Host Nitesh Batra, in an engaging conversation with Prof. Ellen Langer, known as the “Mother of Mindfulness”. As the first female professor to gain tenure in the Psychology Department at Harvard University, Dr. Langer talks about how to become more Mindful in our day to day lives. She gives tips and examples on how flipping a pattern of thought, can dramatically change the way we look at things and feel about people. Enjoy Episode 11 of The Mindful Initiative podcast!
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Show Transcription >>
Nitesh Batra: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Mindful Initiative podcast. I’m your host Nitesh and we’re very honored to welcome Dr & Professor Ellen Langer, who is a full time professor at Harvard University.
Dr. Ellen Langer: And so many of the people who receive A’s, receive them by memorizing. And that memorizing is holding information still as if whatever you’re memorizing is true from all perspectives for all time. All of our problems, whether they’re personal, interpersonal, professional or global, are the direct or indirect consequence of our mindlessness.
Nitesh Batra: Welcome, Professor.
Dr.Ellen Langer: Thank you.
Nitesh Batra: In most of my interviews, I would like to begin talking about a person’s background. You grew up in Bronx, went to New York University and then to Yale and what we have read about you is that you were mostly or always an “A” student and throughout. But over the years you have realized that the education system that we have, there’s a certain level of students, we get A,B,C and the grades. And somewhere that thought process changed that it’s not necessarily good to be always an “A” student. Can you point us to that time or an instance when that happened or over the years?
Dr.Ellen Langer: Okay. It’s not quite the way you’re telling it. I, was that a horse event and this man asked me if I’d watch his horse because he was going to get his horse a hotdog. And I thought to myself, “Well that’s ridiculous!”.
Dr.Ellen Langer: Just like any other, “A” student I knew horses don’t eat meat. They’re herbivorous. He came back with a hot dog and the horse ate it . And it was at that moment that I realized that everything I thought I knew, was at least sometimes wrong. And so, many of the people who receive “A”, receive them by memorizing and that memorizing is holding information still as if whatever you’re memorizing is true from all perspectives for all time, which it’s not. Now, doesn’t mean that B & C students aren’t also doing this– just doing it less well. But this is all part of my work on Mindful Learning, Which says that rather than taking information as if it’s context independent as if it’s true across all time, we should take it in a more conditional way. So, if you were reading something and it said it could be, it would seem that from some perspectives and gave the information, you would tag it a little differently and then it would stay lively in your mind and available to be used in the future in these novel ways.
Nitesh Batra: And when you talk about specifically Absolute Vs. Conditional..
Dr. Ellen Langer: Is Vs. Could Be.. As a way to understand that.
Nitesh Batra: Is Vs. Could Be.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Most of the time we’re taught “IS’. This is this, here are four reasons for that. Uh, you are a man. I am a woman. Today is Halloween in the United States and so on. And that’s the way we learn most things. When we learn something as absolute, we freeze our understanding of it. Now everything is always changing. Everything looks different from different perspectives. And what happens is we confuse the stability of our mindsets because we were holding it still with the stability of the underlying phenomenon. It’s changing. You want to hold it still, hold it still. But if you’re trying actually to hold it still to have more control over your life. It’s best to recognize that what was true before is not necessarily true today.
Nitesh Batra: That leads to some level of uncertainty.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Yes, it leads not just to uncertainty. I’m saying that uncertainty is the rule rather than the exception and there’s enormous power in uncertainty. And what we need to do is exploit the power of uncertainty rather than pretend that things are other than the way they are.
