How to love yourself (guardian angel not supplied)

Someone on Facebook just introduced me to this very moving clip from Luc Besson’s 2005 film, Angel-A, about an angel, played by Danish actress Rie Rasmussen, who intervenes to rescue, André (played by Jamel Debbouze), a self-loathing scam artist on the verge of killing himself.

This makes me long for the days when I used to live around the corner from the Glasgow Film Theatre, where I enjoyed many fine foreign movies…

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Reincarnation: The Movie

My Reincarnation, a film about the burden of being told that you’re a reincarnated lama, opens October 28 in New York and Los Angeles, before moving nationwide.

My Reincarnation is said to be “an epic, intimate father-son drama wrapped in a spiritual documentary — spanning 20 years and three generations.” It follows renowned reincarnate Tibetan lama Chögyal Namkhai Norbu as he struggles to save his spiritual tradition, and his Italian-born son, Yeshi, who strains against the weight of being recognized as the reincarnation of his father’s uncle.

The film of the latest work by Jennifer Fox, producer of An American Love Story, Learning to Swim, and Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman.

For twenty years, Fox followed Norbu and Yeshi with her camera. The result tells the rare inside story of one of the last reincarnated teachers to be trained in Tibet and his son’s stubborn reluctance to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Norbu Rinpoche escaped Tibet in 1959 and settled in Italy, where he married an Italian woman and had two children, of which Yeshi was the first. As a boy, Yeshi was recognized as the reincarnation of a famous spiritual master who died after the Chinese invaded Tibet. But growing up in Italy, Yeshi never wanted to have anything to do with this legacy, not being convinced by the “proofs” and feeling that people knew about him but didn’t know him.

The film follows Yeshi though his spiritual explorations, and one reviewer commented that “Open-minded viewers are likely to be enthralled by interpretations of human existence and systems of belief that never play like a recruitment drive.”

“The film touches on so many topics that people don’t talk about openly in their lives,” Fox explains. “I wanted to use the film’s theatrical launch as an opportunity to create a safe space for people to share their spiritual stories and their stories of transformation, whether it be about a parent or a child, or in relation to a religious experience. I am so excited to see this web dialogue develop and grow. We’ve already had great support from wonderful people such as Robert Thurman and his son, Ganden, who have agreed to be interviewed about their spiritual stories for the site to prompt others to share.”

Earlier this year, My Reincarnation made news by breaking records as hundreds of patrons made it the number one fund-raising film of any completed film on Kickstarter, the popular crowd-funding platform.

My Reincarnation won a Top 20 Audience Award at the International Film Festival of Amsterdam, screened at the Sydney Film Festival, and will soon premiere at the Hamptons Film Festival.

Variety Review praises “the intimate feel of the project,” and Hollywood Report Card says, “The amount of access into the lives of these two men over two decades gives the film an amazing depth.”

The film will open October 28 in New York (Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street), and Los Angeles (Laemmle Monica, 1332 2nd Street, Santa Monica).

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Film review: Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Unique perspective on controversial Tibetan lama’s life and teachings skews toward the reverential.

Well before American Buddhists and New Age acolytes began flocking to the feet of Tibet’s Dalai Lama, hippies and spiritual seekers were following in the footsteps of Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan lama who took up residence in the U.S. during the 1970s.

A provocative account of Trungpa’s global odyssey, Crazy Wisdom offers a perceptive, if one-sided, perspective on Trungpa’s impact on American spirituality and the arts, but is probably too rarified for the uninitiated — film fests, DVD and VOD will provide the best refuge.

Born in Tibet in 1939, Trungpa was identified as a reincarnate lama (“rinpoche”) before he was two years old and completed ecclesiastical studies within the Kagyu branch of Tibetan Buddhism before escaping his homeland in 1959 and resettling in India following China’s invasion of Tibet. A move to London to study at Oxford University eventually led him to Scotland to cofound the first Tibetan Buddhist center in the West and the decision to give up his monastic robes to become a lay teacher and marry Diana Pybus, a 16-year-old follower.

