On Mindfulness

On Mindfulness: A Report on the 46th Annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture by Ellen J. Langer, October 1999

ETC 56-4 Cover(Published in the Winter 1999-2000 edition of ETC: A Review of General Semantics.)

If you’ve participated in any social discussions regarding general semantics — among folks who would admit to having actually read Korzybski — you’ve probably heard the inevitable sigh, ” (sigh) Somebody needs to re-write Science and Sanity in language that normal people can understand.”

Relax. Nobody has, to my knowledge. However, Ellen J. Langer has achieved something almost as significant. Ms. Langer, Harvard Professor of Psychology, author, and guest lecturer at this year’s Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture, espouses an orientation based on a notion she refers to as “mindfulness”. Her findings, derived from thirty years of research and study with various colleagues, parallel much of what Korzybski proposed almost 70 years ago as the benefits of a general semantics orientation.

In her 1997 book, The Power of Mindful Learning, Ms. Langer summarizes the distinctions she makes between “mindful and “mindless:

A mindful approach to any activity has three characteristics: the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.

Mindlessness, in contrast, is characterized by an entrapment in old categories; by automatic behavior that precludes attending to new signals; and by action that operates from a single perspective.

Drawing primarily on research and anecdotes contained in The Power of Mindful Learning and her 1989 book, Mindfulness, Ms. Langer engaged the audience in a lively, sometimes passionate, discussion regarding her findings. Many of her stories came from research conducted with the elderly in nursing homes. A key conclusion derived from these studies concerns the benefits of allowing, if not encouraging, aging individuals to make decisions and choices for themselves. As her data showed, those individuals challenged to make even seemingly-trivial decisions for themselves exhibited much more mindful behavior, as reflected by testing and — perhaps not coincidentally — longer lives.

Although she herself had not read Korzybski or other general semantics authors, Ms. Langer did state to Marjorie Zelner, Executive Director of the Institute of General Semantics which hosts the annual lecture, that several of her colleagues had read Korzybski. On the one hand, as a student of and advocate for general semantics, I would have wished Ms. Langer had some familiarity with Korzybski. On the other hand, however, I find a certain validation and confirmation that her research and conclusions should so closely overlay those proposed by Korzybski.

For example, in my reading and listening of Ms. Langer, I noted the following similarities with general semantics formulations:

  • She emphasized the importance of a scientific approach, or method, to how we think and act. We need to mindfully revise our theories and beliefs to fit the facts instead of mindlessly looking to find data to validate beliefs.
  • She began her interaction with the audience aided by overhead transparencies to illustrate how projection influences our perceptions. She showed several dual images familiar to students of general semantics, such as the “old woman or young woman or old man”.
  • She emphasized the importance of creating new categories, new labels, new ways of categorizing, reminiscent of Korzybski’s admonition to avoid “hardening of the categories”.
  • She noted how much of our behaviors and attitudes come from traditions, with no more “mindful” consideration than “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” She related an anecdote I first heard from a participant at the 1994 IGS seminar-workshop, who perhaps had read Langer’s book. A young woman used a third-generation recipe for cooking a pot roast, which including slicing off both ends of the roast. When someone asked the woman why she sliced off the ends, she replied, “I don’t know. That’s how my mother did it.” Her mother was then asked the same question, to which she responded, “I don’t know. That’s how my mother did it.” The young woman’s grandmother was tracked down and asked why her family recipe for pot roast included slicing off both ends. The grandmother replied, “Because my pan was too short to hold the roast. So I cut off both ends to make it fit.”
  • She spoke about the importance of context, the individuality of experience, and the ever-changing process nature of the universe.

She made the somewhat provocative claim that people should strive for mindfulness at all times. While admitting the unlikely achievement of this, she qualified her position somewhat by allowing that in every situation we encounter, we should either manifest mindfulness, or maintain the potential for mindful behavior.

Of the five AKMLs I’ve had the pleasure to attend, I found Ms. Langer by far the most engaging, informative and personable speaker. (I would still reserve the “most entertaining” label for Robert Anton Wilson in 1997.) I definitely recommend any one of her numerous books, especially those two referenced above, to anyone interested in the application, and benefits, of general semantics.

That said, however, I temper my otherwise enthusiastic review of Ms. Langer’s work with two critical observations. First, although she made an excellent presentation of her research, findings and implications regarding the benefits of mindfulness, I didn’t get a sense that she offers any explicit prescriptions for what one needs to do to achieve a mindful orientation. I failed to find a parallel, for example, to Korzybski’s extensional devices. Secondly, she seemed to dismiss the work of neuroscientists as of a different domain, with questionable relevance to that of psychology – she sounded content to let them (neuroscientists) do their thing, while she does hers. This struck me as a bit elementalistic, from my general semantics background.

Prior to Ms. Langer’s lecture, Jeffrey Mordkowitz, IGS Trustee and Master of Ceremonies for the evening, presented the 1999 J. Talbot Winchell Award to Robert Wanderer. The J. Talbot Winchell Award annually recognizes individuals who have significantly advanced the cause of general semantics. Mr. Wanderer serves as a Director of the International Society for General Semantics, Membership Secretary of the San Francisco Chapter for the San Francisco Chapter, and edited The Map for thirty-eight years. He has also compiled “A Compendium of Definitions” of general semantics, located on the ISGS website at: link no longer available.

Following the AKML on Saturday, October 23, the IGS and the Straus Thinking and Learning Center at Pace University co-hosted a one-day colloquium to further develop notions related to “mindfulness”. The agenda included presentations by Rachel Lauer, Allen Flagg, Milton Dawes, a Sensory Awareness panel comprised of Charlotte Read, Louise Boedeker, Betty Keane, Mary Alice Roche, and chaired by Jeff Mordkowitz, and wrap-up discussion led by Roben Torosyan.