Tuesday, October 11, 2011


In the therapy world mindfulness is all the rage.

Inspired by Buddhism, mindfulness seems to be a new, improved version of what therapists used to call a heightened state of consciousness. Today, however, they prescribe it as a meditation exercise.

While the word is on our minds, I will note that it has some other interesting usages in English. We tell children to mind their manners, which means that they should take the time to exercise good manners. And we use mindful as a synonym for thoughtfulness, meaning considerate of the feelings of other people.

In any case the concept of mindfulness makes a virtue of thought. For an excellent discussion of the uses of thinking, I recommend an excellent new book that I am reading now, Pier Massimo Forni’s: A Thinking Life.

As it happens, mindfulness is not quite the opposite of mindlessness, but opposing the two suggests that being mindful involves the exercise of intelligence.

Strictly speaking, mindfulness involves a focused attention to details. In the Buddhist and therapeutic variants you are mindful when you are conscious of your bodily or mental functions, when  you stop to smell the roses, or even when you follow Forni’s advice and think about what you are doing.

People who are mindful seem normally to be focused in the present. Mindfulness stops time or gives the impression that it has.

It is easier to contemplate or reflect when one feels that time has stopped.

At first glance, mindfulness seems to draw on experiences that were described in Romantic poetry. It brings William Blake’s lines to mind:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

It also recalls Wordsworth’s mindful recollection of “splendor in the grass and glory in the flower.

Mindfulness began as a way to get in touch with the sacred. Romantic poets recycled it into an aesthetic.

But, are you being mindful when you take your time editing a document? If you slow your mind down, pay close attention to the document's details, are you practicing mindfulness?

Surely, your activity has neither the sacred nor aesthetic valence that the concept of mindfulness contains. Careful editing is not going to get you closer to Buddhist enlightenment… though, for all I know, it might.

Stranger still is the observation, recently demonstrated by psychologists, that the emotion of envy, not the most attractive or pious of emotions, makes you more attentive, and, dare I say, more mindful.

This morning John Tierney was reflecting on envy in the New York Times. Distinguishing it from jealousy, he explained that envy involves coveting something that you do not have. If you envy your neighbor you resent his possessions, whether they be his Jaguar or his wife or his wit.

Presumably, if you see the Jaguar in his driveway and can afford the same or a similar vehicle,  you will not be feeling envy. You might even feel motivated to buy a car that you might enjoy.

If you cannot have what he has—say his wife or his brainpower or his success-- then you may easily become consumed by envy.

You may even want to take away or destroy what he has because then you will not feel envious of what he has.

Curiously, envy makes us more mindful. Tierney reports on research that shows that envy makes us more attentive to detail. It sharpens the mind.

If we envy our neighbor his Jaguar we are likely to be more focused on every part of it. It’s like the child gazing through the window of the candy store. If he has no money and cannot buy the candy he will savor more of it with his eyes.

If he has enough money to buy some candy, he will be working on making a decision about which piece he wants. Putting his mind in action mode compromises mindfulness.

So, we pay more attention to the lives, even the quirks, of those who are more fortunate or successful. Tierney explains why: “By paying more attention to these people, we might learn to emulate some of the strategies that yielded their advantages. Or we might notice something that we could use to embarrass and hinder them — again, not a terribly exalted cognitive experience, but potentially useful in winning struggles for status and resources.”

Therapists consider mindfulness to be a form of meditation. Yet, it also serves a more profane purpose when we are involved in a competitive marketplace or a status hierarchy.

So, there are good and bad sides to profane envy. Tierney writes: “ … other researchers, like the Dutch psychologist Niels Van de Ven, define envy in two different ways. There’s ‘benign envy,’ in which you pay attention to superiors in order to emulate them, so as to raise your own standing. That’s different from ‘malicious envy,’ in which you pay attention to superiors to find weaknesses that will lower them toward your level.”


Anonymous said...

"Curiously, envy makes us more mindful. Tierney reports on research that shows that envy makes us more attentive to detail. It sharpens the mind."

So Stuart -

could one then conclude that Marxism has generated millions of "mindful people", since,at its root, it is mainly about Envy?

I think this is yet another mongrel product of self-help comparative religion.

my understanding of buddhist mindfulness would mean
the person experiencing Envy
would recognize it(Envy) as "inappropriate desire"(the cause of all human suffering),
and would strive to refrain from indulging in it.

I read more and more nonsense
about buddhism as time passes.

I think a good intro to the belief system that might help people avoid
uninformed views is
"What the Buddha Taught" by Walpola Rahula
(shortened link to amazon.com) webpage:



Stuart Schneiderman said...

I think your point is well taken, especially in the sense that Marxism, which, as you correctly note, is essentially about envy, might well appeal to people because it allows them to focus and concentrate on something outside of themselves.