In 1970, Trungpa and Pybus moved to the U.S., where they settled…

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rather incongruously in Vermont, establishing a rural meditation center. Trungpa began teaching a growing following of lay meditation practitioners, many of them counter-culture refugees seeking spiritual inspiration, and expanding his interest in the arts. Wherever he traveled around North America, however — eventually settling for a time in Boulder, Colo., where he founded the renowned Naropa University — Trungpa provoked controversy and intense curiosity, as well as devotion.

He freely slept with other women besides Pybus — many of them his students — and smoked and drank openly. Trungpa’s spiritual methods were often as divisive as his lifestyle, prompting followers to identify him as an embodiment of “crazy wisdom,” a traditional teaching style involving unconventional ideas and practices that shock students into new realizations of Buddhist principles.

Whether a lifestyle or a religious choice, Trungpa’s excesses led to his death in 1987 from cirrhosis of the liver at age 48, after he had established a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, a network of Shambala meditation centers and published dozens of English-language books on Buddhism.

As a former acquaintance of Trungpa, veteran documentary director and editor Johanna Demetrakas presents a fairly straightforward, chronological account of Trungpa’s life and teachings, employing historical photos, archival footage and contemporary interviews with relatives, friends and followers. Aside from some mild criticism of Trungpa’s practices from American Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, the doc is overwhelmingly hagiographic, extolling the lama’s legacy as teacher and spiritual guide, despite the debate that surrounds his methods even today.

Insightful and often entertaining, Crazy Wisdom is content to leave critical analysis to more objective, if perhaps less inspired, filmmakers.

Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Production company: Crazy Wisdom Productions
Director: Johanna Demetrakas
Producers: Lisa Leeman, Johanna Demetrakas
Director of photography: Pablo Bryant
Music: Sean Callery
Editors: Kate Amend, Johanna Demetrakas
No rating, 86 minutes

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“Thought is gazing onto the face of life, and reading what can be read.”

Still from Vanilla Sky

At the climax of the 2001 movie Vanilla Sky, Tom Cruise’s character, playboy David Aames, comes to realize that he’s been in suspended animation for 150 years and is trapped in a dream. He makes this discovery on top of an improbably tall building, apparently miles high, with the guidance of Edmund Ventura, a “Support Technician” who is trying to guide him back to waking reality.

Before he entered suspended animation, David had made the decision to awaken from this dream by facing his fear of heights. In order to wake up, he must now leap from the top of the building. Also on the rooftop is someone who has been a father figure to David, a warm, avuncular psychologist called McCabe, who has previously been helping him to figure out why he apparently murdered a lover. McCabe not only believes that what David is experiencing is real, he believes that he himself is real. And he tries to dissuade David from taking his all-too-literal leap of faith:

MCCABE. David, don’t listen to him. You were right … It’s a setup! You can’t trust him.

VENTURA. Don’t feel bad for him, David. This winning man is your creation. It’s in his nature to fight for his existence, but he’s not real.

If David Aames wakes up, then McCabe ceases to exist. He’s a fictional character, but even fictional characters want to continue existing. So McCabe tries to talk David out of jumping.

Similarly, our fictional delusions don’t believe that they are delusions. And they don’t want us to know that they are delusions. If we wake up they die. They have a life of their own and they don’t want to lose that life. It’s in their nature to fight for their existence. To take a less poetic view, once certain patterns of thought have been established in the brain, it can be hard to change them. Just as a river, having carved itself a deep gorge, is trapped flowing in a particular direction, so our thoughts, the more entrenched they are, tend to course in familiar patterns.

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Many spiritual teachers in the past have suggested that our delusions act in a way that protect themselves, so that a self-sustaining pattern of delusion is perpetuated in our minds. This is what we call the ego. The ego — our sense of a permanent, independent selfhood, doesn’t want us to wake up. It resists change. We think we’re permanent and separate. Some chance event reminds us we’re not and we feel alive again. Then we start to forget, and retreat into our sense of separateness once again, believing that that’s where happiness lies and that an awareness of impermanence is what leads to unhappiness.

