Home > Uncategorized > The Misunderstanding of Mindfulness: It’s NOT a Tool for Efficient Thought; Is IS a Means of Observing Thought

The Misunderstanding of Mindfulness: It’s NOT a Tool for Efficient Thought; Is IS a Means of Observing Thought

April 26, 2016

When I am not writing blog posts in the morning I try to spend 30-40 minutes meditating and reading the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. I’ve attended several retreats he led before a stroke left him incapacitated and as recently as last weekend visited Blue Cliff Monastery where monks and nuns lead retreats in the Plum Village tradition he established.

Given this background in Eastern teachings, I found a recent NYTimes column in the “Job Market” section, Achieving Mindfulness at Work, No Meditation Cushion Required, to be maddeningly misleading. Written by Mathew May, an author and— based on the content of his essay— a management consultant, Mr. May oversimplifies mindfulness and waters it down in a fashion that I find to be misleading and, frankly, indicate his limited understanding of the term. He writes:

By most definitions, mindfulness is a higher-order attention that involves noticing changes around us and fully experiencing them in real time. This puts us in the present, aware and responsive, making everything fresh and new again.

Meditation is simply one of several tools for achieving mindfulness, and in the context of work it may not be the most suitable for many people. For those who, like me, can’t seem to get the hang of meditation, there is good news: You don’t have to meditate to become more mindful.

There are two approaches to mindfulness: Eastern and Western. The Eastern view indeed positions meditation as an essential tool to achieving a mindful state. But the Eastern view is more about quieting the mind and suspending thought. This philosophy is almost the complete opposite of the Western view of mindfulness, which centers on active thinking.

I would argue that given the speed of change today, it may not be realistic to suspend or stop thinking. Rather, we need to actively think through problems in new ways to achieve innovative, elegant solutions. These will not rain from on high in a meditation session.

These paragraphs indicate that Mr. May has two notions about mindfulness meditation that are incorrect. First and foremost, nothing “rains on high” as a result of meditation. Everything about meditation is an inside-out process and not top-down or outside-in. Second, and nearly as important, the “Eastern view” is not about “suspending thought” it is about “observing and accepting” thought. Part of the meditation practice is recognizing when thoughts arise on the cushion so that one can eventually control one’s reaction to those thoughts when they arise off the cushion.

At the end of his essay, Mr. May offers an algorithm for using meditation on the job, one that presumes an individual can achieve “self-distancing” in “a few easy steps”.  My response to this approach is a mixture of envy and dismay. It might be possible that Mr. May was able to achieve the “self-distancing” by applying an algorithm that is fast and efficient, and it might be possible for others to do so as well. In that case I am envious. But it may also be possible that Mr. May— in his goal oriented desire to sharpen his active thinking— is completely avoiding an opportunity to dig deeply into his own nature and diverting others from that same opportunity. In that case I am filled with dismay. Developing the self-awareness that leads to “self-distancing” takes a long time and— at least in my personal experience— leads to a humility because I am beginning to understand how little I really know about myself and the world around me.

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  1. Elyssa
    April 26, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    I agree with your assessment. I feel like mindfulness has been misappropriated and diluted as a way to make it feel like a quick and easy fix, especially in the business community where quick returns on investment and productivity are the priority. It’s unfortunate because a longer term investment in deeper mindfulness practices will bring greater awareness and contentment, but most Americans are seeking instant gratification.

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