Nitesh Batra: When I grew up in the education system that I was in– it’s very similar to the US system in India and there were paths that’d we were told– grow up, get into college, get a job, get married, and you know that was the thing that were defined, But, there’s so much uncertainty that comes along and moving forward when you start handling difficult situations and that causes a lot of stress in our life, which we don’t necessarily understand the stress as children or growing up, but later on it becomes stress.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Stress is mindless, right? And our certainties lead us to be mindless. The reason we’re stressed is because we assume that good things and bad things are out in the environment rather than in our heads. Events don’t cause stress. What causes stress is the view you take of an event. So, if you take a view of the event, oh my God, my life’s going to go up in smoke, everything was going to be awful. If X, Y, or Z happens, of course you’re going to be stressed. And also it’s based on the premise of two things: 1. That you can predict what’s going to happen and 2. When it happens, it’s going to be awful. So let’s counter to the first part because mostly, prediction is an illusion as well. So if you said to yourself about this thing in the future that you’re so scared of, give yourself three, maybe five reasons why it may not happen. And as soon as you do that, all of a sudden you’re a little less stressed because gee, I thought it was definitely going to happen and now maybe it won’t happen.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Now let’s assume it does happen! What are 3 or 4 or 5 reasons that if it does happen, actually that’s going to be a blessing. So now you end up with a change from: “It’s definitely going to happen and it’s going to be dreadful” to “it may or may not happen”. And when it does happen it’ll have this silver lining and as a result, we become less stressed. But most people think that it’s events, not our views of events that are getting us crazed. If it’s something good, I have to kill everybody to get to it. If it’s bad, I have to do everything that I can do to avoid it. Rather than realizing whether it’s good or bad, depends on how we look at it.
Nitesh Batra: So, in essence, we are a little bit better prepared for things to happen or we envision atleast certain parts of what’s going on.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Well, that we can deal with whatever happens by changing our view of it. So, for example– it’s a silly example. But let’s say you and I are going to go out to dinner and the food is awful. Well, okay, I’ll eat less of it. That’s a good thing. Where the food is wonderful. Well that’s great. I have just had a nice meal. Everything cuts in multiple ways. The goodness or badness of something is not in the event. It’s the same thing with people. We have a sense of people being good or bad. So let’s say if I asked you, do you want to meet my friend Jane? She’s very impulsive. You’d say, “No! Impulsive? Why should I want to meet her?” But I said to you, “Do you want to meet my friend Jane? She’s very spontaneous.” Now you’d want to meet her.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Do you want to meet my friend Joe? He’s very gullible. Why would I want to meet him? Do you want to meet my friend Joe? He’s very trusting, right? So the point is that for every description that’s negative, there’s an equally potent, but oppositely balanced alternative. For every good, there’s a bad. For every bad, there’s a good. So given that we can see it in either way, if you want to get along in this world rather than try to change everybody to be more like you than we do better by saying why they did it from their perspective, not from our perspective. So from his perspective, he was being trusting. She was being spontaneous. Even though it looked as if it was a matter of being gullible and impulsive. You know, somebody seems inconsistent. Well, from their perspective, they’re being flexible to understand and we did some work with this. It’s kind of interesting.
Dr. Ellen Langer: We gave people 2-300 behavior descriptions and we said, circle those things about yourself that you keep trying to change, but you have trouble changing. So if it were I, I would circle impulsivity. Now you turn the piece of paper over and on the other side in a mixed up order, are the reverse –the positive versions of each of these words and so then we instructed people “circle those things you really value”. And I circled spontaneity. All right, so of course I’m not going to be able to stop being impulsive because I value being spontaneous. I’m not going to be able to stop being inconsistent because I value being flexible and so on.
Nitesh Batra: So it’s changing the way we think about things.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Yes. To recognize that everything can be understood in multiple ways.
Nitesh Batra: I think one of the studies that we read along those lines was the chambermaid study? Can you talk a little bit about it?
Dr. Ellen Langer: Yeah, sure. This is a study in– really, about Mindlessness. And, well, it also, it stems from our Mind – Body unity theory. Mind-Body unity theory is very simple. It says, Mind, Body–these are just words. Let’s put the mind and body back together and then wherever we put the mind we are necessarily putting the body. So what we did with chambermaids as we were going to put their mind in a different place and take measurements from the body. When you speak to chambermaids and you ask them how much exercise they’re getting, it’s odd since they’re working, exercising all day long, they don’t see themselves as getting exercise. They think exercise is what you do after work. So what we do is we take half of these women and we teach them that their work IS exercise, you know. Making a bad is like working on this or that machine at the gym and so on.
