A number of things that have happened recently that are helping me understand the value of mindfulness. While I have successfully used mindfulness activities in teacher cohort meetings I facilitate, I have yet to fully adapt it into my life or work. In our faculty cohorts, we have used the book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, written by Michael Gelb The book can be used as a guide to explore how to get in touch with one’s own creativity, a journey in mindfulness. There is writing, listening to music, drawing, tasting and smelling exercises and much more. It is quite easy to adapt many of them into experiences that build a sense of mindfulness. Faculty have responded quite positively to using this book as a practical guide to learn how to connect with the world in new ways. After it is all said and done, I still find it hard to integrate this work into my daily routines.
The most recent edition of Harvard Business Review contains an interview with Ellen Langer, considered by many to be the foremost expert on mindfulness. The interview, Mindfulness in the Age of Complexity, is conducted by Alison Beard. It is an excellent piece that shows the brilliance of Langer, someone who models what it means to live mindfully. In the interview, she illustrates how practicing mindfulness can enrich one’s life by focusing on the here and now. Langer describes mindfulness as:
the process of actively noticing new things. (page 68)
When asked, “what are some of the specific benefits of being more mindful?” She replies:
- better performance, learning to play mindfully
- easier to pay attention, listening more deeply to others
- remembering more of what you have done
- being more creative
- being more receptive to opportunities in the moment
- liking and being liked by people more
In her studies over 40 years, she sees that practicing mindfulness can lead to positive results in a variety of ways.
I thought this quote from the interview was quite powerful. When asked what she thought was the connection between mindfulness and innovation, she replies:
I’m an artist as well as a researcher, writer, and consultant–each activity informs the others for me–and I got the idea to study mindfulness and mistakes when I was painting. (p. 70)
She goes on to say:
When you’re mindful, mistakes become friends. (p. 70)
I have been reading extensively about the importance of failure in the innovative process. Many writers discuss that the idea that mistakes can be an engine for innovation. However, I have never read anyone describe mistakes as “friends.” Langer is so eloquent and simple in her description of how mindfulness can enhance the creative mind if we understand that the “path we are following was just a decision.” We can alter our decision at any fork in the road, and just maybe find a more productive path.
I am reminded of the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken.Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth; Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim Because it was grassy and wanted wear, Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same, And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
If we sometimes take the road “less traveled” we might be surprised what we find and maybe it will make the difference in our life or someone else’s.
When it comes other things we can do to create a mindful way of life, Langer replies with the following reflection:
I also tell people to think about work/life integration not balance. Balance suggests that the two are opposite and have nothing in common. But that’s not true. They’re both mostly about people. There are stresses in both There are schedules to be met. If you keep them separate, you don’t learn to transfer what you do successfully in one domain to the other. When you’re mindful, we realize that categories are person-connected and don’t limit us.
Mindfulness can play an important role in helping an organization adapt to changing times. Langer points out that there are two conditions that lead to a “mindless organization”: (1) the organization has found the “best way to do it”; and (2) nothing changes. To avoid these conditions, she suggests that we show up to work and notice what’s going on around us. Keep our eyes and ears open, take notice, and collect data.
Another event that occurred recently at the National Association of Independent School (NAIS) conference in Orlando, FL this past week. I attended a workshop sponsored by Jaclyn Douglass and Suzanne Jeffrey entitled, Implementation of Ethics and Mindfulness in the Classroom. Douglass and Jeffrey discussed that in order to have a more ethical world, we need to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness training helps us bring more awareness to the present so that as individuals so we can identify what is or is not ethical. We can more successfully develop a code of ethics to live by. They encourage teachers to use mindfulness exercises with students as means to focus their attention and energy, helping them listen to what’s occurring in the present moment. These were some exercises they use to help bring internal awareness to students:
- exercises to slow down
- internal focus exercises
- deep vs shallow breathing exercises
- quiet listening
- physical stillness
One of the mindfulness activities I used in my faculty cohort comes from Everyday Mindfulness Exercises For Stress Relief, exercise #3 listening to music. Recently, we used the exercise, listening to Eric Whitacre’s, Virtual Choir 3: Water Night. It was a wonderful experience that I believe placed all cohort members into a receptive and engaging mood. Mindfulness practices do center a group and help connect them to each other through a shared experience.
It was a treat at #NAISAC14 this week to witness the humor, creativity, and genuine brilliance of Eric Whitacre. He gave the ending talk entitled, Creativity and Connection. For nearly an hour, he dazzled the audience with his personal story, the journey he embarks on when creating a piece, and conducting thousands of teachers in Row, Row, Row Your Boat. He shared how “failing up” is a critical part of the creative process for him. Failing often leads him to the creation of pieces like Virtual Choir 3: Water Night. Whitacre demonstrated to teachers the value of believing in our students, valuing each student’s unique talents, and recognizing that any student’s gifts could blossom into something innovative. Create the conditions and everyone can sing!
So in my own work, I am beginning to see with greater clarity that incorporating mindfulness into my practice will help me get in touch with my creative potential. The interview with Ellen Langer has inspired me to be more intentional about living a mindful life. The experience with Douglass and Jeffrey at NAIS 2014 has propelled me to encourage teachers to work on their awareness of mindfulness and use it in their teaching practice to help students focus their attention on the present. Finally, witnessing the creativity of Eric Whitacre helped me see what’s possible when you believe in yourself.
Resources on Mindfulness
Everyday Mindfulness Exercises For Stress Relief
Andy Puddicombe: All it takes is 10 mindful minutes, TED Talk on Mindfulness
The Mindfulness Center of Atlanta
Mindfulness Bell Volume 1, The Guided Meditation Site
The Mindfulness of Breathing, Windmind Buddhist Meditation
Ellen Langer, her personal website
Mindfulness Your Present Moment
What is Mindfulness, Psychology Today website
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