Do you ever feel like you’re going through life on autopilot? Most of us have, but life doesn’t have to be that way. Join Craig as he describes what is mindfulness, an active conscious process where you’re more open to the present as well as more attentive and aware of the moment. According to Dr. Ellen Langer there are three specific behaviors related to mindfulness: engagement, seeking novelty and producing novelty. Listen to the episode to learn what to do to practice mindfulness in your life and how to use it to become the master of your thoughts and actions.
The theme music for Live Well and Flourish was written by Hazel Crossler, email@example.com
Production assistant - Paul Robert
The theme music for Live Well and Flourish was written by Hazel Crossler, firstname.lastname@example.org
Welcome to Live Well and Flourish, where I help you understand what it means to live a flourishing life. I'm your host, Craig Van Slyke, if you're ready to think beyond material and external success, if you're ready to take control of who you are and the kind of life you live, if you're ready to flourish, this is the podcast for you.
Would you like to improve your physical and emotional well-being, reduce negative emotions, depression, anxiety, and impulsiveness, increase your self-esteem and life satisfaction, and improve the control you have over your life? I’ll bet you would. How can you achieve such miracles? Become more mindful.
In the last two episodes, I introduced my method of self-leadership, and discussed purposefulness, which is one of the four pillars of my method. In this episode, you’ll learn about the second pillar, mindfulness. When I give talks on self-leadership, I include a slide that shows the inflatable “autopilot” from the 1980 comedy classic, Airplane. What does an old spoof movie have to do with self-leadership? Well, I think the idea of an autopilot is a pretty good metaphor for how many of us go through our days. Much of the time, our mind is mostly operating without our conscious mental oversight, we’re on autopilot. In the context of self-leadership, being mindful is pulling yourself out of autopilot; mindfulness makes you the active pilot of your thoughts, emotions and actions. When we’re mindful, we pay active, open, non-judgmental attention to the present.
“Mindfulness” is a bit of a loaded term. The word may bring up visions of meditating monks, and that type of mindfulness certainly has its place, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Here I’m talking about an active, open, non-judgmental attention to the present. It’s purposely and consciously paying attention to our moment-to-moment experiences in a non-judgmental way. Such mindfulness is characterized by an enhanced active, conscious awareness of and attention to current experience. This sort of mindfulness is a state of mind rather than a set of practices, although there are practices that can create a state of mindfulness.
The sort of mindfulness I’m discussing tracks closely with that studied by Dr. Ellen Langer. According to Dr. Langer, mindfulness is characterized by:
- Actively processing information from one’s environment,
- Continually creating new categories and distinctions
- Exploring and paying attention to multiple perspectives, and
- Being aware of context.
Let’s dissect my view of mindfulness. First, it’s an active, conscious process. You’re not trying to empty your mind of thoughts. In fact, it’s just the opposite. When you’re mindful, you’re very active mentally, but in a particular way. You’re mentally open to the experience of the present, with emphasis on the “open” part. We humans have a built-in tendency to immediately categorize elements of our experience, usually using pre-conceived notions, assumptions, and habits. When you’re mindful, you suspend judgment, at least for the moment, and just experience the present. The time for categorization and evaluation comes later.
Second, there are two important elements to my view of mindfulness, awareness and attention. Both are important. Let me use a little story to illustrate. When we lived in Flagstaff, my pup Maggie and I used to walk every day in the predawn hours. We were close to a forest and, as a result, sometimes encountered various animals along our walks. For obvious reasons, we were especially on the lookout for skunks, which were rampant. Skunkings were so common the local dog groomer listed “deskunking” among its services. I always carried a pretty strong flashlight that I would use to scan the path ahead. This was the awareness bit, I tried to be very aware of our surroundings. If I saw some critter’s eyes shining in the flashlight’s beam, I focused my attention and the flashlight’s beam in order to identify whether the animal was a threat. Mindfulness works the same way. We mentally scan in order to be consciously aware of our experiences. Then, when we experience something interesting (which is often something unusual), we focus our attention on that aspect of our experience. Awareness is the background radar consciously, continually monitoring our inner and outer environments. We don’t have the cognitive capacity to really pay attention to all of this. So, you can be aware of something without paying attention to it. Attention is the process of focusing our conscious awareness, providing heightened sensitivity to a limited part of your experience. Awareness and attention are intertwined. Attention continually pulls things out of the “ground” of awareness, holding them in focus for some period of time.
Third, mindfulness is, to an extent, a creative task. You are creating new ways of thinking, new categories and distinctions, and novel approaches to life in the present moment. This means noticing things that you normally wouldn’t notice, and finding novel ways to think about everyday events and situations. Being mindful means shifting your perspective, trying to find new ways of viewing your world.
Being mindful also means letting go of your automatic ways of thinking about the world, and saying goodbye to your preconceived notions and habitual assumptions, and leaving rigid categories behind. As a result, being mindful reduces our tendencies to prematurely evaluate, categorize, and judge our experiences.
