Saturday, February 27, 2021

2 schools of mindfulness: journey-led vs destination-led


“What’s in it for me?” is not an uncommon question in a mindfulness-related discussion. The answer depends upon what mindfulness means. In this article, I would like to consider 2 schools of mindfulness – journey-led and destination-led and see how their response might differ to the “Why mindfulness?” question. Let’s begin with destination-led school:

Destination-led mindfulness: A response from this school could be, “You practice mindfulness in order to reach a better state”. A better state could mean a less stressful life (e.g. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction – MBSR1), or a state of nirvana or eternal bliss (e.g. in Vipassana2) or some other state. What is important for our purpose is not the particular destination but the “in order to” attitude. Mindfulness, in this school, is a means to reach a destination. Hence the term destination-led mindfulness. This doesn’t mean this school doesn’t give importance to the journey i.e. awareness at the present moment. It just means that there is an implicit or explicit emphasis on reaching a destination. The destination emphasis also brings with it a notion of progress indicating whether you are getting closer to the destination.

An assumption, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, in destination-led mindfulness is that it is possible to know when you have reached the destination. That is, it is possible to know when you have reached a state free of stress or attachments or desires etc. If the mind is anything like weather3 then this assumption is akin to saying it is possible to know if the weather has become still and in the future, it will not transform into and sustain its windy and stormy forms. The journey-led school does not make this assumption.

Journey-led mindfulness: A response from this school could be “Mindfulness involves learning to see clearly for its own sake”. The phrase “for its own sake” may appear puzzling. What do I mean by “learning for its own sake”? It means learning is not a means to get somewhere but an end in itself. Let’s use a metaphor and see if that helps. Why should a car have wipers? So that you see clearly while driving. Why should I see clearly? If I don’t see clearly, how will I learn about the situation on the road? And if I don’t see the situation clearly, how will I respond to it appropriately? Thus, seeing clearly is not important in order to reach a destination, but for learning about the moment-to-moment situation i.e. for its own sake.

How do I know I am seeing clearly? I can’t know for sure. But when there is an expectation mismatch that is repetitive, it could be a signal that I am not seeing clearly. A good proxy for repetitive expectation mismatch is sustained negative emotion. If I remain upset, anxious, angry, etc. then that means there is an opportunity to learn something new.

Note that journey-led school does acknowledge the relevance of a destination. However, it doesn’t place emphasis on it and it doesn’t attach any significance to the final destinations like a stress-free state or a blissful state. Such moments may come and go. According to this school, learning is a lifelong journey. A side effect of this attitude is that sense of progress doesn’t carry much significance. Once I declare, “I have arrived”, it may hinder the learning process.

Journey-led school tends to avoid using the phrase – the practice of mindfulness. How do you practice learning to see self-deception? It doesn’t always happen at 6 am in the morning. However, similar to the destination-led school, it does acknowledge shifting attention away from the current train of thoughts towards the present moment sensations. This can be practiced at 6 am every day but it can also happen at any other moment of the day as well.

Teachers like David Bohm4 and Eckhart Tolle5 have emphasized journey-led approaches. Some teachers like Jiddu Krishnamurti6 have emphasized journey at one time and destination at another.

Now, the human mind is conditioned to be reward-seeking. Hence, is it possible that one who claims to be part of the journey-led school actually belongs to the destination-led school deep down? Yes, it is possible. The desire for reaching a state could be deeply buried in the mind and not known. Is it possible that one starts with a destination in mind (say, stress-free life) and through the journey of exploration begins to see meaninglessness in reaching a state? Yes, it is possible.

I carry a bias for the journey-led approach and it is highlighted in my book “Mindfulness: connecting with the real you”. However, I feel it doesn’t matter which school you feel closer to. Perhaps you don’t have a choice anyway. And if you feel there isn’t much there in mindfulness that is understandable too.


1.      Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is an eight week program developed by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1970s. This is what the book “Full catastrophe living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, 2nd edition mentions in the Introduction chapter – “Many of the people who come to the Stress Reduction Clinic have not seen much improvement in their physical condition despite years of medical treatment. <snap> By the end of eight weeks, when the program comes to an end, their smiles and more relaxed bodies are evident to even the most casual observer. <snap> They are less anxious, less depressed, and less angry. They feel more in control, even in very stressful situations that previously would have sent them spinning out of control.”

2.      Vipassana, a 10-day course designed by S. N. Goenka mentions the following in the “Day five discourse” in “The discourse summaries” by S. N. Goenka page 27 – “If you practice, certainly a day will come when you will be able to say that you have eradicated all the old sankhara, have stopped generating any new ones, and so have freed yourself from all suffering.”

3.      Mind is like weather: This analogy is explored by Prof. Karl Friston in the interview “Karl Friston: Neuroscience and the Free Energy Principle | Lex Fridman podcast #99” (39:15). Friston compares the attributes common between brain and weather – deeply structured, very non-linear, rests upon non-equilibrium steady-state dynamics.