Dr. Ellen Langer: So at the end, we have two groups. One group who now sees their work as exercise. The other that doesn’t. We take all sorts of measures before we start this. We come back four weeks later, we inquire by asking them and their supervisors and significant others, are they working any harder? Are you eating any more, any less and so on. No differences on any of those measures. Nevertheless, by a simple change of their mindset, now they work as exercise, they lost weight. There was a significant change in waist to hip ratio, body mass index and their blood pressure came down. You know, long time ago I did what’s called the “Counterclockwise Study”, which was the first in the series of “Mind-Body-Unity” studies. And in that study, what we did was retrofitted a retreat to 20 years earlier and had old men live in the retreat as if they were their younger selves. As if it were really 20 years before.
Dr. Ellen Langer: So they spoke about the past in the present tense and everything was as if they were their younger selves. As a result of this, their vision improved, their hearing, improved, their memory improved, their strength improved. We took photographs of them before we started this and then at the end of the week and they were seen as looking younger. Now they didn’t look 20 years younger, but they did look noticeably younger. And I know that this study has gotten out there because I was informed that if you watch, uh, the Simpsons Wild Havana weekend, they go over the study. So if anybody didn’t understand my rendition, that’s an alternative. 🙂
Nitesh Batra: I’m sure it’s easy for them to understand and I believe that this study was again replicated or done in a similar fashion in England? South Korea?
Dr. Ellen Langer: England, South Korea, and the Netherlands.
Nitesh Batra: We’ve been talking about Mindfulness. We have touched a little bit about Mindlessness and one of the things that I always like to understand is, is there a purpose of being Mindless?
Dr. Ellen Langer: Yeah. No, I think that it’s not to our advantage. In fact, make this statement that, ALL– it is a very big statement. I don’t need to put myself out there like this, but I will. That ALL of our problems, whether they’re personal, interpersonal, professional, or global are the direct or indirect consequence of our Mindlessness. I mean, if you’re going to do something, you should be there for it. Now, I think it’s important for your listeners to know that Mindfulness as I study it, comes about without meditation. This is the simple act of noticing new things and as you notice new things that puts you in the present, makes you sensitive to context and perspective.
Dr. Ellen Langer: You can have rules and routines, but they guide your behavior. They don’t govern your behavior the way they do when you’re mindless. And the interesting thing is that this act of noticing is the essence of engagement. So, it feels good. So, we find that it feels good. It’s literally and figuratively enlivening. It even leaves its imprint on the work that we do. Other people find us more attractive when we’re mindful. So when you asked me, is there an advantage to ever being mindless? To my mind, no. I don’t see that there is.
Nitesh Batra: Just as a follow up, I know you draw. You are an artist. A lot of artists when they’re being creative, not just when they’re drawing, they’re in a state of, I don’t want to call it daydreaming, but they’re thinking. They’re in their own zone. Is that the Mindfulness zone?
Dr. Ellen Langer: Oh yes. Oh yes. You know that, you know when I’m painting or when I’m writing, it just sorts of all blossoms, comes out almost as if I have nothing to do with it, but I’m fully there for the event.
Nitesh Batra: Yes. When you are there, I understand. That I completely agree that you are completely being mindful in that space. But sometimes, let’s say you’re a writer. Let’s say when you write or when you’re drawing something, there’s a block at certain point.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Well, when there’s a block at that moment, you’re being mindless. So there are easy ways to get over that block. You know, if you’re taught that everything should flow, then the moment it stops flowing because you don’t know the answer, you know, what is the best way of wording this or does the sentence communicate what I wanted to? If you believe that that shouldn’t happen, then you are stressed. You become stressed and we already said, stress is mindless. You know, so that if there’s a little snag, the snags or little mistakes, actually are enormous opportunities. If you go forward with them and see where they lead rather than follow some predetermined script. So, you don’t want to paint as if you’re painting by numbers.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Do you have that in India? You know, we used to have these sets for children where the child would take a pencil and follow the numbers and all of a sudden an animal would appear. You don’t want to do that. And you don’t want to live your life that way either. And the way it is right now is that too often because people are following, living their lives as if they’re painting by numbers, following all these rules without actively thinking about whether it makes sense at the moment or not. They’re essentially sealed and un-lived lives.
