Tag Archives: mindfulness

Day 343 – Eating anchovies

A couple of years ago I did a course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). One of the mindfulness exercises was eating a raisin mindfully, which was fine for me because I like raisins. One person though had long had an aversion to raisins and was skeptical about the benefit of eating even one raisin. He reported afterwards that it wasn’t as bad as he had expected. Apparently, using all his senses and seeing the raisin as an exercise helped him.

Well, we are having Salade Nicoise for lunch, which has anchovies in it. In the spirit of curiosity practice, I ate an anchovy mindfully, even though I’m the kind of person who doesn’t even want someone else’s pizza half with anchovies on it in the same carton as my half with other things. I decided to look at the situation as a chance to practice curiosity, to remain open and not judge. I focused on what I tasted rather than what my opinion was of what I tasted. The anchovy was just as salty and fishy as I remembered and it wasn’t a great pleasure to eat it, but approaching it that way did help.


Day 323 – Noticing new things

“Noticing new things” is actually Ellen Langer’s definition of “mindfulness”. It is, however, a big help in a curiosity quest.

This week I am working out at the UN in Vienna. Some rich ground for curiosity practice is the artwork there. Member states send contributions to mark special occasions and so there is a lot to see. I became aware of that (again) leaving the building this afternoon. Tomorrow I’ll try to post some photos.

Day 314 – The spirit of Inquiry

Not for the first time I’ve realized the danger of placing something like “practice curiosity” or “Inquiry journal” on my to-do list–it’s too easy to just do the activity mindlessly to be able to check it off. What I most appreciated at the end of my 10-day Inquiry challenge was that although I didn’t practice formal Inquiry very often at least I was noticing more quickly when I got into judgmental mode and was able to intentionally open up my mind somewhat.

This morning I was writing my usual entry in my Inquiry journal and I realized that I was doing it very much like an exercise in a language lab, automatically. That is the antithesis of Inquiry, which Senge & Co. define as listening to genuinely understand the other person’s thoughts and feelings. Right. Time that I pay attention to doing my Inquiry practice in the spirit of Inquiry.

Day 121 – Relevance in education

Actually, when I went back to the original text I found out that what Ellen Langer was writing about in her book Mindfulness was (prescribed) outcomes in learning. What she says in a nutshell (direct quote below) is that a single-minded pursuit of an outcome stands in the way of mindfulness. She makes a plea for more attention to be paid to the process through which a goal is reached. It seems, one could say, she’d like us to pay attention to how we achieve something rather than whether we achieve it. I would argue that her proposed approach requires curiosity—an openness to what is happening without a strong desire to control the outcome.

In connection with my last two posts–if we are very focused on the outcome (which, granted, sometimes we have to be), we are less likely to go down the “Wikipedia rabbit hole” and less likely to learn new things or even learn about new things to learn about. (“You can’t be curious about something if you don’t know it exists.”)


What Ellen Langer wrote in her own words: A very different, but not incompatible, explanation for why we become mindless had to do with our early education. From kindergarten on, the focus of schooling is usually on goals rather than on the process by which they are achieved. This single-minded pursuit of one outcome or another, from tying shoelaces to getting into Harvard, makes it difficult to have a mindful attitude about life.

When children start a new activity with an outcome orientation, questions of “Can I?” or “What if I can’t do it?” are likely to predominate, creating an anxious preoccupation with success or failure rather than drawing on the child’s natural, exuberant desire to explore. Instead of enjoying the color of the crayon, the designs on the paper, and a variety of possible shapes along the way, the child sets about writing a “correct” letter A …

In contrast, a process orientation, which we will explore when we look at creativity in Chapter 7, asks “How do I do it?” instead of “Can I do it?” and thus directs attention toward defining the steps that are necessary on the way. This orientation can be characterized in terms of the guiding principle that there are no failures, only ineffective solutions.

In computer programming classes for children, a major activity is “bug fixing”—figuring out new solutions, instead of getting hung up on a particular one that didn’t work. Provisional goals are subject to continual revision. The process-oriented person is less likely to be caught off-guard if circumstances change.

The style of education that concentrates on outcomes generally also presents facts unconditionally. This approach encourages mindlessness. If something is presented as an accepted truth, alternative ways of thinking do not even come up for consideration. Such a single-minded way of viewing the world can generalize to everything we do. By teaching absolutes we pass our culture from one generation to the next. It brings stability. But as we will see, the cost may be high.


