The Nature of Mindlessness

Your doorbell rings at 2 o’clock in the morning. Startled, you get up, make your way downstairs and open the door. A man stands before you wearing diamond rings and a fur coat; a Rolls Royce stands behind him. He is sorry to wake you up at this ridiculous hour, but he is in the middle of a scavenger hunt. He needs a piece of wood about three by seven feet, two inches thick. Can you help him? To make it worthwhile for you he will give you $10,000, which he holds in cash in his hand for you to see. He is obviously rich and you believe him. ‘How in the world will you find such a piece of wood?’, you say to yourself. You think of the lumber yard, but at this hour it is closed. You struggle to come up with a solution but are unable to. Reluctantly, you give up and tell him you are sorry.

The next day you pass a construction site near a friend’s house and you see a piece of wood that is just about the right size, three by seven feet – a door. For $10,000 you could have just taken a door off its hinges in your home last night and given it to him. ‘Why on earth’, you say to yourself, ‘didn’t it occur to me to do that?’

It didn’t occur to you to give the gentleman one of your doors, because when he showed up at 2 o’clock in the morning asking for this piece of wood, your door was not a piece of wood. The three by seven feet, two inches thick piece of wood was hidden from your view, stuck in your constructed category called ‘door’. You thus could not make the connection between ‘door’ and the exact piece of wood the gentleman was looking for. In addition, you were also stuck in the familiar context of construction costs, which does not price a door at $10,000. You were not able to enlarge your context and realize that for $10,000 the cost of giving him one of your doors would have been amply covered and you would have actually made a profit. You were entrapped by the category ‘door’, which impeded your view of ‘door’ as this piece of wood, and also entrapped by the context of construction costs, which does not equate ‘door’ with $10,000. This entrapment by category and context, which imprison your action, are some of the mechanisms that can help us understand the nature of mindlessness. Literally, the lights are on, but nobody is home. Day in and day out we unwittingly practice mindlessness and are surprised to find our lives so full of suffering.

(Adapted from: Ellen Langer, Mindfulness, 25th anniversary edition, p. 11)

Copyright © 2018 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

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