Is there anything more important than exercising true choice? If we can’t trust our ability to perceive other people, ideas, and ourselves clearly and make choices based on those perceptions what can we trust? How can we know that we aren’t just randomly behaving the way that our environment in dialogue with our genetics has programmed us to behave?
Well, first let’s investigate why our lack of choice might create problems. After that’s let’s discuss what we might mean by seeing clearly.
Your brain wants to conserve as much energy as possible In order to do that it takes short-cuts. [.25] After all, you have a lot to attend to in a day. These short-cuts serve to fit people, ideas, and experiences into your preexisting understanding of the world so you can achieve your goals more efficiently. So we can get on with life in the short term we tend to judge and understand people’s behaviors or ideas only through our own worldview without consideration for the other person’s worldview or external factors which may be influencing them. [.35] (This, however, doesn’t help us in the long term, as we’ll see.)
We do this in subtle ways every day: “He is crazy” allows us to dismiss the person in front of us without getting too worked up so we can go about our business. “That is too hard for me” invites us to focus our energy on what we already know we can do. “She is so closed-minded” allows us to protect ourselves from her and to go seek out more a convivial ear so our ideas can progress without criticism. [.5] We don’t respond this way because we are mean, lazy, or vain. We do it to because we don’t really know another way to encounter things that aren’t immediately comfortable to us without expending a lot of time and energy.
These short-cuts are helpful because they free up energy for the tasks at hand and keep us moving forward without the need to assess our reactions anew each moment of the day. They let us get things done here and now. However, they are unhelpful because they tend to cause us to consider people and ideas in the ways we have always considered them. That is a shame because new (and familiar) people, ideas, and experiences have the potential to bring greater nuance, depth, and complexity to our understanding of the world creating better relationships and more creativity in the long-term. To miss out on this opportunity simply because we don’t know how to make newness fun for the brain is a huge missed opportunity for cultivating creativity, innovation, and true choice.
What keeps us from just being flexible? Well, when the world doesn’t fit our biases this causes cognitive dissonance. When the brain experiences the discomfort of cognitive dissonance it usually tries to double down on what it knows in order to feel safe (regardless of the efficacy or benefit of the information it is encountering). [.75] We stay rigid simply because we don’t know how to be both flexible (open to newness) and integrated (secure in our identity).
So, what if we weren’t so defensive and fragile? What if awareness and flexibility could lead to a greater feeling of ease and stability rather than discomfort and a need to defend?
Good news. It can, through orienting the mind in two simple ways that feel good to it. Both ways are called Mindfulness “Mindfulness” is as broad a term as “exercise” with as many ways to practice mindfulness as there are ways to exercise. But there are two categories of mindfulness under which the various practices live: one developed by Jon Kabbat-Zinn and the other by Ellen Langer.
UMass Medical Center’s, Jon Kabbat-Zinn’s, form of mindfulness -“paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”- invites us to temporarily suspend the habituated scripts and stories that run though (and rule) our minds so that new ways of thinking can emerge. Study after study has shown that, after a bit of practice, mindfulness increases emotional regulation, decreases reactivity, increases serotonin (the neurotransmitter that allows us to feel safe in the world), and increases creativity. This orientation of the mind gives us a sense of overall well-being that allows us to feel safe enough to invite flexibility and allows us to be self aware enough to integrate back into ourselves what we learn from the people, ideas, and experiences that we are flexibly engaging with.
What orientation gives us access to this flexibility? Ellen Langer’s form of mindfulness (and the tools that actors use):
Harvard University’s, Ellen Langer’s, form of mindfulness develops our ability, not only to temporarily suspend our habituated mindsets, but to proactively imagine and experience new mindsets by “changing the way you view” things. [2.5] We adopt new ways of thinking, perceiving, and being so we can increase our ability to understand new situations, people, and ideas. We can sift among different ways of viewing things to discover what’s most helpful and maybe synthesize opposites into new possibilities instead of running from newness and otherness. Langer’s studies show how changing your mindset changes everything from what seems like common sense to our muscle mass. Engaging newness on purpose this way releases the neurotransmitter dopamine which gets released when we learn something that feels good to learn.  The brain really likes to encounter new things to learn from that could help it; it just likes to encounter them on its own terms so it doesn’t experience dissonance between the way it usually does things and this new way. This means that when we seek out novel ways of experiencing something that previously seemed negative to us and we find a way that that way of thinking or being might be advantageous (as it clearly is in some way since the other person is engaged in it) the brain releases dopamine because we are learning how to encounter something that previously would have evoked the fight, flight, or freeze response, see how it might be valuable, and engage with it more directly.