Day 092 -Work and curiosity

Now my four months of time off are over. I am back at home and back at work. Over the last three months as I have worked on this blog I have wondered every once in a while how well I will be able to keep up my curiosity practice and my daily post when I am working. I am about to find out. My experience so far tells me that time pressure is a curiosity killer for me. When I am really busy, I tend to put my head down and get on with what needs to be done. My hope is that being committed to writing this blog and having had three months to get used to posting every day will in fact help me be more mindful in what I do and experience less stress.

Day 007 – Exploring feelings

I woke up on Monday feeling, as I mentioned, a bit glum. One thing I think we can certainly be curious about is our feelings. There is, of course, the kind of curiosity that asks “Why am I feeling this way?” and perhaps “What can I do to feel better?” but for this post I would like to stick with the kind of curiosity that is very close to mindfulness and simply asks “What am I really feeling?” and “How do I know that?”

A very simple exercise for this is to stop what you’re doing and go through the following list:

  • Am I feeling a positive or negative feeling right now?
  • On a scale of -10 to +10 where would I put my feeling? (-10 is “Couldn’t feel worse” and +10 “Couldn’t feel better”)
  • What name would I give this feeling?
  • How do I know that is what I am feeling?
  • Recapitulation, and with it a kind of acknowledgement, of the feelings involved before moving on

I’ll try to recreate my Monday experience as an example:

  • Positive or negative? Negative
  • On the scale? -1
  • What name? I’m feeling glum
  • How do I know? Mild lack of energy and therefore no real desire to get up, face rather immobile, a sensation of weight on my body and face
  • Recap: Negative, -1 or so, glumness, lack of energy, lack of desire to get up, little facial expression, and a sense of weight. OK, interesting, now let’s get back to life.

A few points:

  • Some people may prefer to avoid the words “positive” and “negative”. In that case, how about “pleasant” and “unpleasant”? I propose “positive” and “negative” for this exercise mainly because of step two.
  • Eckhart Tolle recommends using the phrasing “I feel … in me” as in “I feel glumness in me” to keep us from identifying too strongly with the emotion. I offer that up for anyone who wants it.
  • For me one of the most interesting parts of this exercise is the fourth question, “How do I know that this is what I am feeling?” I believe that curiosity about how we recognize feelings or reactions–what the symptoms are, so to speak–is almost always profitable and at least interesting.

Day 004 – Some differences between curiosity and mindfulness

As already mentioned, curiosity, as I see it, is a state of experiencing a situation, with any or all of one’s senses, with openness and a desire to see what happens and without feeling the need to influence the outcome.

With the Five Senses exercise posted yesterday the question came up: What is the difference between curiosity and mindfulness? This post will be a first stab at distinguishing between these two states.

First of all, I should perhaps mention that I see curiosity as a part of mindfulness and mindfulness as a part of curiosity. How can that be??? Maybe looking at a few recognized definitions of mindfulness will help.

Mindfulness is almost universally defined as being fully aware and in the present moment. Two scientists who have spent most of their careers researching mindfulness each add an important aspect to this point. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, emphasizes what an important role non-judgmental attention plays in this. Ellen Langer; Harvard professor of psychology, also offers a simple and concise recommendation with a focus on a different aspect: Notice new things.

It seems clear that what mindfulness and curiosity share is attention to what is, without judgment. I experience curiosity, however, as more active, somehow, and perhaps more applied. There is an element of taking in openly, also for future reference, what is going on that seems quite different from the present moment focus of mindfulness.

In certain situations, like in the Five Senses exercise, it is difficult for me to imagine curiosity without mindfulness. Without giving my attention to what is going on around me, I have nothing to explore. In other situations, though, like my curiosity about and desire to explore ideas I am not always mindful. I may be, and very often am, in a state of flow, but that is something else altogether and material for another post.

On the other hand, because I have made openness a part of my definition of curiosity, it is impossible for me to imagine mindfulness without curiosity. When I do the body scan developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, for example, I need to be curious about how my body feels. If I’m not, two things are likely to happen: my attention will wander because the task is boring and / or I will judge a sensation as good or bad, pulling myself out of the state of mindfulness.

A start, at least.

For more information on mindfulness see:

Ellen Langer (about five minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlRJo51JWME

Jon Kabat-Zinn (also about five minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmEo6RI4Wvs