Let's Be Mindful About Mindfulness

The living moment is everything —D.H. Lawrence

At this year’s IdeaFestival, many noticed a theme: mindfulness. It’s strange, because IdeaFestival director Kris Kimel intentionally aims to keep the festival theme-free. The hope is that by eliminating a track or theme, we’ll promote rich inter-disciplinary discussion. But with Maria Konnikova, author of “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes,” kicking off the conference followed by magician/journalist Alex Stone, discussing the mind’s hidden powers, and speakers like Oliver Burkeman urging us to take a step back from the happiness-trap and tuning in to uncertainty, it’s not hard to see why.

But perhaps noticing the “mindfulness” theme was not solely due to the substance of the talks. It may have been, in part, because of how popular the subject is these days.

As all trendy media topics wear out their luster, is it possible that “mindfulness” has been overplayed? A recent article in the Scientific American caught my attention. According to Gary Stix, mindfulness “may not be good for everything”:

The vast majority of headlines arrive in your browser resonating with hyperbolic overtones:

  • “Pioneering Lee School uses mindfulness for pupils to beat stress and boost exams”
  • “How to Manage Your 40,000 Thoughts A Day and Keep Moving Forward”
  • “How Does Mindfulness Reduce Depression?”
  • “The value of mindfulness in Jewish Life”

In the inevitable contrarian dialectics of journalism, this string of good news cannot continue forever.  In other words, can mindfulness—and the meditation practices that foster it—really be good for everything?

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be mindful—it should be universally acknowledged that paying attention, looking up from your smartphone, and taking the time to reflect are all good things that we should aspire to do more of. But, as Stix points out, a recent study showed that people who rated low on mindfulness actually outperformed others on tasks like learning to ride a bike and making quick decisions:

Those registering lower on a test that measured mindfulness were able to identify more quickly a series of repeating geometric patterns on a computer screen that they were unaware they were learning. This type of unconscious, or implicit, learning is the same automatic mental process used in teaching yourself to ride a bike or that a child marshals in intuiting underlying grammatical rules by listening to the ways a parent strings together sentences.

The lesson, I think, is to avoid quick pro/con decisions about big, complex topics. “Mindfulness” may be a worthy goal, but it is not one-dimensional. Using the word to create buzz may, after all, be robbing the concept of its full, beautiful complexity.

Have a great weekend, and stay curious!


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