But these delusions, these distorted perceptions, although deep-rooted and resistant to change are not un-doable. Like David Aames we need to wake up from our delusions. And one important means for waking up is reflection. To reflect is to examine our experience closely, to scrutinize our lives, ourselves, and our world, and to let reality collide, sometimes violently, with our assumptions. We tend to think of thoughts as being “the problem” because our thinking not only causes us pain much of the time, but also because much of our thinking is imbued with delusion: McCabe telling us not to wake up. But thought can also be a powerful tool for undoing delusion.

Where our assumptions are not in accord with how things actually are — for example where we to some extent believe we are separate and permanent when we are actually interconnected and ever-changing — there will be conflict. In reflecting, we consciously bring about conflict. And we keep doing this over and over, bringing our delusions up against reality, until something gives.

Reflection is not a mere intellectual activity. It’s not just a parade of words running through the mind. We rarely reflect when we read, for example, because all that’s happening is that words are crawling, ticker-tape fashion, over the mind’s surface. Reflection is not even the act of “thinking things through,” making connections between ideas. Reflection is an activity that involves imagination and emotion as well.

DH Lawrence expressed in a poem called “Thought” what reflection consists of:

Thought, I love thought.
But not the juggling and twisting of already existent ideas.
I despise that self-important game.
Thought is the welling up of unknown life into consciousness,
Thought is the testing of statements on the touchstone of consciousness,
Thought is gazing onto the face of life, and reading what can be read,
Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to conclusion.
Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges,
Thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending.

When we reflect we turn ideas into felt experiences and images. When we reflect we see how our words and images affect how we feel. We bring new ideas up against existing ones and honestly observe the honest collision of contradictions. Reflection involves an almost ruthless degree of self-examination, a scrutiny of the mind and heart. It involves, like Aames, taking a running jump from what is known and a willingness to leave behind the familiar and safe (that which shores up the ego), even if this leaves us with the terrifying feeling that we’re plummeting through space. But it can also be exhilarating and deeply rewarding as we make new discoveries, and as we rearrange our inner world, letting got of stale and tired viewpoints and embracing new ways of seeing.

What criteria can we use in order to help us know whether our inner voices are those of a McCabe, seductively trying to keep us within the dream; or of a Ventura, who leads us to awakening? The Buddha’s advice was to use reflection. We need to ask ourselves which of our thoughts lead us toward to love rather than hatred; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to simplicity, rather than to accumulating needless possessions; to modesty, not to self-inflation; to contentment, rather than discontent; to energy and engagement rather than to laziness. Gazing into the face of our lives, we can intuit a sense of which thoughts, words, and actions predispose to waking up rather than to remaining in a dream.

Promo for Wildmind's meditation initiative

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The ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ phenomenon

When the film Four Weddings and a Funeral came out in 1994, I was irritated by the film’s ‘token’ inclusion of a deaf character and two gay men. A lesbian friend was less judgemental. She was just thrilled that a mainstream film featured a gay relationship.

Reading Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-seller, and seeing the film adaptation starring Julia Roberts, I think I know how my friend felt. The ideas are flawed, but to see Buddhism portrayed positively in popular culture is a delight.

The story – if you don’t know it – is of a thirty-something woman, unsatisfied with her affluent New York life, who goes travelling for a year in search of self-fulfilment. Her quest is successful: she stuffs herself with pizza and pasta in Italy, experiences a spiritual epiphany at an ashram in India and meets the love of her life in Indonesia. Then she writes a best selling book about the whole adventure and earns a small fortune. I came, I saw, I conquered.

And as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, ‘aye, there’s the rub.’ Reviewers have criticised both film and book for their ‘rich girl goes shopping’ tone. Not so offensive as regards pizza and pasta perhaps, but less credible when it comes to spiritual enlightenment and finding the love of one’s life.

Besides, can the quest be genuine when Elizabeth Gilbert is doing it partly for material gain? Can it be genuine if squeezed into a twelve-month space, not to mention a book that has to have a beginning, middle and end? When we see Julia Roberts in character on the bathroom floor sobbing over how her life doesn’t fulfil her, should we be sympathising, or saying ‘get over yourself’ and saving our concern for the earthquake victims of Haiti? Furthermore, most of us aren’t able to leave hearth and home to go ‘find’ ourselves. Does that mean there’s no hope?

