The Agilist’s Bookshelf

Langer, Ellen J., Mindfulness, 25th Anniversary Edition. Da Capo Press, 2014.

In the preface to the 25th anniversary edition of Mindfulness, Ellen Langer writes, “Mindlessness is pervasive. In fact I believe virtually all our problems…either directly or indirectly stem from mindlessness.” If that is true, this book offers insight into both the source of our problems and the potential to overcome them.

In Part One, Langer defines and examines “mindlessness”— a state of rigid over-reliance on outdated, incomplete, and therefore false mental models. She identifies multiple sources of mindless behavior, including erroneous beliefs in constraints, an education system that values outcome over process, and the power of context to determine our behavior and expectations. Mindlessness leads to narrow self-image, inability to adapt, and stunts our potential.

Part Two defines mindfulness as a life-affirming practice that contributes to good mental and physical health. Mindfulness means the ability to create new mental categories and adjust old categorizations, openness to new information and multiple points of view, and having a process orientation rather than a results-oriented outlook. Chapters cover mindful aging, creativity, mindfulness on the job, decreasing prejudice, and the confluence of mindfulness and physical health.

Agile Coaches may find its insights valuable to deepen their understanding of why Agile principles and practices work. Although Langer cites dozens of academic resources and studies, Mindfulness is written for the layperson. Summaries of experiments are clear and concise, and where data are inconclusive, Langer identifies the shortcomings and possible alternative interpretations. However, it is not a recipe book for mindfulness. The reader will find no instructions on how to be more mindful here; and will have to take a mindful approach to applying its lessons.

On Mindfulness Meditation

Yesterday, I finished a ten-session introductory series of mindfulness meditation. Although I was originally very skeptical, this short introduction has convinced me that the practice is worthwhile.

I first encountered the concept of mindfulness as I prepared to become a full-time ScrumMaster. I had long sought this career path, but I worried that I wouldn’t be up to the challenge. One of the books I read recommended mindfulness meditation. Around the same time, I saw a blog post recommending an app called “Headspace.” It’s a free app that starts you off with a free ten-day course, so I had little to lose by trying it.

Still, I resisted. It was scary to try something new, and I was skeptical of some of the outlandish claims I’d heard about the benefits of meditation. A little research revealed that most of what I’d heard had to do with Transcendental Meditation, a different thing entirely. There was solid data to suggest that mindfulness had a lot of benefits to both physical and mental health. On New Year’s Eve, I decided to start.

Sitting down for the first session brought up a lot of familiar anxieties. What if this doesn’t work? What if I look stupid? (Even when no one is around, this is something that plagues me, but that’s a subject for another post.) What if I’m wasting my time? What if I’m no good at it? What if I’m incapable of doing it? Will that mean something is wrong with me? I nearly quit before I started, but I’d promised myself that I would try it.

I keep my promises.

In the first session, I could take a deep breath in with no trouble, but exhaling kept coming out ragged and choppy as anxiety roiled my mind. I had a lot of trouble following the guide’s gentle direction. As though fear and anxiety weren’t enough to contend with, other concerns fought for attention: about my writing, fitness and health, home repairs, personal issues.

I got through it, though, and I did feel a little more tranquil when the session was over.

Over the next three days, as I got used to the practice, it was easier to breathe steadily, and it grew easier to settle my mind. I ended each session a little more relaxed than I started it. By the end of the course, I looked forward to my ten minute time out each day.

Naturally, I’m far from mastering the practice. During the last session, the guide said, “And now, let your mind do whatever it wants to do, just for the next ten seconds or so,” and I started to giggle. That was all I had been doing. It’s going to take a lot more practice, but at least I’m less troubled by the fact that my mind is awhirl with thought, and I’m no longer trying to chase those thoughts down or control them. In time, I expect that I’ll learn to unclutter and improve my focus.

I’m not sure that I’ll continue with Headspace itself. Additional courses are available as a subscription service, and I don’t like that business model. My father promised to send me some meditation CDs he has used. (If I’d known he does it, I might not have resisted the idea so much!) Meanwhile, I’ll run through the introductory course again. It certainly won’t hurt to review and reinforce the basic concepts.