Mindfulness, Ellen Langer, Purseus Books
Visit the book’s page at https://g.co/kgs/EFNrbn
Right away, this book caught my attention with its comparison between Mindfulness, a practice I’m fairly familiar with, and Mindlessness, which the author argues is where most of us operate from in our day-to-day lives. Published in 1989 for the first time, author Ellen J. Langer cites dozens of experiments, many of which she and her colleagues designed and executed. She draws our attention to the universal spirit of mindfulness in many different contexts that can be applied as much or as little as is needed to bring peace of mind, clarity, and abundant joy. This book was born decades before the current Mindfulness craze swept the country, and has inspired me to look at just how much we humans are victims of our own minds, a relevant topic to inform my private practice as a clinical social worker.
In society, there are just things you don’t do. But who decides what is acceptable, even welcomed, and what just isn’t done? Part One of Mindfulness points out ways in which we are all creatures of habit, trapped by categories we create to make our own realities more comfortable and manageable. Who decides that walking is the best way to live and if you’re in a wheelchair, well you’re just less well off? Who decides that only a man is qualified and justified to pleasure a woman, and that anything else is just deviant? Aside from procreation, we are made to believe that the playful exploration of our own bodies and pleasure must be restricted to one person: a man if you’re a woman and a woman if you’re a man. So you’d better choose carefully, because if you choose wrong you’ll be divorced (another major social stigma). So beware, play by the rules, and you’ll live happily ever after. Many times, this model has mild success. But life could be so much better, and richer, when you break the shackles of acceptance of these social stigmas I promise (and so does Ellen Langer!)
Think of major social stigmas that permeate through any and all cultures throughout the world. Social stigma involves being painted in a negative light due to a characteristic that usually a person has little to no control over. Think about stigmas around physical disability or certain mental health challenges such as ADHD or autism. Sexual taboos carry major social stigma and one can be labeled “dirty” for expressing themselves sexually with even a consenting adult. Other behaviors can also carry social stigma, like refusing to pick up after your dog in public places, or talking too loudly in the library. Lastly, and one of the most disturbing, is discrimination based on race, creed or culture. It is if we feel that different is bad, that anything unfamiliar to us should be rejected. Most people never question why they feel uncomfortable around people not like themselves and are, thus, living mindlessly. This book points out that through lack of questioning we are shortchanging ourselves by squashing creativity and stunting curiosity, which are the most natural and beautiful of all the human traits.
Part Two of the book explains the practical implications of Mindfulness on our thoughts and behaviors. It talks about mental flexibility in creating new categories that better reflect thoughtful values and mental processes. It talks about the benefits of walking in someone else’s proverbial shoes, as seeing the world from new eyes. I loved the author’s emphasis on process over outcome, in which the path becomes clear only when you walk it, taking in opportunities and allowing yourself exploration on the journey rather than allowing a fixed mindset on that One. Big. Goal. Instead, what if we shift to full presence of moment, as mindfulness suggests? What if we stop multi-tasking every waking moment of the day? What if we take time to taste the food we put into our bodies, or to listen so carefully to a song that we FEEL our blood beat to the rhythm? What if we could practice full presence at all times, in every sense, mind body and soul? It is only when we fully tune-in that we catch onto the full breadth of life. And it is available to us all day every day. Its beauty is in its simplicity.
I thoroughly enjoyed Langer’s perspective on aging mindfully. Her studies have shown that it is indeed possible to reverse the signs of aging simply by choosing not to accept society’s ideas about what it means to be old. She argues that one can maintain mental acuity and physical strength and flexibility merely by switching to a “use it or lose it” mentality. It is society many times that dictates to the elderly population what they can and cannot do. The author has done much research on the subject of aging and her experiments support her hypothesis that mindfulness can reduce depression in later years and even reverse memory loss. Once again, by removing the stigma attached with aging, new possibilities can and do present at any age, as joy and fulfillment are not reserved for the young.
Last but not least, Langer makes the connection between mindfulness and health in the final chapter of the book. She elaborates on the idea that mind and body are NOT separate, as is a common belief in our American culture, albeit one that is rapidly shifting. Context, she points out, is a key in the experience of pain and discomfort. She cites the example of a lion. If we see a lion in a zoo, we may be fascinated by the creature, and curious. However, if we shift the context to finding a lion in our living room, we would be overcome with fear and panic. In this example, the lion has not changed, only the context in which it is experienced. The same, she argues, can be said of a hospital. More often than not, people view hospitals as places for the sick, where people go to die. Why do we not think of them as places where people are nursed back to health? Or where babies are born? Langer believes that shifting the context of the mind can have positive effects on the body as well. This is well cited in hundreds of studies in the field of mindfulness, some of them conducted by the author herself.
