“Who knows what Evil lurks in the hearts of men?” intoned a sinister voice in the radio drama The Shadow, whose crime-fighting title character possessed mysterious powers he learned in the Orient to cloud people’s minds. For some reason, this is what came to mind when I read the recent blog post “Beyond McMindfulness.” Careening from conspiratorial point to point, readers are told there’s an unseen dark force lurking out there hijacking sacred Asian practices in the name of profit and productivity, ready to enslave hapless innocents into lobotomized, routinized, soul-killing work. Beware when Pavlov seizes control of the meditation bell.
As I read through, I found myself agreeing with the authors in places. For example, for this “movement” to have legs mindfulness training and teachers must be high-quality and ethically sound. That much is clear. However, other times it was not at all clear what they are advocating. The piece made me very curious and at times disappointed. It seemed a missed opportunity to offer constructive suggestions to a burgeoning social force.
Because no concrete examples were cited, I’m curious to know where exactly all of these apparently nefarious deeds are actually happening? For example, “The booming popularity of the mindfulness movement has turned it into a lucrative cottage industry.” Lucrative? Really? Says who? Show me the data. Better yet, show me the money.
Though I’ve been teaching mindfulness to managers for over a decade, only recently have I seen interest in this sort of thing growing. The people I know doing this work make at best modest livings, usually supplementing their income with another form of work. Some even rely solely on donation, and don’t charge any money at all. They are skillful, decent people dedicated to helping people live better lives, and why should they not be able to earn a decent living doing it?
My curiosity gradually shifted to sadness when the views offered by the authors turned to the condescending. They fail to credit people’s innate intelligence to make sense and judge for themselves. Nor do they show faith that genuine teaching can hold its own against the bobble-headed imposters that will surely arise. Most of all they seem to lack faith in the transformative power of mindfulness itself. They don’t seem to believe that a person who practices to be more effective at work also experiences other powerful changes. In my experience, mindfulness training for managers never once resulted in producing “docile cows” content to chew corporate cud. In fact, it can often be the very opposite.
The executives I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years include talented men and women who make sure that water comes out of the faucet, the electricity is on, and someone’s grandma is cared for. There are those who manage cardiac wards, neonatal units for premature babies, quality control for major hospitals and one who builds probes for exploring outer space. They’re single mothers managing complex engineering programs on a shrinking budget, IT managers laboring to provide for three kids while trying to satisfy a tyrannical boss, stewards of family businesses shouldering the duty to maintain a treasured legacy, and first-generation immigrants who worked hard, found material success, and are wondering whether this is all there is. They are also people with mortgages to pay who are caught in broken organizations seeking better tools than a bottle of alcohol. One former student, an Iraq war vet struggling with debilitating PTSD found himself transformed by the practice and subsequently dedicated his life to researching and disseminating methods for trauma healing to fellow veterans.
Yes, there is a mindfulness revolution going on and it is sorely needed, and it cannot remain confined to the Buddhist corner of the room because the world desperately needs what it offers. Decades ago, social theorist Peter Drucker recognized a gross imbalance modern Western societies had fallen into. Namely, taking too much to heart Descartes’ assertion “I think therefore I am” and defining education largely as a matter of cultivating rationality and emphasizing conceptual abstraction. The cultivation of conceptual thought has reaped the amazing benefits of science and technology, but it has done so at the enormous cost of alienating ourselves from our own experience and environment. For example, we live numbly oblivious to the ecology that supports life on earth.
What was left out of this rationalist paradigm was the parallel cultivation of refined perception and disciplined emotion, which Drucker saw as essential components of an effective and educated person. He also understood that society needed a return to spiritual values like compassion to fully realize the promise of material development. A hundred years before, William James declared the ability to control attention was the root of judgment, character and self-mastery and that the education that would provide it was “par excellence.” A century before James, Scottish philosopher Adam Smith suggested cultivating an “Impartial Spectator” to foster moral action. We should also include St. Ignatius’ spiritual exercises of discernment as well. Though it possesses a vast and evolved treasury of practices, Buddhism doesn’t hold the copyright on the basic human birthright to cultivate attention, compassion and open awareness.
However, without practical methods, indeed like those offered by Buddhism we remain an attention-illiterate society. The proliferation of “Mindfulness-based-fill-in-the-blank” is a badly needed corrective for institutions formed under an incomplete set of assumptions. We need an upgrade and we need it fast. And yes, we do need a growing body of empirical research into how effective mindfulness is in all kinds of secular settings.
The mindfulness train has left the station. It will continue to seep into organizational life because the demands of organizations require its transformative, connecting power to remain relevant. The challenge for us, as the authors rightly point out, is to insure that what is offered as “mindfulness” is high quality. Done well, its result is greater awareness, compassion and understanding of interconnectedness. Participation must also be freely chosen. Compulsory or coerced corporate mindfulness is diametrically opposite to its potential for cultivating freedom.
Furthermore, we need to develop robust institutions that powerfully convey the core of these teachings for a population comfortable with their faith commitments (or lack thereof) and aren’t interested in Buddhism. Mindful magazine is leading the way in providing thoughtful content for a growing community of people wanting to incorporate mindfulness in their lives. We need skilled, ethical teachers to draw out people’s inherent mindfulness. The Certification in Mindfulness Facilitation program at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center is a solid template to follow, and a variety of other programs are also breaking new ground in mindfulness teacher training. The academic programs of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society are helping scholars incorporate contemplative awareness in their teaching. The work of the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute is cultivating a new generation of scientists who can blend rigorous contemplative practice with equally rigorous scientific inquiry.
If mindfulness and its attendant virtues are going to have a beneficial effect on our society and be more than a passing and trivial fad, we need lots of people keeping an open mind and an eye on the real needs of real people in pain. What we don’t need is incoherent foaming about how the sky is falling or the imagined malevolent forces lurking in the shadows.