Mindfulness and Motivation

Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Motivation is the title of an article published on INSEAD last summer. The article recently came across my newsfeed on social media. My experience over the past several years has been the exact opposite, so I clicked to see what the research had to say.

The article is already a summary of the study, so in order to not water it down further, I’ll just directly quote their study set up and results:

Mindfulness meditation and performance
We had some people meditate by listening to an approximately ten-minute meditation exercise guided by a professional mindfulness coach, a technique similar to popular mindfulness exercises and one we used in prior research. Other people listened to the same coach guiding them to let their minds wander. Mind-wandering is the opposite of mindfulness and, not incidentally, what most people’s minds do much of the time.
We then gave them a small job to do. The jobs were similar to daily activities such as editing a cover letter or wordsmithing. Before they began the task, we asked them how motivated they were. Did they want to do the task? Did they plan to spend much time on it?
The results were clear. After meditating, people lacked motivation. They didn’t feel like doing work, nor did they want to spend much time on it. Being mindful made people focus less on the future and instilled a sense of calm – just as it promises – but that came at the cost of wanting to get things done.

Read more at https://knowledge.insead.edu/leadership-organisations/mindfulness-meditation-reduces-motivation-9786#htMsdcQEiCgCTtVA.99

I thought about why my experience has been so different. Is it simply because I have an A++ personality? Has my natural inclination to get things done and to be effective overridden the performance-deteriorating effects of mindfulness? I don’t think so. If I look back at my time in school, my personality was certainly not enough to drive me to get great grades. There have been several aspects of my life where “good enough” has been good enough, so why has mindfulness helped me achieve goals later in life? I scrolled down to the comments to see what others were saying.

I’d like to thank commenter “Sue” for shining the light on the situation.

I’d disagree – Sue 25.07.2018 at 12:38 am
I’ve been a zen buddists practioners now for nearly 13 years, 1/2 hour in morning, 1/2 in the evening, and for many years a 4 hour zazen once a week. 10 minutes is hardly a “meditation”, that’s meerly enough time to realize how truly disordered your mind actually is, and guided meditation doesn’t quite have much of a benefit as self disciplined meditation. I write code for a living, and quite to the contrary of what you found in your narrow survey, sunyata meditation has paid me huge dividends when it come to singleness of purpose, zeal, and attention to detail. Code can be hugely monotonous, and it gives me the patience I need to full fill the goal without having to fixate on the outcome. I work more efficiently. Might be better if you test “real meditators” takes years of discipline… Not 10 minutes!!! Lol

Read more at https://knowledge.insead.edu/leadership-organisations/mindfulness-meditation-reduces-motivation-9786#htMsdcQEiCgCTtVA.99

While I see where “Sue” was going here, she actually led me to a different conclusion. I think what’s missing from the study is a sense of purpose. When I first started with meditation, I started with secular “mindfulness,” which is essentially a calming exercise like that used in the study. As I began to reap the calming benefits of having a regular meditation practice, I decided to dig a little deeper into the source of the meditation practice: Buddhism.

It was only after I began to understand Buddhism on a whole did I appreciate that mindfulness meditation is only a small part of the overall construct. For the sake of time and space, I’ll skip over the introductory tenants of the Four Noble Truths, but I’ve offered a link to anyone interested. Rather, let’s take a look at the Eightfold Path, which is presented in the Fourth Truth. I have pasted the tenants at the bottom of this post for convenience, but the original source of the content is zenbuddhism.net.

Readers will quickly recognize that none of this was present in the study. There was no intention, no focus on action or effort. In short, there was no purpose for the mundane task given after the meditation. Given these points, I agree with their findings. Mindfulness meditation without any stated purpose will likely reduce motivation. It helps to accept “what is” in lieu of “what should be.” However, when placed back into context with an overall purpose, mindfulness meditation can be incredibly empowering. Just as “Sue” said, “I write code for a living, and quite to the contrary of what you found in your narrow survey, sunyata meditation has paid me huge dividends when it come to singleness of purpose, zeal, and attention to detail.” Like “Sue,” I practice Zen Buddhism, which has afforded me a significantly improved ability to focus on the task at hand, even when the task takes hours and hours of significant effort like running a 50k.

As I mentioned in a previous post, From Middle America to Zen Buddhism, I’m an unlikely adherent of Zen. I grew up in a deeply conservative and Christian part of rural America. Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to just deepen my faith in Christianity to find the same peace of mind I was looking for? That is a fascinating question. A question that I am in fact, mulling over in another part of my brain as I wrap up this post. So… if you’re interested, stay tuned! Until then, as promised above, the following is Buddha’s eightfold path.

The eightfold path suggested by Buddha involves adherence to:

1. The Right View

By right view, Buddha means seeing things in the right perspective. Seeing things as they really are, without any false illusions or pretenses. He wanted his followers to see and to understand the transient nature of worldly ideas and possessions and to understand that they can attain salvation only if they practiced the right karma.

2. The Right Intention

Buddha says that we are what we are because of what we think. What goes on inside our minds (our thought process) determines our course of action. It is, therefore, necessary to follow the path of Right thought or Right Intention. To have the Right Intention or the Right Thought, a person should be aware of his purpose or role in life and is studying the teachings of Buddha.

3. The Right Speech

Buddha asks his followers to speak truth, to avoid slander and malicious gossip and to refrain from abusive language. Harsh words that can cause distress or offend others should also be avoided while also staying clear of mindless idle chatter which lacks any depth.

4. The Right Action

Behaving peacefully and harmoniously; Right action, according to Buddha, lies in adherence to the following guidelines:

– Staying in harmony with fellow human beings
– Behaving peacefully
– Not stealing
– Not killing anyone
– Avoiding overindulgence in sensual pleasure
– Abstaining from sexual misconduct
– Not indulging in fraudulent practices, deceitfulness and robbery

5. The Right Livelihood

By laying down this guideline, Buddha advises his followers to earn their bread and butter righteously, without resorting to illegal and nefarious activities. He does not expect his followers to exploit other human beings or animals or to trade in weapons or intoxicants.

6. The Right Effort

Buddha believed that human nature imposes undue restrictions on the mind at times, causing a person to harbor ill thoughts. So we have to train our mind to think in the right direction if we wish to become better human beings. Once we gain control over our thoughts and replace the unpleasant ones with positive ones, we shall be moving in the right direction.

7. The Right Mindfulness

The Right Mindfulness, together with the Right Concentration, forms the basis of Buddhist meditation. By proposing this, Buddha suggests his followers to focus mentally on their emotions, mental faculties, and capabilities while staying away from worldly desires and other distractions.

It refers to the ability of the mind to see things as they are without being led astray by greed, avarice, anger and ignorance.

8. The Right Concentration

This eighth principle laid down by Buddha is fundamental for proper meditation. Zazen (or, Zen meditation) is the way used in Zen to reach the right concentration or “state of mind”. Needless to add, this is the most vital of all the aspects stated in the Noble Eightfold path since, without proper meditation, an individual cannot move on to a higher level of well-being.

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