Now that we’re in the era of praise, hyperbole and misconception about what mindfulness (meditation) is all about – let’s step back and take a look at what we know.
While I’ve often written about mindfulness and personally and professionally endorse its benefits, I’m concerned that the essence of the practice is being co-opted.
Business media coverage of a practice as potentially disruptive to the status quo of stress-filled workplaces is welcome. But too often the discussion is focused on using the tool of mindfulness to do more, make more and get more.
In a curiously convoluted Fast Company article, What Our Recent Obsession with Mindfulness Really Means, author Samantha Cole voices her concern that the corporate world’s recent interest in mindfulness is so pervasive that “there are whole companies that encourage their employees to be more mindful. They drop into yoga poses during mindfulness-drills, and attend expensive seminars on the subject.” According to Ms. Cole, “no activity is safe from mindfulness.”
As a consultant who works with diverse businesses, I must admit, I have yet to find any company where mindfulness “drills” are being held or see department managers dropping into yoga stances.
As for “expensive” seminars, as an advocate and teacher of mindfulness, while I’m pleased to find more people in the corporate world aware of and interested in mindfulness, many are not. It continues to be an uphill sell despite the frustration, frenzy and pressures most employees report as their primary experience. And many of those who are interested still see mindfulness as an adjunct to their work – not a way of doing it.
Articles with titles like, Don’t Mention Meditation: Inside the Health Craze Sweeping the Financial Sector, speak to the distortion of the mindfulness message as it makes its way into mainstream corporate corridors, especially those of traditionally conservative banking, law and investment institutions. In the article, author Paul Clarke mentions the the importance of mindfulness losing its “hippy” tag and points out that its been taken up by parts of the U.S. military, “which is about as far from long hair, sandals and Zen as you can get.”
As corporate interests continue to reshape mindfulness to their purpose, the practice will mostly be centered on the outcomes of focus, performance and stress reduction. While these are all very worthwhile benefits of a regular mindfulness practice, they are not the raison d’être for it.
Marina Grazier, director of the Mindfulness Exchange in the U.K. explains, “We want to honour the Buddhist roots and the fact that meditation practices are at the core of mindfulness, but we don’t want to detract away from its benefits to corporations and individuals in the workplace. We don’t want to muddy the message with religion.”
Grazier, and other mindfulness practitioners can find themselves walking a semantics tightrope in translating an ancient practice and justifying its (ROI) return on investment.
According to Clarke, mindfulness is catching on in bedrock financial companies such as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Lloyd’s Banking Group and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Even the Bank of England is running “taster” sessions for their employees, while some companies keep activities under wraps for fear of being perceived as being “new age.” And that bastion of quality journalism the U.K.’s Daily Mail reports that the uptick in interest from the financial sector may be heralding a new era where greed is no longer good. They even report that books with a spiritual theme are among the top ten in the House of Commons library. I suppose we can expect a sea change in government ethics if it gets to the House of Lords!
Clarke’s article warns that “pure rationalists may still have a hard time getting to grips with mindfulness in the workplace, which still contains some emotional and spiritual elements.” The assumption here is that there is such a state as “pure rationalism” and that meditation is void of emotion. These spectacular misconceptions of how the human mind works remind us that without a basic understanding of neuroscience and emotions, it may be difficult for the mindfulness aspirant to grasp what is happening in the practice.
As for its roots, the controversy over whether nontheistic Buddhism, from which mindfulness mediation is derived, is a religion or not, will likely continue. As any “non-religious” practitioner of mindfulness will attest, no belief in a Divine Being, guru or adherence to ritual is required to reap the benefits.
There’s no question that as mindfulness programs make their way through countless iterations, the practices may take on a distinctly different form than those traditionally practiced in the Buddhist sangha. Tech giant Intel’s new program Awake@Intel, being rolled out through a train-the-trainer model to over 100,000 employees in 63 countries will undoubtedly take on a form that lends itself to their corporate culture.
Awake@Intel’s founder, Lindsay Van Driel, emphasized, “The right teachers (who will be employees) will have to emerge as leaders before we can offer it here. It’s not something that anyone can teach. It has to be lived and embodied.”
Appearing at a high-profile event with business and media heavy hitters like Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini and Arianna Huffington, “father” of mindfulness Thich Nhat Hanh addressed the bottom-line concerns attracting corporations to the practice. The Zen master pointed out that as long as business leaders practiced “true mindfulness” it does not matter if the original intention is triggered by wanting to be more effective at work or to make bigger profits. This, he says, is because the practice will fundamentally change their perspective on life as it naturally opens hearts to greater compassion and develops the desire to end the suffering of others.
One can only hope that he is right.
Mindfulness Will Change Cultures; or It Isn’t Mindfulness
For the record, let me say that ANYTHING that gives employees fifteen or twenty minutes of rest – regardless of the “outcome” is welcome in the workplace. If anything, the introduction of mindfulness into the corporate world breaks the taboo of “doing nothing.” At the least, people may become more mindful of the importance of breathing which will help curb anxiety and improve concentration.
The great yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the classic, Autobiography of a Yogi, reminded us that “Environment is stronger than will power.” Even the most dedicated practitioners falter in establishing and sustaining a meditation practice.
The obvious questions facing any employee participating in a company mindfulness practice is what will the culture do to support my practice? It’s a very different question from those of senior corporate leaders who may be asking – what do we get in return for this investment? There’s a fundamental tension here.
If people are expected to return to the same pressurized, sometimes toxic, work environments, refreshed and renewed after a meditation session, there will be little lasting effect. If caffeine fueled, 10 hour work days, 24/7 work demands, little or no time off, less than mindful eating and sleep habits and conflict-laden work environments create the need for mindfulness practices, what impact will more mindful employees have on those workplace cultures?
The mind is not an app and mindfulness practice is no quick short-term fix. It takes time, commitment and deep contemplation. Even though many research studies (with more underway) show beneficial results after only eight weeks of practice , the long-term practice of mindfulness can present challenges as well as opportunities. Mindfulness is not a static event. We don’t plug in, clear the channels, recharge and move on. A mindfulness practice is not a linear experience. You don’t arrive. You’re never done. It is truly – a work in progress.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the University of Massachusetts Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) has described mindfulness as the simple and complex ability to pay attention to the awareness of awareness. He described the “container of awareness” as infinite. Speaking to the applications of mindfulness in business, Kabat-Zinn reminds us that “if we take care of what is deepest and most important in our experience the applications will unfold.” Ultimately, says Kabat-Zinn, love and faith and becoming fully human are at the heart of the practice
It’s common in today’s business world to talk about tools and strategies. The practice of mindfulness is neither. It is more like a path that leads us further into the mysteries of our own being. As Kabat-Zinn points out, while it is simple to define what mindfulness is, the doing of the practice is where our inner mettle can be challenged. Staying with the practice, he adds, with gentleness and self-compassion beyond our experience of boredom, the need to be entertained and feeling alone – that’s the curriculum.
In the results focused business world, the introduction of a practice not fixated on results is a very interesting development. More focused, relaxed, kinder and gentler corporate cultures? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
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Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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