Are We Mindful of Being Mindful

“The Art of Noticing” sounds like a gimmicky fad; does anyone really have to be reminded to notice things? A professor at Harvard University, Ellen Langer is the author of this serious book. She has been studying mindfulness and the consequences associated with mindfulness. When we stop being mindful it usually seems to end badly. In our personal life, we need to be mindful of turning off the stove, locking the front door, or even picking up our children from school.

In our professional life, we are really getting paid to do our job while being mindful. The problem is that when we are mindless we are not cognizant of the fact that we are acting mindlessly, because we are not in the moment. The inverse of being mindful of ourselves and our surroundings will often avert the dangers that have not yet arisen.

Back in 1982, Air Florida was an airline that flew between traditionally warm weather cities in the southern states. The pilots of Air Florida Flight 90 were not mindful of northern weather events such as snow. The pilot and copilot had gone through the same checklist that they routinely checked off every working day of their career. They noted that the “anti-ice” switch was off, as it usually is, in an aircraft whose home base is Florida.

They were taking off from Washington DC to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, during a freak blizzard in the nation’s capital. Due to the weather the plane was de-iced by the ground crew but the internal de-icing nozzle was kept off the entire time. The pilots simply didn’t recognize the need to be mindful of the snow all around them. The 737 jet spent almost an hour on the runway waiting for their turn to take off. Not being mindful again, both pilots didn’t consider that the wings were being coated in ice.

Waiting behind the engine heat of the jet in front of them was making matters worse as the heat from the engines melted the snow into ice. They took off without turning on the de-ice switch and barely got off the ground when they crashed into the 14th Street bridge with disastrous consequences, ending up in the Potomac River. The full length 1984 made for TV movie regarding the incident is available to view for free on YouTube; “Flight 90: Disaster On The Potomac”.

Another news story with a similar tragic end, was the story of the University of California, Irvine, professor who left his infant son in the backseat of his car as he went to work. Instead of taking the baby to child care, he was mindless and forgot and left the child in his car. This horrible story is repeated much too often. It has nothing to do with the proverbial absent minded professor, who has more important things to do. I am sure that nothing was more important to this professor than the life of his son.

Mindfulness is more ubiquitous than most people realize, and it is often only after dramatic events that we sit up and take notice. We look for ways that things are the same and miss the subtle ways things are different.
How can we be more aware and not become mindless? Traveling to new places definitely makes us more mindful of our surroundings, of picturesque sights to photograph, and even of those pesky pickpockets. We become more alive and more in the moment. Being with young people has a similar effect by seeing familiar things in a new perspective.

This week, Larry Carin, the new Vice President for research at Duke University reminded the Academic Council, that the University receives numerous grants and donations. Consequently, the entire staff of Duke’s research department; both medical and campus must participate in Responsible Conduct Training (RCT). This didn’t go over well with the faculty. Many of whom reminded him it was beneath his position to suggest the obvious; that faculty needs to act responsibly.

His response was to share the lessons in the book, “The Checklist Manifesto”, by Atul Gawande. The author is a surgeon who advocates the use of checklists to assure mindfulness when doing their daily tasks. Surgeons, pilots, and even astronauts always utilize checklists. However as a top surgeon, a former Rhodes Scholar and a MacArthur Fellow, he also felt that for him personally, checklists were redundant as so he just went through the motions.

Dr. Gawande then was humbled one day as he was preparing for surgery. As the team was going down the checklist, they were missing an extra supply of blood that was to be in the O.R., in the rare chance that complications would require substantial amounts of blood. So they waited until the blood was delivered and checked off the list. This surgery triggered that rare complication and because the extra blood was there, the patient’s life was saved. Without attention to the checklist, the patient would have died.

Duke University’s Vice President tried to use “The Checklist Manifesto “ as an allegory to explain the importance of mindfulness. Although participation in Duke University’s Responsible Conduct Training is not exactly comparable to a surgeon or pilot checklist. Nevertheless a misuse of funding or mismanagement can have huge negative monetary implications.

“We have a responsibility to be good stewards of the more than $1 billion in annual funding that allows us to do this important work. The organizations that entrust us with those resources are counting on us to use those resources well, and to engage in research of the highest quality. The stakes are high, and so should be our responsibilities”.

In our busy multitasking world, we should all take time to be actively mindful.

There’s actually grants available that open the mindfulness process to individuals in need of meditation as a tool to be mindful both in their individual and relationship life.

About the Author: Jake Tewel holds a Masters Degree from YU, a wine seller, caterer and a million miler for the past 15 years. Jake is a best friend, great neighbor, your go to travel person, father, grandfather and loving husband. He is now focusing his efforts on heart healthy nutrition, exercise and travel.

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