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From Mindfulness to Meaningfulness

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Alex Pattakos
January 14, 2020

The practice of mindfulness to advance personal growth, increase health and well-being, develop leadership capacity and improve performance has been receiving increasing attention both within academia and in the workplace. I believe it is now time to shift to an even more effective approach, meaningfulness.

As background, mindfulness has been tied closely to meditation and meditative practices, including disciplined breathing exercises, which have been used for many centuries to find inner peace and balance in life and work.

Because the practice of meditation has also been associated with Zen Buddhism and spiritual enlightenment, for a long time it carried religious and/or New Age thinking overtones that made it very difficult to officially introduce such a practice, no matter how well intended, in business and government organizations. For instance, I recall several decades ago, as a full-time professor in a public administration graduate program, being accused of teaching students, “Witchcraft,” because I was introducing them to the why and how of meditation!

Fast-forward to the present day and we now have a new label for what essentially is a secular version of the very same concept and practice—mindfulness. The roots of the, “Mindfulness Revolution,” have found fertile soil and the practice has gained increasing acceptance across a wide variety of disciplines.

There is a growing body of research evidence documenting the efficacy of meditation/mindfulness practices on the human psyche and behavior. These findings are not at question here nor am I putting forth an argument in favor of mindlessness. I am, however, proposing that mindfulness does not go far enough as a pathway to unleashing the full potential of human beings.

In today’s complex world, heightened awareness, which frequently serves as one of the definitions of both meditation and mindfulness, provides only a starting point for realizing our will to meaning, that is, our authentic commitment to meaningful values and goals that only we can actualize and fulfill. Being aware (mindful) of our situation or predicament, including inescapable suffering, or the challenges we face, no matter how formidable, is only part of the response and solution for which we are ultimately responsible. Mindfulness, in this context, needs to be complemented and augmented by meaningfulness.

Let’s draw upon the ageless wisdom of the world-renowned psychiatrist and existential philosopher, Dr. Viktor Frankl, author of the classic bestseller Man’s Search for Meaning (named one of the ten most influential books in America by the Library of Congress) and a survivor of Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Dr. Frankl famously concluded that the search for meaning is the primary, intrinsic motivation of human beings. Against a backdrop of extraordinary life experiences, Frankl also advised the following: “You do not have to suffer to learn. But, if you don’t learn from suffering, over which you have no control, then your life becomes truly meaningless.”

My colleague Elaine Dundon recently wrote about the need to move from mindfulness to meaningfulness in her column for Psychology Today. According to Dundon, despite the growing popularity of mindfulness, the practice still faces two challenges: (1) It does not appeal to everyone due, rightly or wrongly, to its lingering association with religious traditions and new-age thought, and (2) It is too focused on thinking.

A firm believer in the spirit-mind-body connection, Dundon agrees that mindfulness is an initial, but not sufficient, step in recognizing and unleashing human potential. In this regard, she encourages people to go further by connecting not just with our thinking but also our emotions and, importantly, with our true nature as a path to deeper meaning in our life and work. Much like receiving guidance from Pythia, the ancient Greek oracle and priestess to Apollo at Delphi, it is here—at the intersection of knowledge and inner knowing—where insights into our core essence, our uniqueness as a human being, and what is truly meaningful to us in life and work are revealed.

In my book on the human quest for meaning, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, which was not only inspired by Viktor Frankl but also was written at his personal urging, the importance of awareness is discussed at length and summarily captured by the phrase, “It is more important to be aware than it is to be smart.”

“Know thyself,” is more than an aphorism inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece. It is a maxim intended to guide us on our path to meaning. To know ourselves requires time and effort—to question and reflect upon our thoughts, feelings, and intuition—in order to gain insights into what is important and truly meaningful (and even meaningless) to us in our life and work. These insights can provide the intrinsic motivation we need to really enjoy our everyday life and work, as well as maximize our engagement and contribution.

Against this backdrop, meaningfulness provides both a conceptual platform and practical guidelines to support our search. It is built upon the innate human capacity to connect authentically with others, engage with deeper purpose and embrace life with an appreciative attitude. It’s time to embrace the new practice of meaningfulness.


Author: Alex Pattakos, a former ASPA National Council member, is a founder of a think tank, the Global Meaning Institute (www.globalmeaninginstitute.com). He is co-author with Elaine Dundon of two international bestselling books on the human quest for meaning: Prisoners of Our Thoughts, based on the wisdom of the world-renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, and The OPA! Way, inspired by Greek philosophy, mythology, and culture. He is recognized internationally as the leading authority on applying Frankl’s System of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis to work, the workplace, and organizations in business and government. His passions include advancing meaning in public administration, public policy, and government/public service. He may be contacted at: [email protected]

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