Sunday, February 28, 2010



A recent article about Harvard Professor Ellen Langer’s work on ‘mindlessness’ and ‘mindfulness’ prompts some thoughts.

What caught her attention was that – contrary to the professional assumption that human beings make their decisions on a rational, cost-benefit calculation – most folks most of the time simply made myriads of typical decisions “mindlessly”. No examination, no reflection, no analysis, no deliberation – not even any intentional presence in the ‘mind-part’ of the self – just a sort of knee-jerk ‘decision’ tossed off with the minimum amount of effort.

The brain – in her image – is on autopilot.

There’s a lot in that image, I think.

Autopilot isn’t a bad thing – but it requires a pilot to know when to switch it on and off. And yes, you can say that nowadays we’re heading toward drones with no pilots at all, but a drone’s pilot is there – simply not in the craft itself.

Ships – especially if you think of a naval vessel – yield an even more fruitful image.

Commanding a vessel is not something that you do ‘on autopilot’ or ‘mindlessly’. The vessel is a tremendously complex and dynamic system of machinery, electronics, human beings, and lots of stuff that could catch fire or blow up if they’re given half a chance. Out of respect for the complexity and importance of the task, the competent commander always brings his A-game consciousness to the task, 24/7.

In fact, in order to do Command well, you really have to allow your responsibilities to Shape your consciousness and the rest of your Self: a tremendous maturity is required to keep your own volatile self from getting in the way of the tasks that have to be accomplished, the missions that have to be achieved. And further, to train that Self so that it can actually contribute its best potentials to the task.

You can maybe get the sense of just how not-cool this approach is in the contemporary American scene. Being ‘Shaped’ by ‘responsibilities’ is not what most folks want to hear. That’s true of just about any human being: it’s a lot of work to achieve such self-mastery, and if there’s anything about humans that stands out, it’s the ability to look for short-cuts.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a short-cut, per se. The kicker is taking a short-cut that in the long run doesn’t wind up costing you more than the ‘long way around’.

The past 40 years or so in American culture has complicated matters lethally: whereas before then the natural human tendency to want to avoid a hard task whenever possible remained strong, there were still the formative forces of parental authority and a culture that was more responsibility-centered than nowadays.

Much of that is gone now. And indeed, given that the industrial-productive economic milieu that enveloped American culture half a century ago has dissolved, you can see how that might have come about.

Langer is concerned that people are not “mindful” enough – not operating primarily, consciously and intentionally, through their more advanced brain capacities but rather go through the motions of a day and a life as many drivers, I suppose, drive a car: as if this sooo familiar task were thoroughly mastered and tamed, and you could layer on a couple of other tasks or diversions to do while you were behind the wheel.

I’ve always felt that the task of being human was at least as complex and important as the task of commanding a naval vessel, and should receive at least as much attention from each human being.

And if it’s true of mastering and shaping a human self and life, it’s also vitally true of being a Citizen, one of that community of character and value committed to anchoring and governing their government.

Lots of things stand in the way, and there are forces arrayed against such a fond hope.
There is the natural human tendency to want to avoid the hard parts of being. And that’s reinforced nowadays by the ‘deconstruction’ of any authority that might move a youngster toward the higher realms of self and being.

The literal orgy of Youthism that was bubbling up even in the 1950s, but really exploded with the Boomers in the later 1960s – when the Democrats decided that ‘Youth’ would reinforce ‘Women’ as a powerfully reliable electoral demographic – has not served Us well: neither the (now former) youth nor the (formerly mature) national culture have fared so well.

There’s a lot of mindlessness in the country. I’m not using this as a subtle epithet against those whose ideas differ from mine as to politics; I’m talking about the much deeper and more profound level where far too many Citizens are indeed ‘mindless’: not paying attention, either to their Self or to what of vital significance is going on around them.

Which, alas, is just what consumer-and-credit based economy would want: where a commanding officer brings the full weight of deliberation to any proposal, the mindless consumer simply buys and buys.

The commander’s ‘happiness’ – if the term applies – is in achieving the best possible decision, whether it be Yes or No. The consumer’s ‘happiness’ is in taking something new out of the wrapping and ‘having’ it.

As you can see, ‘happiness’ comes in all sorts of levels of quality: a kid’s happiness with a new toy is not quite on the same level as a commander’s satisfaction at sensing himself operating at his best possible level. (This may explain why the Navy – and it’s not alone among the Services – is having more troubles than it cares to admit in training truly competent commanders nowadays.)
So Langer is on to something here.

