long and lush bath (with double the dose of bath salts just because) whilst listening to music, walking with a friend and her dogs in the spring sunshine (there’s something about walking and talking that seem to go so well together… the dogs and sunshine were a bonus). To feed my brain I also listened to a few podcasts from a site I’m fond of and one in particular piqued my interest – an interview (here) with Ellen Langer.

Langer is a social psychologist who has been studying mindlessness since the 1970s and by studying mindlessness, also studied the impact of the concept that is so prevalent now – mindfulness. She says that whenever we engage in something, we are either mindless or mindful and that most people are mindless most of the time… that they are not present but not present to know that they’re not present. The autopilot reigns supreme. I’ll let you connect the dots between this and how you are in your yoga practice as for once, I’m not going to talk about that.

What stood out for me hearing the interview with Langer is her terminology – about ‘actively noticing’ rather ‘being present’… an instruction that seems to be thrown around so much these days I’m surprised it has any life left within it. What was also interesting was that, unlike her peer Jon Kabat-Zinn, she doesn’t advocate the practice of noticing by means of a technique such as mindfulness meditation or yoga, but simply suggests actively noticing new things in everyday life and has study after study to back up why we should do so. Meditation is engaged in to provide post-meditative mindfulness – a means to an end. Her approach goes straight to the end and her research consistently demonstrates that the impact of noticing new (positive) things is literally enlivening whereas the impact of mindlessness is hugely detrimental to our health and happiness.

[On a side note, it’s interesting that science is only now recognizing the findings of such studies and largely credits this to Jon Kabat-Zinn whilst here is a woman (the first female professor to gain tenure in the Psychology Department at Harvard) who has been studying and demonstrating this since the 70s. It also brought to mind an interview I read with Bjork on her new album where she throws some much needed feminist punches and puts straight what many a journalist has misunderstood in terms of just how much of her work she creates and produces as opposed to men who might come in after 80% of an album is complete but gets credited with the lot.]

I listened to Langer’s podcast whilst I was cooking last night and was excited as I left the flat this afternoon to go and meet my friend for a long walk with the dogs. I remembered Langer’s suggestion of trying to notice 5 new things about a friend and how this will make that person become alive for you again and how this facilitates and freshens up old relationships. I anticipated with excitement noticing the warmth of the spring sun and the slowly increasing shades of green all around and how it would warm my face and send shivers down my spine. I met my friend. We walked and talked and threw balls (badly) for the dogs. And I did it all completely mindlessly. Damned autopilot is going to take more wrestling from the controls than I realized…

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