These questions pop up uncomfortably again and again as one reads, or watches Eat, Pray, Love, to the extent that the book (very well written) and the film (a visual feast) both become something of a guilty pleasure.

But it would be a mistake to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The film, and to a greater extent, the book, have merit.

There’s a tradition known as New Journalism, which started in the 1960’s when New York Times journalists decided that to write about something properly, you had to experience it. They went to Vietnam, lived with Hell’s Angels or shadowed rock stars for months in order to get that all-important inside view. And they wrote about their findings in the first person. The ‘I’ viewpoint entered mainstream journalism.

Elizabeth Gilbert is writing in that tradition. We may carp at the circumstance of her quest but it is courageous – she leaves the familiar behind in an attempt to open herself to experience – and as such, it’s a metaphor for all our quests. She may be writing primarily about herself, but she offers that self up as the everyman/woman self of the privileged Westerner on its relentless search for happiness. This comes over more clearly in the book than in the film, in the searing honesty of the line-by-line writing. The book is less simplistic, containing complicated episodes that the film omits. And Gilbert’s unflinching self-analysis has chimed with many readers, perhaps because she articulates Western malaise so well. We have so much: why are we still unhappy?

A friend of mine claimed recently that he’d like to read a novel that wasn’t written by a writer. He was distrusting the craft of story, with its the inevitable distortions. And yet, as Pablo Picasso said, ‘Art is the lie that tells the truth.’ We have to bear in mind that Eat, Pray, Love is essentially an art form: a story, not a description of reality.

A spiritual epiphany doesn’t happen on demand, in an ‘it’s Tuesday, so it must be enlightenment’ way. A few months meditating in an ashram and learning from spiritual teachers doesn’t guarantee anything. But it might act as a springboard. Spiritual insights do happen, and although in reality you can probably have them without leaving your own home, if we view Gilbert’s quest in the spirit of story and of metaphor, where one thing stands for another, we may be able to see her work in a more generous light.

Having said all that, the story would undoubtedly have been more interesting if she had returned home overweight, broke and having discovered that the love of her life was a serial womaniser – and still had taken it all on the chin, with equanimity. That would have been an epiphany worth witnessing.

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Do you know where you’re going to? The Teaching of Guru Garth

There is a profound teaching in the movie Wayne’s World. When asked by the evil Benjamin “How do you feel about making a change?”, Wayne’s friend and side-kick Garth responds in a deadpan voice “We fear change.” It’s a popular part of the movie, with thousands of references to it online, and like many jokes it has a significant truth at its heart.

We really do fear change. We don’t know what change may bring us, and for many people that fear of the unknown is so strong that it not only stifles their growth and development, it keeps them in abusive relationships or jobs that they hate. For many people the security of the familiar, however unpleasant, appears preferable to the uncertainty of change.

I recently took part in some training on the Solution Focus coaching methodology OSKAR, and I was very struck by the way that this approach is particularly effective in working to overcome our innate fear of the unknown.

As you’ve probably guessed, OSKAR is an acronym, and the O stands for Outcome. (I don’t intend to explore the whole methodology here, you can follow the links if you’d like to know what the other letters stand for.) In OSKAR, Outcome has two aspects:

• clarification of what the client wants to achieve, both overall and within the context of the particular coaching session (known as Building the Platform)

• imagining a Future Perfect, in which a miracle has taken place and the desired outcome has been fully achieved (in Solution Focus this is known as the Miracle Question)

In demonstrations of the OSKAR approach I was struck by the way a whole session could focus almost exclusively on clarifying what the client wanted to achieve. Sometimes we’re so hung up on what we don’t want in our current situation, that it’s hard to see through to what we do want instead. Just gaining this clarity about the desired goal can be all that we need – a strategy and the imperative to act seems to naturally emerge from it.

Of course different people have different responses to the idea of change, and different responses to life itself. In Buddhist psychology a simple distinction is made between what are traditionally known as ‘greed types’ and ‘hate types’. I usually explain this by asking people to imagine a buffet table at a party or event. A greed type will approach the table and have an internal discourse along the lines of “Ooh look, mushroom vol-au-vents, I like those … and there’s some nice looking samosas … oh, and look at the puddings!” because he (or she) pays attention to the aspects of their situation that they find attractive.

