In “The Muddied Meaning of Mindfulness” in the April 19 New York Times magazine, Virginia Heffernan is certainly right when she points out that the word mindfulness is heard a lot these days, so it’s natural to ask, “What does this word mean anyway?” We’ve heard every tech innovation called robust, every employee assessed for their engagement, and every idea touted as scalable. Upon close examination, all of these words mean different things to different people. It’s no surprise that it’s just the same with mindfulness. Does that mean its meaning is muddied?
Perhaps a more interesting question is why are so many people interested in mindfulness practice? It’s probably because it addresses deeply felt human needs: to regulate our emotions and our stress more effectively, to tame the nagging voice in our heads, to maintain focus without drifting off, to be fully engaged in what we’re doing and able to recall why we’re doing it in the first place. We all have these challenges and we all have the natural human capability to work with them creatively. Mindfulness is that natural capability, and the practice of meditation is a particularly effective way to strengthen it.
One of the places we face these challenges most acutely is on the job. Our attention is pulled this way and that by a blizzard of information, we’re under greater demand to produce things more quickly, and the promise of leisure and ease that technology would bring has not been borne out. Mindfulness meditation holds out the promise that we could find a natural stability, resilience, and clarity within our own minds in the midst of this chaos. Not so that we can drift into our own inner space, but so we can draw more effectively on all of our capabilities, and take action if necessary. The point of introducing mindfulness on the job is not to foster a compliant workforce. It is to help people become more self-aware and able to discern how their workplace efforts—in schools, hospitals, other public institutions, and businesses of all kinds—can contribute to a better life for them, a better organization, and a better society overall. To check that out, ask some people who have been trained in mindfulness in the workplace. It’s not brainwashing.
Some people seek mindfulness meditation for the simple benefits that come from taming a wild mind, and stop there. Many others find that the stable lens meditation practice can provide offers an excellent means to explore with curiosity how our mind works, to become more aware of the interdependence that characterizes all of life, and to be inspired to care more for others.
There are emerging standards for what qualifies as mindfulness meditation, and as these standards become more widely established, people seeking to learn it can make the same kind of informed choice they might make in choosing a doctor or a school. One of those standards is that mindfulness meditation is not about escaping suffering and pain or about using “soothing self-induced thoughts to overcome difficulties,” as Heffernan wrongly suggests. Any authentic mindfulness meditation teacher, and there are thousands of them, would never suggest that.
A further standard is that a mindfulness teacher is obligated to give free rein to whatever questions the practice of mindfulness may bring up, including questions about why an organization or employer may be sponsoring the training and about its business practices generally. Real mindfulness allows for rigorous inquiry, into all things, inside and out. It’s not a quick fix.
The litmus test of mindfulness meditation’s value as a health trend and an emerging social movement should not be whether some people are cheapening it or bending it to base ends. That will always happen with anything of value. The test ought to be: is it helping people?
While studying the nature and effectiveness of mindfulness is a field of scientific study that is in its infancy, researchers are finding early evidence that it does help many people in many different ways. It’s helping schoolchildren gain focus and improve their learning. It’s helping veterans recover from trauma and drug abuse. It’s helping doctors and nurses improve their bedside manner. It’s also helping teachers, expectant mothers, managers, police officers, and more.
What could be the problem with that?