Nitesh Batra: I think when you talked about the numbers thing, the thing that popped into my mind is that we’re being judged as soon as we start growing up. We are being taught certain things and if you do according to who’s teaching us, we’re being judged.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Yes. Well, and those judgements are mindless, right? Because I can judge you, as I said before, and as far as being impulsive, but you’re also being spontaneous. I think we have to make the choice. You can do it their way or you can do it your way. You can succeed or you can fail. To me, the worst possible situation is to give up myself, do it their way mindlessly and fail. And if I do it my way and it doesn’t meet the judges’ criteria, so be it. You know, using art as an example, back in the day when the impressionists were painting, they were all rejected. So these are paintings that cost millions of dollars today. So I don’t think we should be so afraid of other people’s judgements. Or, what we can do is play to them if we want, as long as we don’t give ourselves over fully.
Dr. Ellen Langer: You don’t want to end up with a life of believing horses don’t eat meat. You know, off certainty that makes you a little arrogant and incorrect. And a fun way of understanding this mindlessness is that we are frequently in error, but rarely in doubt. You know that when you’re present, a lot of people almost mindlessly say, “Be in the present”. And it’s a funny instruction because when you’re not in the present, you’re not there to know you’re not there. But the way to be in the present is this act of noticing. And that happens naturally when you retain a modicum of uncertainty. If you don’t know, you pay attention. If you think you know, there’s no reason to pay attention because there’s nothing for you to learn. And so this being in the present, in this way of this act of noticing, you see all sorts of opportunities to which you’d otherwise be blind. And you also get to avert the danger not yet arisen.
Nitesh Batra: Absolutely. So I will turn to another, another topic which will take us back to India. In your book, “Mindfulness Choice and Choice and Control in Everyday Life”, you mention that the power of uncertainty where managers become anxious when faced with questions with no easy answers. And when challenge for rationale for the policy, they say just do it because I told you so. And I’ll give you an example of that. Being in the US when I traveled, coming into universities, I love roaming around. I love taking pictures. I’m a photographer. So it’s a joy for me and there’s a lot that I learned with what’s going on. And in India a lot of these universities are closed because they say that there are too many people and it may impact the way things are and we’re trying to figure out ways how can–which we don’t agree with that –It’s not necessarily the people but the attitudes. But how can mindfulness play a role in this? Or how can mindfulness be used in a way that people are more aware of just saying that it’s only a selected group that can come here. It’s an elitist kind of an environment.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Sure. What I think that much of that problem is something of the past with the Internet. We know that now one can have wonderful instruction in their home, right? There are courses being taught at all the leading universities so that can reach many more people. Now, I think that also people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have made clear that one can leave the prestigious university and do quite well. I think that it’s a mistake for people to think that if they get that fancy degree, life will necessarily be glorious. I know there are many people with Harvard degrees that are miserable.
Dr. Ellen Langer: There are many people with no degrees that are miserable, so it’s not in the degree or not. It’s in the pursuit. You know, how are you going to spend your time and then if one realized, as corny as it sounds, in some sense, life only consists of moments and if you make the moment matter and you continue to do that, then you have a life that matters and that I don’t know that the fancy degree facilitates that. I’m not obviously teaching at Harvard, you know. It was a privilege and I’m not suggesting that if one gets in, they need to, they should do something other than come. But one can have the same very fulfilling life without being at Harvard. If you do it your own way. You know, when I teach some of this, I might be giving a lecture on the power of mindful learning and I’ll find some very tall man in the audience and ask them to come on the stage.
