Friday, April 17, 2015

Mindfulness in Plain English

“That flowing, soft-focused moment of pure awareness is mindfulness.”
–Bhante Gunaratana

The term mindfulness is a broad one, with many different definitions and interpretations that have been taken up by diverse groups of people who use it in a seemingly endless range of applications.  Mindfulness pops up in a broad scope of human activities—from business and politics to education, psychology, neurobiology and Buddhist philosophy. The following is an attempt to situate the concept of mindfulness in two varying spheres of human activity in order to see how different prose styles changes the meaning and application of the concept of mindfulness.
For the purpose of this critique I’ll look at mindfulness in the context of the workplace and in the context of academia.  Although there are many similarities between the ways the concept of mindfulness can be applied to human activities, the workplace and academia are marked by definite differences in the style of language used to define mindfulness—Plain English vs. Official Style-- and the expected outcomes and effects of these definitions. 
            In the workplace, mindfulness is generally defined in Plain English for the purpose of simplifying the concept and making it something an employee can actually practice while working.  In this context, mindfulness becomes a tool that is used to create a harmonious working environment by re-teaching individuals how to interact with each other and the stresses of the workplace environment. 
            In an academic setting centered on the humanities, mindfulness is most often looked at from historical and philosophical points of view and is generally written about in the Official Style. In the academic context, mindfulness becomes less a tool for social activity, and more an abstract concept, situated in a Buddhist tradition.  Often times philosophical terminology is used to frame mindfulness within the discourses of Eastern and Western philosophy and history.
            Lets now look closer at the context of the workplace and consider how the prose style of Plain English is used to clarify the concept of mindfulness and present it as something that can be practiced in the workplace.
Google is one company that has taken up the concept of mindfulness and applied it to the workplace environment.  Chade-Meng Tan, the head of mindfulness training at Google, defines mindfulness as, “…developing self knowledge and self mastery.  By using {concentration}, we create a high-resolution perception into the cognitive and emotive processes.  It means being able to observe our thought-stream and the process of emotion with high clarity, objectivity, and from a third person perspective.”
In the above quote, taken from a TedTalk Chad-Meng Tan gave, he uses a number of Plain Style strategies to succinctly sum up the concept of mindfulness.  First, Tan uses the active voice to help illustrate the point that mindfulness is something an employee at Google can do: “By using concentration, we create a high resolution perception…” Tan also uses parallelism to qualify the verb “observe” in the following sentence: “It means being able to observe our thought stream and the process of emotion with high clarity, objectivity, and from a third person perspective.”  By using the pros strategy of parallelism, Tan is able to avoid long sentences, strung together by prepositional phrases and conjunctions.  In other words, Tan’s use of short sentences and clear subject–verb relationships make his sentences easy to read and comprehend. 
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana’s book “Mindfulness in Plain English” uses similar prose style strategies to illustrate the concept.  Although I’m not certain if Gunaratana’s book is used to train employees in the workplace, I think it would be a perfect text to do so.  I’ll continue by showing why “Mindfulness in Plain English” is a text that can be put into action in the workplace, and then contrast it with a more scholarly text on mindfulness. 
In “Mindfulness in Plain English”, Gunaratana defines mindfulness as,

“When you first become aware of something, there is a fleeting instant of pure awareness just before you conceptualize the thing, before you identify it. That is a state of awareness.  Ordinarily, this state is short-lived. It is that flashing split second just as you focus your eyes on the thing, just as you focus your mind on the thing, just before you objectify it, clamp down on it mentally, and segregate it from the rest of existence. It takes place just before you start thinking about it—before your mind says, “Oh, it’s a dog.” That flowing, soft-focused moment of pure awareness is mindfulness.”

            Although mindfulness is a highly abstract concept, Gunaratana describes it with simple prose that is easy to comprehend.  He begins his paragraph long description with a strong topic sentence.  This helps to define what information the following sentences will include.  He then lays the concept out in short sentences.  He avoids using very abstract words.  And, like Chad-Meng Tan he uses parallelism to organize his paragraph.  This clear and concise description of mindfulness can help the reader grasp an abstract concept.  The reader may even realize that they have experienced mindfulness before, without even knowing it. 
            Now we’ll look at another description of mindfulness by the Buddhist scholar T.P. Kasulis.  To clarify, ‘without-thinking’ is Kasulis’s term for mindfulness. 

            “Without-thinking is distinct from thinking and not-thinking precisely in its assuming no intentional attitude whatsoever: it neither affirms nor denies, accepts nor rejects, believes nor disbelieves.  In fact, it does not objectify either implicitly or explicitly.  In this respect, the noetic (or act aspect) of without-thinking is completely different from that of thinking or not-thinking.  Even though without thinking circumvents all objectification, it is nonetheless a mode of consciousness, and through reflection on a without-thinking act, one may isolate aspects of its formal contents.”

            As can be seen, Kasulis’s description of mindfulness is much more abstract.  Though he uses some Plain English strategies such as parallelism, his sentences are much longer and filled with specialized terminology.  For example, the term noetic is a philosophical term.  The terms ‘thinking’, ‘not-thinking’, and ‘without-thinking’ are derived from a 12th century Japanese Buddhist text by Dogen, who in turn borrowed those terms from older Chinese Buddhist texts. 
There are also implicit Buddhist ideas imbedded in Kasulis’s language that would probably seem strange to a reader unfamiliar with Buddhist thought.   For example, in his description, ‘without-thinking’ is the actor instead of an individual acting on his consciousness:  “Without-thinking is distinct from thinking and not-thinking precisely in its assuming no intentional attitude whatsoever: it neither affirms nor denies, accepts nor rejects, believes nor disbelieves”.   In this language there are implied Buddhist beliefs about the self, the nature of consciousness, and the idea of non-dualism that are essential to scholarly discourse on mindfulness.  Kasulis’s definition of mindfulness is participating in an ongoing philosophical and historical discourse that is extremely important in understanding Buddhism in the west.  But it is not very useful for the practical application of mindfulness.  For this, texts like Tan’s and Gunaratana’s are much more useful.
But the question begs to be asked, are the proponents of ‘workplace mindfulness’ talking about the same thing as actual Buddhists and Buddhist scholars?  A corporation like Google uses mindfulness as means to achieve goals that contradict many traditional Buddhist teachings.  As Chad-Meng Tan, the head of Google’s mindfulness program says, "I always align the qualities of peace, joy, and compassion with success and profits."  But in Buddhism, success and profits are seen as negative goals that perpetuate human attachments and suffering in the world. 
            Does talking about mindfulness in Plain English only serve to water down a richly complex concept that belongs to century long traditions?  Does talking about mindfulness in the Official Style reserve a powerful tool for social harmony for only a few well-read scholars and Buddhist practitioners?  I’d like to suggest the Buddhist concept of the Middle Path.  Instead of taking either extreme, it is possible that talking about mindfulness in both Plain English and the Official Style work in their proper contexts. 

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