The topic of mindfulness is likely one you’ve heard a lot about in recent years. In fact, it’s become quite a buzzword in today’s culture—but what does it actually mean to be mindful? And what is the connection between mindfulness and learning?
With over 35 years of research and expertise, Dr. Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist and Guggenheim Fellow, is widely known as the “mother of mindfulness”. She is the author of eleven books including Mindfulness, The Power of Mindful Learning, and Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, and has written more than two hundred research articles on the topic of mindfulness.
In this episode of the Leading Learning podcast, Jeff talks with Ellen about what it really means to be mindful, the benefits that come along with it, and ways you can encourage achieving it in your own life as well as in the design of learning experiences.
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[00:18] – Thank you to YourMembership, the podcast sponsor for the third quarter of 2017. YourMembership’s learning management system is specifically designed for professional education with a highly flexible and intuitive system that customizes the learning experience. YourMembership’s LMS seamlessly integrates with key systems to manage all of your educational content formats in one central location while providing powerful tools to create and deliver assessments, evaluations, and learning communities.
[01:13] – Highlighted Resource of the Week – Video of Dr. Ellen Langer’s talk, Mindfulness Over Matter. In it she highlights many of the key points from her book, Mindfulness.
[1:43] – A preview of what will be covered in this podcast where Jeff interviews mindfulness expert, Dr. Ellen Langer.
[03:22] – Introduction to Dr. Ellen Langer.
What is mindfulness?
[04:08] – How did you come to be so focused on mindfulness as an area of study?
Ellen shares that in the 70’s, initially she was studying mindlessness, which seemed to be pervasive, and 40 years of research since the original work has shown that virtually all of us are mindless almost all of the time. And the problem is, when you’re mindless, you’re not there to know you’re not there.
She goes on to explain what she means by mindfulness. It isn’t meditation, which is simply a tool to lead you to post-meditative mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a simple process of noticing new things—and as you notice new things, that puts you in the present, makes you sensitive to context and perspective, and it’s a process of engagement—it’s the essence of what we’re doing when we’re having fun.
When it comes to learning, Ellen says that people have the mistaken notion of, “no pain, no gain” but she thinks one can gain without pain in the process of being mindful. She adds that she could’ve called mindfulness, creativity, but the reason she didn’t is because we have a mindless notion of it and what’s important is the final product—mindfulness is a process and when you’re mindful the product is usually better.
[07:59] – You’ve said that to be mindful is “to be confident and uncertain.” Can you talk about that?
Ellen explains that when you notice new things about the things you thought you knew, you come to see that you didn’t know it as well as you thought you did. The fact is that everything is always changing, everything looks different from different perspectives, and when we think we know, we are essentially being mindless by letting the past determine the present, rather than being in the present.
She talks about the impact of this when trying to understand people and how mindfulness can lead to being less judgmental, which leads us to be less concerned about other people judging us. After 40 years of research, they’ve found that the simple act of noticing helps people live longer, is good for one’s health, helps people feel good (since they are engaged), people see you as more attractive and more charismatic, and the products you produce are better—so it’s a win-win.
It seems like it could be interpreted that all knowledge is contextual or relative, and potentially you can’t be certain about anything—so in a way it sounds scary to be mindful. Ellen points out that people often pretend because they know they don’t know, they think you might know, and they hope they can get away with not knowing by pretending.
She calls this a personal attribution for uncertainty. What people need to do is make a universal attribution for uncertainty acknowledging that nobody knows so you can be confident but uncertain.
[12:30] – It seems perhaps there is a bit of a mindfulness problem out there now with people not really being open to or are resistant to learning. Do you feel that way? Is there anything different now than how it’s been before?
Ellen says she started this over 40 years ago and at that time nobody had heard about mindfulness. However, today it’s hard to open a magazine or listen to a newscast where they don’t use the word, “mindful” (even though it’s not usually used correctly) so she thinks the world is more and more open to it.
She adds that mindlessness is certainly prevalent in many quarters but when you become mindful, you can take advantage of opportunities that you otherwise wouldn’t notice and you also avert the things that have not yet arisen.
Becoming More Mindful
[14:47] – If an individual wants to become a more mindful learner, are there practices you would have people undertake?
Ellen explains there aren’t really “practices” for this (like there is with meditation) because this is about being out in the world. If you could do nothing else, she says to simply establish a mindset for uncertainty. She points out that when life is working for us, it doesn’t matter, but when life isn’t working for us is the time when people naturally seek solutions without being trained.
Ellen also talks about stress, stating that it’s mindless and relies on two things: 1) the belief that something is going to happen; and 2) that when it happens it’s going to be awful. To combat this, she recommends giving yourself roughly 3 reasons why this might not happen. Next, assume that it is going to happen and think about how that might actually be a good thing.
[17:20] – Exercises people can do to be more mindful:
- Every time you see yourself assuming something is obvious, know that it isn’t because everything looks different from different perspectives.
- Every time you see yourself as judgmental, think about how that behavior may have made sense from that person’s perspective.
- Walk out your door and notice 3 things you didn’t see before.
- If you’re living with somebody, come back in the door and notice 3-5 new things about that person.
The idea is to keep taking the thing that you know and turn it inside out and around—what happens over time is you see that you didn’t know what you thought you knew. This causes you to be naturally mindful and you don’t have to work at it anymore.
Mindfulness and Learning Experiences
[18:44] – Most of our listeners are involved in the business of lifelong learning—what would you say to those people to help them deliver/facilitate learning experiences that are going to be more conducive to mindful learning? Can you help to architect a more mindful learning experience?
Ellen says to start with the choice of speakers who attend conferences. For example, if you have a conference on “X” but get some leading authority on “Y”, that would be interesting because people would wonder how it’s related. Since everything is related, this would help them be more mindful. She reiterates that, when it comes to learning, people have the mistaken notion that there’s “no pain, no gain” and that one should be gaining all the time.
However, learning is fun so everything that’s done at conferences should be fun and if it’s not, then you need to be doing it differently. And when you’re setting up an event for other people, rather than solely focusing on the transmission of information from one person to a group of people, make it fun for everybody.
[20:58] – It’s become a trend now for many organizations to have a recognized body of knowledge/set of competencies that people need to master to get certified. How does mindfulness jive with certification and that whole approach to competency/bodies of knowledge?
Ellen explains that it’s the way your certification process is designed that makes it good or bad. For instance, you can have a rigid set of rules and teach that people better follow those rules just as they’re laid out but that tends to be mindless. However, if you find a way to make each of the rules a little more tentative, you can encourage more mindfulness.
Essentially, when something is mindless it tends to be rigid, and you follow things regardless of whether they make sense in the particular context or not—it’s where the past is dictating the present. On the other hand, mindfulness is a looser more conditional structure. Ellen adds that all learning should be fun, conditional, and that lifelong learners would probably benefit from research on mindfulness.
[24:07] – A discussion about how mindfulness helps older people live longer, happier lives. Ellen references the dramatic effects she found in her Counterclockwise study. It is also discussed how important context is and how so much about health and aging and our negative views of those are learned behaviors to a certain extent. Ellen emphasizes that people should really focus on adding more life to their years, rather than years to their life.
[26:36] – What are your own lifelong learning habits and practices?
Ellen shares that other than following the advice for learning that she shared in the interview, she doesn’t really do much else. As she explains, as you get older, life gets easier because you see things differently. She suggests asking yourself, “Is it a tragedy or an inconvenience?” and how doing this over the years has made her pretty calm.
[28:36] – How to connect with Ellen and/or learn more about her work:
[29:15] – Wrap Up
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[30:48] – Sign off