Mindfulness or abdication of mind?

Leon Wieseltier’s critique of Google’s “emotional intelligence” curriculum (“The Tao Jones Index,” The New Republic, May 24) is worth reading and rereading. In a few words he nails what’s wrong with the concept of workplace “mindfulness” (as put forth by the Google engineer Chade-Meng Tan) and points to larger problems as well:

“Pay[ing] attention moment-to-moment” is a renunciation of the critical temper. The pure present is for infants and mystics. The serenity that Meng teaches is a go-along, get-along quietism, an organizational submissiveness—a technique designed to strip the individual of any internal obstacle to the ungrumbling execution of his tasks. … Meng and his authorities—“happiness strategists,” “leadership scholars”–insist upon the “non-judgmental” character of the mindful ideal. This is one of the great American mistakes. Instead of teaching people how to judge, we teach them not to judge—but there is no circumstance or context in which the absence of judgment is not a judgment, specifically one of accommodation and acquiescence.”

In other words, mindfulness of this sort amounts to abdication of mind. Read the whole piece.

I see this play out in school curricula and policy: “Instead of teaching people how to judge, we teach them not to judge.” We give judging a bad name, equating it with knee-jerk reaction. At its best, judgment is anything but knee-jerk. In fact, if we do not know how to exercise judgment well, we are all the more susceptible to impulsive reactions, both our own and other people’s.

I have attended PDs where everyone was supposed to create quick “art,” put it up on the wall, and then take a “gallery walk” around the room, writing “nonjudgmental, observational” comments on Post-its and placing them upon the rushed piece in question. Nonjudgment of this sort should have its own circle or pouch in the Inferno. My guess is that Dante would have included it in Malebolge, the Eighth Circle, which has ten pouches for ordinary fraud.

Update: A number of commenters below seem to have taken Wieseltier’s article (and  my post) as an attack on mindfulness itself. As I see it, Wieseltier is criticizing a particular sort of workplace spiritual doctrine and its attendant jargon.


  1. There is definitely a danger in mindfulness techniques being used to subvert people’s own individual ability to make good decisions based upon sound judgement. However, when used properly, mindfulness is a powerful technique for re-centering oneself so that they can intelligently respond to challenges instead of reacting to them. One of the greatest dangers in business (particularly in creative industries) is making decisions based upon a survival-based mentality, one indicator being chronic stress. By taking the time to expand one’s awareness and become more mindful, other options and subtler nuances can present themselves when undertaking the decision-making process. Rather than abdicating judgement, mindfulness techniques have the potential to help people make better decisions by opening up their awareness so they have access to additional information.

    • Bento Leal says:

      Indeed, Michael — less stress, greater awareness –> better thinking, better judgments, better decisions.

  2. So, if you’re not sufficiently non-judgmental there are no repercussions, correct?

    How could there be?

    In order for there to be repercussions someone’d have to judge whether your degree of non-judgmental..uhh..ism meets the standards of those who’ve determined what constitutes a sufficient lack of judgment.

    In “The Emperor’s New Clothes” it was a child’s naivete that allowed him to ignore the common, enforced delusion. In the story, the emperor confronted with reality vows never to be taken in by his own vanity again. But in reality the child would have been punished and the lesson he would have learned is that when enough people say white is black you’re taking a real chance pointing out their error.

  3. PDs?

  4. Unfortunately the article by Leon Wieseltier cited in this blog misunderstands mindfulness. More precisely it confuses the practices – non-judgemental awareness in the present moment – with the purpose and evidenced results of the practice – a clearer, happier, more contented mind that is better able to judge situations from a less biased or conditioned viewpoint, and with an explicit mindset which asks what solution or response works for the benefit of all involved rather than from a narrow partisan perspective.
    Mr Wieseltier’s misunderstanding is ironically, a classic example of the non-mindful judgement that mindfulness addresses, and akin to criticising using an exercise bike because it doesn’t take you to a destination.

  5. john richards says:

    Clearly written by someone who hasn’t meditated….this critique completely misses the point. Meditation doesn’t “shut off” the critical mind, quite the contrary, it sharpens the ability to reason and analyze. What it does is enable one to not be controlled by thoughts and judgments. In other words, one can use the power of the reason and emotion rather than be used by them. I started meditating when i was in college and it immediately transformed both my enjoyment of the experience, as well as my performance. I now run a large organization and couldn’t imagine doing it without meditation. With all due respect, writers like these should learn more about the object of their critique before offering their opinions.

    • Diana Senechal says:

      As I see it, Wieseltier is criticizing workplace spiritual doctrine, “the managerial promulgation of doctrines of the mind,” not meditation. He is pointing out, among other things, the contradictions inherent in an “emotional curriculum” that teachesa spiritual attitude to employees in order to raise productivity.

      I’ll speak for myself now, so as not to misrepresent Wieseltier. I consider my work rewarding, challenging, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes frustrating. I do not consider it the place for my private thoughts, including spiritual or religious thoughts. If I had to attend a session at work where I learned about the route to deep happiness, I’d consider looking for another job. Work is work, and private life is private life.

  6. You and Leon seems to be missing the whole point of mindfulness and mindful non-judgement.

    The point of mindfulness is not losing your mind, but gaining a clearer perspective on life.

    Non-judgement doesn’t mean you become indifferent or ignore people and situations. On the contrary, mindfulness helps you to comprehend better and more profoundly what you experience without he constant urge to decide whether or not it is good or bad.

    Paradoxically, mindfulness achieves exactly what Leon refers to as “teaching people how to judge”.

  7. Diana Senechal says:

    Again: the piece criticizes not mindfulness per se, but workplace doctrines of mindfulness, Meng’s in particular.