February 27, 2005

A Mindful Approach to the Future

Futurists by definition have an eye toward what is to come. However, futurism may take many forms, from eager spontaneous anticipation of future events to thoughtful co-construction of near, or even not-so-near, occurrences. Rapid advances in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence may be set to converge, resulting in the impending Singularity, described by Vernor Vinge as the point at which greater-than-human intelligence will drive the pace of information transfer and idea-processing, leading to the moment in which all old methods must be discarded and “even the most radical [idea] will quickly become commonplace” (Vinge, 1993). As old ways of doing things lose their effectiveness, people will find ways to innovate; one strategy may be to collaborate in the liminal spaces where philosophies and ideas converge. One example may be the confluence of Buddhism and futurism.

This is an exploration of one point of convergence of Buddhism and futurism: the need for a mindful future orientation. This blog entry will discuss the concept of mindfulness from both a Buddhist and futurist perspective and will consider the technique of StoryTech as an appropriate tool for mindful Buddhists and futurists alike. Finally, this entry will provide an example of how StoryTech can be a mindful approach for strategic future planning in an international development context.

In Buddhism, mindfulness is a process of developing increasing self-awareness. Mindfulness differs from concentration in that concentration is controlled whereas mindfulness can be characterized as a more purposeful letting go of control. Additionally, mindfulness is an active, not passive, state of being. For Buddhists, mindfulness is an internal process that can be engaged through meditation; for futurists, mindfulness may be seen as an internal, individual process directly connected to the external world. Three goals of mindfulness, according to Buddhist tradition, include the following:

Mindfulness reminds you of what you are supposed to be doing.
Mindfulness sees things as they really are.
Mindfulness sees the true nature of all phenomena
(Mahathera, 2001).

Mindfulness is a mechanism used to investigate and gain insight. While Buddhists may use mindfulness as an insight into the self, futurists may use mindfulness to gain insight into the self in relation to the future.
Mindfulness, then, is a perspective applicable to both Buddhists and futurists. Other characteristics of mindfulness, as described by Mahathera (2001), are included below, along with a brief discussion of the implications of these characteristics for futurists.

• “Mindfulness is non-judgmental observation” and “impartial watchfulness” (Mahathera, 2001). Mindfulness is not about making judgments, but instead, being open to possibilities and reserving judgment for later.

• “Mindfulness is nonconceptual awareness” (Mahathera, 2001). Mindfulness approaches awareness with a “beginner’s mind;” that is, mindfulness does not rely on predetermined categories for ordering and storing information. As such, mindfulness creates a context for futurists to produce knowledge.

• “Mindfulness is present time awareness” (Mahathera, 2001). While Buddhist mindfulness is always grounded in the present, the past and future are not excluded. People who are thinking ahead to anticipate a strategic organizational change may be anticipatory, not mindful. However, when they become aware of their anticipatory perspectives, they are being mindful.

• “Mindfulness is goal-less awareness” (Mahathera, 2001). Mindfulness itself does not focus on results or outcomes. While goals and outcomes may be important to futurists who are strategically planning, mindfulness can be seen as a reminder that the process (not only the product) is also a critical component of a future orientation.

• “Mindfulness is awareness of change” (Mahathera, 2001). Mindfulness is a way of recognizing the fluidity of everything. While Buddhism focuses particularly on “the universe within” and signifies this changing universe as the non-self, futurists can be mindful in recognizing the significance of change in the external universe as well.

• “Mindfulness is participatory observation” (Mahathera, 2001). Mindfulness acknowledges the individual role that futurists play in transforming the future. While we are observers in our awareness of the future/the external universe, we are also participants.

In considering the impending Singularity, mindfulness may be an important method of perspective-taking because while old means of doing things will lose their effectiveness, mindfulness offers a means of maintaining awareness and opening oneself up to new categories, new actions, and new methods of knowledge production.

A Mindful Future Orientation
The Buddhist concept of mindfulness can be coupled with the concept of impermanence to create a mindful future orientation. The Dalai Lama (1990) describes impermanence as the feeling of insignificance in the cosmos he gets upon gazing at the stars (Dalai Lama, 1990, p.44). Pema Chodron (2002) adds that impermanence is the acknowledgement that nothing lasts forever. Furthermore, she offers insight into both the nature of impermanence as well as the benefits of approaching impermanence mindfully:

We know that all is impermanent; we know that everything wears out. Although we can buy this truth intellectually, emotionally we have a deep-rooted aversion to it. We want permanence; we expect permanence. Our natural tendency is to seek security; we believe we can find it. We experience impermanence at the everyday level as frustration….[Buddhist teachings] encourage us to relax gradually and wholeheartedly into the ordinary and obvious truth of change. Acknowledging this truth doesn’t mean that we’re looking on the dark side. What it means is that we begin to understand that we’re not the only one who can’t keep it all together. We no longer believe that there are people who have managed to avoid uncertainty (Chodron, 2002, pp. 27-28).

