Mindlessness, Mindfulness, and Cognitive Fusion

Researcher Dr. Ellen Langer

Mindlessness—which exists whenever we are not actively practicing mindfulness—is a mind state wherein we tend to rely upon rigid categories and distinctions we acquired in the past. New events and situations are classified according to old, timeworn labels. Our attitudes and behaviors develop out of these rigid constructs of the mind. According to Dr. Steven Hayes, the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we then wind up acting according to what amounts to a formalized set of rules of our own creation. 

For example, our conversations and interpersonal interactions commonly fall into very predictable patterns, both with particular people and in general. This provides a sense of safety and predictability; after all, when we are in full contact with the present moment, nothing is predictable. But staying locked in these predictable patterns limits our range of choices in how we interact.

This mindless state is in contrast to mindfulness, wherein our attitudes and behaviors develop out of our moment-to-moment subjective experience. When we are mindful, we are able to create new approaches to events and situations and are no longer bound by the past. According to research psychologists Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin, this allows us to explore our world with fresh and varied perspectives. It is essential in breaking free of cognitive fusion. 

The danger with cognitive fusion—which, again, is a state most of us dwell in most of the time—is that our thoughts exercise enormous power over us. In fact, they control us completely because we believe they must be obeyed. 

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