In sum, this book will inform my practice as a healer because it has affirmed my belief that Mindfulness has considerable power to help people tap into the immense beauty of the present moment. When we allow ourselves the time and presence of mind to notice and question our automatic behaviors and habits, we find that many times our ways of thinking are limiting us, specifically relating to overall health and aging, but also in social stigmas that we blindly accept. In my work with clients, I hope to help them re-examine their behaviors and thoughts in relation to a more mindful approach. Through this work, and through my own personal practice, I look forward to experiencing many of the benefits of mindfulness, and helping my clients reach new levels of health and personal growth along the way.
I Thought It Was Just Me (But it Isn’t), Brene Brown, Gotham Books
Visit the book’s page at https://g.co/kgs/cAmCpc
I came across this book at a garage sale in the summertime. I had heard of Brene Brown from some of the regulars at the diner up the street, who told me that she was emerging as a leader in pop psychology. Given that Brown comes from a social work background like myself, my curiosity was piqued, so I nabbed the copy, along with some other non-fiction I could nerd out on. As social workers, the author and I operate from a Strengths Based Perspective. Our work is rooted in helping clients to identify natural supports, skills and resources, and build on these positive attributes in order to manage difficult patterns and circumstances that emerge throughout our lives.
‘I Thought It Was Just Me’ found its way back into my hands months after its original owners packed up and moved, in the dead of winter when I become contemplative and rely on books like these to connect me to humanity and feel less alone. Brown did not disappoint. The main focus of this book is an expose on shame, bred from our culture of perfectionism and pride. The research and wisdom in this book has real power to help people connect with themselves and each other on a deeper level, leading them to mitigate shame and uncover the beauty of our humanness. According to Brown’s decades of research, she describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” This book focuses on the effects of shame on women, though she acknowledges that shame effects us all.
The roots of shame lie in the fear of disconnection. As social creatures, humans seek acceptance in others and when we feel ashamed, we feel that this connection is jeopardized because others may not accept us as we are. Shame is different than guilt and the distinction between the two is important to note. When we feel guilt, we feel bad about something that have or have not done. When we feel shame, we feel bad about ourselves. Shame is the internal feeling that we are, by our own unique true nature, bad. Tt is beyond the scope of identifying the behavior as socially unacceptable, we feel that we are unacceptable as a person. Shame leads to all sorts of painful emotions such as fear, blame and disconnection.
Luckily, we are all able to tap into what Brown calls Shame Resilience. At the core of shame resilience lies Courage, Compassion and Connection. Courage, she points out, stems from authenticity and the bravery it takes to live from a place of self-worth. When we are authentic in our own lives, and have true compassion for ourselves and our struggle as humans, we can be like a light in the darkness for others, helping them to feel less alone. We feel connected to humanity through our struggle and are better able to feel that connection through sharing this struggle with people we love and trust. Vulnerability softens us but also leaves us open for intense pain. If we can count on our connection network to ground us back into our authenticity, this pain can be mitigated and we can feel more seen, heard and validated. This, in turn, will create momentum as we are more open, and we can live to our fullest potential when we are governed by Courage, Compassion and Compassion. Try it! It works!
Most intriguing to me was the author’s attention to our culture of fear, which perpetuates shame on a massive level. Most commonly, we subject ourselves to the fear of imperfection, being too ordinary or uncool and fear of vulnerability. We want to be viewed as perfect, as “a natural”, as “not having to try too hard”. Perfectionism can be seen in our desires to have the perfect body, be the perfect parent, and have the perfect work/life balance. Ideals of perfection increase shame. This resonated with me deeply, as my concept of perfection in my own life is incredibly unrealistic and, in fact, has held me back from my authenticity. To be vulnerable in accepting that I am not perfect feels uncomfortable, especially in our culture when we are taught that “if we believe we can achieve” or that “where there’s a will there’s a way”. These sorts of viewpoints keep us striving for some point when we “will arrive”. All it ends up doing is making us feel disappointed when we can’t achieve perfection. This leads to shame because we have allowed ourselves to become vulnerable and seen. The facade of perfection is exhausting and is a very lonely pursuit because we are not allowed to be our authentic selves when we are trapped in our own idea of perfection.
To build shame resilience is to guide ourselves gently from this place of despair and disconnection. We have to hold ourselves with compassion and give ourselves permission to feel our feelings, no matter how difficult. Reaching out to a member of our support network is an important step to overcoming feelings of shame. Brown says that she has built her own support network over the course of her life and has deliberately chosen people who live authentically, who can relate with the challenges she faces in this world. It is notable that her network is filled with individuals who are open to both giving and receiving empathy. This means that we should surround ourselves most closely with people who are doing the same work as we are, people who offer themselves as support when we need it, but who also rely on us when they themselves are feeling overwhelmed with negative feelings. Through this intimate level of connection, we can decrease feelings of shame.
Overall, ‘I Thought It Was Just Me” will inform my practice with clients because shame inhibits us from living the lives we are meant to live. People who engage in therapy have tremendous courage in admitting their imperfections and that they need help. If you have bypassed a fear of “digging deep” and admitted that you are human and, therefor, imperfect, then you are already on your way to building shame resistance. Furthermore, as a licensed professional, I can help my clients identify their shame triggers and come up with real, concrete ways to live authentically from a place of self-worth and connection. You are not alone.
