Ellen Langer:


Langer’s concept of mindfulness can be likened to a system of continual self-assessment – it is, in a sense, about keeping tabs on yourself. To be mindful is to be aware of the categories and mindsets that you are living by. It is to be conscious and in control of what you are doing, to take responsibility for your thoughts and actions, and to own them and to update them accordingly.

To become mindless is to lose awareness of the self. Whilst an individual could be described as mindless, it would perhaps be more helpful to describe them as being mindless; an important distinction, which implies that mindlessness is not a position or a condition, like ‘depressed’ or ‘optimistic’: rather, as a lack of mindfulness, it is an ever-present danger, something that we can all fall into at any time.


“Just as mindlessness is the rigid reliance on old categories, mindfulness means the continual creation of new ones. Categorizing and recategorizing, labeling and relabeling as one masters the world are processes natural to children. They are adaptive and inevitable part of surviving in this world.”31

In practical terms, the more fluid we are able to keep ourselves – the less we define ourselves by binary oppositions – the better equipped we are to adapt to new information and to grow. This does not mean abandoning positions entirely; rather it would be to acknowledge that the borders of our distinctions are porous rather than clearly defined. In keeping the borders of our categories permeable and fluid we are better able to adjust to a world of shaded differentiations.

Mindfulness does not imply abandoning meaning. We each have our own vocabulary of meanings, or fictions, which, over time, we add to or subtract from. Some may establish their guiding fictions early in life and preserve them unchanged, living by the same meanings throughout their lifetime, whilst others may be constantly adding to a solid base of meanings - or may simply overhaul their whole vocabulary.

If we view our vocabulary of meaning as a city, then to be mindful would be to keep the borders of your city open - to allow new information access, and to allow old information to depart. It would also be to acknowledge that your borders are flexible, that they can expand to accommodate a growing population. A mindless approach would be to set unmovable city limits, to limit the population, and close the borders to strangers.

We can draw parallels to this idea in psychologist James Hillman’s description of the ‘Psychic Hermaphrodite’. Hillman (referencing Adler) suggests that the true reality of the world is one of shaded differentiations, rather than oppositions. He uses the figure of the hermaphrodite as an antidote to oppositional thinking, as a figure whose presence keeps us mindful of the truth of things and the unreality of our constructs.

“So when we meet antithetical thinking, our question will no longer be how to conjunct, transcend, find a synthetic third, or breed an androgyne. For such moves take the antithesis literally, preventing the mind from moving from its neurotic constructs.”32 To be mindful is to remember the hermaphrodite, to remember that our categories may help us but that they are, in the last, not to be taken literally. The hermaphrodite reminds us that, whilst we may find comfort in our binary constructs – in our labels and definitions, our border-lines and distinctions – these are all fictions: vessels crafted upon a sea of differentiations; upon the murky depths of endless possibilities.

Philosopher Gilles Deleuze has also referred to this idea, in what he termed the paradox of infinite identity33. Whilst we mostly live in a world in which meanings are fixed – in which a man is a man, and hot water is hot water - Deleuze directs us to the point at which these fixities break down. So, whilst hot water may be hot, it may also be cooling; in this sense, it is constantly becoming cooler than it was. When we begin to look beyond the static definition of ‘hot water’ we see the ways in which the water is slipping this definition; that, in fact, it is not necessarily a static thing – it is becoming cooler (unless it is being heated, in which case it is becoming hotter). Deleuze refers to this constant flux as ‘pure becoming’.

He goes on to say, “Paradox is initially that which destroys good sense as the only direction, but it is also that which destroys common sense as the assignation of fixed identities.”34 With this idea of paradox we can draw links to Hillman’s notion of the hermaphrodite; both urge us to keep in mind the true nature of our ‘fixed’ definitions.

Being mindful (or mindless) does not imply a resting point (i.e. ‘I am mindful, as part of my structure of being’) rather it connotes motion; it is to recognise the flux of life, that motion and change are in the nature of things and to be aware and adaptive to this change, if necessary. Mindfulness is non-culminative – in other words, a certain number of mindful acts do not mean that an individual has become ‘mindful’; every moment is potentially a new test, a new opportunity; we can, and do, slip from mindfulness at any point. It is then, not a mark of excellence, or a summit to be reached and sat upon – to advocate mindfulness is not to speak of attaining perfection. Langer recognizes that we all slip into mindlessness at points, that our fallibility is part of what makes us human; but to recognize how and where we slip is to take greater responsibility for ourselves.

As an aspect of self-responsibility, mindfulness is linked to the notion of ‘psychological maturity’ that we referred to earlier. We’ve seen how to be mindful is to become aware of the meanings and categories that we are living by, and to cultivate the ability to be flexible. To be aware that our way – our meanings – are not the only ones is also to become more amenable to the stranger, and the world of foreign meanings and values that he could potentially represent. It is to understand that all possible meanings are inherent, and latent, within ourselves and that the stranger is simply a different constellation of the self. Whilst, in order to flourish, some may need the firm base of meaning more than others, to be aware of the flexibility of meaning is to be less afraid of the unknown. There are clearly ethical implications to the mindful existence.

And Capitalism

To be mindful is in many ways to go against the flow of the system. Earlier on we examined how in a market-oriented society relationships can often become instrumental, defined by the restrictive horizons of their function. And so, one human being, out of everything he is and could be, becomes an ‘employee’ and another, from all the possibilities of his existence, becomes an ‘employer’; likewise, someone becomes ‘customer’ and someone else ‘shop assistant’, and it is often all too easy to forget to see beyond these functional labels.

If instrumental relations are an unavoidable outcome of the system, then to be mindful – to attempt to see the relations that lie beyond instrumentality – is to think and act in a radical way.

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