Mindfulness Matters


Have you seen Microsoft’s clever ad for their new Windows-based phone? It ties in to our lively discussion from last Friday on how technology challenges our ability to be mindful.

After an hilarious parade of phone-based attention lapses culminating in a man dropping his phone in a urinal, an onlooker can only say, “Really?”
The commercial ends with the tag line, “Designed to get you in and out and back to life” And to that I have to say, “Really?”
Supply, in this case, creates its own demands. The more interesting and efficient our technology, the more interested we become in it, the more it become an extension of us.
NPR featured this theme recently with a story, And iPhone Makes Three: Marriage In The Digital Age that quotes a marriage counselor: “Fritsch is hearing more and more clients complain about a spouse whose body may be right there but whose mind is off in cyberspace. Some say the best way to get their spouse’s attention is to send a text — from the next room!”
One comment from last Friday’s entry noted:
I drove up to the house of an acquaintance one day and noticed that a friend of his, who had parked in front of this selfsame house, was leaning against his car while fingering his phone. To my query as to the impatience of his demeanor, he replied that he was text-messaging his friend to let him know of his presence and was anxious for him to come out. Curious, I asked him why he hadn’t simply walked up to the door and rung the bell, maybe fifteen feet away or so. He answered that it was too much of a bother.

In the movie ‘Julie and Julia’ there’s a scene where Julie and several of her friends have just sat down at a table in a restaurant. One by one, each of her friends receives a call by way of cell, all then consciously departing into separate conversations, leaving Julie, who was eager to connect, disconnected and alone at the table.

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Nobel Laureate Poet, Wislawa Szymborska notes in her poem, “Nonreading”

We live longer

but less precisely

and in shorter sentences

Our sentences have become shorter because our attention span is shorter. Soon, no thought will be permitted that is longer than 140 characters!

Meditation doesn’t just make us feel good; it changes our brains. Studies show that meditation changes both structure and function of our brains (in beneficial ways) beyond the period of meditation.

Recent advances in neuroimaging along with encouragement from His Holiness the Dalai Lama have reinvigorated research into the effects of meditation. Rick Hanson summarized some of this research in his popular book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom

200px-The_No_Asshole_Rule.jpgI’m reading the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Business Week Bestseller, and provocatively titled, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t by Robert Sutton reveals some harrowing statistics of bullying and abuse in the workplace.

  • A 2000 study found 27% of Michigan workers had been mistreated at work with one in six reporting psychological abuse
  • A 2002 Department of Veterans Affair study found 36% of workers reporting persistent mistreatment from co-workers and supervisors
  • A 1997 study of nurses found that 90% reported verbal abuse by physicians in the previous year; a 2003 study found similarly that 91% of nurses had experienced verbal abuse in the past month
These statistic suggest that there are a lot of assholes out there, people who cannot control their tempers and treat people with respect. Many are successful in the financial aspects of their work but their behaviors costs companies a lot of money due to the damage they cause. Businesses are discovering that it’s too expensive to keep assholes employed and many are adopting the “No Asshole Rule.”

(Note: Sutton debated on whether to use the potentially offensive term asshole and considered other terms such as bully or jerk. He decided on the term asshole is being more authentic than the watered down version. The Harvard Business Review agreed with him when they published his article, “The No Asshole Rule.”)

    I had to call my local phone company with a billing inquiry. I’ll confess at the outset, I’ve probably been an asshole on the phone in the past on at least one occasion. In the wake of goodness that the No Asshole Rule suggests and also after sitting in mindfulness meditation for 45 minutes, I approached this call with my buddhanature shining. I could have taken an angry, defensive approach, after all they are ripping me off. And while it was the case that the charges in question appeared exorbitant ($100 for two of those little plastic phone jacks) that doesn’t have to dictate the tenor of the approach. I reminded myself that if I was not successful having some of the charges reversed that I could politely say that I was not satisfied and request to talk to a superior. Rancor would not be necessary.
    What followed surprised me. I had a very pleasant conversation with the customer service representative. When she saw the installation charges appearing on my bill 4 months after the work was done and, yes, $100 for two little phone jacks was exorbitant she credited all the charges without my having to ask. Of course our grandmothers knew this wisdom too: “You get more flies with honey than vinegar.”
    The Buddha taught the “No Asshole Rule” 2500 years ago without calling it precisely that. He cautioned against the three poisons: Greed-Hatred-Delusion. These are the forces that make people act like assholes, whether temporarily in the moment or in a more enduring “certified” way. Greed reinforces a sense of separation from others that somehow “I” deserve more. Hatred is self-explanatory. Anger, hostility, contempt are all qualities that are provided by nature for dealing with actual threats that then get conditioned to and recruited for dealing with threats to our self-image. A lack of mindfulness may correspond to a lack of modulation around anger, hostility, and contempt. Ignorance is a lack of wisdom, and in this case a lack of understanding of the destructive effects of asshole behavior.
    This is karma. When we behave a certain way it has effects on people, including ourselves. If we go the asshole route there are a lot of karmic ramifications of such actions. If we go the benevolent route another set of effects arise. The evidence suggests that being nice, cooperative, and respectful is better for the bottom line. Being an asshole is expensive.
    Sutton presents a case a highly profitable salesman who treated his subordinates with contempt. His company did an analysis of the costs associated with his behavior and came up with a tab of $160,000. They subsequently deducted this from his salary and bonuses. These costs included time spent by his manager, HR professional, executives, and outside counsel handling the fall-out of his behavior; the cost of recruiting and hiring a new administrative assistant, and anger management training. 
    No one can be empathicaly attuned 100% of the time. Most of us all fall victim, at times, to being an asshole. Mindfulness can help us move from greed, hatred, and delusion to generosity, loving friendliness, and wisdom. Mindfulness practice helps us to decondition angry ways of responding and be less reactive. It helps us to build a pause between stimulus and response and to be thoughtful in that pause.

    “I cook therefore I am” Watzke suggests.

    Did you know there are 500 million neurons in your gut. That pales in comparison to the brain (100 billion) but is certainly enough to qualify as a “second brain.” This fascinating talk enlightens us to the what is going on in our gut.

    Of course, mindfulness practice will help us to become intimate with the functioning of the gut and the rest of the body as we pay attention to the sensations occurring now. Armed with the information in this talk about how the gut functions in relationship to the brain we can, perhaps, better manage the signals produced by the gut leading to a more healthy relationship with food.