Mindfulness is Not Magic!

© 2016, Richard McKnight

© 2016, Richard McKnight

This is an occasional blog on subjects pertaining to leadership, strategy, coaching, leadership development, and everything in between. You can sign up using the form at the left. © 2016 McKnight-Kaney.

MINDFULNESS IS A HOT TOPIC in business these days and I’d be the first to proclaim the benefits of mindfulness. This, of course, is the practice of focused awareness introduced by the Buddha over 2500 years ago. I have taught versions of this practice for over 30-years and am proud to say that I am also a graduate of the Jon Kabat-Zinn Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. After studying mindfulness intently for the past  year (taking the Zinn course, daily practice for 30-minutes, much reading about the subject, consulting with long-term meditators), I am more convinced than ever that mindfulness is an exceptionally useful personal practice. 

But in reading a popular book about the mindfulness course taught at Google—Search Inside Yourself, by Chade Meng-Tan, I feel a need to say, “Whoa! Hold up! Mindfulness is great, but it’s not magic.” 

The book traces the connection between mindfulness and emotional intelligence (EQ). Mindfulness, says the author, contributes to emotional intelligence in that the core competence of EQ is self-awareness, which mindfulness cultivates perhaps better than anything else we know of. So far, so good. The thesis of the book is that “contemplative practices can be made beneficial both to people’s careers and to business bottom lines.” 

All this is fine, but check out this list of potential benefits of mindfulness claimed by the author. The only thing that seems to be missing is that mindfulness also makes your coffee in the morning!

  • See yourself through kinder more understanding eyes
  • Calm your mind on demand
  • Concentration and creativity improve
  • Perceive your mental and emotional processes with clarity
  • More self-confidence
  • Uncover your ideal future
  • Develop optimism
  • Develop resilience
  • Improve your empathy
  • Enhance your social skills
  • Mindfulness accomplishes only one thing. Here is how Depak Chopra put it:

“The variety of meditation techniques, traditions, and technologies is nearly infinite, but the essence of meditation is singular: the cultivation of mindful awareness and expanded consciousness.” 

Even Jon Kabat-Zinn, the originator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (and who wrote a foreword to Search Inside Yourself) is modest about the purpose and results of the practice:

“Mindfulness can be thought of as moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, as non-reactively and as openheartedly as possible.” 

From the Google book and much else that is showing up on mindfulness (e.g., Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership, by Janice Marturano) it is easy to get the impression that mindfulness is a cure-all. In my view, mindfulness—and the innumerable other approaches to meditation—should be the beginning of something or an addition to something, not an end in itself

To this point, here is Jack Kornfield, Buddhist teacher, 30-year meditator, PhD psychologist, and co-founder of vipassana meditation in an article entitled, “Even the Best Meditators Have Old Wounds to Heal:” 

“While I benefited enormously from the training offered in the Thai and Burmese monasteries where I practiced, I noticed two striking things. First, there were major areas of difficulty in my life, such as loneliness, intimate relationships, work, childhood wounds, and patterns of fear, that even very deep meditation didn’t touch. Second, among the several dozen Western monks (and lots of Asian meditators) I met during my time in Asia, with a few notable exceptions, most were not helped by meditation in big areas of their lives. Many were deeply wounded, neurotic, frightened, grieving, and often used spiritual practice to hide and avoid problematic parts of themselves.” 

Yes, meditate. But be wary of the hype. This powerful practice can be wonderfully helpful, but it’s not magic.