Mindfulness at its most basic is a state of focused attention on the here and now, though the term has subtler meanings as well. It is widely discussed in the context of Eastern philosophy, but since it's based on observations about how the mind works, it has not escaped the attention of psychologists trained in Western approaches—most notably Harvard professor Ellen Langer. The New Humanism spoke with Dr. Sayyed Mohsen Fatemi (Ph.D., University of British Columbia, 2003, Post Doctorate, Harvard University, 2009-2013), who did his postdoctoral studies in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University in areas of social, clinical, health and cross cultural psychology with a focus on mindfulness. He is an Associate and a Teaching fellow in the Department of Psychology and teaches in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He is a published author in areas of education, psychology and communication and has been the keynote speaker of a number of international conferences. Some of his present research projects focus on mindfulness in the tradition of Western psychology and its implications for education, negotiations, international relations, creativity, language, and intercultural understanding. His latest book, How We Speak Shapes How We Learn: A Linguistic and Psychological Theory of Education, discusses the relationship of creativity, language and mindfulness. He can be reached at smfatemi [at] wjh [dot] harvard [dot] edu. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
TNH: What are the intellectual sources for your concept of mindfulness?
Fatemi: Mindfulness in its Langerian version comes from Dr. Ellen Langer's work, which has taken place during the past 30 years in experimental psychology
TNH: How would you define mindfulness?
Fatemi: As you become sensitive toward context, you become mindful. This is associated with noticing new things. As you experience the flux of the moment, and become sensitive toward the context you can create new categories. Mindfulness, in the Langerian version, is an active state that is associated with creation of new knowledge, welcoming new horizons of information, noticing new things and being open towards the possibility of multiple perspectives.
TNH: People who are unfamiliar with mindfulness as a concept may have nevertheless have been mindful at certain points in their lives. Can you give some everyday examples of mindfulness?
Fatemi: When people are watching a soccer game or football or hockey or whatever and they are really watching it and they are being there, this is just one level of mindfulness. We obviously can have different levels of mindfulness.
TNH: If watching a soccer game is level 1, what's level 2?
Fatemi: You are in the moment and you notice new things exquisitely. As you notice new things, you become more prepared to be creative and to be innovative… People become innovative in terms of their approaches—what I call "fighting for otherwise." They get themselves detached from a mere involvement in the familiar.
TNH: Professor Langer, with whom you work, has written that mindfulness is "exhilarating, never tiring." Do you agree with that?
Fatemi: Yes I agree. Because you are experiencing the novelty of every moment and you are noticing new things…You experience and explore the novelty, innovation, and beauty of every second.
TNH: Would you say you personally experienced this?
Fatemi: I have and I do. It moves in line with Rumi's poem. Rumi talks about this process of getting everything revitalized and through this process of revitalization and resuscitation, you can see everything afresh.
MINDFULNESS IN ISLAM
What is the sign that indicates there will be a hereafter?
The revitalization of the moments, the passage of the old,
A new day, a new night, a new stage and a new diction
Any breath gives rise to a renewal, newness would come with happiness
Where is the new coming from, where is the old going to?
There will be an infinite world right after the observation of this world.
The world is like a brook, it seems to be engulfed.
Yet, it is continuously running.
Where is the fresh flux coming from?
— Jalal al-Din Rumi (c. 1207-73). Translated by Sayyed Mohsen Fatemi.
TNH: Can you relate something recent, a specific case when you were mindful of something routine that you experienced in a fresh way?
Fatemi: The other day when I was going to teach my class. I was going through the same path from the campus. I increased this level of mindfulness and I saw these innovative manifestations and ramifications of the things around me—from the leaves and flowers to how the trees are. Serendipity may open up new horizons on the strength of mindfulness.
TNH: There's an expression about stopping and smelling the roses. It seems that with mindfulness, you smell the roses continually.
Fatemi: Exactly… It continuously and incessantly energizes you and you get exhilarated through that continuous flux.
TNH: Mindfulness has to do with paying attention to what is around you in a certain way. It also involves being aware of certain mindsets that close you off from looking at things it a different way- that's what mean when you talk of categories?
