We are born into a world that offers countless possibilities, and are quickly, through a process of socialization, taught to narrow these down. Psychologist R.D. Laing offers a description of this process: “We act on our experience at the behest of others, just as we learn how to behave in compliance to them. We are taught what to experience and what not to experience, as we are taught what movements to make and what sounds to emit … As he is taught to move in specific ways, out of the whole range of possible movements, [the child] is taught to experience, out of the whole range of possible experience.”1
Whether this process is a ‘natural’ or necessary one is a discussion for another place; what matters here is that this process happens, in some form or other. It is from this assumption that we shall continue.
We quickly learn to label experience, and in doing so to draw invisible borders. Something becomes a ‘dance performance’, another thing becomes a ‘theatre production’, and another a ‘live music event.’ Our ways of experiencing the sights, sounds, and ideas of the world are categorized, and are seen and understood through the conventions of these categories. And so, theatre brings with it the ‘theatre world’, art the ‘art world’ and so on - all with their various conventions and assumptions.
In boxing experience we risk becoming mindless to the breadth of possibilities that being alive offers; our continued socialization can make us forget the ‘countless possibilities’ of the world that we were born into. Psychologist Ellen Langer refers to this forgetfulness as being ‘mindless’ - “The mindless individual is committed to one predetermined use of the information, and other possible uses or applications are not explored … When our minds are set on one thing or on one way of doing things, mindlessly determined in the past, we blot out intuition and miss much of the present world around us.”2
Much art is concerned with combating mindlessness. We can look to the work of Bruce Nauman for examples of this approach; “Raw Material Washing Hands, Normal” is a looped video of someone washing their hands. In examining this everyday act, Nauman offers us a chance to re-assess our assumptions - to stop and consider an act that, for most of us, will be near automatic (and by extension one that we may have become mindless to). We are invited to ask; ‘What is this?’ ‘And why do we do it?’
Whilst the merits of asking these questions about an act as banal as hand-washing may escape some, through work like this Nauman is pointing towards a general notion of mindlessness. He is asking us to consider the assumptions that we make on a daily basis, and to consider whether we are comfortable with making them. In doing so his work allows us to consider the limits of our experience, and whether we want something different, or something more.
Mindlessness is often unavoidable however, and in many ways it can be seen as an adaptive device, inasmuch as it allows us to conserve time and energy – to ‘get through’ the day, without having to stop and consider the possibilities inherent within every act. It allows us to focus our energies on the things that we consider important, such as projects, activities or commitments. The danger is in becoming too mindless, and in forgetting too much.