We make every effort to keep things as they are, because human beings, alone, lament transience. Yet no matter how we grieve or protest, there is no way to impede the flow of anything. If we but see things as they are and flow with them, we may find enjoyment in transience. Because human life is transient, all manner of figures are woven into its fabric.
- Shundo Aoyama, Zen Seeds
Ellen Langer 1 wrote that we are all capable of mindfulness, as well as its counterpart, mindlessness. We subconsciously take part in mindlessness, out of habit or repetition, or out of our own self-placed limitations; however, if we focused on mindfulness, we would, in fact, be able to change our perspective of ourselves, our situations, our environment, or our world. Mindlessness can lock us into a specific way of being, thinking, and acting. We are not even aware that we are mindless unless we are in a situation where our mindlessness is challenged or we are conscious of being mindful.
Similar to this concept is the famous analogy of the cave by the Greek philosopher Plato. The analogy describes prisoners chained up in a cave, facing its wall; they have been there all their lives. They can only see shadows of animals, people, or other objects that pass by the entrance of the cave. Because they have never seen the outside of the cave, they do not know what is real except what they see in front of them. In other words, they accept the shadows as reality. However, one person breaks free from the chains and is able to see that the realities of the shadows—the objects, people, or animals behind the shadows—are real. He returns to tell the others about this new reality but is scorned and ridiculed. No one believes that there is another reality besides what they see in front of them.
Mindlessness occurs because we are accustomed to categorizing things in a way that does not allow for alternative possibilities. We automatically think in terms of limitations; therefore, we limit ourselves in our thinking and behavior. For example, a short person who, for all of his life, feels that his height limits and hinders him can never escape the category he has created for himself—that is that he is short. Even if others do not see the same reality as he does, his own reality is so strong that it affects his behavior and, ultimately, his sense of self-worth. It is the same with a woman who has been repeatedly told that she is stupid and worthless. She begins to see that this is the only way to live and starts to act out behaviors that mirror what she has been told.
Mindlessness can then lead to learned helplessness, a term that describes a state of futility after having experienced multiple failures. For example, if a mother constantly makes her daughter’s bed in the morning, and the mother tells her daughter that the only person who can make the bed the correct way is a mother figure, then the daughter will learn that she cannot make her own bed or even that she is incapable of making a bed. What if the mother decides that she no longer wants to make her daughter’s bed? The daughter could make her own bed, but she may also reveal that she does not know how to make a bed and that the only person who could make a bed is a mother figure.
Learned helplessness can also appear in cultural interactions. A number of times, I have met people who believe that “working with other cultures is too difficult,” and, as a result, their behaviors, their words, and their attitudes speak to this. This mentality perpetuates their behaviors and their inability to escape this learned helplessness. They give up quickly, they make excuses, or they justify their beliefs. By repeating movements, actions, behaviors, words, or thoughts, we enter a state of mindlessness. The tasks we have repeated become an unconscious part of us like driving, brushing our teeth, or eating.
The following exercises will assist you in thinking about how repetitive exercises can contribute to mindlessness and what the consequences of repetitive actions are:
- Recite the alphabet; then, recite the alphabet backwards.
- Sing the words to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Next, sing every other word to the song.
- On a piece of paper, write down what you noticed when you recited the alphabet backwards and when you skipped every other word of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.
- Write a short note to a friend using your dominant hand. Now, using the nondominant hand, write the same short note to a friend. Write down what you noticed when you switched to your nondominant hand.