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August 2012
Tips and Topics
Vol. 10, No. 5 August 2012
In This Issue

SAVVY & SKILLS – Mindfulness from the “mother of mindfulness research”
SOUL – Lessons from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Welcome everyone to the August edition of Tips and Topics (TNT).  Thanks to all the new subscribers this month who are joining us for the first time.

Senior Vice President
of The Change Companies®


On National Public Radio’s (NPR) “Talk of the Nation” earlier this month, I heard an interview with Ellen Langer, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.  She was invited on the show partly because she had been chosen to present an important keynote at the upcoming American Psychological Association conference in Orlando, Florida.  I am writing about her in Tips and Topics this month because I strongly resonated with much of what she said.   I gathered many pearls of wisdom just from her short 30-minute interview as well as input from callers-in to the program.These days we hear and read a lot about mindfulness.  Ellen Langer has been called the “mother of mindfulness”.  How do you talk about a 30-year career (studying mindfulness) in 30 minutes?  Somehow Langer reached me in that 30 minutes.Below are Tips on mindfulness, which stood out for me.  What you see in double quotes is direct conversation from the program, because Dr. Langer and the callers say it best.


Mindfulness is “simply noticing new things”, not to be confused with thinking about things.

  • “Even when you’re thinking, what is stressful is the worry that you’re not going to get the answer right, not the actual playing with the material.”
  • “Mindfulness is what you’re doing when you’re at leisure.”  Dr. Langer explains that it is like when you are on a vacation.  You’re looking for new tourist sites to visit, new and exciting activities to do, new restaurants to try.   “Mindfulness is enjoyable rather than taxing.”  Even more than that, it’s energizing rather than draining.

Application to SKILLS
If a client is anxious and stressed, teach them mindfulness- i.e. to simply notice new things and “play” with discovering those new things (or noticings) about their anxiety.


Oh, look how my anxiety really intensified when I got near that person.

My breathing and heart beats are really increased right now.

Right now I’m really busy and have to keep functioning at work. I’ll set aside 5 minutes in an hour’s time to let myself really be anxious, but not right now.


Mindfulness supports the idea of living in a state of novelty all the time, being in the moment.  This reaps physical, mental, social and spiritual benefits.

  • “Many of the things that stop us are things that we’ve learned that we don’t question. We just assume that they’re true.”
  • “Many years ago, I was at this horse event. And this man asked if I’d watch his horse for him because he wanted to get his horse a hot dog. Well, I’m Harvard-Yale all the way through. So I snicker to myself: What is he, kidding? Horses don’t eat meat. He brought back the hot dog, and the horse gobbled it up. I like being wrong. You can actually learn something.”

Application to SKILLS
Remember when you started a new job, questioning your competence?  Am I doing the right thing?  The more you stressed about achieving the right outcome, the less you were present in the moment to actually notice what you were doing.  The result?  Getting tangled up, more anxious, only proving to yourself your level of incompetence.  As a practice, Mindfulness changes your view of a mistake- it’s a new discovery, not something to beat yourself up with.   You have learned something about yourself;  that learning guides you to do something differently next time.  So stay present and notice in the moment what you are doing or thinking.  Make new discoveries!

You may have a client stressed about obsessive thoughts or ruminating about his/her fears.  Help him just notice what is going on. Teach her to observe what she can learn about herself without trying to fix it now, or trying to do the ‘right’ things to get rid of the uncomfortable symptoms.


Be mindful of the words you use to describe what you do or what a condition is.  Reframing your outlook can promote well-being and health.

Dr. Langer once worked with a group of hotel maids.

“Just by doing their jobs, each got more than the recommended amount of daily exercise (she told them) but they didn’t think of (their job) as exercise. Once Langer told them that it was – ‘yes, what you’re doing is comparable to working out’- they lost weight and reduced both body mass index and blood pressure without changes in their diet or their practices.”

How their job was framed to them changed their outlook and their health.

Here is some wisdom from a listener who contributed an e-mail:

“It’s such a simple thing, but whenever I have something distasteful to do, like say clean the toilet or some such, instead of saying I have to go clean the toilet, I say I get to clean the toilet, that is I am in good health, and I am able to do this task. And it sounds – you know, it sounds, well, simple.  But, Ellen Langer, words matter.”

Words Matter
Langer also researched words used in the medical world- words related to health and disease.

