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.

Kenneth Folk

San Francisco, 2013

 

6 comments

  1. I thought that part of the Wired article sounded a little suspect and I’m glad to hear you think otherwise.

  2. Kenneth, I think another very important thing we need to do as “serious” 21st century partitioners is to not allow ourselves to be co-opted by those who would use mindfulness or meditation to manipulate or abuse others, or to further their own selfish objectives.

  3. Thanks for posting this Kenneth, it’s reaffirming to hear. These big conferences are great in terms of exploring new areas of integrating technology, and hopefully it helps out a lot of people. It definitely keeps me interested. Maybe the mindfulness fad will self correct itself, kind of like how a big spiritual ego could lessen over time if seen clearly?

    But I feel the spotlight is shining pretty big on those conferences, especially from our over-saturated tech culture, so it does come off as a fad. It will be interesting to see how that develops. The one development I’m not a huge fan of is the cost to attend, which immediately alienates a large segment of interested people who aren’t directly working in a related discipline. But as you said it’s more about the networking.

  4. tkduffy22

    For me, in order to see meditation as a productivity tool in my own life, i had to ask a fundamental question:

    What am I trying to “produce”?

    When i’m trying to produce a life devoid of suffering and filled with constant happiness, meditation reminds me that neither are possible. When trying to produce a life filled with money and success and power i’m reminded that all are fleeting, relative and empty.

    In virtually all categories of my life- business, relationships, money, etc- meditation serves as a truth-seeking device that i utilize to access right-view and enforce wise-action.

    So what am i trying to produce? I guess i’m trying to produce appreciation for each moment.

    At the very least, my practice allows me to lessen my own suffering by recognizing attachments and aversions.

    At most, it clarifies my intention to act with reverence for the benefit of all beings.

    Thus far, I’ve found meditation to be incredibly productive but who knows where my practice will take me from here? Does it matter? : )

  5. Re “Mindfulness” is poised to become the Next Big Thing.

    I saw there is a new magazine on the shelves titled MINDFULNESS magazine. I wonder if it will be successful or not.

  6. “Mindfulness” is poised to become the Next Big Thing. Here is the likely trajectory of the movement: ..”

    Well I agree that is ONE possible path it could take, but IMO by no means the only possible path. IMO, we could choose a different path for it, there are a lot of possibilities. Even if people dabble and consider meditation for reasons that are not completely accurate, perhaps much good could still come from it. Meditation as mainstream could mean a lot of meditating and learning. Not everything that starts as a fad passes away as a fad. Some things stick more than others. I remember several times here in the past that home computers were a passing fad and were basically useless! ;-P Mediation is currently coming into vogue also as a relaxation tool. Sometimes you do something for some reason you think is a good one at the time only to find you get many unexpected things out of it too. One of the things I got out of it was to think in a more positive direction and look at change more as opportunity. Things may not turn out perfectly, but they could easily turn out to be much better than they are now. IMO, we make our own reality and we get what we concentrate on, so I do try to be careful about the direction of my focus.

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