But as with so many valid psychological insights – I’ve written before about Carol Gilligan’s breakfast-table ‘ethics of care’ on this site – you have to be very careful in where you apply the insights.

Gilligan, if you recall, noted that a mother presiding over a table of squalling children must demonstrate her ‘care’ rather than her ‘abstract reason’: babies are famously not interested in ‘reason’ - are incapable of it - when they are in the throes of emotional electrical storms roaring across their consciousness. True enough.

But the ‘mother’ is qualitatively more ‘mature’ or ‘advanced’ than the infants, and that gives her the right and responsibility to function as a ‘Sensitive Despot’, re-arranging the breakfast table world as she sees fit to handle the tykes.

But this is a marvelous insight that will not work well if translated to national politics: if the government – or those elites who ‘get it’ – cast themselves in the role of the ‘mother’, then the Citizens are willy-nilly cast as the ‘tykes’, the unripe children whose bumptious emotions must be handled by superior maturity.

And that doesn’t really conform to the American concept of Constitutional government and government by the People – not at all.

Now Langer has a good point here.

But when she says – rather validly within the bounds of individual functioning – that “things are not good or bad – what’s good or bad are the views we take of things” … well, you can see where that insight, like atomic energy, can cause a lot of damage if it gets free of its containment facility.

Just as John Rawls – although with more intent – provided ‘benefit of philosophy’ to the last 40 years of ‘revolutions’ in this country, Langer’s insights can be used to provide 'benefit of psychology', to be applied in an arena where they don’t work well at all.

Surely, her quote about ‘the views we take of things’ offer some (but not total) constructive help to a person seeking to master his/her human powers. There are many times when a negative predisposition will taint any effort to analyze or even face up to a challenge. And consequently, an awareness that you as a person tend to ‘yaw’ a bit toward the negative will enable you to purposely take that into account when you are facing a challenge.

But that doesn’t – although from the quote it might seem to – mean that your ‘mind’ and your ‘attitude’ are the sole determinant variables in the equation; there actually is a ‘reality’ out there beyond the self, and another part of mental maturity is being able to stay in touch with reality. Your ‘attitude’ and your ‘perceptions’ can be changed if you determine them to be unjustifiably negative; but it’s another thing entirely to override the realities facing you and hope that the simpler task of changing your perceptions will change the world out there.

There is a moment when one’s ‘negative perception’ about Titanic’s continued buoyancy is not a ‘bad attitude’ but rather a sober and serious awareness of what is really going on out there – and intensifying your ‘positive thoughts’ really isn’t going to help and indeed, if you are in a position of authority can be morally irresponsible in the extreme. There is a moment when, running out of fuel in the middle of the ocean because you did not calculate carefully enough just how much would have to be expended, ‘positive thoughts’ aren’t going to create more fuel.

Langer is correct when she surmises that there is an almost magical potential within the Self, whereby the mind (she doesn’t say ‘spirit’ but I wouldn’t rule it out at all) can have an impact on the body. The complexity of the human self – especially the interaction between its material and non-material components – is still not greatly understood or appreciated, especially now that the corpus of experience embodied in religious traditions is largely ignored.*

And again, ‘mindfulness’ put to the use of getting a gold Caddy – or the equivalent of that – is not going to achieve a working maturity.

So “the psychology of possibility” – and this is no put-down of Langer – is certainly something that individuals could stand to explore and develop some skill in.

But – as I’ve said – life isn’t all simply a matter of ‘attitudes’ and ‘perceptions’. You don’t have to go very far in an internet search to see the tremendous problems that – to use one example – the Service academies have gotten into, assuming that any new politically-expedient initiative can be made to work merely by forcing everyone to ‘have the Correct perception’. You can’t go through life simply saying that ‘everything is on the level, if you just hold your head at the right angle’.

And you can see where ‘the psychology of possibility’ can be grossly misapplied when it is used as the ‘justification’ for vast and sweeping politically expedient culture-wide and society-wide ‘revolutions’. Those who ‘just don’t get it’ can be airily or arrogantly dismissed as not willing to engage the ‘possibilities’ inherent in the revolution. Too much of this is a recipe for a government-sponsored madness.

And surely this ‘psychology of the possible’ and of ‘positive thoughts’ blew through the upper reaches of the Pentagon and the Executive Branch when the last decade’s interminable series of wars were launched. “We will be greeted as liberators” is probably as acute an indictment of mis-applied positive thinking as you can find, rivaled only by “Mission Accomplished”.

So I agree with her about the vital and urgent value of paying attention to your Self and your life.

