Ellen Langer, the Harvard Social Psychologist, has been studying the application of mindfulness in controlled experiments since the early 1970s. I was, until this week, ignorant of her work. Of the several mindfulness practitioners I’ve encountered, Langer’s is the most distilled and, for those who fear that discussions about mindfulness are perpetuated by some bug-eyed cult, emphatically no nonsense. Langer isn’t even a proponent of meditation, which separates her from the other science-based scholars of mindfulness, such as Jon Kabat Zinn.
No, for Langer, mindfulness is as simple and as difficult as ‘noticing.’
As a writer, I find Langer’s attention to the words and the labels that we place on the difficult events in our lives especially intriguing. By the time we reach adulthood, our words and thoughts are so intertwined, the interplay of our inner-dialogue and our thought-stream so ingrained, it’s difficult to use new words or fresh labels (or no words at all) to describe our unique brands of tragic-comedy.
Acknowledging that I’m the author of various fictional works of varying quality is one thing; acknowledging that I’m also the author of my own life—that its spin is completely dependent on the labels and definitions I apply to it—is somehow daunting and terrible and, I guess ultimately, a relief. What if when shitty things happen, rather than bemoan an unjust cosmos specifically engineered to screw with my life, I instead acknowledge that difficulties are part of everyone’s life, including mine, and at those times, I am closer to my fellow humans because I am partaking in the same struggles they are?
It’s a pleasant idea, but one I find excruciating to practice.
My natural inclination, when confronted with life’s many conflicts—and the challenges are multiplying in both complexity and severity the older I get—is to hide away and to ponder and to noodle until I feel like I’ve got the damned thing figured out. This is in part to save face (I still view the fact that I’m having problems or difficulties as a problem and a difficulty in and of itself.) And it’s also a way to stem the flow of interaction, to quiet down the noise, so that I can focus. So that I can hold my breath until my life is less conflicted in order to go public again.
And guess what? The problems never go away. Every quandary solved yields several new difficulties. Chaos and calamity are the new normal.
Since the birth of my second son, who is a wonderful addition to our family, derailed my wife’s health and decimated our finances, I’ve tried to figure out how to fix this. We’ve run into the same struggle so many families with young children face: how do you juggle the time needed to care for your children versus the need to work outside the home versus the obscene cost of child care versus the desire to spend time with your children when they’re young versus being sick to death of not being able to afford even the smallest of luxuries?
The answer is: you can’t. The only response is to live while in crisis mode, to take joy in what is happening now even when it’s as scary and unknowable as any period of my life. To notice the world around me, to notice my wife and my children, to take in what is here right now because this is life and hyping the ‘good’ times while hiding away during the ‘bad’ times is a ridiculous approach that ultimately gets me nowhere.
See? I know what the answer is, but acting on it, changing the words and reframing the thinking, is as painful as it is difficult.