Reading Room

Mindfulness: Choice and Control in Everyday Life – Ellen J. Langer

“Unlike the exotic ‘altered states of consciousness’ that we read so much about mindfulness and mindlessness are so common that few of us appreciate their impoReadingRoomMindfullnessrtance or make use of their power to change our lives. This book is about the price we pay for mindlessness: the psychological and the physical costs. More importantly it is about the benefits of mindfulness. Those benefits are greater control over our lives, wider choice, and making the seemingly impossible possible.”

“When we are behaving mindlessly, that is to say, relying on categories drawn in the past, the endpoints to development seem fixed. We are then like projectiles moving along a predetermined course. When we are mindful, we see all sorts of choices and generate new endpoints.”

In a nutshell

Mental habits dull our lives. By regaining control of your thinking you can experience life anew.

Have you ever said “excuse me” to a store mannequin or written a cheque in January with the previous year’s date? For most of us the answer is probably “yes,” but these small mistakes, Ellen Langer believes, are the tip of a mindlessness iceberg. A Harvard psychology professor, her research into rigidity of mind led to observations about mental fluidity, or mindfulness.

One of the great themes of self-help literature is the need to be free of unconsciously accepted habits and norms. Langer’s classic shows how we can actually accomplish this. The book is in the best tradition of western scientific research, filled with the results of fascinating experiments that should appeal to those readers who enjoy Emotional Intelligence or Learned Optimism.

Who or what is a mindful person? Langer suggests that their qualities will include:
* Ability to create new categories.
* Openness to new information.
* Awareness of more than one perspective.
* Attention to process – doing, rather than outcome – results.
* Trust of intuition.

New categories

Langer says that we live and experience reality in a conceptual form. We don’t see things afresh and anew every time we look at them; instead, we create categories and let things fall into them, which is a more convenient way of dealing with the world. Apart from the smaller things, such as defining a vase as a Japanese vase, a flower as an orchid, or a person as a boss, there are the wider categorisations under which we live, including religions, ideologies, and systems of government. Each gives us a level of psychological certainty and saves us from the effort of constantly challenging our own beliefs. We divide animals into “pets” and “livestock” so that we can feel OK loving one and eating the other, for example.

Mindlessness results when we don’t know that the categories to which we subscribe, are categories and have accepted them as our own without really thinking. Creating new categories, and reassessing old ones, is mindfulness. Or, as William James put it: “Genius … means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.”

New information

Langer talks about “premature cognitive commitments,” which are like photographs in which meaning, rather than motion, is frozen. To evoke the dangers of false, frozen images, she reminds us of Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations, who still wore the wedding dress she had donned the day she was abandoned at the altar, but which now hung like faded curtains over her aged body.

At a more prosaic level, a child may know an elderly person who is grumpy and will hold on to a picture of “old people are grumps,” taking it with him into adulthood. In not bothering to replace that picture with different images of later life, the person is locked into a false perception that is likely to be reflected in their own experience. They will turn into an old grump too.

This of course applies to other aspects of life: If we are mindful, we will be less willing to take “genes” as an excuse for our behaviour or lack of action. Just because a parent never rose above middle management level, we don’t assume that we couldn’t become president of the company.

Perspective and context

Mindlessness occurs when people accept information in a context-free way. The ability to transcend context, Langer says, is the mark of mindfulness and creativity. She notes that much pain is context dependent. Getting a bruise out on the football field will matter much less to us than if we sustain one at home. Imagination is the key to perceiving differently. The Birdman of Alcatraz, stuck in a cell for over 40 years, managed to make his life a rich one by his care of injured birds.

The personal development implication of these vignettes is clear: We can put up with anything as long as it is within a positive context. Without a defined personal vision, life might seem like a mass of constant worries and annoyances; with one, everything is put into perspective. As Nietzsche said, if you have a “why,” you can put up with any “how.”

Process orientation

Another key characteristic of mindfulness is a focus on process before outcome, or “doing rather than achieving.” We look at a scientist’s breakthrough and say “genius,” as if what he or she discovered happened overnight. With the rare exception, like Einstein’s great year of discovery, most scientific success is the result of years of work that can be broken down into steps. A college student looks at a professor’s book in awe, thinking “I could never write something that good,” assuming it must be higher intelligence, not years of study and work, which delivered up the weighty tome. These are all faulty comparisons. The process orientation requires us to ask not “Can I do it?” but “How can I do it?” This “not only sharpens our judgment, it makes us feel better about ourselves,” says Langer.


Intuition is an important path to mindfulness, because its very use requires ignoring old habits and expectations to try something that may go against reason. Yet the best scientists are intuitive, many spending years methodically validating what appeared to them in a flash of intuitive truth. The amazing thing about mindfulness and intuition is that they are both relatively effortless: “Both are reached by escaping the heavy, single-minded striving of most ordinary life.” But intuition will give us valuable information about our survival and success; we cannot explain where it comes from, but we ignore it at our cost. The mindful person will go with what works, even if it doesn’t make sense.

Final comments

In essence, mindfulness is about preserving our individuality. By choosing the mind-set of limited resources, by opting to focus on outcomes rather than doing – process, and by making faulty comparisons with others, we become little more than robots. The true individual is characterised by openness to the new, is always reclassifying the meaning of knowledge and experience, and has the ability to see their daily actions in a bigger, consciously chosen perspective.

Langer recognizes the parallels with eastern religion in her work, for example the Buddhist understanding that meditation is about enjoying a mindful state that leads to “right action.” Mindfulness, Langer hopes, has the same effect, and therefore has important implications for the health of society, not merely the individual. The beauty of mindfulness is that it is not work; in fact, because it leads to greater control of our own thinking, it is, to use Langer’s word, “exhilarating,” in a quiet way creating excitement about what is possible. Its ideas may seem difficult, but Mindfulness was written for a popular audience and is not long. It may be more understated than most self-help books, but its insights tend to stay in the mind.

This copy was taken from 50 Self-help Classics, written and compiled by Tom Butler-Bowdon.


About Tom Cottrell

A struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.
This entry was posted in 10 - Mind, 11 - Spirit and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Reading Room

  1. Pingback: How to go about thinking | A short stroll to the horizon

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