Mindless mindfulness?

Mindless mindfulness?

‘Mindfulness’ is the jaw-grinding word of the week, and mindless references to it in organisational work are driving me crazy! While one of its early Western exponents, Jon Kabat-Zinn, described it as ‘paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally’, I’m concerned that its careless use in business is another way of getting us to focus on the task at hand and so meet our given performance goals. This is a million miles away from the concept of sati (the term from which ‘mindful’ originally translates) which Theravadan Buddhists consider to be the first of the seven factors of enlightenment.

Lots of popular psychology books encourage us to ‘be in the moment’, although the trouble is that when we are not present, we are not present to knowing we are not present… Last week I went for a haircut. I could see the young woman who washed my hair before the cut, walk over and robotically reach for the shampoo without once seeming to notice me; as she wordlessly mouthed the lyrics to the song that was playing, she constantly scanned the room and then stopped to scratch her arm… The experience was rather alarming – I didn’t feel as though I was there, beneath her fingers, being touched, and it felt curiously degrading. But she didn’t know – she was not present to know… Perhaps this is the experience many of us have as employees, with managers who are more fixated on their objectives than us? Or as consultants, with leaders who see us simply as means to ends?

What can we do about this? One of the things I admire about Harvard professor Ellen Langer’s work in this field, is her emphasis that learning to change requires learning how we go astray. In effect, we have to question what isn’t working for us, and free ourselves from constricting mindsets and the false limits they place upon us. From this perspective, mindfulness is the psychology of possibility…

For example, Langer assets that things are changing all the time: the problem is that we seek certainty and run from doubt. We try to make our experience normative – to do ‘business as usual’. She believes that mindful practice is about embracing the unfamiliar and looking for exceptions to rules. To illustrate this, I’ll share one experiment Langer did with dolphins and their trainers (that oddly parallels my experience with the hairdresser I described above): she asked one group of trainers to behave ‘mindlessly’ with their dolphins – to swim with them while thinking all the time about bookish facts about dolphins – their size, intelligence, habits, and so on…

The other group of trainers was asked to swim ‘mindfully’ with their dolphins – noticing what was different about each dolphin from the other, and also what was different about the pod of dolphins from yesterday. This second group of dolphins consistently swam faster, jumped higher and stayed with their trainers for longer. Having less fixed views – effectively being less judgmental (about the dolphins, for example) – helps us to learn from those we lead, and is therefore supportive of change in both dolphins and trainers! What lessons there are for leaders - and leadership coaches, here!

The implications of Langer’s work are far-reaching. If exceptions point to possibilities, how can we learn to change positively, not through looking at averages and limits, at how we can fit in, be like others, take on ‘received’ notions of what it means to be us, but rather through embracing uncertainty and deeply considering our differences

Posted in Change Coaching Mindfulness on Friday, Feb 5th, 2016

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