Mindfulness, Suffering, and Design

As a long-time Buddhist practitioner, I view the burgeoning popularity of mindfulness practice with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the thought of society at large becoming more mindful is fantastic. On the other hand, I worry about the temptation to distort mindfulness into its exact opposite.

From a Buddhist perspective, the purpose of mindfulness is not to allow us to make more things faster. Its real purpose is to provide a mechanism for relating to our own suffering. When we slow down, and work with the reality of the current moment, we begin to see our own clinging and grasping. At some point, we begin to let go of that clinging and grasping. It is then that we start to become genuinely useful to ourselves and others.

If we treat mindfulness practice as a materialistic technique to improve performance, or productivity, or even flow, we are going about it backwards. Real mindfulness has to start with “what happens if nothing gets better?” In a society driven by speed and striving, the first and most important thing to do is just to relate to “what is”, whatever that happens to be, however satisfactory or unsatisfactory that happens to feel. Now is now, not now the way we want it to be.

Cameron Tonkinwise has written a wonderful post about the dangers of designing from the perspective that everything should and could always become “better”. He cites the example of companies that assume that “no one would ever want to do their own laundry” as an excess of empathy. I would view that situation as one lacking both mindfulness and real empathy.

I love doing laundry. It’s a chance to let go of what I need to do tonight, whether I’ll make my plane on time in the morning, or whether my business will succeed next week or next month or next year. Instead I can take time to focus on the simple details of sorting colors, selecting times and temperatures, and folding and stacking.

Anyone who thinks I’d never want to do my own laundry has failed to empathize with me. In a larger sense, you could say they’ve failed to empathize with the universal need for and benefit of mindfulness. If we feel overwhelmed by the speed of modern society, will laundry robots make us feel less harried? Or would we be better served carving out the time to do our own laundry?

Design purports to be about making things better. Herbert Simon defined design as “changing existing situations into preferred ones”. What, though, really constitutes “preferred”? Does it always involve new and more complicated technology? Does it always entail doing less for ourselves? Imagine a service that, instead of advertising its ability to “free you from ever having to laundry again”, advertised its ability to “free you from the things that distract you from being able to mindfully do your own laundry”.

Real, non-materialistic mindfulness practice can help us design for true benefit. It can help us distinguish between what people really want, and what we want them to want. Our desire for them to hate laundry so we can make a wonderful new laundry robot for them, is a form of grasping. Design thinking stories abound about teams that thought their clients needed a certain kind of solution, only to find that what really needed was something else entirely. In order to fully empathize, and be able to see their clients’ reality, the designers had to be able to see what was in front of them. It took mindfulness to let go of their beliefs and assumptions and desires, and relate to the reality of the situation.

Buddhism’s ultimate aim is compassion: the desire to liberate all beings from suffering, based on the understanding that all beings desire happiness, and are inherently workable. Compassion requires clear seeing: the ability to see beyond conceptions, prejudices, presuppositions. The primary obstacle to clear seeing is one’s own suffering: one’s own clinging and grasping. Only through practicing mindfulness can we loosen our clinging and grasping in order to see clearly.

Mindfulness thus can be a basis for designing for true benefit. In order to achieve this aim, though, we have to approach mindfulness practice without attachment to conventional gain. If we minimize it into a technique for going faster, or solving problems more efficiently, or beating the competition, we ironically turn it into non-mindfulness. For it to be truly effective, we have to let it lead us to places where the “best” solution might be one that delivers less instead of more, that makes its users “slower” instead of “faster”.

We have left the product economy for the service economy. Business has shifted its focus from producing things to delivering experiences. Mindfulness could be part of a fundamental shift away from industrial-era materialism. Or it could become just more material to be molded, produced, and marketed. It could help us see through the assembly-line approach to work and life. Or it could just be lubricant to make the assembly line run more efficiently.