4.      David Bohm: In “Thought as a system” (page 84) (Saturday seminar on YouTube, 57:30), Bohm is asked following question, “If you attack me negatively, I could hold my reaction in abeyance. Is that a way to deal with this process?” Bohm replies, “You could try that. But I’m suggesting that we’re engaged in learning about this. We don’t know yet what to do with it. We have to be interested in learning for its own sake, because if we have any other sake it’s going to enter the conditioning.”

5.      Eckhart Tolle: In an interview with Dr. James Doty of Stanford “Conversations on compassion with Eckhart Tolle” (57:15) Ekhart explores “Life is a journey” theme. He says, “Life is a journey. You want to go from here to there. Whether you will get there, we don’t know. Maybe on the way, you will branch out somewhere else. But at least you have a certain direction. It is good to have some direction in your life. But while you are traveling, if the destination takes up most of your attention, you miss all the journey. You can’t enjoy the journey anymore. And most of your life is the journey. The arrival is relatively rare. The wedding, the graduation, those moments are far and few between. The step you are taking this moment is the most important step.”

6.      Jiddu Krishnamurti: In the following paragraph from chapter 24, “Think on these things” (2007 Indian edition, page 232), JK says, “If you want to examine every thought, if you really want to see the content of it, then you will find that your thoughts slow down and you can watch them. This slowing down of thinking and the examining of every thought is the process of meditation; and if you go into it, you will find that by being aware of every thought, your mind – which is now a vast storehouse of restless thoughts all battling against each other – becomes very quiet, completely still. There is then no urge, no compulsion, no fear in any form, and in this stillness, that which is true comes into being. There is no ‘you’ who experiences truth, but the mind being still, the truth comes into it.” As you can see JK starts with the journey (examination of thoughts) and moves into a destination (state of no ‘you’, stillness etc.)

Monday, February 15, 2021

My 4 takeways from Dr. Pavan Soni’s “Design your thinking”

Dr. Pavan Soni is a friend and I have seen his journey from innovation evangelist at Wipro to IIMB Ph.D. program to an accomplished consulting career. I am happy to see Pavan adding yet another feather to his colorful cap with the book “Design your thinking: The mindsets, toolsets and skillsets for creative problem solving”.  The book is packed with inspirational stories – several of them from India and suffused with the optimism that Pavan embodies. The book also helped me question some of my deeply held assumptions. And sometimes the questions are more valuable than the examples. Here are my 4 takeaways.

First two are stories in the book that stood out for me.

Power of metaphors: In the “Inspire” chapter Pavan invokes Aristotle’s quote “To be a master of metaphor is a sign of genius” and cites several examples to illustrate it. One of them is Mahindra XUV500. A market survey of a couple of thousand customers across the world got translated into a design brief – to build a car that offers aggressive styling, muscular looks and a macho stance. And then the team adopted the metaphor of cheetah indicating speed, agility, aggression, and muscle. The design team visited Masai Mara, Kenya to watch the beast in the wild terrain. So much to internalize the metaphor!  The design cycle also involved testing 250 prototypes across half a dozen terrains in the world.

Perils of “just do it”: Pavan is also careful to bring out stories from innovative organizations that highlight leadership admitting to mistakes. For example, he illustrates the principle that “just do it” without an appropriate pilot or prototype can hurt badly with two big decisions from Flipkart that backfired. In the first case, Flipkart went for a Big Billion Day sale in October 2014 without doing any prototyping. The site couldn’t withstand the heavy traffic and became dysfunctional for some time. In the second case, leadership decided to take Flipkart towards app-only mode by forgoing desktop customers without any pilot. They had to revert the decision after backlash from employees and customers.

Now we turn to questions that got raised in my mind that rubbed some of my long-held beliefs. It means I need to explore them further. 

Can empathy be engineered? Pavan suggests in the chapter “Empathy and define” that empathy can be engineered. This section builds on the work of several reputed thinkers like Daniel Goleman (self-awareness), Thich Nhat Hanh, and Dalai Lama (mindfulness). And then suggests that with the tools like mind mapping, stakeholder map, and customer journey mapping, empathy can be engineered. If listening with openness and deferring judgment are important for empathy then it is not clear how using tools will cultivate empathy. “Engineering” carries a sense of control and precision in the design process and I don’t know how empathy can be controlled. But maybe I am seeing engineering and empathy in a narrow sense.

Can biases be overcome? Citing research from Francesca Gino, Pavan mentions that confirmation bias can be overcome through curiosity. The solution is hiring and cultivating curiosity. My limited understanding of biases is that they are deep-rooted and extremely hard to overcome. Daniel Kahneman who has researched biases for fifty years keeps saying in the interviews that it is difficult to overcome biases at an individual level. After writing the bestseller “Thinking, fast and slow” Kahneman feels he hasn’t changed much and he is still overconfident. It is possible that the study of Kahneman’s work has biased me. So I need to study this further.

The book contains a comprehensive collection of toolsets associated with creative problem-solving. Personally, it has helped me learn new examples and raise/revive basic questions related to design thinking. I wish Pavan and the book a great success.


Book image:

Daniel Kahneman’s quote “I don’t think my intuitions have significantly improved and I am very overconfident,” see his interview with Sam Harris, March 2019 (18:57-20:25)