Other thinkers, the article notes, have taken her thought even further. Some – no doubt infected by the radical-feminist aversion to ‘male’ reason and “cold” logic (shades of Gilligan’s breakfast table!) – have called attention to the “rich tangle that incorporated emotion, evolution, and the particularities of the human body” when trying to figure out how folks think and decide.

Well yes, but no.

Yes, that there is indeed a tangle (please, let’s put “rich” up on blocks in the national garage for at least 20 years) inside the human being. So much the more then is there a need for the human mind – working with the heart and all the rest, perhaps as a sort of Chair – to impose some sort of order. It is necessary to achieve an accurate balance between the marvelous complexities within the individual human being and the challenging complexities beyond the human individual, ‘outside’ as it were.

In fact, even if it sounds ‘male’, I’d suggest that there has to be that attitude of the Master and Commander (hearking back to the series of books and the film) that defines the individual person’s attitude toward his/her Self, that marvelous vessel, and the various emotions and impulses – that bumptious but hearty crew – that comprise the Vessel.

“Whenever you’re making a choice, you have to notice things, and that makes us engage” says Langer. Yes, and noticing is a vitally important thing. Too many folks too often take the short-cut of not-noticing, and that means first and foremost, not noticing (and appreciating) the marvelous but also tremendous complexity of the human Self, and the long and narrow path to maturity, to an achieved competence in the higher possibilities of this amazing life-form.

As an example of what I’ve been driving at, I’d call attention to Langer’s week-long 1979 experiment conducted with a group of men in their late 70s and early 80s in a rural monastery: they were divided into two groups, each of which was to speak only about events of 1959. One group would speak about those events in the past tense, and one in the present (as if it were, there in 1979, actually 1959).

At the end of the week, both groups showed improvement in mental functioning – but the group that actually spoke of 1959 in the present tense had improved significantly more.

Now this says a lot.

Yes, it shows what a remarkable power the imagination can have – the power of fantasy – to improve some significant areas of human functioning.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that as soon as the gents who believed it was 1959 stepped outside the monastery grounds into 1979 … they weren’t going to be able to find Elvis.

It would take a lot of follow-on work to somehow capture and seat the positive benefits of the experiment without leaving the gents seriously ‘reality-challenged’.

And I can’t help wondering if this experiment – interesting as it is – doesn’t also provide a sharp example of the Beltway, where too many find enhanced functioning by having pretty much imposed a filter of excessive fantasy (or Correct imagination) to make themselves feel good, even as the country beyond the outer boundary of their personal fantasy literally declines and goes to hell.

The article concludes with her recalling a friend who while on a trip took a photo of an Indian guru; the guru did not show up on the film.

Langer’s take-away is: “the inability of many people to believe the story, due to our mindless adherence to longstanding views”.

It strikes me that this is a fine encapsulation of the point-of-view that has done so much damage to the country, the culture, and the society in the past decades. If you believe that ANYthing is possible, then any skeptical hesitation merely proves your ‘mindless adherence to long-standing views’. (It has served the radical feminists well, Rumsfeld’s Pentagon not so well.)

In other words, if you don’t believe the story, then “you just don’t get it”.

Well, given the remarkable creativity of the human mind-imagination-spirit, and given the fact that not every ‘idea’ it comes up with is going to work, then such cultural artifacts as tradition, common sense, and a reliance of past performance are a helpful way to counter the legitimate novelty-impulse with an equally legitimate preservation-impulse, at least until one is reasonably sure the thing might work and is the way to proceed.

This was all ‘deconstructed’ in the mad rush to effect “many revolutions at the same time” (Gerald Ford channeling Chairman Mao in the 1976 Presidential elections). And Teddy K’s “dream” is right up there with it as an exercise in misapplied fantasy.

So I’m all for more Mindfulness – and the more Citizens are accepting Mindfulness as a primary element in both personal and civic maturity, the better.

And if folks can also work a little improvement in their own lives by using their imaginations and minds to help them over the irrational and wounded rough spots in their personal make-up, so much the better.

But the temptation to fantasy is going to be great now. Whereas for the past 40 years (at least) it’s been a fantasy of continuing progress and almost national omnipotence (We held Ourselves to be, as Madeleine Albright liked to say, “the indispensable nation”), now the temptation will be to escape the challenges of a national decline – to no small extent a consequence of the previous decades of binge.

This will constitute an “existential failure” on the part of individuals and of Us as The People.
Because human beings are not simply possessed of an interior life of the Self, but also an exterior life comprised of the doings of all the other Selfs in the country, and the world.