In contrast, a hate type’s inner discourse will be much more along the lines of “I hate eating standing up … and I can’t eat chicken wings … and look they’ve put celery in the salad, I can’t stand celery … and those puddings are really fattening”, because they pay attention to the aspects of the situation that they dislike.

When they look at the future, greed types and hates types imagine very different things: greed types get excited and enthusiastic about all the things they’re looking forward to, and hate types worry about how everything might go wrong! Greed types are natural optimists and hate types are inveterate pessimists, and as the pioneer of positive psychology Martin Seligman points out in Learned Optimism, optimists live longer, healthier, happier lives – albeit with an occasional tendency to naivety and seeing life through overly ‘rose-coloured spectacles’.

Of course I’m exaggerating the differences here to emphasise a point. We are all greed types and hate types to different degrees at different times, depending on circumstances and how well-resourced we are. Nevertheless this simple model can be one of many useful lenses to look at our habits and help to address our resistances to change.

Useful though the OSKAR methodology can be, the importance of clarifying your goal is fundamental to change of any kind. It’s not a new observation, but we seem to need reminding of it again and again. Back in the 1940s the Hindu teacher Swami Ramdas was unequivocal: “although many embark on a path of spiritual development few make progress because most lack a clear idea of the goal they wish to reach, and they also lack a clear idea of how to get there.”

If you don’t like where you are now, then be careful to clarify where you’re trying to go at the very start of the journey, otherwise fear of the unknown may undermine your ability to get anywhere at all.

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“Bodhisattva, Superstar” – a film about popular culture and Buddhism

A new “allegorical documentary” about Western perceptions of, and misconceptions about, Buddhism, looks to be very interesting. The following is from the movie’s website:

Bodhisattva, Superstar, a new film by multimedia artist Michael Trigilio, confronts American popular culture’s habit of addressing the subject of religion with alternating degrees of deluded piety or flippant scorn.

Popular culture’s treatment of Buddhism often is ensnared by the language of marketing, using Buddhist language or images to sell shampoos, candy bars, or self-help recipes of one kind or another.

As one contemporary Buddhist author interviewed in the film suggests, many Americans expect Buddhism to be simply “a mash up of every Eastern philosophy they’ve ever heard of.”

Bodhisattva, Superstar sustains a documentary point-of-view by interviewing Buddhist “experts” – authors, chaplains, monks, scholars. The film also relies on an apparently scripted character (played by actress Deanna Erdmann) who navigates her own emotional landscape of wonder, wandering, and contemplation. Trigilio refers to this form as “allegorical documentary.” As pop-cultural myths about Buddhism are deconstructed in the film, so, too, is the nature of authority and authorship within the film itself. The heart of the film sits with the notion of spiritual authority which comes from within and not from above or beyond.

As the film careens towards its end – and as Trigilio, the filmmaker, become a subject of the interrogation and investigation – the audience is encouraged to see the subjective process of filmmaking itself as a practice just as complicated as the film’s subject matter.

Bodhisattva, Superstar ends with audiences being forced to come to terms with the popular idea that Buddhism is an anti-authoritarian religion. The film encourages audiences to discern for themselves what to accept and what to reject from the film in front of them.

And here’s the trailer:

And here’s a link to the movie’s website:

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Julia Roberts’ new film inspires meditation tours to India

Julia Roberts much-anticipated new movie ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ has inspired tour planners to offer a package that gives travellers a chance to dine in Italy, meditate in India and fall in love with Bali.

Roberts recreates author Elizabeth Gilbert’s year-long cultural and spiritual trip to India, Italy and Bali in the movie. And the film has inspired a large number of merchandise, which includes tie-in items from furnishings to jewellery.

Producers have given various companies rights to link new products to the film, which will release in August, reports the Daily Express.

Bosses at STA Tours will soon be offering the ‘Eat, Pray, Love Experience’ – the chance to dine in Italy, meditate in India and fall in love with Bali.

