4 Reasons We Need More Critics of Mindfulness
By Mo Edjlali, Mindful Leader Founder and CEO
Recently I stumbled across a Linkedin post highlighting an article featured in the Washington Post, “An unintended consequence of mindfulness” by assistant professor Andrew C. Hafenbrack. I was excited to see folks taking a curious and thoughtful approach to the findings. It reminded me of a very different reaction we experienced when we shared a critical article on social media a few years ago - "You guys are idiots"- the article that ENRAGED our fans.
I interviewed Hafenbrack for one of our online Summits the first time he created a stir and drew this response "This Study Says You Shouldn't Let Your Employees Meditate. It's Totally Wrong--Here's Why." In our conversation, I found even though I didn't agree with him I felt he had a right to be heard, and that I would learn more from engaging him than from writing him off. We had a very cordial and fruitful conversation. I challenged some of his assumptions, he was very open to it, and I felt that I came away with a better sense of his research and point of view.
In this last article in our Work Pray Code series (part 1, part 2), I thought it would be worthwhile to make a clear case for the importance of critics in our field. I found a new appreciation for critics a few years ago and hope to see a general shift in how critics and critical thinking are incorporated into our work.
But do we need critics? Are they not just judgy un-enlightened fools not living in the moment? I believe we do. Furthermore, they are in fact essential to the future of our work and we need to welcome and engage them. I hope to make a case for us to continue to change our relationship with critics and have laid out four reasons we need them.
Before we get started, it's important to explore the concept of blind spots, something critics are very effective in helping us find. A blind spot is an area we are unable to see because we’re simply too close to the subject at hand, similar to our blind spots in driving. I became very familiar with this term when I went through integral coaching training a few years back. We all have blind spots and as we come to identify and address our old blind spots, new ones emerge. That's the beauty of our ever-changing lives. As a coach, I learned it was very important to help clients see what they're not seeing, whether they simply do not see it, are unconsciously inhibiting their own ability to see, or are simply not willing to even look. Exposing someone to their blind spot can be very difficult. It can cause us to question our identities and beliefs in ways our ego will try to defend. Often our blind spots go ignored for years, and the process of exposing them can be very painful.
When you have a community with shared values and a sense of collective consciousness, you can create collective blind spots as well. Over time our community has developed a number of collective blind spots. We often have a group of like-minded folks attempting to positively reinforce one another and encourage each other in ways that have a deep intention for good. Still, in our communities whenever individuals do not conform they are often silenced, ignored, or discredited - they are not woke enough, they don't embody the practice, they don't have the right ethos, and their intentions are not noble like ours. Critics hold a unique position. They're often not part of our communities, do not consider our work a part of their identities, and are not caught up in our echo chambers. By their very nature, they are the best at being able to see things that we collectively are not able to or often unconsciously not willing to examine. When we don’t look at our blind spots, we can become attached to our beliefs, leading us to become more closed-minded. When we do look at our blind spots by welcoming and engaging our critics, we grow by taking advantage of the following benefits.
One of the major benefits of examining blind spots is to reduce fragility and increase resilience. Anyone who's ever engaged in a critical debate has come to understand how much benefit there is in being challenged by someone with an opposing viewpoint. In such a dialogue our arguments improve and our thinking is sharpened. Often flaws in our thinking, weaknesses in our case, and the areas that we have not even considered are brought to our attention through this type of discourse. Ultimately, our understanding and positions adapt and are strengthened through this rigor and this type of stress testing. When we do not engage, we may find that our reasoning only resonates with those who have already come to agree with us and that our attempts to reach others fail. Another side effect of not being willing to engage in critical debate is that our communities become rather fragile and seek to limit any exposure to extra review or an examination. In essence, we become intellectually inbred, isolated, and come to an Us vs Them mentality in which those who do not agree with us simply don't "get it." This mentality can greatly impair us.
Another major benefit of tolerating critique and examining blind spots is the ability to innovate. Innovation comes from a willingness to examine problems with a real-centered sense of reality and to be open to all possible solutions. Innovation is spurred by new perspectives, new ways of thinking, and new ideas. When we silence criticism we lose a valuable source of perspective that may lead to the discovery of solutions and insights that further our cause, our thoughts, and our work. We don't have to agree with others. Simply being able to listen to them with an open mind can help expand our thinking in ways that we might not have been able to imagine. One of the difficulties in doing this is that it often feels like an attack on our ego and our identity. When we silence criticism will we lose a valuable source and perspective that may lead to discovering solutions and insight that may further our cause. Very often, embracing ideas that might feel counter to our ego is very difficult. We have a sense of right and wrong and may choose to ignore sources of outside thinking that can help our need to see solutions to difficult problems or identify problems we didn't realize exist. I have found that being tuned into critics has allowed Mindful Leader to understand potential future issues that have yet to fully materialize and to be proactive in preparing for them.