Play, Stuart Brown & Christopher Vaughan, Penguin Group
Visit the book’s page at: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/303738/play-by-stuart-brown/9781583333785/
British historian Arnold Toynbee once said “the supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.”
My own playful spirit rejoices in his words and I have decided that reintroducing the act of play into my own life is a worthwhile pursuit. In efforts to learn more about how to do this successfully, I picked up a delightful read: Play. Written by Stuart Brown M.D., who founded the National Institute for Play, the book delves into the most delightful of subjects, affirming my commitment to feed and nurture my soul through the act of play. I encourage you to do the same. Here’s why.
Brown includes lovely photos of various animals playing as he reminds us that all species play as a part of their being. His research has led him to discover that play is a biological practice, one that promotes survival through making animals smarter and giving them greater levels of adaptability in the wild. Humans have an even greater capability for play, which the author argues is the purest expression of our individuality and collective humanity.
It is very obvious that children can immerse themselves very easily into play. This is how they make sense of the world around them, how they learn and how they form relationships from an early age. But what happens as we age and become adults? In what ways do adults engage in play? The answer has less to do with what we do and more to do with how we do it. According to Dr. Brown, play is “an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time. It is also self-motivating and makes you want to do it again.” There are eight play personalities. Which one are you?
- The joker: Play always revolves around some sort of nonsense or silly sense of humor. The joker is one of the most infamous players of all time and can be seen in folks who use humor as a social lubricant, making others laugh in order to feel human connectedness.
- The Kinesthete: Play is conveyed through movement. These are athletes, yogis and dancers. These players want to feel their bodies, to push themselves to feel other emotions through movement.
- The Explorer: The play lies in the realization of natural curiosity, which propels Explorers to try new things and seek out new ideas. This makes them feel playful and connected to their true selves through learning and doing new things.
- The Competitor: Unlike the Kinesthete, the Competitor plays for the goal of winning and enjoys a good rivalry, which only motivates them more. These people like to make themselves known in the group and derive the most satisfaction from being “the best”.
- The Director: Play involves planning and executing scenes and events. These are the organizers, party throwers, those who provide others with an experience, from which they derive pleasure and a feeling of belonging.
- The Collector: For these folks, play stems around the accumulation of treasures and experiences. Collectors can go it solo, or join other collectors and play socially as well.
- The Artist/Creator: Joy is found in making things. These are the writers and artists, just as much as the knitters and woodworkers. Play is derived from the drive to create, even if the object created isn’t worth anything tangible and the Artist has no intention of turning play into a lucrative pursuit.
- The Storyteller: Play lies in the imagination for Storytellers, with the goal of an exciting, thought provoking reaction from listeners. These players are able to transform the dull, hum-drum aspects of life into fun, entertaining tales that can bring joy and connection.
When I first read this list, I identified with several of the play personalities. Through my yoga practice, shooting hoops outside, or boogyin’ down on the dancefloor, I am a Kinesthete. As an Explorer, I seek connection with new people and feed my drive to get outdoors and experience fresh air whenever I can. My curiosity often leads the way in any form of play I engage in and I have gratitude for that part of my spirit which allows me to continue to learn in new and exciting ways. I find joy in making beautiful photos through amateur modeling, a new and at-times-scary pursuit. What is inside of me comes out in my photos in a similar way as what comes through in my writing. Though neither will support me financially, they feel my desire to be playful and light, and hopefully will inspire others to do the same.
Storytelling is perhaps the most relevant to the direct work I do with clients. Through active listening on my part, I hope to invoke the spirit of play in the storytelling of my clients. It is easy to think of pain when we are in a therapeutic setting with a therapist. After all, most people will sit on my couch because they are in deep emotional pain. If I can help my clients to HIGHLIGHT the good parts of their life experiences, to tell me about what is working, who is there to support them, examples of their strengths over their weaknesses, transformation is possible. Through my strengths-based approach, I believe in the law of attraction: that which we focus on will multiply. When a client can focus on the positive aspects of their lives, on the things that are going well, on GRATITUDE, then talk about it, they are feeding their playful spirits not only through making new brain connections, but also through sharing these positive experiences with someone else (me in this case) and giving these strengths living, breathing energy in their lives. This is the premise of storytelling.
True transformation is not only possible, but highly likely, through the basic act of play.
When was the last time you took the afternoon to do something silly, sit down and create something, dance, or draw? How can you incorporate more types of play into your life? (Hint: you may already be playing more than you think you are! Guess what? DO IT MORE!)
To conclude, Dr. Brown says that play “allows us to express our joy and connect most deeply with the best in ourselves…play is the purest expression of love”. I want to take this into account the next time I spend the day looking at fashion magazines, invoking my inner model, or when I take the time to make slime with my youngest daughter. When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change. I challenge you, oh playful reader, to connect with what play means to YOU, then bring more of it to your life. The please, dear reader, drop me a line, tell me a story, Invite me into your world of play 🙂