Maria Konnikova, author of the soon-to-be-published book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, has a piece in the New York Times about the benefits of mindfulness. (Clearly Viking/Penguin's marketing/PR people are on the job!) No one who's read two or more posts here will be surprised by the argument:
Though the concept originates in ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Chinese traditions, when it comes to experimental psychology, mindfulness is less about spirituality and more about concentration: the ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present, and dismiss any distractions that come your way. The formulation dates from the work of the psychologist Ellen Langer, who demonstrated in the 1970s that mindful thought could lead to improvements on measures of cognitive function and even vital functions in older adults.
Now we’re learning that the benefits may reach further still, and be more attainable, than Professor Langer could have then imagined. Even in small doses, mindfulness can effect impressive changes in how we feel and think — and it does so at a basic neural level….
An exercise in mindfulness can also help with that plague of modern existence: multitasking. Of course, we would like to believe that our attention is infinite, but it isn’t. Multitasking is a persistent myth. What we really do is shift our attention rapidly from task to task. [ed: Ah, switch-tasking, my old nemesis, we meet again!] Two bad things happen as a result. We don’t devote as much attention to any one thing, and we sacrifice the quality of our attention. When we are mindful, some of that attentional flightiness disappears as if of its own accord.
All absolutely right on, but I admit the first line catches me a bit: there's a long tradition of contemplative practice in Christianity, but for various reasons, mindfulness and contemplation in the West is viewed more through the prism-- or follows the model-- of Asian contemplative practice. You're more likely to find reference to Thich Nhat Hanh than Thomas Merton in discussions of contemplative practice.
Not that there's anything inherently wrong with this, but I suspect there are people for whom a discussion of the benefits of mindfulness that starts with The Seven Storey Mountain or Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline or (for our English readers) Abbot Christopher Jamison's fabulous book Finding Sanctuary would feel more familiar.
Of course, I think this because one of the things I'm starting to work on now is a version of the contemplative computing argument more grounded in the Christian contemplative tradition. (And one of the benefits of grown up in a household that was entirely unaffiliated with any faith is that it makes me totally unapologetic about investigating and appropriating ideas from all these traditions.) Watch this space.