3. Expanding and being inclusive
In our field, we often claim to be inclusive. Really? I have been surprised that many people seem to miss the hypocrisy. It can be really tempting to only look at diversity as a question of race, sexuality, or gender and ignore the diversity of thought entirely. It’s only natural, really. Most people hate to be challenged. When you surround yourself with only those who agree with you, you are missing out on the richness of a conversation where you may learn something, even if you do not end up agreeing in the end. Can we be inclusive of people across the political spectrum? Folks with various religious beliefs? Can we try to understand, be curious, and invite critics to be part of the conversation? It is hard to listen to someone speaking in what feels like a negative way about this work we are so passionate about. But if we do not engage others and their opinions, we risk becoming insular and cutting off those who may benefit from being included but who don’t feel accepted. We risk missing out on expanding our work and communities to a wider spectrum of beliefs. Let's model what it looks like to bring people together and welcome differences with curiosity and compassion.
4. Challenging power and the hierarchy
It's what free speech is about, right? We need critics to help find blind spots. Knowing those blind spots is what allows us to go ahead and change the hierarchy or challenge the old guard. Author of Winners Take All, Anand Giridharadas stated that the most powerful people in human history today are the least accountable. Any critical look at history will show that the world is not better served by being isolationists or by leaving the same person, party, or dynasty in charge indefinitely. Now, I’m not calling for a French Revolution-esque overturning of the mindfulness field. What I am saying, though, is that there are some people in the field who are seen for their name first and their ideas second. I don’t agree with that. I understand why people are drawn to gurus. But I think it is dangerous. I don’t think we are well-served by placing people on a pedestal. There should always be space for dissent because that is where new ideas and brilliance come from. Maybe it's time for a reformation of sorts.
We are in an exciting and troubling time, both in the world and within our field. There is so much polarity and division and we are becoming more entrenched in beliefs and identities. Let's lead by example and welcome critics and debate. Perhaps be a catalyst for change, a field where all sides are welcome and to authentically model what we would like to see in our society. At Mindful Leader in our CWMF course, I teach a lesson on ethics and making workplace mindfulness religiously inclusive that has been very much informed by the work of critics in our field. And in our last in-person Mindful Leader Summit we featured this debate which was one of the most talked-about sessions and really energized our audience: The Critics and the Pioneers: Capitalism, Religion, Ethics, and the Future of Mindfulness. I hope to continue this exploration and welcome you to join us.
Do we really need critics? What other reasons come up for you? Please share in the comments!
Of course there is a need for constructive criticism; not snarky comments or defensive platitudes, but thoughtful, insightful criticism is as nurturing as clean, fresh water. As for debate; I remember when I first saw Tibetan monks debate. It was exotic but also instructive. Afterall, their monastic tradition integrates debate to defeat misconceptions. Sounds like a critical pillar of mindfulness to me.
Thanks Marsha for sharing your thoughts, there are examples of the importance of constructive criticism and debate in so many places.
Glad you continue to be open to constructive criticism Mo and linked up that "debate"!
David thank you for being willingt to participate! I'll always be a fan of the Mindful Cranks.
I feel ML as Sangha, acceptance and space.
Took a MBSR course last year and have been investigating mindfulness ever since. I have been meditating for over 40 years but use techniques that would not qualify as mindfulness. Something about mindfulness and techniques like trying to disengage from the DMN does not work well for me. Whether it's the fact that HSPs brains are wired differently or that some people prefer meditation techniques that invoke visualization, creativity and more use of the DMN rather than less, mindfulness types of meditation do not seem to be for everyone. Also, some of the results of mindfulness meditation may be the opposite of what a person wants. I find it interesting that mindfulness claims to incorporate techniques such as awe states and flow states which typically result in engaging the DMN and improving creativity. I do find these types of meditation beneficial. However, I would not personally see them as mindful states because I am typically not in the moment when engaging those states. For instance, when a writer is creating a work of science fiction and reaches a flow state when writing, they're engaging their creativity and thinking about possible futures or using past events to predict possible future ones. They are not thinking of where they are in the moment or being grounded or aware of their current surroundings. They typically engage the DMN rather than the Task Positive Network. Some of the scientific studies on awe states have also found that they tend to engage the DMN. The research I've read on mindfulness emphasizes engaging the TPN and creating less DMN states in the brain.
Thank you for posting that interesting debate which gave a very clear demonstration to me of those who may 'know about' mindfulness and those who have practiced it and have an experiential understanding.
Can I suggest reading The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist...a fascinating and wide ranging exploration of our current culture and the neuroscience of the right and left brain function.
Secular mindfulness practice is possible and can produce great calming/self-regulating results BUT if one engages deeply in mindfulness practice a spacious awareness arises which allows one to step back from right/wrong, black/white, me/other thinking and from that spaciousness other solutions to our current problems may arise. The danger in the secular mindfulness world is that the fear of 'losing control'of the practice may actually risk limiting the possibility of a real 'transformation' of consciousness.
If humanity continues to believe it doesn't need a transformed consciousness to find the answers then perhaps we'll just keep on doing the same things and making the same mistakes over and over.
As one contributor said 'I don't know what else might motivate business other than profit'. Mindful engagement with business will, I believe, lead us into the answer to that conundrum. After all....can't you think of many things you do in life that are utterly unrelated to the profit motive?
'A problem cannot be solved by the same consciousness that caused it.' (So said Einstein...apparently!)
Thanks Siobhan for the book recommendation and for raising some interesting points.
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