Ellen Langer

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  • Jan 19, 07:17 PM

Revitalizing and Reinventing Your Life

I’ll be appearing at the 92nd Street Y in New York City on Sunday, January 31, 2010. The flyer below has all the information you need, I hope you can make it!

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  • Mindfulness
  • Jan 19, 08:35 AM

A rose is not a rose is not a rose

Gertrude Stein aside, a rose is not a rose, is not a rose. It is certainly easier to talk about the rose if all the subtleties are ignored, but in doing so, we come to react to it oblivious to the finer distinctions we could have made. This rose is different from other roses and different from itself from other perspectives and at different times.

It would be inefficient to have a different name for each difference for mundane discussion about roses. Thus we have created language that effectively directs our attention to a level of abstraction that enables us to communicate easily. We talk about a rose. However, this language leads us to accept all that the label entails and ignore all that appears irrelevant to the general case.

Our everyday language directs us to similarities, not differences. We notice it is a rose by seeing how it is like other flowers we call by the same name; and we mindlessly react to it the basically the same way each time. As will become clear, however, the opportunity for creating new choices for ourselves comes when we become responsive, rather than reactive, to the very differences that would make interpersonal communication difficult. The same is true for our disorders and emotions.

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  • Mindfulness
  • Jan 14, 09:56 AM

Trying is trying

The life well lived is best lived effortlessly. I know I may be going out on a limb with this, but it is where my thoughts effortlessly lead me. Trying, in many instances, is based on mindless evaluation. If we find something aversive, we may try to overcome our feelings and do it anyway. Given that evaluation is in our heads and not with the thing we are evaluating, thinking differently about it is likely to be more successful. No matter how hard I try not to overeat, not to be stressed, not to be angry, I am likely to overeat, be stressed and angry at some point soon, if not immediately. Sometimes I overeat because no one, not even me should push me around.

If I frame food as irresistible it’s hard to resist. If I mindlessly think my state of mind depends on anyone other than me, I may be stressed. If I forget that what you did that made me angry has positive consequences and doesn’t say anything about me anyway, my anger will feel out of place. Given that I virtually always put my whole self into whatever I do, it may seem like I’m trying to do it well, while all I’m doing is doing.

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  • PsychToday
  • Jan 12, 08:38 AM

Karma and personal control

I was driving with a friend, Shannon, in a part of town unfamiliar to me when I finally realized she was looking for a parking space. She announced that she has “bad parking space Karma.” I didn’t know what that meant in any deep way but I knew I usually get a space when I need one so I did my job and a space opened up for us almost immediately. What kind of life does one have to live to increase their Karma for getting mundane needs met? I do not know. I do know that mindful living may be an alternative route.

Believing that parking spaces open up for me, I stay attentive to many cues in the environment that my friend has no reason to notice, given her belief that it is “always” hard for her to find a space. I see someone walking out of a building and then put his hands in his pocket. Perhaps, I think to myself, he is reaching for his car keys. I see a well dressed woman carrying heavy bags and think she is not likely to want to go too far with such cumbersome packages. It’s 1 PM and I reason that someone may soon leave the restaurant nearby. In Harvard Square, it is next to impossible to get a parking space at noon. So, when I can, I plan to be there at 11:40, and lo and behold, a space awaits my arrival. Most people don’t stay too long at the Post Office so waiting on that block pays off as well. Finally, when the movie ends people will leave and spaces that are unavailable five minutes earlier will suddenly, surprisingly open up.

We don’t see if we don’t look and we don’t look if we believe we won’t find what we are looking for. Parking spaces are occupied by people. People, like us have other places they want to get to. There is a larger point here than finding a parking space, which for some is aggravating enough to warrant this column. Many of us too often approach the world as if the objects it holds, like parking spaces, machines, towns or buildings, for example, came into being on there on, rather than that they were fashioned by people. The difference in belief is often the difference in meeting our needs or feeling thwarted because we have “bad Karma.”

Sometimes we can figure out how something works, for example, by remembering that a person with needs much like ours created it. How would we have made it? Would we have put the light switch half way down the dark staircase, risking a fall each time we needed to use it or would we have opted for a place more convenient? Where should we look to find the butcher recommended to us. If we owned a butcher store, would we have located it near the library or on a lonely street or near other stores where people could easily find it? Often the person part of the equation is hidden from us. The store displays the tube of shampoo lying on its side. In the shower it seems to take forever for the little that remains in the tube to reach the opening for use. Why not rest it straight up on its cap so it is ready for use? We’re often mindless to simple mindful solutions like this because we don’t consider that the item was made by a person who had a particular context in mind—emptying a tube that is full, when it was made—versus the ease of removing the shampoo when the tube is half empty. The store that is displaying the shampoo is concerned with yet other perspectives–space and attractiveness. I don’t know if anyone believes they have bad “tube Karma,” but I’m sure several have frustrating days in the shower when they can’t get the last of the shampoo out.

We talk of man-made vs. machine-made error. By forgetting how the machine was made, we get caught off guard when the machine fails us. Could a person create something that is error free? To do so would require that its use was restricted to just a few perspectives by people who were relatively homogeneous. If my fingers are very large, hitting the right buttons on “the” machine is going to result in much “man-made” error. Over time, the “machine”-made error may increase as the components have been worked in ways not according to the original plan. If the machine had been constructed with fat fingers in mind, this machine-made error would be less likely. Should we blame the person or, if we wanted to reduce the error should we look for ways to change the machine?

There is much to be gained from realizing that the inanimate objects we use were people constructed. It may keep us from thinking we have bad Karma. Eastern concepts like Karma are useful if they lead us to exert more control over our lives, not, I believe, if they justify giving up.

For me, rather than concern myself with Karma, I often appeal to the east when I use what I call the /Guru Test/, to help me deal with frustrations. If someone does something thoughtless and I’m tempted to respond in kind, rather than be reactive I ask myself what I would do if I were fully evolved. What do I think some guru would do if in my shoes at the time? This helps me be my best self. I may even let the person who cut me off take that parking space that was mine.

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  • PsychToday
  • Jan 5, 08:40 AM

Who says so?

In my most recent book, On Becoming An Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity, I make a suggestion that we return to a mantra that children use, “who says so?” especially when we are stopped in our tracks by convention. The world around us is a social construction, put in place by people to meet their needs at the time. Sometimes it works for us and sometimes it doesn’t. When the powers that be would like us to mindlessly follow the rules, the command is stated in an absolute way. “Heroine is bad for you” “milk is good for you.” It doesn’t occur to us to ask questions.

If we ask, “Who says so” and then recognize the issues at stake when the decision was first made, we might be more likely to recognize that if we are in our nineties and in pain, heroine might be just what we need. If we’re lactose intolerant, milk may be a poor choice. Typically those in charge made a decision to have things as they are. Decisions were made for us at every turn. They decided how many hours a work week should be, that chairs should be a particular height, and so on. The hallmark of a decision is uncertainty. If there is no uncertainty, there is no decision. That means that how things are could have been different and the potential difference could have been better for us.

As I write in the book, imagine a sign on a lawn that says, “Keep off the grass” vs. one that says “Ellen says keep off the grass.” To the first we blindly obey, while to the second we may pause and recognize that Ellen may no longer care whether we walk on the grass; maybe we can negotiate with her; maybe she doesn’t even live there any more. When we put people back in the equation, we question authority and we’re less likely to accept the way things are. The absolute then may give way to change.