Dr. Ellen Langer: And I’m 5’3”, he’s 6’3′. So we look like a very mismatched pair. And then I put his hand next to my hand and his hand is often three inches larger than mine. And I raise the question of should we do anything physical the same way? You know? And so what you’re being taught in all these schools will continue with the sports metaphor that I shouldn’t hold a tennis racket the same way he holds a tennis racket and you have to learn how to do it your own way. And you can do that whether you’re at Harvard or you’re being home-schooled or schooling yourself at home. Nobody is schooling you, you know. You’re just taking in all the information. That if you lock yourself into a particular way of doing things, then you can’t be better than the person who derived that particular way.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Or another way of saying that is the more different you are from the person who wrote the book, created the rule, the more trouble you’re going, the more mediocre your performance is going to be in following those rules. So what you want to do is learn, yeah, this is sort of the way you do it and make it your own. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re learning the sport and musical instrument or an academic subject. You want to invest yourself in it. And then oftentimes what happens is you come up with something that’s different and that can be valuable to other people. If you just follow the rule, I think that much of the time you’re not going to be more than mediocre and more important than that is that you’re not going to be happy.
Nitesh Batra: I think happiness is what we’re getting to because you live a much, I don’t know, a better life? But a more fulfilled life if you lead it more mindfully.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Yes.
Nitesh Batra: And that takes me to the other question now. So, you’ve been termed as “The Mother of Mindfulness” because you started talking about it in the early ’70s before the mindfulness from Buddhism started coming from the East to the West and that is, using breath, other sorts of meditations and, and I know you worked with certain Transcendental Meditation, back in the ’80s as well. Do you see both as completely separate?
Dr. Ellen Langer: Oh not at all. Meditation isn’t mindfulness. Meditation sets you up for post meditative mindfulness. Mindfulness as I studied, is more immediate. But eventually it should come to the same place. You know, although meditation isn’t for everybody. There are some people who can’t sit still and then they feel even worse that they attempted to, they are unable to do it. For other people in the same vein. it feels too wooh -wooh, too out there, strange.
Dr. Ellen Langer: So for them, they should just jump right into being more mindful in the way I suggest. There are some people whose problems feel so weighty, so big that since my solution is so simple, it might not sound like it’s even possible. For them, they should do a practice. Meditation is a practice. Mine is just a way of living. But they’re not mutually exclusive. In fact, there’s no reason why you can’t do both.
Nitesh Batra: And you can apply I think, one way or the other. But just being aware of whatever you’re doing.
Dr. Ellen Langer: As I was saying, is how to become aware. So one idea is that you meditate so that when thoughts come to mind, you just go back to the focus on your breath or your mantra and that’s supposed to teach you that the thoughts are just thoughts. They’re not important.
Dr. Ellen Langer: For us, when we teach people to be mindful, we attack that thought. You think this well, turn it on its head. How can it be that? How can it be good? How can it be bad, you know, how will it change and so on. At the end of it, yes, because the thought is it’s not the strong influence that it started out to be.
Nitesh Batra: Over the past few years, now people are talking about something called Thought Experiments? Which is, thinking of these thoughts and working them in your mind as to how you can feel the way the other person is feeling. Is that something that you have worked with?
Dr. Ellen Langer: Sure, but they’re not really thought experiments. A thought experiment is an old concept for Duncan experiment where as soon as you think about it, you realize it’s true. What you’re suggesting is how one can change their, their behavior. It’s perfectly consistent with the “Mind-Body Unit’, idea. So that if I take on a persona that during that time in my mind is consumed in some sense with being a particular way, my body should follow suit. Even if you think of the Chambermaid Study that we spoke of as an example of that, right? You know that now they are thinking of themselves as doing exercise. They’re doing just what they were doing before, but now by cognizing it differently, they lose weight.
Nitesh Batra: Perfect. We have a few minutes left and I’ll ask a couple of more questions. I’ll touch a little bit about the education system that we have. I think it’s very similar in lot of countries around the world. If we have to incorporate the kind of mindfulness that you mentioned, how can we start incorporating that into our curriculum?