And while it is a nice thought that perhaps those who ‘get it’ can impose their fantasy on everybody else (with the government’s help) so that everybody sets everybody else off with ‘positive thoughts’ and Correct feelings, like 300 million tuning forks setting each other to vibrating in a large room ... there’s still a country to be run with at least modest competence.


*There is a strong and almost magical tendency in some of the more popular TV ministry ‘religion’ that seeks to burnish its attractiveness by promising something to the effect that God wants to give you a gold Caddy if you just let yourself accept it or some such. But those are not, I would say, manifestations of any authentic Christian belief; rather, they seem to be an Americanized and consumerized version of the World War 2 ‘cargo cult’ beliefs seen in the Pacific when isolated islanders were suddenly confronted with the full cornucopia of 20th century Western industrial powers whose agents could call down showers of consumables simply by going through the ritual of speaking into a small metal can-shaped object. Aircraft, radios and radio waves, and industrial mass societies were completely beyond their ken.


I don’t usually do this, but I ran into so much material today that seem relevant to what I said in this Post that I’m going to do this extended and somewhat wide-ranging addendum.

In the April issue of ‘Reason’ magazine, there is an article entitled “Five Lies About the American Economy”, enumerating five of the biggest whoppers the government is trying to tell folks about the economy. It refers to “a fictional economy that bears little resemblance to the economy that the rest of us inhabit”.

The first thing to note is that this seems simply par for the course in the Beltway now: they are so wrapped up in keeping up the illusions that their political pandering and their indenture to PACs have demanded that they are now indeed presiding over a “fictional America”, one that is in the Beltway mind, corresponds only modestly to the actual America ‘out there’ that the rest of Us inhabit, and that is – by operation of the consequences of their decades of programs and wars – becoming further removed from reality every day.

On top of the economy (the article is well worth a look) there is the military where gender-integration has merely added to the complexity of a military sharing in the decline of its nation; see AOL today with an article about American military and naval decline (including links to three significant official reports in pdf. Nicely, the current Pentagon solution is a concept called “Air-Sea Battle” which is being widely touted as the Next Big Thing although the article politely notes that there seems to be no substance whatsoever behind the concept and nobody knows what this marvelous all-conquering Air-Sea Battle would look like (or how to pay for it).

A concept with no substance or even vision comes mighty close to a dream or a pipedream, in my book.

The ‘Reason’ article then continues with a discussion of Ben Bernanke’s “distortion field”, the tissue of diaphanous murmurings and outright untruths that are supposed to make Us all feel better and to reassure Us that We are not facing a situation where – in Lincoln’s anguished phrase – “the bottom is out of the tub”.

Once again, while government’s always ‘spin’, they usually do so with some circumspection. After all you can only go to that well just so often before folks catch on. BUT there has been so much ‘positive thinking’ and spinning these past Biblical 40 years, enforced by a government-approved Political Correctness and ‘sensitivity’, that huge slabs of unreality have started choking the national lanes of thoughts like bergs in the North Atlantic.

As I have said before on this site, you only have to glance through a couple of recent feministical ‘victory lap’ histories of their ‘revolution’ to see not only ‘spin’ but ‘self-delusion’ on an industrial (and a Beltway) scale.

And of course, ‘positive thinking’ and ‘believing the impossible’ and 'getting beyond your preconceptions' were – along with outright hostile ‘deconstruction’ – absolutely essential elements in the ‘success’ of the radical feminist agenda. And again, I offer the military – especially the Navy’s – experience with the beast as an example whose awesome and awful ultimate consequences are still not fully revealed. (But of course, to notice such things is the problem; an ‘attitude problem’ and a ‘perception problem’ and once they figure out how to change everybody’s ‘attitudes and perceptions’ then everything will be solved, so why bother Us with dark reports now? Once We are all ‘re-educated’ for ‘attitude and perception adjustment’ everything will be fine. And the band plays on.)

And who can forget the many send-ups of ‘positive thinking’ in that marvelous – and stunningly early – 1975 Monty Python movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”? Remember the Black Knight at the ford whom Arthur has to fight? He loses an arm – it’s just a scratch; another arm – just a flesh wound; a leg – “I’ll do you for that!”, and the second leg and Arthur walks on – ‘Running away are ye? Come back here and I’ll bite your legs off!”. Or the whole image of Arthur and his knights ‘riding horses’ when really they are just hopping along on their own two legs like toddlers with servants making clip-clop sounds by banging coconut shells together rhythmically? Is there a better image of the Beltway in the past 40 years?