Fatemi: When this specific form of mindfulness arises, you'd have more propensity toward creating, inventing, and innovating new categories, because you're not going to be bound by the sovereignty of the previously established paradigms.
TNH: Would you say that political labels like liberal, conservative, neocon, the various labels people use to pigeonhole others, that those are categories that limit expression and mindfulness?
Fatemi: Absolutely…You can see this as the main factor of misunderstanding at the international level. These labels deprive us of our listening. You can see one of the problems in the world today is that people are not listening to one other any more. One of the reasons they are not listening to each other any more is that they are so compartmentalized by all these labels and categories.
TNH: It seems like in international debate that people sometimes actively try to do that—when it's not a dialogue but more like combat. You're trying to limit people to a certain category. Rather than seeing an opening, to find some common ground, you're trying to ignore them.
Fatemi: I've taught courses on psychology and negotiations, so I can say this for sure. In negotiations, sometimes you deliberately and on purpose cling to one specific category and try to use it as an attack against the other person, aggressively, abrasively, to an abusive extent, to put down and sell short the other party through the repetition of these categories. It could be misused. It could be a means for manipulation.
TNH: When I heard Professor Langer talk at MIT, she gave as an example a situation in which people are asked to solve a challenging problem, and on one hand, the researcher is concrete about the tools available—this is a hammer, this is a nail, this is a screwdriver, and in another case, the research is more ambiguous and might say, I don't know what this is. I guess it's a hammer and so on. The people who were less fixed on what the official purpose of the tool was were more creative in how they used them to solve the problem, perhaps because they were uncertain what the tool really was. This seems to relate to the shifting categories that you've mentioned.
Fatemi: That's a good example. One might add some research with regard to social psychology and negotiations in the 80s. We have two types of negotiators in one taxonomy. There are negotiators who, right from beginning, before even understanding how the negation is going to unfold, have this concrete and solid understanding for themselves. They say, "I know what's going on. I know the other party. I know what he wants. I know what she is going to go through. I know all of them." They go with single-minded perspective. Whereas others say, I know a little bit about it, but we'll see what the context says, they become more sensitive to contextual factors. Numerous examples have demonstrated people who are sensitive to the context and don't try to be influenced by premature cognitive commitment are more influential and more successful in terms of negotiations.
TNH: There is a concept of "going by the book." In Christianity, it's referred to as legalism when you focus on the letter of the law rather than what they call the spirit of the law. Sensitivity to context means that depending on the situation you have to think about it differently, whereas going by the book, there's a recipe or a cookbook that says you always do it this way.
Fatemi: I guess the best example of this is in regard to education. We have two types of education based on mindfulness and mindlessness, Education as planned or prescribed, and education as experienced or as lived. If you focus on education as planned or established, you always try to see what the Department of Education agendas and policies say, so you may ignore a lot of things in a class. But when you go to a class and you say, although the Department of Education asks me to do this on the first day of the class, the reality of this classroom and the people involved requires extra attention. As a result of that I need to be meticulous about the following factors…Even in negotiations, we have several cases where people who are just abiding by negotiations as planned see this either/or, this black and white mentality, whereas people who are mindful can be more creative, can bring more initiative as the occasion arises.
TNH: Because if you have a fixed set of rules, you don't have to pay as much attention to what is going on in front of your nose. You know what you're supposed to do already.
Fatemi: Exactly. In terms of mindfulness, you can see the interplay of so many complicated factors. That's why I claim that with mindfulness, we can experience a new shift not only in psychology but in social studies and the humanities. Langerian mindfulness opens up the potential of revisiting some of our mindlessly accepted assumptions in the realms of both epistemology and ontology. This would have huge implications for cultural psychology, social and political psychology and even clinical and counseling psychology. Furthermore, mindfulness would help us understand how the very concept of knowing and understanding can present different implications through mindlessness, and mindfulness and would leave numerous impacts not only in our interpersonal communication but also can give rise to transformations in our international relations.