Will Mindfulness Change the World? Daniel Goleman Isn’t Sure

Daniel Goleman is best known as the author of Emotional Intelligence, the title of which has now become part of our everyday vocabulary. Since that book, Goleman has applied the basic idea—that we possess varying degrees of ability to work well with others, to be happy, and to function well in society, and that these abilities can be developed over time—to leadership, family dynamics, even ecological awareness. He’s become the go-to-social-psychologist for the TED Talk set. And his new book, Focus, is a New York Times bestseller.

But before any of that fame, Goleman was a hardcore Buddhist meditator—and remains one today. His early books were about the development of the contemplative path, and throughout his work has run the theme of how meditative practice, in secular or spiritual contexts, can lead to greater happiness and peace—and conversely, how the disconnects in our own minds can lead to disconnects in society.

Focus brings this concern forward. Part of it is a typically engaging summary of the science of attention—and part of it feels like a wake-up call to greater awareness of the ecological and social costs of our way of living.

And yet, Goleman is not one of those who believe that if we’re all just a bit more mindful and focused, we will change the world. I was surprised, when we spoke, about the limitations he sees in these practices, and his own presentations of them. I spoke with Goleman in Manhattan recently, as he prepared to meet the Dalai Lama.

JM: I want to start with two aspects of the book. Part of it feels a bit like a leadership book—be the best you can be—and other parts felt like a prophetic warning that we’re all doomed. I’m exaggerating, of course, but I wonder how those two pieces play together.

DG: And there’s actually a third piece, which is what we need to help kids with so that we aren’t actually doomed as a society. I was trying to speak to different audiences that I’ve fallen into over the years, one of which has to do with leadership. Emotional Intelligence became a kind of gold standard in leadership development, to my surprise. I felt that there were real implications of Focus and an opportunity to talk to the so-called leadership class, if you will, and that attention has been ignored in that domain… 

So that’s one message to leaders. 

The other message is that if you stop there, it’s rather myopic. I really am hoping that leaders will develop a larger systems awareness that puts them in touch with ethical questions, such as how is our organization contributing (or not) to the demise of the species on the planet over the next few centuries—or at least the ecological systems supporting the species.

Let me pick up on that. I hear you saying that part of the responsibility for our bad behavior seems to be systems blindness. And I think about some people who are seriously committed to a particular worldview, and I wonder if it’s blindness or avariceor maybe blindness and a different set of values?

There’s a classic formulation in the Buddhist tradition that ignorance is the basis of avarice. The brain is designed for a different age—to survive in the Holocene and Pleistocene when we need it in the Anthropocene. It’s designed for some near threat, like the tiger approaching… but is blind to the macroscopic and microscopic changes to the global systems that support life on the planet, and that’s where the damage is being done. The fact is, we’re all blind from a systems point of view. We need to learn that. But, yes, there are some who are also motivated to ignore—which is an added kind of blindness. 

But is Dick Cheney really blind, or does he not care?

He’s doubly blind. We’re all blind from a systems point of view. We need to learn that—the sciences are a way to pierce systems blindness, for example environmental science. But some people are also motivated to ignore—which is an added kind of blindness. 

Sometimes I think progressives like to say that if everybody would just see clearly, they would agree with us. But there are people who have really different values.

You’re never going to convince everyone. There are always going to be people who don’t want to know, or whose belief system is such that they can’t allow themselves to know what the truth is. I am trying to reach out to a younger generation, people who haven’t fossilized into a belief set like that. For example, one of the things I advocate is teaching systems awareness in schools, so kids will grow up with models where it’s a given rather than something you have to be convinced about.

Are focus and mindfulness enough to change the culture, or do we need more of what root traditions call virtue, or ethics?

When mindfulness came to the West, one of the things that was left behind was the ethical dimension, which underlies that technique. The technique in isolation can be used to justify anything, even violence. I think the Dalai Lama’s take on this is quite interesting. What he says is that the secular use of mindfulness is not going to make people saints, or change their values, but is going to lessen their suffering. That’s his goal. That alone is good in itself. I don’t look to mindfulness as a way to change the way people think about the planet. 

You know, I once wrote a book called Ecological Intelligence which argued that if the environmental effects of what we do and buy were easily accessed at decision points, that that would be enough. But I think that’s wrong. I think that’s necessary but not sufficient. I think we need a different motivational system on top of that.

I was struck by something you said recently that there’s a fork in the road, between mindfulness for stress reduction and mindfulness for liberation and wisdom. I’m eager to figure out where those forks might converge in the future.

Why do you think they might converge?

Well, I think that when you get a taste of what calm is, I think you want to know more and you want to get deeper, at least for some people, maybe ten percent of people. If 10% of the people who do mindfulness-based stress reduction at a hospital eventually take on a deeper practice, that feels to me where the prongs might converge.

And it may be that you lessen suffering for the 90%. It depends on what your own motivational system is.

Speaking of lessening suffering, I noticed Buddhism is not in the index of Focus. I wonder to what extent the lineage of these ideas matters. 

I come out of a different lineage in this book—the lineage of science journalism. That’s my training, my background, and my profession. That’s how I know there’s a book to be written—by following the science. That’s what happened here. I saw that there was a surge in science about attention that had huge implications for our lives, and that was enough for me to write a book. I really see this in the framework of attention skill-building. 

I don’t see it as a book that’s going to enlighten the world. Maybe I’ll write that another time.