US chain Cost Plus will offer exclusive furnishings, replicas of those featured in the film, Dogeared jewellers are offering ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ bracelets and necklaces inspired by the film.

[via Indian Express]
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Mind Power

Harvard professor Ellen Langer’s research transformed psychology. Now she wants it to transform you.

The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health is housed in a former Jesuit seminary built in the 1950s, on a rise with broad views of the Berkshires. The long hallways have the institutional feel of a high school, except that everyone is speaking in respectful tones, and rolled yoga mats are everywhere, like baguettes in Doisneau’s Paris. On the walls are limited-edition photographs of lean people doing yoga in front of moss-dappled Indian shrines. At the gift shop on an early February weekend, visitors could have their tarot read, or a photographic portrait taken of their aura. And one of the featured speakers, offering a weekend-long seminar, was a senior professor at Harvard University, Ellen Langer.

Langer is a famous psychologist poised to get much more famous, but not in the ways most researchers do. She is best known for two things: her concept of mindlessness – the idea that much of what we believe to be rational thought is in fact just our brains on autopilot – and her concept of mindfulness, the idea that simply paying attention to our everyday lives can make us happier and healthier. She was Harvard’s first tenured woman professor of psychology, and her discoveries helped trigger, among other things, the burgeoning positive-psychology movement. Her 1989 book, “Mindfulness,” was an international bestseller, and she remains in high demand as a speaker everywhere from New York’s 92d Street Y to the leadership guru Tony Robbins’s Fiji resort. And now a movie about her life is in development with Jennifer Aniston signed on to star as Langer.

While other researchers might blanch at the Hollywoodization of their work, for Langer it’s almost an organic development – part of a long journey to bring the message of her research to the masses. Langer’s reputation in the field of social psychology rests on a set of ingenious experiments that expose the strange power of the mind to fool itself and to transform the body. In one of her best-known studies, she found that giving nursing home residents more control over their lives made them live longer. In more recent work, she made hotel maids lose weight simply by telling them that their work burned as many calories as a typical workout. And in the study at the center of the Aniston movie, a team led by Langer found that instructing a group of elderly men to talk and act as if they were 20 years younger could reverse the aging process.

Today, Langer’s studies are required reading in introductory psychology courses, and her work has inspired a generation of leading behavioral researchers who are rethinking human thought itself. But Langer herself has taken a different tack. As her intellectual successors publish research studies, she has transformed herself into almost an advertisement for her own work, setting out to spread the word about the power of mindfulness. Nearly a decade ago, she took up painting, pursuing it, as she pursues everything, as mindfully as possible; today her canvases, many of them whimsical portraits of her pet dogs, show in well-reputed galleries and sell for thousands of dollars. She has long been at work on a book on mindfulness and tennis, a sport she plays avidly. And her recent books are concerned less with how mindfulness works than how we all might better use it to improve our lives.

“Things are not good or bad,” she repeated to her audience at Kripalu, “What’s good or bad are the views we take of things.”

For some psychologists, mantras like these make Langer less a social scientist than a guru. She treats research and writing – the day-to-day work of most psychologists – with a pronounced cavalierness, neglecting to publish results even when they strike her as interesting. At times she sounds suspicious of the very idea of scientific evidence. What she is practicing, she says, is a different brand of psychology, “the psychology of possibility.”

“I do research, but my research is not designed to be a description. It rarely says what is, but what can be,” she told me at Kripalu.

“I don’t think I’ve ever envied anybody. If someone has something, I can, too,” Langer announced to her Kripalu seminar during the Saturday morning session. Dressed in slim black slacks and a black, tunic-like cardigan, she stood before 65 people, mostly women, in a lofty, barn-shaped room that had once been the seminary’s main chapel.

The night before, Langer had asked participants to think of someone or something that bothered them. She started the morning by asking what they had come up with. One woman said her husband was always late for breakfast, another described her child’s “defying” behavior, another made what sounded like a veiled complaint about her in-laws.

In responding to each, Langer returned to a similar point: Each of these complaints was born of mindlessness. They were instinctual responses rather than thoughtful engagement. Why not see the time alone at breakfast as a gift? Would the young mother rather have a child who blindly followed orders? And surely there was something interesting and redeemable to be found in the in-laws.