According to Dr. Langer and her colleagues, there are three specific behaviors related to mindfulness: engagement, seeking novelty, and producing novelty. Engagement involves being aware of and paying attention to new developments within your environment. It means continually noticing changes and modifying your knowledge as the world unfolds before you. Seeking novelty means actively seeking new ways to perceive events and your environment. Seeking novelty goes beyond just being open to changes in your environment, it means actively embracing and learning from novelty. Producing novelty involves actively constructing novel categories and distinctions; it is the process of constructing new meaning from your day-to-day experiences. Producing novelty means building a habit of finding new ways to do familiar things, and actively undertaking new experiences.
As I mentioned in the opening, there are many benefits to mindfulness. Studies have linked mindfulness to numerous physical and emotional benefits, including increased longevity, improved psychological well-being, decreased depression, higher levels of self-esteem, greater life satisfaction, and decreased negative emotional states. Believe it or not, it can even improve our perceptions of aging, which is becoming increasingly important to me. Mindfulness is also linked to improved learning, creativity, and decision-making.
As regular listeners know, a major theme of this podcast is helping you gain more control over your life. Mindfulness is an important part of this. When we go through life mindlessly, we let our old views and ways control us, and we miss out on many opportunities to improve our lives and ways of understanding the world. Take assumptions and stereotypes for example. Mindlessly following stale assumptions and stereotypes is easy, but by letting those things guide your thinking and actions, you effectively give up conscious control. Mindfulness lets you take that control back. When you’re being mindful, you aren’t a servant to old ways of thinking and being. You become the master of your thoughts and actions.
Being mindful makes you more attuned to often-overlooked details that emerge in everyday moments, and better able to see those details in new ways. This, in turn, helps you identify new ideas, novel ways of thinking, and unfolding opportunities that remain hidden to others.
Being mindful is also an important element of reflection, which I’ll talk about in the next episode. I don’t want to go too far here, but essentially mindfulness provides important input into the process of reflection; mindfulness gives you something to reflect upon.
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that being mindful is important. So, let’s talk about how to become more mindful. As you might imagine, I have some ideas. Here are three things you can do this week to become more mindful.
The first is an exercise we used to use with our self-leadership students. (Fair warning: Don’t try this one while driving!) Sit quietly and close your eyes. Listen for background sounds and bring them to your attention. Try to identify the source of the sound based on the sound itself. When we did this in class, after a few moments I would purposely walk softly around the classroom to see if students became aware of the sound. A similar exercise is to stand up and attend to the feelings in your body, starting with the soles of your feet and going all the way up to the top of your head. While doing this try to focus your attention on each part of your body in turn. For bonus points, schedule five minutes a day to try one of these exercises. Actually put it on your calendar. Doing so will help you build a habit of mindfulness.
A second practice is to actively try something new each day for the next week. It might be a new way to do some task, taking a new route to work or school, trying a new food, listening to different music, or reading something that you normally wouldn't read. If you habitually put your left shoe on first, try starting with your right shoe. Have a salad for breakfast. Whatever. Just try something new each day. Whether you enjoy these new things is irrelevant, although I do hope you find some enjoyment in them. The important thing is exposing yourself to new things, which will open you to more new experiences.
A third practice to try is to reduce your multitasking. To quote Kyle Kowalski, who was quoting his father, “Do what you’re doing when you do it. Don’t do what you’re doing when you’re not doing it.” Take the additional mental bandwidth you gain from not multitasking and put it towards being more aware of whatever task you’re engaged in. Notice how you might be able to adjust your preconceived categories related to the task, and explore new ways of thinking about and doing the task.
Here’s a bonus: Each day, take one encounter with another person and focus carefully on what they are saying, how they are acting, and imagine what they might be feeling. Really focus on the other person. Don’t judge what they’re saying or doing immediately, just catalog it for later reflection. Also, pay close attention to how what you say and do affects them; in other words how do they react? Take this a step further and note the environment in which the encounter takes place. Is it calm or chaotic? Relaxed or rushed? Quiet or noisy? Attend to all of this and try to remember the details so you can reflect and learn from the encounter.
Allow me to leave you a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, who recently left this life at age 95, “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child -- our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”
May you savor the miracle.
Be well my friends.
I produce Live Well And Flourish because of my dedication to helping others live excellent lives. I don't accept sponsorships and I don't want your money. The only thing I want is to help you and others flourish. If you've received some value from this episode, please share it with someone that might also benefit from listening. The best to do that is to direct them to livewellandflousih.com. Until next time.
Hi. You may have noticed our new theme music, which was written by the uber-talented Hazel Crossler. I'm very grateful to Hazel for composing music that so perfectly fits Live Well and Flourish. If you're interested in commissioning your own work from Hazel, the email address is in the show notes. Thank you.