We’ve been discussing Ellen Langor’s Mindfulness over at The High Calling, and my responses to the various chapters have careened from understanding and agreement to puzzlement and disagreement. Last week, I was encouraged and even inspired by what she had to say on aging and mindfulness. This week, I would have thrown the book across the room except I’m reading it on my Kindle.
This chapter is “Creative Uncertainty. “Out of an intuitive experience of the world comes a continuous flow of novel distinctions,” she says. “Purely rational understanding, on the other hand, serves to confirm old mindsets, rigid categories. Artists, who live in the same world as the rest of us, steer clear of these mindsets to make us see things anew.”
Well, I thought, there’s at least three conditional statements stated as facts and packed in one paragraph, with not a shred of evidence offered. I’m generally a right-brain thinker working in a largely left-brain environment, but even I have trouble with those statements as facts. But I continue on.
“By keeping free of mindsets,” Langer says, “even for a moment, we may be open to see clearly and deeply.” I doubt seriously that anyone, left-brain thinker or right-brain thinker, artist or engineer, is capable of being free of mindsets. Even artists. Perhaps especially artists (and I include myself as a writer in the definition of “artist”). “Being free of mindsets” is itself a mindset.
Langer argues for encouraging creativity by teaching “facts” in an unconditional manner. “Facts shouldn’t be taught as unconditional truths,” she says, “when they might be better seen as probability statements that are true in some contexts but not in others.” I read that, and my antennae start twitching. Here we go, I think; it’s all relative, and my truth is my truth and your truth is your truth. And I’m moving beyond uneasiness, because I know where a line of argument like this can lead, especially from the perspective of faith in God. It leads to belief in nothing, including creativity.
She gives an example of how something should be taught as a conditional or probability statement. “Imagine the impact of a divorce on a child initially taught ‘a family is a mother, father and a child’ versus ‘a family could be…’” She says that objections to that approach will spring from faulty comparisons. Perhaps she should consider other studies, in addition to her own, that say something very different.
But I continue reading. As Langer might say, my mindset is working overtime, because now I’m doing close reading, and I begin to find examples of her own statements that she sees as faulty in others.
“After we reach college,” she says, “we encounter teaching done in a conditional manner. We are taught about theories, models, hypotheses, and not just ‘facts.’” I should point out that this statement is presented as an unconditional truth – the very thing she argues against.
Here’s another one: “The dampening of creativity in students by unconditional teaching is compounded by most textbooks. Scientific investigations yield only probability statements and not absolute facts. And yet, these probabilistic data and information that are true only under certain circumstances are presented in textbooks as though there were certain and context-free.” I might add, exactly like they’re being presented in this chapter of Langer’s book.
She cites a few of her own studies as supporting evidence, but even I could pick them apart for the information that wasn’t being considered. She also cites a poem by William Wordsworth, an anecdote about Winston Churchill’s intuition, a photographer’s lecture and a personal anecdote about tuna fish sandwiches.
I’m trying to take this book seriously; I really am. I’ve second-guessed my own particular mindsets to see if I’m completely misinterpreting what I’m reading. I even sent an email to the book discussion leader, suggesting I not link my post because it might derail the discussion. (She told me to plunge ahead.)
Yes, I think I’ve become the bad boy of the book discussion group.
Laura Boggess is leading the discussion of Mindfulness at The High Calling. To see others’ responses to this chapter, please visit the site.