Monday, April 7, 2014

The Good and Bad of Mindfulness

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.


Sam L. said...

Sooooooooooooooo, one has to work at it? Needs checklists? Reminds me of Strategic Air Command and their checklists (remember Major Kong flying into Russian air space?)

Ares Olympus said...

When I want to sort things out, I like Iain McGilchrist's presentation on the divided brain, including this quick 12 minute version:

McGilchrist admits how easy it is to get ideas wrong about the nature of our two minds, but his attempt tries to show the two ways of seeing.

I like his analogy of a "hall of mirrors" where our mind creates models of the world that allow us to act with confidence, but then we fail when realty diverges from our models, and rather than admit we were mistaken, we can actually rationalize away and filter out all the contrary data that would force us to see what's really there.

I'm not sure if Conservatives or Liberals are more able to fall into such traps, but clearly both do it. So from that background I see "mindfulness" contains an element of surrender, where you're not committed to outcomes, so that's a state you're more likely to see reality for what it is.

I also think of Simon Baron-Cohen's Empathizing–systemizing theory, seeing two different ways to see the world. So if you're an engineer trying to tame gravity, you want to be systematic, and model underlying laws of nature and overdesign against predictable stresses to static systems. But if you want to learn how to motivate people, that mindset won't get you very far.

Lastly I contrast to E.F. Schumacher's idea of convergent and divergent problems, the first being about technical problems which will converge towards a singular optimization, while problems in relation to living beings require awareness and consideration for divergent values (like freedom vs discipline in education) where if EITHER polar opposite value gains absolute power, the optimal solutions are lost.

So if you are Edison solving technical problems, be single-minded, and focused and control all the variables until what's left is mathematical perfection, but if you're a political leader or a parent or teacher, you'll probably become a bully with that excellent skill, and you'd better step back when things don't work the way you expected, and consider it may be your problem rather than the world's.

Unknown said...

I agree one should have the right mix of “mindfulness” and a routine work schedule. Two stories come to mind. One a success story, and the other a failure.

First the success story.

In my first job out of college, a colleague’s farther was the president of Warwick Hotels. He had retired as a Major in the army, and took a job as a bellhop at a Warwick hotel. The job allowed him to observe most of the hotel’s operations. While dutifully completing his bellhop job, he also saw ways to make the hotel operation more efficient. Relying on his experience in the army, he knew how to sell his ideas to management. Over time, he worked his way to president of the company. He accomplished this by successfully completing his routine work, while also being mindful of ways to improve hotel operations.

Now the story of failure.

I’m sure the pilots of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco last July dutifully completed their landing checklist. However, while approaching the runway, they were unmindful of the fact that their plane was flying too slow. They also ignored the visual approach lights indicating that their plane was too low for a successful landing. Yet they flew their plane into the ground short of the runway. I would say they were not mindful of their present situation.

We all need to complete our routine tasks, but also need to be mindful of the present.

The Dark Lord said...

guess what reduces stress ... a routine or checklist for basic tasks that make up 50% or more of everyones daily routine ... its the people that refuse to grind out the basic stuff and be "creative" all the time that are stressed out in my experience ... they idea that you can always just "work smarter" instead of working harder is pure BS ... the only way to make the time to work smarter is to free up some time to do that and the easiest way to do that is to spend a good portion of you day working harder on the mundane tasks ...