Zinn teaches presence in his way. Langer teaches possibility in her way. I teach presence and possibility through the tools that actors use to shift into the mindsets of their characters and to increase their awareness of self and other.In these ways we come to see more clearly giving us greater efficacy of choice.
By “clearly” we mean we are experiencing a situation both from our singular perspective and from multiple perspectives which allows us to more thoughtfully and consciously consider our choices for perception and for action. Far from this practice causing us to get lost in a sea of relativism this array of choices, which we will always be considering in relationship to context as we don’t live in a vacuum, gives our rational mind greater access to choosing pro-social behavior (if that is what we wish to choose). Through experiencing a variety of perspectives we develop a more well informed intuition, one which has more viewpoints to more easily draw on when considering an idea or experience. At the very least a pause is created before action and a comfort with other ways of being are present which allows for a choice that wasn’t there previously.
Because so many different perspectives exist the only real clarity can lie in being able to handle a variety with ease and see how they are differently useful. As Robert Frost wrote, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” One might view “maintaining my ‘self-confidence'” as “maintaining the belief that I am correct,” but the opposite could be true. What if enduring self-confidence lies in the ability to fortify integrity through developing greater nuance of mind leading to more informed choice which, in turn, leads both to greater curiosity and self-confidence? What if confidence doesn’t lie in the feeling of stability that comes with the certainty of one’s correctness but lies in one’s ability to feel stable in the midst of uncertainty: a deeper core is accessed.
Through Kabbat-Zinnian awareness we awake to how we experience other people, institutional culture, and ourselves. Through Langerian re-perception we curiously seek how else we might experience those things. Then we bring that experience back into awareness in order to make a choice about how we want to integrate our new learning. Then we apply our learning in action which sets the process off again: awareness, curiosity, integration, awareness, curiosity, integration. Once the mind is oriented to this process it happens automatically. It is just replacing the judge, defend, judge, defend, judge, defend process that we are usually oriented towards. It is not more difficult than the other way of being. It is just a way of being that is fueled by seratonin and dopamine rather than by adrenaline and cortisol.
And, what’s neat about it is that we don’t have to change ourselves in some perfectionist, painstaking way to shift our orientation. We don’t have to stop judging and defending. The judge, defend process is included. The awareness part of the process must include the judge, defend response that we naturally have or we are not actually aware. Then our curiosity doesn’t judge ourselves for judging. Instead we might notice what is great about how we are judging and defending. Our natural way of thinking is included when we are talking about how all ways of thinking and being are adaptively intelligent.
When we learn how to experience presence and possibilities, what’s happening and what else might be possible, we increase awareness and experientially engage new ways of thinking, feeling, and being. We gain access to a greater diversity of thought, resulting in greater empathy, choice, and creativity.
Awareness + Flexibility = Supermindfulness
Supermindfulness draws on Langer and Zinn’s work as well as research from the frontiers of psychology, social psychology, organizational behavior, neuroscience, philosophy, and the performing arts (after all, acting techniques are specifically designed to help actors experience divergent perspective) in order to provide new insights into how and why we form our mindsets and biases and why and how we might disrupt those mindsets and biases in such a way that we are bolstered both as individuals and community members. It offers practices for how we can imaginatively experience new mindsets and biases for greater creativity and self-efficacy in business, education, and life.
“To flourish, living systems must be more than just organized. They must be dynamic. Systems must constantly move and change if they are to carry out their
functions and maintain their integrity and their interrelations with other functioning systems. A system that
becomes static—unable to change and adapt to varying
conditions—will quickly perish. Social, psychological,
or biological systems must be able to stretch the limits
of their current patterns of organization, and even to actively guide and reorganize the relations that constitute
their structure.” -Kurt Fischer, Harvard School of Education
How? One way is through supermindfulness, self-flooding, self-priming techniques, derived from acting’s techniques.
All of the ways we are -being, thinking, feeling, doing, speaking- are related to and affect the others. By purposefully experiencing new ways of being, thinking, feeling, doing, and speaking we can shifts the neuronal firings of the brain, creating new patterns of neuronal activity, biochemicals and hormones.
“Minds are not merely brains that happen to be in bodies. People’s minds are parts of their bodies, and their mind-bodies act, think, and feel in a world of objects and other people.”
This behavior/brain/emotion feedback loop is naturally happening all of the time, we just don’t normally engage with it consciously. We can engage with it consciously, however, and, I believe, to great effect both personally and socially.
These techniques, when modified, can allow most anyone to learn how to shift in and out of experiencing varied mindsets at will, resulting, over time, in greater choice, creativity, empathy, and self-regulation.
Sigal Barsade https://mgmt.wharton.upenn.edu/profile/barsade/#research
Ellen Langer http://www.ellenlanger.com/research/
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