As advice, it was not revolutionary. But as the morning went on, and Langer described the research on which she had built her particular worldview, a sense emerged of just how powerful she thought the mind could be.

As Langer sees it, it’s the pervasiveness of mindless behavior that makes mindfulness so powerful, and her earliest research focused on the former. Her doctoral dissertation, at Yale, grew out of a poker game with some colleagues. One round, the dealer accidentally skipped someone. “Everyone went crazy,” Langer recalls. It was out of the question, she learned, to simply give the skipped person the next card and proceed with the deal. She began to wonder why people were so attached to “their” cards even when they had no idea whether they were good or bad.

At the time, the dominant view in the field of psychology assumed that human decision-making was a thoroughly logical process, driven by a constant calculation of probabilities and costs and benefits. The reaction to that botched deal made Langer suspect something very different.

To test this, she ran a study in which she set up a lottery and varied the terms by which people got their tickets. She found that subjects valued their tickets much more when they were allowed to choose them, even though that did nothing to increase their chances of winning. She called this “the illusion of control.”

Langer followed this up by looking at the often meaningless factors that determine how people evaluate information. In one study, conducted with Benzion Chanowitz and Arthur Blank, she had experimenters approach people who were using a Xerox machine and ask to cut in to make copies. They found that people were more likely to let someone cut if offered a reason – but, intriguingly, it did not matter if the reason made sense. People were as receptive to a meaningless reason (“to make copies”) as a valid one (“I’m in a rush”).

“It is not that people don’t hear the request,” Langer wrote in “Mindfulness,” “they simply don’t think about it actively.”

These findings broke open the field of social psychology. “It was a huge corrective,” says John Bargh, a psychologist at Yale known for his work on “automaticity” and thought. He remembers reading the Xerox machine study as a graduate student: “That just lit me up. It opened my eyes and everything was off to the races after that.”

For Bargh and others, Langer’s research cleared the way for a whole new model of how people really think and decide, one that replaced the cold inner logician with a rich tangle that incorporated emotion, evolution, and the particularities of the human body. Researchers like Daniel Gilbert, Antonio Damasio, and Dan Ariely saw mindless behavior as a trove of clues, and in many cases, psychologists discovered that there could be a value to “mindlessness” – our seemingly irrational instincts were not only quicker, but often more accurate than our more considered ruminations.

Langer, on the other hand, thought mindlessness was harmful. Not paying attention to their lives, as she saw it, made people bored and careless, prejudiced and complacent; it stunted innovation and led to catastrophic errors among pilots and soldiers and surgeons. She didn’t see mindlessness as a window into the brain. She saw it as a condition to be cured.

So Langer began to study its opposite. She called it “mindfulness,” a term that was being independently adopted around the same time by doctors and therapists embracing the Buddhist practice of mindful meditation. Langer’s definition was something more everyday – that we simply need to go through life paying better attention to it. She began to focus her work on the question of what difference that might make.

Among other things, she argued, it could make us live longer. In 1976, working with Judith Rodin at Yale – a psychologist who would later become president of the University of Pennsylvania – she published a landmark field study that looked at what happened when nursing home residents were given more control over their lives. Langer and Rodin set up their experiment so that one group of residents was asked to make a few small decisions about their lives – where to receive visitors, what entertainment options they preferred, and how to care for houseplants placed in their rooms – and another group was not given these choices. A year and a half later, Langer and Rodin found that not only were the residents who had been given more choices happier, more social, and more alert than the other group, many more of them were still alive.

“Whenever you’re making a choice, you have to notice things, and that makes us engage,” Langer told me. “Mindfulness is figuratively enlivening, and it’s literally enlivening.”

Another set of findings by Langer suggests that, to a seemingly supernatural degree, simply believing something can make it so. In a study published in 2007 with her student Alia Crum, Langer found that telling hotel maids that their work satisfied the surgeon general’s recommendations for an active lifestyle led to a decrease in those maids’ weight, blood pressure, and body fat four weeks later, even though they reported no change in activity or diet.