Dr. Ellen Langer: I think it’s easier than you might imagine. Because, all we have to do is have teachers teach more mindfully. They can teach the same content, but you wouldn’t say, here are the 3 reasons for the civil war or whatever the Indian equivalent of that is. You’d say from certain people’s perspectives, here are 3 reasons that are assumed to be responsible. It feels very different, you know, because then with the three possible reasons, rather than here are the reasons you start thinking of other possibilities of why you might disagree with them. It pulls the student into the whole process rather than just accepting things.
Dr. Ellen Langer: When I teach, I often and give lectures on this. I’ll ask people how much is one in one and people get turned off and they go, oh my God, what are they getting into? And they’ll say, you know, to be obedient, they’ll say two, and I say no. One in one is not two all the time. If you’re adding one one of chewing gum and one one of chewing gum, one plus one is one. And so when you come to see that you don’t know that all those things you memorize and we would teach this to teachers to get them to open up, to appreciate the uncertainty that exists and how exploiting that uncertainty is engaging, is exciting. I think that it becomes its own motivator, you know? In other words, I think we find that when people are mindful, it begets more mindfulness.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Mindfulness is also contagious. Yours is contagious and so I’m enjoying it. You’re enjoying it. As a teacher, I don’t feel that I have to know because I know that a good part of the learning process is for you to figure it out and there’s no “it”–one “it”. That together we’ll figure out different possibilities. So everything becomes much more energized and lively. But to be more specific and as I said at the beginning and answering your question that we can start with any curriculum. You know, no matter what you’re doing, you’re doing it either mindfully or mindlessly and when you’re doing it mindfully, there are enormous benefits. So we don’t really have to change much about the WHAT. We have to change the HOW.
Nitesh Batra: You make it sound easy, but even just thinking about it, it’s, it’s a huge process because the way people think, the way people study, a lot of touch points need to come in and it’s a work in progress that needs to start somewhere.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Well, you know, we have several schools now, preschools, where we’re teaching very young kids to be mindful. So hopefully you’ll probably be alive. I don’t know. But I’m not going so I’ll be alive also. That down the road we won’t have to deal with this problem. We create a global community of people who are present.
Nitesh Batra: Yeah. And, and I look forward to those days and I’m sure it’ll come sooner rather than later. Before I end, I usually ask a few questions about you and you’re more than welcome not to answer them if you don’t want to. One childhood memory that comes to your mind right now.
Dr. Ellen Langer: It’s funny that you should ask that because I just completed a first draft of a new book that is an idea memoir and in writing it, trying to figure out from where my strange ideas come, I have reviewed lots of my past so I don’t have one idea. I have a book’s worth, so I’m going to pass.
Nitesh Batra: All right. The next question is if you have a favorite artist, I know you’re an artist yourself, but if you have a favorite artist that you go back to and look at it sometimes?
Dr. Ellen Langer: I have several– probably Matisse.
Nitesh Batra: And uh, the final question would be if you have to travel anywhere in the world, where would that place be?
Dr. Ellen Langer: If I have to travel, it’d be wherever they need me. I do a lot of traveling. Um, I uh, have a house in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and I have a school now in Korea and one that’s work that I’m doing with medical people in China. So in those locations I enjoy being wherever I am so I don’t have a wanderlust, I don’t have the absence of the dislike of travel.
Dr. Ellen Langer: I’m one of the few people I think, you know, traveling in the distant past used to be fun for people and then most people my age complain about it’s just not so much fun going through all the lines and having to pay for everything and so on. For me, it’s a time that I take time out from my painting, my writing, my teaching, and I just exist there, listening to movies. I’m going next week to China. So that’s a very long flight and I imagine I’ll see five movies when I go over there and it’ll be great fun.
Nitesh Batra: I’m glad. That’s what I do. I love long flights. I love watching movies. Thank you so much Dr. Langer for being on our show. It’s been a privilege. It’s been an honor and we look forward to listening to more of this in the future. Thank you so much.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Thank you.
Editing: Juan Pablo Velasquez Luna
Transcription: Gita Venkat