Why Meditation is Not a Productivity Tool
In a recent WIRED Magazine article about meditation in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, Noah Shachtman writes that some tech folks consider meditation a productivity tool. If you’ve read the article, you might even have come away with the impression that I share that view. I don’t.
It’s not that I have anything against the idea; I think it would be wonderful if meditation boosted productivity. I just don’t have any reason to believe that it does so with any consistency. For some people, the enhanced focus and creativity that often comes from training the mind through meditation might translate into Getting Shit Done (GSD). For others, greater intimacy with their bodies and the inner workings of their minds might result in Getting Less Shit Done (GLSD?) as they reconsider what is most important in their lives. Having discussed this with a fair number of meditators over the last 30 years or so, my sense is that one outcome is about as likely as the other.
In any case, using meditation as a productivity tool is like using your car for a greenhouse. It’s not that your car wouldn’t be a good greenhouse; it very well might, and I can almost picture the big basket of vegetables you might harvest. On the other hand, your car is good for a lot of things, including driving to the market on the odd chance that your own garden fails.
Meditation can help keep you together even when everything else in your life goes to hell. And this is good, because sooner or later, something dreadful is likely to happen. The benefits of meditation are much bigger than marginal productivity gains. If you consider a spectrum of benefits ranging from episodic stress reduction, through overcoming depression, to classical enlightenment and enhanced capacity for compassion, the potential is there to transform your life as well as the lives around you. Best not to sell it short.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that you should not be productive. If you have a business or a job, do it well. Excel and prosper as best you can. Just don’t tie your happiness to the success of your business. This I am sure about, because I have seen it so many times; happiness is not directly correlated with high levels of material success. Meditation, on the other hand, does reliably lead to happiness in the long term.
“Mindfulness” is poised to become the Next Big Thing. Here is the likely trajectory of the movement: “mindfulness” will be thoroughly co-opted by corporate interests, embraced as a fad by the public at large, discredited through its association with corporate power, and then rejected as cynically manipulative bullshit, all within ten or twenty years. In the short term, the credibility of all contemplative practice will suffer as a result. A shame, that. I wonder what will replace it?
Along the way, there will be a great deal of strident moralism and impotent hand-wringing, as those who claim to have a monopoly on “real” meditation lament the situation. It won’t help, at least in terms of the arc of overall culture. We have a tiger by the tail. The forces that have led to this moment have been in play for decades and will play themselves out on a similar time scale. On a personal and interpersonal scale, though, there is something we can do.
Value meditation for its own sake. Your own productivity will come and go, as will the popularity of the latest re-branding of contemplative practice as consumerist panacea. In the end, you will not regret your ability, cultivated over a lifetime, to make peace with this moment.
And don’t forget to practice! Every moment of making love to ideas is one you could have spent paying attention to your experience.
Metta to you.
San Francisco, 2013