NYTimes: Talmudic Awareness - Mindfulness Without the Meditation

A Talmudic method of looking at life. The Times discusses achieving mindfulness without meditation. Ah, but the essay does not mention Talmud. Oh well.

Achieving Mindfulness at Work, No Meditation Cushion Required


In a recent seminar I gave for over 100 business professionals, I asked the
participants to play a simple word association game with me: “I say
mindfulness, you say ________.” The word that rang out in unison was, of
course, “meditation.”

Mindfulness, it seems, has become a mainstream business practice and a
kind of industry in its own right. Meditation instructors are the new
management gurus, and companies including Google, General Electric, Ford
Motor and American Express are sending their employees to classes that can
run up to $50,000 for a large audience. Many mindfulness apps exist, nearly
all of which focus on “mindfulness meditation.”

The proliferation of meditation in the name of mindfulness and the
combination of the two terms naturally lead people to equate the two.
Mistakenly so.

By most definitions, mindfulness is a higher­order attention that involves
noticing changes around us and fully experiencing them in real time. This puts
us in the present, aware and responsive, making everything fresh and new

Meditation is simply one of several tools for achieving mindfulness, and in
the context of work it may not be the most suitable for many people. For those
who, like me, can’t seem to get the hang of meditation, there is good news: You
don’t have to meditate to become more mindful.

There are two approaches to mindfulness: Eastern and Western. The
Eastern view indeed positions meditation as an essential tool to achieving a
mindful state. But the Eastern view is more about quieting the mind and
suspending thought. This philosophy is almost the complete opposite of the
Western view of mindfulness, which centers on active thinking.

I would argue that given the speed of change today, it may not be realistic
to suspend or stop thinking. Rather, we need to actively think through
problems in new ways to achieve innovative, elegant solutions. These will not
rain from on high in a meditation session.

Both views share the same goal: avoiding mindlessness. When we’re
mindless, the past is riding herd over the present. We get trapped in categories
created in the past, stuck in rigid perspectives, oblivious to alternative views.
This gives us the illusion of certainty.

For example, imagine that the numbers in the incorrect Roman numeral
equation below are movable sticks. Leaving the plus and equals signs as they
are, what is the least number of sticks you would have to move to correct the

XI + I = X

Most people react immediately with an answer of “one.” But that is a
mindless answer, based on knowledge acquired long ago. The optimal answer
would be “zero,” arrived at by looking at the problem from an alternative
perspective. By looking at the problem upside down, you could read the
equation literally right to left, so that X (10) = I (one) plus IX (nine). Or you
might recognize the visual symmetry, and reflect it in a mirror. By noticing
different ways to view the problem, you move from mindless to mindful.

This kind of in­the­moment, noticing mindfulness is similar to the
concept of the impartial spectator first introduced in the 18th century by Adam
Smith, who wrote that we all have access to an “impartial and well­informed
spectator.” This spectator’s form of attention puts us in the present and gives
us a more unbiased perspective — much the way our attention is focused when
we travel to a new place, noticing details that the locals take for granted.

The key to mindfulness is learning to look at the world in a more
conditional way. Understanding that our perspective is merely one among
alternative views requires us to embrace uncertainty. When we’re uncertain
and unsure, our surroundings become interesting again, like the peculiar little
details we notice when we arrive in an unfamiliar place.

The most effective technique I’ve found for moving from mindless to
mindful without meditation involves a form of self­distancing, and talking to
yourself as an objective adviser would. It is achievable in a few simple steps.

Suppose you’re facing a situation that’s causing you stress — perhaps a
change at work, a tough problem or an important decision. The first step is to
realize that you’ve already made two unwarranted assumptions: that
something will happen, and it will be bad. Next, give yourself three reasons the
issue you’re worried about might not happen. Notice that it immediately
becomes less stressful, because you just went from “it’s going to happen” to
“maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t.”

Now give yourself three reasons that, if the situation does turn out bad,
good things will happen. Those reasons are easy to find once you ask the
question. Now you’ve gone from thinking “there’s this terrible thing that’s
going to happen” to thinking “there’s this thing that may or may not happen,
but if it does, it could have both good and bad outcomes.”

It’s an easy method that leads us to become less reactive to the world —
still responsive, just not reactive. In the end, the entire key to eliminating
mindlessness without meditation may simply be realizing that the issue looks
different from a different perspective, and then taking that perspective

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