“Yes, words matter enormously….. I looked at chronic versus acute illness, and I couldn’t find a definition for chronic. You know, did you need to have the symptoms 24/7, three hours a month? There was no definition.
But (words) matter enormously because when people see that they have a chronic illness, they believe that there’s nothing they can do about it.  And so then we set out to study this in various ways, not the least of which is once you start paying attention to when you have the symptoms and when you don’t, three things happen:

The first is you see you don’t have it all the time, so it’s not quite as bad as you thought. You know, people are depressed, they think they’re depressed all the time. No one is anything all the time. People who are dyslexic, it turns out that most words, over 90 percent of the words they’re reading they tend to read correctly, yet they define themselves by their illness. So what happens is first you see you’re not as bad as you thought you were.

Second, by seeing that sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse leads you to ask the question, well, why, and you may well come up with a solution.

And the third, even if you don’t, that whole process is mindful, and the 35-or-so years of research we’ve done shows that that kind of noticing new things leads to health and longevity.”

Application to SKILLS
If you’ve been a longtime reader of Tips and Topics, you know every so often I raise the issue of terminology – words that can help make or break relationships.  For a recent example, take a look at SKILLS in the October 2010 edition of Tips and Topics.

It isn’t just about the words clinicians use about clients. Equally important are the words clients speak about themselves and their condition.  Helping them reframe their outlook will promote wellness and recovery.


Making choices is the essence of mindfulness and it is empowering and life-giving.

A psychologist caller reminded Dr. Langer of a study she had done in a nursing home.  Residents of the nursing home were given choices about apparently inconsequential things:  Do you want a plant in your room?  Would you like to just water a plant?  Do you want a plant you can take care of yourself?  What the study found was that those people given these choices actually lived longer. How can such a simple thing lead to such monumental, positive consequences?

Dr. Langer sees choice as an exercise in mindfulness.  When we are given choices about things we regard as ‘no big deal’, we don’t fret about making the right choice, or doing the right thing.  We actually don’t even think of this choice as a choice.  However we have choices all the time.

LANGER: “I can be talking now or not talking, but until I said that (just now), it didn’t occur to me that I had a lively choice (to talk or not to talk right now).”

LANGER:  Making choices is empowering. Making choices is the essence of mindfulness. So it goes beyond just feeling more powerful: The neurons are firing, and life becomes more exciting.

Application to SKILLS
In our field, we talk about individualized, person-centered, client-directed empowerment and recovery.  These are not just buzz words.  These phrases actually require us to offer people real choices about their treatment and recovery plan.

What are they (the clients) choosing?  Abstinence?  Cutting back? Using recreationally without getting into trouble?  What about medication?  Are your clients open to whatever is prescribed? OK with some medications but not others?  OK if certain side effects are manageable? No medication at all?

PS:  If you haven’t read Don Kuhl’s “Mindful MIDweek” gems each week, click on to see and sign up.

  1. August 2, 2012: “Thinking ‘Counter Clockwise’ To Beat Stress” heard on Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio.
  2. Ellen J Langer, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility- Random House, May 2009


I have visited India twice.  It is fascinating – the mass of people, the richness of its culture, the sheer diversity of sights and sounds.  So when I first saw the movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” set in Jaipur, India, my excitement about India was sparked again.

Taking 14-hour plane rides from San Francisco to Sydney-  as I did earlier this month- gives you a lot of time to kill.  There’s eating, sleeping, watching, eating, sleeping, watching….. Planes offer many movie choices.  So why not enjoy “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” -again?  Once more I was taken with the sights and sounds, the culture and cultural clashes revealed through the characters.  On this second viewing however, I tuned in more to the dialogue. I was impacted by several well-written and well-acted, insightful exchanges.

So for your reading pleasure (hopefully) in case you don’t see the movie, here are some of those:

  • I loved the optimism and hopefulness of this earnest retort to one of the hotel guest’s negative complaining: “Everything will be alright in the end, and if it is not, then it is not yet the end.”
  •  I smiled at the refreshing honesty of an older man and woman who were wanting to “hook-up”, but whose courting small talk was rusty and going nowhere.  So they started again:
    “I’m Norman and I’m lonely.”
    “I’m Carol and so am I.”
    And the sad and wistful honesty of a widow:
    “I’m single by choice, just not my choice.”
  •  I appreciated the cultural competence and response of one of the British hotel guests to his fellow exasperated and disillusioned foreigner:
    “What do you see in this country!?”
    “The light, colors, smiles and the way people see life as a privilege not a right.”
  • I admired the script writer’s skill and the British dry humor that created this dialogue between a guest and a couple mired in an embittered, barren marriage announcing their 40 year wedding anniversary:
    “We haven’t quite decided how to mark the occasion,” they said.
    “Perhaps a minute’s silence” was the sad but incisive suggestion.

I hope you enjoyed your summer movies as much as I did.

Until Next Time

See you again in late September. Thanks for reading.

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