Ellen Langer is a modern day Renaissance Woman. Originally a researcher and psychologist she has developed into a writer and, most recently, a painter. In recent years her two prominent work directions have been several books looking at ‘mindfulness’ and her painting. She is incredibly non-precious about the world of art – “All it takes to become an artist, is to start doing art”
Mindfulness, as a concept has been a large part of her life. The original book, ‘Mindfulness’ was published in 1989 and ‘The Power of Mindful Learning’ in 1997. There are 2 more books on the subject in preparation ‘Mindfulness and Health’, and ‘Mindfulness at Work’. Mindfulness has become a feature of her life as I noticed the word cropping up on a number of occasions in the interview and even by email where she concludes with “Mindfully, Ellen”
Her description of how she started painting is below the interview.
I interviewed her in May 2007
Q. What are you up to at present?
I’m in the process of writing a new book. I tend to write in the mornings. This is however, somewhat of a loose rule.
Q. What are your thoughts of work / life balance?
I don’t really draw a distinction between working and not working. Being mindful means that your work is part of your life. If you’re enjoying work it doesn’t seem like work. Perhaps if there’s one question you can ask someone to see if they’re working mindfully it’s “Do you need a vacation?” If they are working mindfully they are engaged in what they’re doing and enjoying it. I’ve referred to it as ‘The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.’
Q. Recently you’ve achieved some recognition as an artist – being shown in 3 galleries I believe. I’ve seen some of your work and it looks as though you’re having fun.
If someone had told me 6 years and one day ago that I would be an artist I really wouldn’t have believed them. Then I started painted and I really started to enjoy it. I was interested in whether you could be mindfully creative. Research on other areas of the arts indicates that people are. People in orchestras enjoy themselves more when they are mindfully engaged in what they’re doing. It’s very exciting for me and there’s a final output. It is fun.
Q. I’m curious as to people’s perceptions of Wales. What thoughts have you on Wales?
Interesting I’ve thought about this when you mention it in your email. I have no stereotypes of Wales at all. It’s on the list of places I would like to visit.
Q. I hear there’s a film in the offering perhaps involving Jennifer Aniston?
Yes, and that is progressing well. It’s a very exciting project.
Q. How would you classify yourself these days? What would you say your occupation is on your passport?
I wouldn’t like to classify myself as one thing. I would like to think that I integrate my life as a psychologist, researcher, writer, and artist. I’m in a good position. I can experience something and then do some research to see if others also experience this.
Q. Do you plan for the future?
Not really. I would disagree with much of business literature on this point. I feel that I’m guided by goal and routine, rather they being governed by goal and routine. I pride myself in being ‘present’.
How I spent my summer vacation – Ellen Langer
I have a house on Cape Cod where I spend my summers. The plan each day is always the same: tennis in the morning, lunch with friends, and writing before the evening’s activities. But rarely do I follow the plan. And last summer turned out even more different than I had imagined. On the way, I found a side of myself that took me by surprise.
The day it began, I was walking down the street and ran into a friend, an artist. We exchanged pleasantries and then she asked what the day held for me. To my surprise, I said I was thinking of talking up painting. I don’t know why I said this. I’ve hardly ever thought about painting my entire life.
Being a supportive friend, she rushed me to her studio and gave me a few small canvases. I considered taking only one, thinking it would be enough. She insisted that I take five, because as she put it, “It shouldn’t be too precious.”
Coincidentally, that afternoon I had to deliver a book to another friend. He is a talented artist, as is his wife. She and I have never exchanged more than a few greetings, so when I saw her that day I couldn’t think of anything to say, except: “I’m thinking of taking up painting.” This became my “what you say to a painter” dialogue. She replied, “That’s great. Now get yourself a large canvas and just do it. Don’t evaluate yourself. Just do it.” Aside from the canvas size, the advice was the same.
A few days later I bought a few tubes of acrylic paint and a couple of inexpensive brushes. I didn’t paint, I just “got ready.” I left the Cape to visit a friend in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. While there, I found a wooden shingle and started to draw on it. The drawing was of a village, soft of a Vietnamese village. (You have to understand I wasn’t one of those kids in school who could draw.)
I took two more shingles back to Cape Cod, and on one I painted a girl on a horse racing through the woods. I liked it, yet I was afraid to show it to anyone. At the same time I felt compelled to show it to someone, anyone, who could tell me if it was any good. I chose the woman in the art supply store who I didn’t know. When I walked in the store, I showed her the shingle and asked if she thought I should paint this or something else. She said it was great, but I didn’t know whether she meant it or not.
I know now that no matter what she said, I would have found a way to see my effort as good rather than bad, because doing the painting was enormous fun. Still, it’s hard to ignore what others think. Then a student friend of mine visited. We painted. (As a child, she did well in art.) She reminded me of what I teach in class about the context-dependent nature of evaluation, and she joked and embarrassed me into just enjoying the act of painting.
Then the backhanded compliments started. A very close friend of mine saw my first creation and said, “They’re never as good as the first.” I don’t think she meant to be unsupportive, and in fact, I took the comment as a compliment. Why the first may actually be the best is worth some thought. I was fully present for the event, I didn’t judge it while I painted, and I didn’t mindlessly follow rules–I couldn’t, I didn’t know any. If the first effort is engaged mindfully like mine was, then it might be better than any subsequent attempt–that is, if those that followed were indeed more scripted or planned.
I bought a few more canvases and on one I painted a horse that appeared gleeful as he kicked his back heels together. A friend saw it and told me that a horse couldn’t do that. I told him I was new to painting, not to physiognomy. It was interesting. If people saw the painting in a gallery, they would have assumed each brush stroke was intentional. For my painting, the assumption was error, not intention.
When I got up every morning, I loved seeing the painting of the horse. I didn’t know if it was because I painted it or because of its content. And so I painted another horse. This one appeared content even though he stood on both sides of a fence. I was oblivious to his being in this position while I was painting. The activity was mindful to be sure, and I loved every minute.
There is a gallery in town that has a painting of a horse. It’s very good and very pricey. People have made comparisons. “Have you seen the painting of the horse on Commercial Street? Your horse reminds me of that one.” I like my painting more and more, but I’m still trying to figure out how the two paintings differ. Another friend, also an artist, prefers my horse. I can’t believe it. I’m thrilled. I still don’t know the underlying ways in which they are different, but now I have the courage to find out.
It seemed that people were impressed with how productive I was. So I painted and painted. In a month’s time I had 25 canvases. I couldn’t be sure if they were any good, but I knew there were a lot of them. The feedback was very good, but I could discount it if I were so inclined. There were people who said the paintings were good because I painted them; and there were people who said the paintings weren’t good because I painted them.
I moved on to portraying people. Now the psychological significance was overwhelming. I painted a friend and myself sitting in chairs by a window. This was the first painting that had “real” objects. The chairs were real and I put us in them. I set out to paint the two of us sitting, reading and enjoying the morning. When I stepped back to look at the painting, I realized it was true to form. The floor was slanted toward her, and as always she was trying to read while I was busy talking to her–book in hand, not to eye.
I painted all summer, loving every minute. My efforts were unscripted and I was unaware of the rules. I don’t evaluate the paintings; I just involve myself fully. One doesn’t need any artistic talent for that. After the painting is finished, I analyze it, questioning the psychological significance of the content, style and color. Thus, painting provides an opportunity for engagement and self-awareness.
Some people confuse my enthusiasm for an evaluation. I share my painting nonetheless because this engagement brings me enjoyment, which is readily available to anyone willing to let the process itself take over. Take a risk and find a new passion. It makes you mindful, teaches you about yourself and, perhaps most important, could be enormous fun.