It’s lucky that they don’t call it prayer.
Among the intelligentsia, atheism is on the rise. Judeo-Christian religions are routinely defamed. So, where can people go for spiritual solace? Apparently, they are now going to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness.
Roughly, it means that you should slow down and smell the coffee or the roses.
Mindfulness has even become something of a corporate fad. Forbes reports:
The concept of mindfulness has found its way into corporate speak, as professionals are encouraged to combat the frenetic pace of work by slowing down, pausing, and being more present. Creativity and learning require an ability to get off the hamster wheel and simply think. This is easier said than done, as we juggle multiple technologies, busy travel schedules, fatigue, and lengthening workdays.
One admires how cleverly its proponents have contrasted mindfulness with mindlessness, but the issue is, conceptually, more complicated.
The facile opposition of mindful creativity with mindless busywork does not tell the whole story.
Forbes explains how the promoters of mindfulness have defined the opposition:
In fact, this busyness is the opposite of mindfulness, because we get lost in our activities in a sort of mindlessness. It takes us away from the state of creative thought that, increasingly, we need to do complex jobs.
Harvard Professor Ellen Langer has championed this form of oppositional thinking:
Langer defines mindfulness as “the process of actively noticing new things.” The advantage to this is that “it puts you in the present. It makes you more sensitive to context and perspective.”
When a process becomes automatic, like using a checklist to get things done, we’re not being mindful about our work. We’re going through the motions, and doing what’s most efficient. While this can be the right approach, there are many ways to solve common work problems. By being mindful, we’re much more likely to find a new, innovative approach, rather than repeating the same old processes.
All of this sounds very good. Mindful meditation, such as it is, seems clearly to be benefit one’s mental health. So, is a day of rest, as prescribed by religions.
Then again, so are checklists. Many people function quite effectively while using checklists. To denounces them as mindless risks telling people that they should try to be less organized and less effective.
Moreover, detaching a spiritual practice from its religious foundation brings its own risks. Religions, whether Buddhism or Judeo-Christianity do not merely offer prayer as a way to lower stress. They offer membership in a group and they teach precepts to live by.
When people engage in spiritual practices outside of an organized religion, they are more likely to be drawn to cults. And they are more likely to believe that they do not have to follow rules of good conduct, the kinds of rules that help form harmonious communities.
Also, before we conclude that mindfulness will solve all of corporate America’s problems, we should note that free enterprise did not arise in Buddhist cultures. If we are to believe Max Weber—even with some caveats—capitalism arose in Protestant cultures.
If you look around the world at Buddhist cultures, cultures where people would have learned, as part of their religion, to practice mindfulness, you can judge whether it has enhanced or detracted from economic growth.
It is surely a good idea to take an occasional pause during the workday. And yet, it is a bad idea to fetishize being present. After all, if you really live in the present you will never learn from the past and will not plan for the future.
Langer is oversimplifying when she says that routinized work is busyness.
Thomas Edison explained that most good work is done semi-automatically. That does not mean that the experience lacks structure and organization. It does mean that if you think about everything you do before you do it you will be wasting an enormous amount of time and will be making your work less efficient.
In Edison’s words:
Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.
Obviously, Edison left a place for creative inspiration, but he famously explained that most of genius involves perspiration:
Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
No one can be creative all the time. No one should try to be creative most of the time. Without the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing routinized assignments no one is going to be very effective for very long.
People who believe too strongly in their own creativity are more likely to fail to do the scut work necessary to turn an inspired idea into a work product. Because, as the old saying tells us: “the devil is in the detail.”
The difference between great and mediocre often lies in the amount of time and energy you spend focusing on the details.
Now, one might argue, perhaps correctly, that a mindful attitude will help you to be more focused on the details. Surely, there are people who understand mindfulness in these terms.
And yet, concentrating on getting the details right takes hard work and sustained effort. Sometimes it even requires checklists.