Mindfulness without Meditation
Ellen Langer is famous for her research on mindfulness without meditation. She has been doing this research for the last 40 years. She came up with the term ‘mindfulness’ independently of its introduction to psychology from Buddhist thought and practice, and without herself being influenced by this other strand.
Langer says that mindfulness is the ordinary everyday capacity each of us has to notice new things. This is a deceptively simple idea.
She arrived at the concept of mindfulness because she was studying what she calls 'mindlessness'. Hollywood is even planning to make a film about her work, starring Jennifer Aniston.
What is mindlessness? Langer illustrates this beautifully by rewriting the story of Little Red Riding Hood:
-- Once upon a time there was a mindless little girl named Little Red Riding Hood. One day, when she went to visit her ailing grandmother, she was greeted by a wolf dressed in her grandmother’s nightclothes. ‘What big eyes you have, Grandma,’ she exclaimed, clueless as ever, although she had seen her grandmother’s eyes countless times before.
Langer defines mindlessness as, ‘characterized by an entrapment in old categories; by automatic behaviour that precludes attending to new signals; and by action that operates from a single perspective.’ If you already know about mindfulness in cognitive psychology or Buddhism, your mind may well be making connections between what Ellen Langer says and what you have come across elsewhere. In the mindfulness used in cognitive psychology, we are also asked to observe and become aware of mindless automatic thinking.
Ellen Langer’s work is a significant piece of research pointing towards mindfulness as a universal human capacity. This universal human capacity is to be distinguished from the mindful awareness practices that enable us to access a mindful state. For Ellen Langer, the primary mindful awareness practice is the ordinary capacity of noticing. She uses her concept of mindlessness to help her define her version of mindfulness: ‘A mindful approach to any activity has three categories; the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.’
Clearly this needs to be unpacked in more detail. I think about her concept in the way of needing to remember these foundational aspects, in the same way that in mindfulness in cognitive psychology we need to remember that we are not our thoughts, that they are not an accurate readout of reality, that we need to be non-judgemental, accepting and compassionate as we view our thoughts, feelings and sensations.
Perhaps at the centre of Langer's three concepts is the idea of uncertainty, conditionality and possibility. She puts it this way: ‘in more than thirty years of research, I’ve discovered a very important truth about human psychology: certainty is a cruel mind-set. It hardens our minds against possibility and closes them to the world we actually live in.’ Our culture has injected us with botox of the mind.
You could, therefore, place her work within the realm of the psychology of possibility. She has applied her mindful insights to learning, ageing and health, in particular. Her work has important challenges for Christian theology and practice, as we will explain later.
So being mindless is being trapped in old categories of thinking. Being mindful is creating new categories. For example, in the area of health, she says, ‘We look at ourselves and declare that we are either healthy or sick.’ In actual fact, as Langer points out, health exists on a continuum, or multiple continua. If we measured our health by a number of health dimensions ‘we would recognize that much of our body is still working fine.’
The problems associated with automatic behaviour and thinking – Langer's second category of mindlessness – has been well documented in mindfulness psychology. Her antidote is to be mindfully open to new information. These concepts for Langer are not just ideas or beliefs but psychological states.
Her final category of mindless behaviour is about acting from one perspective, ‘as though there were only one set of rules.’ The mindful antidote is to be able to hold multiple perspectives.
The experiments Langer has conducted to arrive at these insights are too long to repeat here, but they can be accessed in her books and articles. All these categories and psychological states require us to have an ‘orientation in the present.’ This is another key overlap with psychological mindfulness as developed through interaction with Buddhist mindfulness.
What Ellen Langer has shown is that you can arrive at a mindful state of mind without meditation. She believes it has real power to change our experience of learning, health and ageing. It is our own mindsets, she argues, that limit us.
A key factor in this is helping people take back control of these central aspects of life. In these important areas of learning, health and ageing we often hand over control to experts, and in so doing we lose touch with our own inner resources of being mindful.
Mindfulness within psychology, through therapies like Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), also helps people access these universal human resources within.
By challenging automatic prejudices in learning, ageing and health, Langer has done a huge amount of good.
What are the challenges to Christian theology and practice? Very often Christians are stuck in a single perspective, labelling themselves as knowers rather than learners. In some cases we can see ourselves as ‘know-it-alls’ and others as ‘know-nothings’. God is infinite, and so we are only ever in a place of conditional knowledge when it comes to knowing him.
Again, we can operate in rigid categories without being able to create new ones. ‘If God loves me then he shouldn’t let me suffer at all,’ is a very limiting and untrue category. ‘If it’s from another religion it must be bad,’ is a limiting and wrong category of thinking – as well as an automatic one.
When it comes to God and life, we need an openness to new categories and new perspectives, which requires an orientation in the present moment.
As Christians we are people of faith, but sometimes faith is taught as absolute certainty. We don’t have an absolute certainty. Faith tells us that we have conditional certainty, otherwise it wouldn’t be faith.
The final challenge of Langer’s theory of mindfulness, alongside the mindfulness of MBSR andMBCT is that we are embodied creatures. Too often we live in our heads and not enough in our bodies. This is, I think, especially true of Christians. And yet, the incarnation of Jesus Christ in a human body makes the body the hinge of theology and practice. Our discipleship and prayer must become much more embodied and less cerebral.
Using our universal human embodied capacity to be mindful is not an unspiritual act. We are called to live lives that are fully human, not merely fully spiritual. And so carpenters, artists, poets, anyone who pays attention, can arrive at a mindful state without meditation. Mindful awareness practices that are meditative within MBSR and MBCT are therapeutically important, and I use mindful awareness practices that are meditative. I also know I can access a mindful state through drawing an otter.
What is the end of Little Red Riding Hood’s story, according to Ellen Langer?
Shaun Lambert is the Senior Minister of Stanmore Baptist Church and the author of A Book of Sparks – A Study in Christian MindFullness.
’What big teeth you have,’ she said, too late, alas, to begin paying attention.
A Book of Sparks is a 40 day devotional book that invites us to track the story of Jesus from beginning to end in a new way, learning to pay attention wherever we are.