Reading for Mindfulness

Reading for Mindfulness

If you pay attention to things like wellness, employee development, or even your own stress levels, you probably know that mindfulness has become quite popular over the past few years. Mindfulness practice has been promoted in organizations as varied as Google and Goldman Sachs as a way of managing stress and increasing productivity. Many corporate leaders are embracing mindful leadership, too, as a means to improve creativity, strategic thinking and even help people have difficult conversations.

Mindfulness is based on the Buddhist practice of meditation. Mindfulness asks practitioners to draw attention to the present moment: to their thoughts, their bodies, their breathing. But mindfulness also involves acceptance.  According to the American Psychological Association, mindfulness has been proven to reduce repetitive thinking about negative experiences, stress and “emotional reactivity,” improve “working memory,” and increase focus and cognitive flexibility.  At its core, mindfulness helps us calm our minds and makes us less prone to distraction.


From Mystery of the Golden Flower by C. G. Jung, 1929 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

But mindfulness isn’t just about focusing on oneself and one’s body. Thích Nhất Hạnh, the prolific Zen monk and mindfulness leader, reminds us that the self-compassion we achieve through mindfulness ought eventually to extend outward, to others. By remaining present, we can focus on other people; we can enact what he calls “deep” and “compassionate” listening.

What I find most interesting is that, for Thích Nhất Hạnh, a life transformed by mindfulness, a life in which one strives to be present, to be aware, to be compassionate, is also very much a literary life. He quotes Walt Whitman, Albert Camus, William Blake and a host of Vietnamese poets in several of his many books. For example, Hạnh uses Whitman’s line, “I am large, I contain multitudes” as a way to reflect on the complexity of the individual, and he thinks about what it means to be “present” by reflecting on a “moment of awareness” in Camus’ novel, The Stranger. For Hạnh, poetry is a way of accessing both internal and political peace. Literature can act as memorial and testament. Both offer us, in Hạnh’s words, “intense moments of understanding and insight.”

That Hạnh uses literature as a way of deepening his mindfulness doesn’t come as a surprise to me. In cultivating compassion, empathy and an appreciation for the world, mindfulness practice powerfully overlaps with the benefits of reading. After all, a New School Study recently demonstrated that reading – especially literary fiction – makes readers more empathetic. Reading deeply requires for a moment that we enter into another person’s head, and when we read fiction we enter the minds of characters who are often vastly different from ourselves. Learning about another’s perspective or point of view has the potential to profoundly shape us and our interactions with the world. Reading, in this sense, is an opportunity to practice deep and compassionate listening.

Exposure to literature – and conversations about literature –  helps us see our world more clearly and to realize something new about ourselves. But that’s not all. Like mindfulness practice, reading for pleasure significantly reduces stress. It can make us more creative. What’s more, we’ve found time and time again in Books@Work seminars that it can help us tackle hard conversations–at work and at home.

We are so convinced of the parallels between reading and sharing a great text and mindfulness practice, that we invite you to share an experiment with us. Participating in a mindfulness seminar or meditating every morning are not the only ways to focus on the moment, engage in compassion and connect with the beauty of the world. You can also read – and you can read with us.


Otto Didrik Ottesen, Stillleben mit Löwenzahn, 1892 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

After all, we at Books@Work know that, for all the benefits reading alone offers, reading with others and having the chance to talk about reading offers still more. When we share in a reading experience, we connect with and learn from the people around us. We practice deep and compassionate listening with and outside of a text. We talk and think more deeply about complexity and ambiguity, and we see from many other perspectives.  

Join us on January 11, and each day thereafter for 18 days, in a mindful reading exercise. We’ll send you a mindfulness prompt and 15 minutes worth of reading, including short-stories, poetry and narrative non-fiction. It’s a simple way to practice taking care of ourselves – to reduce our stress and to connect us with the world – and you can do it in the time it takes to have a cup of coffee. Commit to sharing the reading with a friend, a co-worker or a family member and talk about what you read. Or, join us on Twitter (include #booksatwork in your tweets) to compare notes and insights, or to see another’s point of view.  We will be online each day, and ready for a conversation.

We are excited by the wide variety of texts we’ll be reading – everything from short stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, and John Steinbeck to poetry by Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot. Together, we’ll think and talk over Mary Oliver’s demand:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”

Signing up is quick and easy – we hope you’ll join us!

Image: John Constable, Spring Cloud Study, 1822, Victoria and Albert Museum, London [Public Domain]  via Wikiart

Further Reading:

A Text at Work: Robert Frost’s “The Mountain”

The Element of Surprise: What Stories Help Us See

Books@Work and 21st-Century Literacies

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Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.