And of course, if you get to define your own ‘reality’ – which is a core element of the feministical agenda – then you run a serious risk of thinking that ‘your’ reality is ‘reality’, and indeed the whole idea behind imposing the feminist revolution was that ‘women’s’ reality (not all women, I quickly add) would become everybody’s ‘reality’.

This was the dynamic behind Political Correctness: to force people to stop thinking in certain ways and to make them think in certain ways. And the government bought into the project, which was a decision fraught with hugely anti-Constitutional consequences (but then, the Constitution, put together by oppressive and patriarchal white males was “quaint” anyway, as they have been teaching in feminist law courses for decades now – though We haven’t been officially told yet).

And how ‘real’, really, is ‘reality TV’?

And how realistic is it for large numbers of folks to spend their time and energy and precious attention – what they have left – ‘participating’ in reality-TV polls and ‘votes’? While the country slides deeper now down the Rabbit Hole and through the Looking Glass.

It won’t be long before this won’t simply be a pleasure-binge; rather, it will be an ‘escape’ from the frightful realities which untended consequences have created and which are now too far advanced to be corrected without massive changes to the way things are done (think the USSR in the 1980s). And is anybody in the Beltway going to go into that night gracefully?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for another interesting post. Langer's ideas (they are really not new, not hers; this is what Émile Coué saw as the placebo effect, and it is something encouraged by many religions)work fine on an individual level; no complaints there (unless they lead to too much of a focus on the self, as is the tendency). But as you say they cannot be the basis of a politics, certainly not constitutional one. I have never read Langer, but the article on her seemed to drone on a bit and I could not help but get the sense that it was encouraging us to be - mindless.

6:20 PM  
Blogger publion said...

Yes and thank you. I think her ‘mindless’ vs. mindful – which itself borrows more than a bit from Eastern thought – is both a hook and a cutesy catch-phrase, which is in keeping with her interest in popularizing her approach.

But surely the urge to be ‘mindless’ – although granted that in her exposition she nuances it – was not a slogan that the Boomers and the Young and the ebullient cadres of the assorted ‘revolutions’ needed to hear.

And frankly I have a nightmare that when the Beltway advocates went to Congressional staffers with this ‘psychology’ the gambit impressed them, for its political utility (it makes a nice sound-bite and ‘code’) if not for its conceptual depth; and surely the last thing the Beltway needs is a bunch of ‘secular clergy’ (as it were) preaching Mindlessness in national affairs.

At any rate, intentionally or not, Langer’s thought could be used to fuel the deconstruction not only of numerous established principles such as Reason, Tradition, and Common Sense but also of the underlying deliberative approach to serious life which is – ideally – a hallmark of Western civilization.

As for its application to personal life, there is a certain level within the individual’s experience where Langer’s approach certainly applies, and with the potential of enhancing one’s life competence.

Psychology’s problem, of course, is that it does not – and cannot – take into account the spiritual realities in which God actually does cooperate with the willing soul. But God’s agenda is not always the immature or consumerist one, and Cadillacs don’t come in gold any longer (alas for the TV preachers!).

Sitting here, writing this, and listening (again) to a Henry Mancini CD of the late 50s and early 60s, it stuns to sense how far the entire national reality has declined. This is not simply the working of age: in every prior era of America’s history, the aging generations could point to ways in which the country ‘wasn’t what it was when I was young’. But this is the first time that a generation over 50 could also say that the country has truly declined in almost all the major indicators of a culture and a civilization as well as a polity.

Which to me says that for the first time in American history an ‘older generation’ truly does have much more to offer: not simply ‘memories’ but a vision now lost, and yet a vision essential to restoring the health (if not the postwar global hegemony) of the polity and the culture. No generation – not even Washington’s or Lincoln’s or even FDR’s – ever achieved full genuine individual, political, and human maturity – but the foundational ideals were always in place and the country could always gauge itself by its distance or closeness to them. The primacy of those ideals – excepting Teddy K’s manipulative phantasmagoric ‘dream’ - is hugely weakened now; it’s not that the paint on the house and the shingles are all in need of work – it’s that the foundations and carrying-walls are greatly compromised.

This requires, first and absolutely foremost, a civic Maturity – personal as well as political; and certainly neither of the Parties, debauched by their politically immature ‘bases’ with their slogans and mantras, are in a position to do that. They would have to reverse course 180 and in the process admit that their past four decades of activity have been lethally mistaken in some profound ways.

Older citizens – or citizens with ‘old souls’ (if I may) – are in a unique position nowadays. And in that sense they are a generation that – even more applicable than when FDR first deployed the phrase – “has a rendezvous with destiny”.

6:11 AM  

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