A privilege-based view of mindfulness: Ellen Langer, “On Being”

By | October 21, 2016

I was listening today to a recent episode of “On Being” about a topic that’s fairly vexed for me: The question of mindfulness.

There are many reasons why mindfulness is a vexed topic for me. Most importantly, mindfulness makes me excruciatingly uncomfortable. I’ve written on this blog and elsewhere about my own body dysphoria, which makes “being present” in my body an anxiety-riddled endeavor. Also, though, I don’t really like how a lot of white folks talk about mindfulness. As taken up in many parts of America, mindfulness is often tinged with cultural appropriation, as wealthy white people seamlessly pick aspects of nonwhite cultures that fit their schedules or make them look or feel better, and then discard the stuff that feels yucky or gross or uncomfortable. (Reading list:

This “On Being” episode was an interview with Ellen Langer: The Science of Mindlessness and Mindfulness. I got excited right away, because it starts with Krista Tippett explaining:

Ellen Langer is a social psychologist who some have dubbed “the mother of mindfulness.” But she defines mindfulness with counterintuitive simplicity: the simple act of actively noticing things – with a result of increased health, competence, and happiness. Her take on mindfulness has never involved contemplation or meditation or yoga. It comes straight out of her provocative, unconventional studies, which have been suggesting for decades what neuroscience is pointing at now: our experience of everything is formed by the words and ideas we attach to them. What makes a vacation a vacation is not only a change of scenery – but the fact that we let go of the mindless everyday illusion that we are in control.

Throughout the podcast, Langer emphasizes the power of “noticing”:

And so, mindfulness, for me, is the very simple process of actively noticing new things. When you actively notice new things that puts you in the present, makes you sensitive to context. As you’re noticing new things, it’s engaging. And it turns out, after a lot of research, that we find that it’s literally, not just figuratively, enlivening.

So I got excited, because my life is filled with less and less noticing, and I’ve felt this as a loss. I want to stay more focused on my surroundings. I want to put my technology away, both physically and cognitively. Ok, I thought when Langer said you should try to notice five new things about somebody you know really well, and see how differently your relationship unfolds as a result. Ok. I can do this.

But then Langer had to ruin it. At the end of the interview, Krista Tippett asks Langer about tragedy. Throughout the podcast, Langer has argued that people have a tendency to treat everyday inconvenience as tragedies, and that we need to relearn how to deal with our worries. Here’s their exchange:

MS. TIPPETT: And that — but, I mean, so you know, you said a while ago, you know, most things are an inconvenience, rather than a tragedy. There are tragedies. So, what is this happiness, you know, how does this way of being…

DR. LANGER: Well, it’s interesting…

MS. TIPPETT: …function in those…

DR. LANGER: Yeah, yeah, um, let me give you an example of something. Many years ago, I had a major fire that, um, destroyed 80% of what I owned. And when I called the insurance company, and they came over the next day, the person, the insurance agent, had said to me that this was the first call that he’d ever had where the damage was worse than the call. And, you know, I thought of it, I thought, ‘Well, gee, you know, it’s already taken my stuff, whatever that means.’

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

DR. LANGER: ‘Why give it my soul. You know, that — why pay twice?’ Which is what people so often do.

And here’s where everything runs off the rails. Because first of all, losing most of your stuff in a fire is devastating, but it’s not really a tragedy. Losing a person in a fire, losing a family member or friend or pet in a fire–that’s a tragedy. It might also be a tragedy if losing your stuff in a fire means you don’t have anywhere to go, or any money to rebuild your life. But none of these things appear to have been true in Langer’s case. She explains:

I stayed in a hotel for a little while. I had two dogs with me. So I was a vision you know, as I walked through the lobby every day, while my house was being rebuilt. And it was Christmas when this happened, a few days before, uh, Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve, I left my room, I came back many hours later, and the room was full of gifts. And it wasn’t from the management, it wasn’t from the owner of the hotel. It was the people who parked my car, the chambermaids, the, uh, waiters. Um, it was marvelous. When you strip away all the mindless insecurity, people, um, are quite something. And, uh, you know, so I reflect on that. I couldn’t tell you anything that I had lost in the fire. You know, but at this point, I have that memory that was more than positive.

So at this point I’m just mad. Ellen Langer is going to pretend that the big tragedy of her life was that she lost her stuff in a fire and had to stay in a hotel where they parked her car, cleaned her room, and cooked and served her food while the insurance company paid to rebuild her house. Then they bought her Christmas presents, forgodsake. This is a case study in privilege, friends. It’s a case study in how privilege distorts all of our perceptions of the world.

Let’s try to be better. Ok? Ok.

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