Is Meditation Counterproductive?

Two scientists (get the research paper via Sci-Hub) published a piece in The New York Times titled “Hey Boss, You Don’t Want Your Employees To Meditate”. They concluded that mindfulness meditation “might seem” [sic] counterproductive in the workplace. We know that there are many types of meditation inherited from various cultures, but only the mindfulness type has been prescribed for the world of business.

One of the reasons why mindfulness has been prescribed in the workplace is to help overcome unconscious bias. According to Neuroscience, unconscious bias is like having our brain makes decision without our permission. The bypassed decision includes unnecessary factors e.g. someone’s physical features like race and clothing style, or social features like religion and socioeconomic status.

When was the last time your brain made assumptions for you? You probably weren’t even aware, or the least you could be aware of is after a period of time, “Oops, why did I think about her that way?” And your brain can make another decision without your permission, e.g. making you extremely ashamed about it, spiraling insecurities.

With mindfulness, your brain only gives you the moment-to-moment experience, because being mindful means being able to observe our thoughts, let them pass without reacting, judging, or holding on. That is the most important benefit of mindfulness that I have felt. There are other benefits like stress reduction and greater compassion, which obviously stem from the brain’s ability to prevent being judgmental. If we judge less, don’t we become less stressed and more compassionate?

Now, what did the scientists do to conclude that mindfulness might be counterproductive in the workplace? They measured people’s motivation on different tasks such as completing word puzzles, editing cover letters, and retyping a legal document. Sounds like boring tasks, right?

They divided the research participants into two groups: those who did a guided mindfulness meditation (listening to breathing and body scan instructions) by an instructor, and those who did other activities. The ones who did meditation rated their motivation of doing those tasks lower than the ones who didn’t.

Yes, motivation is one of the important characteristics of a successful worker. No matter how much intelligence you have, if you’re not motivated you can’t finish your tasks productively. It’s a well-known issue in the workplace, the reason why many Human Resources practitioners are working on how to make employees more motivated. Therefore, it’s the reason the scientists concluded that mindfulness meditation might be counterproductive in the workplace.

By reading the comments in response to The New York Times article, we can tell that the boring tasks used in the experiments are considered the main reason why mindful people were less motivated. And in the paper the scientists mentioned this issue (quoted): “While not tested here, it is possible that being in a mindful state made people realize how unimportant the experimental tasks were to them. That notion suggests that in other circumstances, mindfulness may increase motivation towards tasks that align with employees’ personal values or about which employees are passionate.”

Now you may question, isn’t mindfulness a state where you don’t care about the type of tasks you’re working on, because of the moment-to-moment experience you let pass during the working time? Exactly, but that doesn’t disagree with the result of this research. What happened isn’t mindful people being unable to “zen out” doing those boring tasks. Instead, they used softer judgment in rating their motivation. They’re less likely to criticize themselves, because they accept themselves.

Indeed, in the closing statement of their NYT article, the scientists mentioned that one of the benefits of mindfulness is acceptance, and people aren’t going to be motivated to work harder once they accept themselves. The measure of work, “harder”, seems to be linked to cost vs. benefit ratio, a.k.a. paying people as much as they’re willing to do what we want them to do.

Since they’re addressing the use of mindfulness in the material sense, let’s stop discussing the validity of their conclusion. Mindfulness is a way to transcend beyond the material, so we cannot see the whole picture if we only use the material mindset. What is a non-material mindset? I’m not talking about angels and demons, but about being purposeful beyond what is “hard work”. We could debate the definition of “hard work” endlessly, but we’re more likely to agree upon our ultimate purpose living on earth (which is materially vague).

We can use non-material mindset in material realm, e.g. by agreeing upon our ultimate purpose together in any groups of people. This way, we’re less likely to be involved in murky business. Think about a pond with clear water, where you can see the bottom. Throw a stone to it, agitating the sand on the bottom of the pond, and the water gets murky. What do you do if you want to see the beautiful plants at the bottom? We wait until the sand settles again. We don’t try to push the sand down, because it would only perpetuate the murkiness.

That’s what mindfulness has taught me, to observe the sand in the murky water and let it settle. Having practiced mindfulness has helped me endure murky situations. I can choose to ignore murky businesses and work only on clear ones instead.

Choosing to work only on clear businesses may mean many things:

  1. We don’t feel pressured to work “hard” as defined by other people. Instead, we work for others as a service, with mutual trust and respect. Replacing lack of trust/respect with material compensation is murky business.
  2. We don’t feel pressured doing work that others do, for the sake of money, fame, or possession. Instead, we do work that we find important to do. Driven by other people’s standard is murky business, because it may not fit into our circumstances.
  3. We don’t feel pressured to be a superior person, e.g. smarter, prettier, richer. Instead, we prefer to be a curious person, able to learn from anyone with any types of smartness, prettiness, and richness. Defining these types as levels (comparison) is murky business.
  4. We don’t feel pressured to speak, because most of the time people are repeating what are already said by others. Trying to be “the who” in front of “the what” is murky business. Instead, we prefer to listen and to connect different ideas until they form a story to eventually be shared.
  5. We don’t feel pressured to make judgment, because there are millions of different contexts behind every situation. Uninformed judgment is murky business. Informed judgment breeds compassion.
  6. We don’t act out of fear, instead we act out of love. Acting out of fear is murky business, because you don’t know yet whether your fear is true or not. Acting out of love breeds compassion.
  7. We don’t strive for perfection, because there’s always time for another try. Scrutinizing early trials is murky business. Reflecting and learning after each trial is a way to be compassionate toward whoever is doing it, including our self.

We don’t need any reason to laugh, because there’s always brightness in our heart. We don’t spend a lot of time on social media, but instead find quality times to connect. We don’t talk about others (let alone condescending talk), unless it’s to help them.

Feels like you can do all of the above without doing any meditation? Well, congratulations! However, we need to transcend beyond the material in order to understand the quote below.

There are so many things we can improve in our life by being mindful, and it will only get better. I’m still growing after years of on-and-off regular meditation practice. See? I still took time to deal with the murkiness of responding to that research paper. Yet, I’m glad I did. My ultimate purpose in writing this is to be able to share my learning about meditation (which I never shared publicly before).

In fact, I’m not disagreeing with the research paper. Mindfulness meditation is indeed counterproductive, for trying to achieve what we don’t need to bother chasing on Earth.

a storylistener, a connector