The study that the movie will center on took place in 1979 and was, in its way, a feat of canny stagecraft. In an old monastery in Peterborough, N.H., Langer and her students set up an elaborate time capsule of the world 20 years earlier, then sent two separate groups of men in their late 70s and early 80s to spend a week there. Each group spent the week immersed in the year 1959, discussing Castro’s advances in Cuba and the Colts’ victory in the NFL championship, listening to Perry Como and Nat King Cole, watching “North by Northwest” and “Some Like it Hot.” The only difference between the two groups was that one talked about the year in the present tense – they were pretending it was 1959 – and the other group referred to it in the past.

Before and after, the men in both groups were given a battery of cognitive and physical tests. What Langer found was that the men in both groups seemed to have reversed many of the declines associated with aging – they were stronger and more flexible, their memories and their performance on intelligence tests improved. But the men who had acted as if it really was 1959 had improved significantly more. By mentally living as younger men for a week, they seemed actually to have turned back the clock.

What was happening to those men? Today Langer says she’s not entirely sure. It may be that they believed, on some level, that they really were 20 years younger, and that their bodies reacted accordingly. Or it may be that the effort of maintaining the fiction engaged their minds in a way that rejuvenated them.

But ultimately Langer seems less interested in the question of how mindfulness works than how to harness it in practice. In her books – mostly written for a popular audience – and her many speaking engagements, she outlines a philosophy in which the right mindset can often literally transmute life’s ills.

Other researchers, however, are more cautious about Langer’s mind-over-matter effects, and wonder if other factors might be at work. There may be subtle behavioral changes that accompany the changes in mindset, unbeknownst to both subject and researcher.

“The question is how much does it help simply to have the feeling – or does the feeling help because it gets you motivated to try to do something,” says Julie Norem, a psychologist at Wellesley College.

Skepticism about Langer’s conception of mindfulness is fed by the fact that she doesn’t always publish her more provocative findings in academic journals, a tendency that can make her seem less interested in testing her ideas than publicizing them. The study of the older men is recounted anecdotally in multiple books, but was never published in a peer-reviewed research journal. (The movie was born when a screenwriter cold-called Langer and told her he had read “Mindfulness” on his mother’s recommendation.)

Langer readily concedes that her ideas have changed since her early career. “When I was first studying the illusion of control, I was doing it from a very rational perspective,” she says. Now, however, she says she is suspicious of the empirical approach that lies at the heart of scientific research. One of her favorite hobbyhorses is probabilistic thinking. (“You can tell me that there’s a 20 percent chance of it raining tomorrow, but tomorrow it will either rain or it won’t rain.”)

Instead, Langer’s “psychology of possibility” focuses not on how the typical person thinks, but on the special qualities of outliers and apparent oddities, and rests on a faith in the untapped potential of the mind. Her work reaches thousands of people, and, on the largest scale, she sees progress.

“I think the culture is headed toward an evolution in consciousness,” she told me.

The psychology of possibility can take Langer to some curious places. In a blog post last summer for the Psychology Today website, she told the story of a friend who on a long-ago trip took photos of an Indian guru only to find he didn’t show up on film. The inability of many people to believe the story, Langer suggested, was due to “our mindless adherence to longstanding views.”

But to Langer, among the strongest arguments for the psychology of possibility is the way it has enriched her own lived life: She is now a painter, a dispenser of performance-enhancing advice on the doubles court, and the basis for a Hollywood biopic. As she told the seminar at Kripalu, “I have fun when I make the paintings, I have fun when I write the books, I have fun when I speak to you. Because, why not have fun?”

[via Boston Globe]
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Act Normal: The making of…

Act Normal: A Documentary by Olaf de FleurRobert T. Edison was born and raised in Nottingham, England. When he was fourteen years old he began to practice Buddhism. At eighteen he became a monk and went to Thailand where, for a decade, he spent his time in monasteries as Bhikkhu Dhammanando.

He became the first Buddhist monk in Iceland when he moved there in 1994 and founded a Buddhist sect.

Here director Olaf de Fleur talks about the 10-year making of his documentary, Act Normal, as he followed the progress of Robert/Dhammanando from monasticism to lay life and back again.

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