Mindfulness: East versus West

Silence vs Action

Mindfulness has garnered significant interest in the business world the past couple of years. A recent Harvard Business Review article identified that Mindfulness is being studied and adopted in various organizations to include Google, Apple and the US Department of Defense. This form of Mindfulness capturing great interest the past few years is associated with the Eastern philosophy of Buddhist principles and meditation techniques.

It is important for leaders be knowledgeable, although currently receiving less attention, that there is also a Western philosophy of Mindfulness that is based in Cognitive Science. To summarize using only two words, the Eastern perspective of Mindfulness can be described as enhanced attention, while the western perspective can be viewed as distinction making. Let’s discuss.

Top View of Boot on the trail with the text: Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness: Eastern

The means in which individuals can enhance their individual focus and attention has garnered most of the recent attention concerning Mindfulness. Coming from an Eastern perspective, this form of Mindfulness is described as the ability to have an introspective awareness of your body, feelings, consciousness, and mental objects. While practiced for centuries, the person most credited for the current renewed interest in this form of Mindfulness is Jon Kabat-Zinn. In his book Wherever You Go, There You Are he defines Mindfulness as:

paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present-moment, and non-judgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality (2005, p.4).

He goes on to explain that the root of Mindfulness can be found from “Buddhism, Taoism, and yoga” (p.5).

Within the field of project management, there has been interest in applying the Eastern philosophy of Mindfulness. George Pitagorsky, PMP, in his 2012 PMI published book Managing Conflict in Projects: Applying Mindfulness and Analysis for Optimal Results, quotes a Buddhist saying and suggests silence and meditation to enhance Mindfulness (pp. 32-33). He argues Mindfulness is useful for project managers as

a fundamental capability that enables the analysis and people-centered behaviors that are so critical to effective conflict management (p.4).

Mindfulness: Western

Ellen Langer is credited for developing the current Western perspective of Mindfulness. Rather than the focus on internal awareness and meditation, this perspective focuses on switching one’s thinking from a ‘mindless’ state to one which is actively engaged noticing new things. An example of thinking mindlessly is making poor decisions due to mental traps (of which I recently wrote about here).

Professors Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe, authors of three distinct editions of Managing the Unexpected (2001, 2007, 2015) concerning High Reliability Organizations (HRO), in coming from a Western perspective describe mindfulness as an active awareness of discriminatory detail, including being aware of context, seeing the ‘big picture’, and having a quality of attention that leads to a “clear and detailed comprehension of emerging threats and on factors that interfere with such comprehension” (2007, p.32). They further maintain that when practicing mindfulness

we sense more differences, we can develop a richer and more varied picture of potential consequences, which then suggest a richer and more varied set of precautions and early warning signs (2015, p.65).

Having an active awareness can increase discovery of early warning signs which may otherwise be missed.  This is of critical importance on complex projects as a means for project leaders to identify and resolve unexpected problems quicker, eliminating problems from being recognized late when they are already spiraling out of control.


Mindfulness, from an Eastern philosophical perspective, is an individual’s internal way of being which emphasizes present-moment through silence and meditation. From a Western perspective, mindfulness is achieved through deliberate actions which draw novel distinctions to differentiate.

While both have potential, leaders should know the differences so that you can apply the correct perspective of Mindfulness most appropriate to your situation, project or team. Likely you will find both helpful.

EXIT QUESTION – I conducted a recent survey to assess the vulnerability to mindlessness of high-level experts with years experience in large hospital building projects to include architects, engineers, contractors, and senior executives from the owner’s side.  Any guesses as to the percentage of experts found prone to mindlessness? The results were typical of other studies. We’ll discuss in a future article concerning Mindlessness. Please signup to receive email notifications of future posted articles.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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