Here, Chodron (2002) observes that people are motivated by the need for security; yet, the Singularity, in part, is a recognition that old forms of security will fail us. By taking a mindful approach to the future, we cannot avoid uncertainty, but we can be more aware of uncertainty itself. This gained awareness can be used to develop strategies, thus giving us more choices as we meet the Singularity head-on. How can we gain awareness in order to develop realistic choices? StoryTech scenario-writing is one effective approach.

StoryTech: A Mindfulness Tool
StoryTech is a method of guided storytelling developed by Arthur Harkins [IN 1988]. StoryTech is guided in that it offers participants grounded writing prompts; however, StoryTech is also open-ended in that participants can create stories that are specific to their individual contexts. As such, participants develop “prototypical stories” based on new ideas of complex systems or preferred futures that can be used to encourage behavior changes (Harkins and Kubik, 2004).

StoryTech is an example of mindfulness because it depends upon heightened awareness of the self in both the present and future in order to develop a well-crafted StoryTech. StoryTech is an example of the characteristics of mindfulness as described above.

• StoryTech itself is not inherently judgmental; rather, writers are able to open themselves up to possibilities that may not have been otherwise considered. StoryTech is not, however, unrealistic or idealistically optimistic. Writers of StoryTech are able to personalize their writing and through this personalization, they are able to apply realistic contextual limitations to the story prompt.

• StoryTech uses nonconceptual awareness in its approach—writers may be asked to create categories as part of a story process, but the categories themselves are not suggested by the StoryTech prompt itself.

• StoryTech demonstrates present/future time awareness in that engaging in the process of StoryTech requires a writer to become aware of oneself in both the present and the future. A past-oriented StoryTech may also connect a writer with a greater awareness of the past. StoryTech causes a writer to become aware of an anticipatory perspective.

• StoryTech may also be said to be goal-free in its orientation. While writers may themselves create goals as part of a story process, StoryTech itself is much more of a process-oriented approach to future transformation and change than a product. The individual writer of a StoryTech may be said to be the product, and the outcome of the StoryTech lies within the transformation of the individual StoryTech writer.

• StoryTech cultivates awareness of change. In StoryTech, the “universe within” may be the story itself. The StoryTech process may be the entry point of change as a writer gains awareness of a broader set of possible future orientations and actions.

• StoryTech is participant observation. StoryTech engages a writer as an observer of the present and the future, but more importantly, StoryTech requires a writer to be a participant in the construction of the future. A StoryTech writer creates a meaningful potential future that is desirable; as a result, the writer MAY BE MORE LIKELY TO participate in the realization of a StoryTech.

StoryTech, then, is a tool for mindfully approaching the future and the Singularity because it gives its users a method of gaining insight and creating awareness of realistic actions in future personal contexts.

StoryTech: A Mindful Approach to International Development
StoryTech can be adapted to nearly every context. Approaching the future mindfully is critical, given the rapid rate of change accompanied by the Singularity and advances in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information systems. These technological changes will have an influence on every context, and StoryTech may be one method of mindfully anticipating the consequences of change. One appropriate context in which to apply StoryTech is to mindfully approach change IS international development contexts.

International development contexts have potentially much to gain from rapid advances in technology; however, implementing new technologies in development contexts must be done mindfully. Developing countries may be able to use technological advances, such as ubiquitous WiFi, to leapfrog development by foregoing the process of establishing landline telecommunications. However, limitations, both psychological and physical, may present themselves as barriers to implementation of innovations. By using StoryTech, international development leaders can not only uncover potential barriers to the implementation of innovations, but also they can use the StoryTech process to explore creative solutions to potential barriers. In addition, StoryTech may be used with key country personnel as a form of culture creation; in this way, StoryTech can be used to develop a mindful culture of change among country leaders themselves. StoryTech, then, is an effective method of developing mindfulness in approaching future innovation contexts.

Chodron, P. (2002). Comfortable with uncertainty: 108 teachings. Boston: Shambala.

Harkins, A. & Kubik, G. (2004). An introduction to StoryTech. University of Minnesota: Powerpoint presentation.

Lama, D. (1990). The Dalai Lama, A policy of kindness. Ithaca, NY: Snow
Mahathera, H. G. (2001). Mindfulness in plain English. Accessed online at
< http://www.saigon.com/~anson/ebud/mfneng/mind13.htm> on February 9, 2005.

Vinge, V. (1993). The singularity. Accessed online at
< http://singularity.manilasites.com/stories/storyReader$75> on February 9, 2005.

Posted by chri1010 at February 27, 2005 11:15 PM