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A New Look at Mindfulness

Spring is a beautiful season in the Midwest with Nature rapidly blooming in a rainbow of bright hues. It’s here and gone, with the beauty morphing into the lushness of early summer. You have to be aware, or the earth’s reawakening can be gone in the blink of an eye.

I recall an incident on a spring morning a few years ago while driving my daughter, Carolina, to school. Every day we take the same route; on this day she excitedly points out tulips in vibrant shades of pink, yellow and red. The tulips are stunning indeed.

I respond, “Wow, the tulips are finally blooming. It looks like spring is here.”

Carolina replies, “Mommy, where have you been? The tulips started blooming two weeks ago!”

I hadn’t noticed. I was operating on autopilot, and had become mindless during our routine drive to school.

Have you ever had a wake-up call that made you realize you previously had been unaware, that you had been operating on autopilot?
After my enlightening drive with Carolina, I wondered what else I had missed. At that point, I made the conscious decision to become more aware and centered in the present. I didn’t realize what I was trying to harness was, in fact, a skill called mindfulness.

I must confess that I avoided mindfulness for a long time, because I misunderstood it. All of that changed when I met Harvard professor, Ellen Langer, Yale PhD.

We were both giving talks at a conference in Washington D.C.; I was speaking on courage and she was speaking about mindfulness. I decided it would be courageous of me to reconsider mindfulness, so I attended her talk. Dr. Langer’s research on mindfulness changed my perspective and my life (visit ellenlanger.com).'

 

MINDFULNESS DEFINED

Mindfulness means being non-judgmentally aware and actively engaged in the present moment. When we are mindful, we…

• Are in control of our lives instead of living on auto-pilot;
• Choose how we think, behave, and feel instead of reacting;
• Reevaluate rules and information learned in the past, and are more open-minded and flexible;
• Are often in a better mood than we are when we are ruminating about the past or worrying about the future;
• Take in more accurate information about others and our environment without labels attached.

The research shows mindfulness is linked to desirable outcomes like better memory, attention, mood, health, relationships, overall well-being and many more.

The bad news is that in its natural state, our mind is relatively unaware of the many things happening around us. This can have enormous costs, putting us at risk for accidents and missing out on life.

The really great news is that you can become more mindful. What’s more, when we practice mindfulness over an extended period time, it changes our brain structure, making mindfulness hard-wired and enduring. Here are some unexpected ways to harness mindfulness.

 

NOTICE SOMETHING NEW

According to Langer, the overarching task in harnessing mindfulness is searching for novelty. Yes, becoming mindful is as simple as noticing new things about other people, our environment and daily tasks. For the record, any new observation you make does not have to be riveting or earthshaking to facilitate mindfulness.

Noticing new things has numerous other benefits, too, like enhanced memory, openness to new information, awareness of various perspectives and attention. In fact, one of the best ways to focus attention is to vary the target of your attention by searching for novelty. Instead of attempting to hold the target of your attention still, keep moving the focus of your eyes and ears. Try this simple exercise:

Every day, search for three new or unfamiliar things about familiar people or places. Also, try this with a task you dislike (research suggests you may grow to like the task).

 

CHANGE THE CONTEXT

Live like it’s 1959.

We often react mindlessly to our context or environment, but we can reclaim control and mindfulness by changing it. In her most recent book, Counterclockwise, Langer explains the impact of mindfulness on health. She highlights an innovative experiment, in which she had elderly men live like it was 1959 for one week. In other words, she changed their context. And she found these men were not only more mindful, they had improvements in overall well-being, intelligence, hearing, memory, and were even judged to look younger after the study by outsiders unaware of the experiment. Try this simple exercise:

Have dinner in the formal dining room tonight, or hold a family meeting on the patio instead of the family room. Change the context of a task by making it a game or play.

 

LEARN and TEACH CONDITIONALLY

Conditional learning implies there is more than one way to approach a task (e.g., “This is one way you could make chili” instead of, “This is how you make chili.”). It also implies there may be more than one answer to a question (“It depends on the perspective or situation…”). When we learn conditionally, as if something is a possibility or merely one alternative, we become mindful because we think about the information since it doesn’t easily fit into an existing, rigid box. It also facilitates better retention, creativity and flexibility when things in life change—and things will always change.

In contrast, when we learn in an ‘absolute’ way (is rather than could be), we usually do not question what we are told, and we passively (mindlessly) memorize the information. Then, when situations change, we often feel stuck and can’t think of alternatives. I realize conditional learning may be frustrating because there is no immediate gratification of an answer, and that it defies conventional educational paradigms. But, it could be a wonderful way to become more mindful. Try this…

When learning or teaching, begin with, “Here is one way I/you could…” or “It depends on the situation.”
Finally, you can harness mindfulness by considering advice from the old adage “Take time to stop and smell the roses.”

I’d add to that: Make sure to notice the tulips, too.