I recently watched a video of Ellen Langer speaking to the concept she’s labeled as mindfulness, the art of “ noticing new things.”
She considers mindfulness one of the key traits of 21st century leaders – the capability to see changes in the world around us that the human mind attempts to hold constant or stable. Langer came to this concept when she began to practice deep observation and noticed variations in color and perspective as she attempted to capture images as a painter. For her, an “aha” emerged from her study of tree. For me, it came through the study of snake.
Mindfulness represents a survival trait of humans that’s been around since we first figured out that a snake could be a deadly creature. Whether our fear of snakes is culturally or genetically induced continues to remain controversial, but most people I know possess an immediate, adverse reaction to snakes. I, on the other hand, have a perspective on snakes shaped by observations of herptiles in nature and in captivity. In fact, at one point in my life I thought I might end up chasing snakes in the Everglades as a career.
I am mindful of snakes in my world. It’s not unusual for me to walk into a space and feel a snake’s presence before I have an opportunity to see it. Reflecting upon mindfulness, I think it’s because I notice snakes as objects out of place in the present. It’s the slight off-shape of a copperhead lying in a burnished pile of fall leaves caught in the cranny of a warm rock or the sense of corn snake in the chicken coop before I reach in to grab an egg sunken in golden straw. On a walk along a graveled road, I’ll notice the shape of a green snake twined among newly minted spring vines. Over a lifetime of ventures in the natural world, I’ve developed an instinct to notice snakes in environments I enter. They are a form of “new thing” that others typically don’t notice – until underfoot.
Interestingly, my younger brother learned early on to notice Indian artifacts when walking fields on our family farm with my father.
In a different way he also notices new things when he’s looking down, even today. He’ll notice things below our typical forward-facing point of view that no one else ever sees- the fossilized shark’s tooth on the beach or a sidewalk nickel. It strikes me that we’ve both learned a skill that artists possess intuitively, the capability to “not ignore the environment.”
I’ve been working this past year to expand my potential to notice new things in natural and built environments through which I wander. I rely upon my iPhone to capture images everywhere. Some come from nature; others from inside learning spaces. It strikes me that my mind’s eye gets better incrementally at noticing new things in the present from the roadside yarrow to children sprawled all over the floor reading in a library rather than seated at tables and chairs.
It’s hard for me, I admit, to sustain mindful behavior throughout the day. Distracted by thoughts of what’s next on my to do list or the never ending email stream, how many times do I enter learning spaces without being present to notice new things? Why should I? What difference does it make when life and environment changes around me and I don’t notice? According to Ellen Langer, when we live in the present, we develop sensitivity to context and become aware of the uncertainties and changes occurring around us. As a result we’re able to maximize our options and avoid danger. There’s a lesson in Langer’s mindfulness relevant to both avoiding poisonous snakes and leading school communities.
When leaders support others to become mindful, the likelihood increases for not just survival but also advancement of the organization. I’ve learned from my own experiences when I’m with other educators and we’re paying mindful attention in the present, we tend to process our schools as multi-dimensional, active ecosystems in a state of change and accompanying uncertainty. We no longer see a flat, static environment that only exists in the stability of our mindsets. Instead of talking mostly about visible numbers, we notice people’s interactions, uses of tools, and the evolving habitat.
As a result, we move out of our silos, span boundaries, and collaboratively think together making use of our different perspectives. We begin to understand and process the conundrum of multiple points of view in an ever-changing landscape. As leaders, when we, and those with whom we work, begin to pay attention in the present, we realize that none of us individually ever has the predictive capability to make certain the future. We find when our community practices mindfulness together, we’re more likely to make informed and intelligent choices for the near future.
Collective mindfulness, an ancient trait of tribal humans, helped our ancestors survive to move civilization from caves to high rises. Mindfulness helped them notice the snake in the grass and the eggs in the nest. Finding our way back to practicing this earliest of community traits may be just what we need to help us negotiate our way successfully through the 21st century.