Mindfulness is the skill of making new distinctions and the art of noticing new things. The ability to perceive novelty is a primary contributor to our success and enjoyment of life at any age. Our frantic modern lifestyle can trap us is a sea of distraction, uncertainty, and pressure. As a result, our presence of mind weakens and we lose our focus. Mindful learning improves our wellbeing as well as our quality of life.
Aging does not reduce out capacity for mindful learning. We are capable of learning and growing as a human being across the entire arc of life.
Mindfulness is most closely associated with Buddhist practice and the contemplative traditions. In these traditions, the journey toward enlightenment requires mastery of the essential qualities of mind including attention, focus, relaxation, equanimity, discernment, and concentration. The aim of mindfulness is to attain a superior quality of mind. Mindful learning is the creative practice of discovery.
Mindfulness can be defined in various ways. When I use the term mindfulness or mindful I am referring to a constellation of mental disciplines in life that form the foundation for a creative practice designed to facilitate higher qualities of mind.
- Effortless awareness: Remaining available to immediate experience; relief from constant distraction.
- Calm abiding: Effortless observation; relief from excessive tension, stress, and pressure.
- Clarity of mind: Focused attention; relief from mental noise and chatter.
- Penetrating insight: The ability to discern novelty in the world; relief from boredom, monotony, and indifference.
- Focused attention: The ability to place a mental spotlight on a specific object for an extended period of time; relief from a wandering, unsettled, and erratic mind.
- Clear perception: The increased capacity for discernment; relief from biases, conditioning, and false assumptions.
- Relaxed concentration: Deep consideration that rejuvenates the mind; relief from skimming, multitasking, and mental nomadism.
A Constellation of Mindfulness Disciplines
Mindfulness is a scientifically-proven approach to stress reduction. Jon Kabit-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program located at The Centre For Mindfulness, University of Massachusetts Medical School has developed a science of mindfulness that is focused on the reduction of stress, nervous tension, pressure, mental exhaustion, and anxiety.
Calm abiding achieved through stress reduction techniques is a basic discipline in learning Excessive levels of stress impair attention and awareness, and therefore our ability to appreciate and comprehend. Under constant strain, our experience of the world becomes tight, narrow, and closed. We become trapped within the often hyperactive requirements of daily living. The human mind becomes dysfunctional in these situations, circumstances, and constant exposure to mental distraction and wandering will threaten our wellbeing..
The practice of mindfulness helps us to feel more alive and in the moment. It benefits body, mind, and spirit. The quality of our mind determines the quality of our life; a distracted and impulsive mind is the root cause of a distracted and impulsive course of life. Before looking at the intersection of mindfulness and learning, let’s briefly explore the problem of mindlessness.
When we say that someone has lost their mind we are describing behavior that is misdirected, poorly thought-out, lacking in skill, out of context, unrelated to the present circumstance, or in conflict with their own wellbeing. When we have lost our minds we have lost our perspective on what’s most important and essential. Mindlessness is a mind stranded in a storm of unfocused and unpredictable mental activity.
Mindlessness is self-imposed mental confinement in which thoughts swirl in rumination. A closed-minded person suffers from mindlessness, in that they have difficulty reaching out toward new and unfamiliar ideas. In this sense, mindlessness is the cause of suffering.
Whenever we attempt to learn something… we rely on ways of learning that typically work to our detriment and virtually prevent the goals we are trying to accomplish. The mind-sets we hold regarding learning more often than not encourage mindlessness… Most teaching unintentionally fosters mindlessness.
– Ellen J. Langer
Rote learning, for example, originates in the idea of repetition It is a process of mechanical memorization and parroting. Comprehension and understanding are not desired outcomes of rote learning. In other words, rote learning and repetitive learning are associated with mindlessness.
Single exposure means teaching a single point-of-view, which is contrary to mindfulness. The effective training of the mind means the ability to comprehend experiences from various perspectives. A healthy mind is a mind that thrives on discovering new distinctions and recognizing unfamiliar perspectives.
The idea that learning can be mindless is uncomfortable. After all, isn’t learning always a good thing? No, it definitely isn’t.
Mindless learning gives rise to brainwashing, conditioning, and assimilation. In other words, we can learn in ways that cause us to suffer. Learning is not neutral in its effect; we can learn in ways that serve to benefit our lives, and we can also learn to be distracted, submissive, and inflexible.
Langer describes mindful learning as the act of drawing distinctions and noticing new things. The adjective “mindful” provokes us to think about learning outside the box. In an interview with Allen Gregg, Ellen Langer explains the concept of mindful learning:
Mindful learning is not always easy, calm, or comfortable. As we open and expand our mental capacity, we eventually stand face to face with the harsher realities of living, including suffering and death. Mindful learning can feel threatening since it is not confined by artificial environments that sterilize the experience of being alive. Mindfulness means that ignorance and avoidance offer no sanctuary.
As we practice mindfulness or present moment awareness, we can expect to experience certain difficulties. For example, with growing awareness in each moment, in each situation of our lives, we begin to be aware of the unpleasant and painful as well as the pleasant.
– UC San Diego Health System – Centre for Mindfulness
Life is both mysterious and temporary, and this is a harsh reality to embrace. When we become mindful of our own impermanence we eventually learn to seek the value it might offer. When we are deeply mindful that time is not an inexhaustible resource, we learn to treat our time here in this life with much greater care and develop a deeper sensitivity to the natural dynamics of life itself.
This expansion of perspective is one of the most important benefits of mindful learning. If we find ourselves stuck in a rut, then mindfulness is the precise skill required to climb out of it. While we are climbing, we will begin to notice new things along the way. The process of recognizing novelty is essential, even if that novelty is only new to us.
The aging process influences the nature of mindfulness. The experience of novelty in our youth is a different species compared to the experience of novelty later in life. As we age and our experiences accumulate over time, we have more “content” to work with.
Mindful learning is an essential practice and core discipline in life that improves our overall quality of life. The reason for this is that mindful learning improves the choices and decisions we make for ourselves at any age and in any activity we undertake. Through the art of recognizing new things, we create the potential for new possibilities and opportunities in life.