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How mindfulness meditation is infiltrating the corporate world

mindful workI thought I’d read every­thing about mind­ful­ness, but this was news to me: Steve Jobs was a med­i­ta­tor. Back in 1981, long before mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion became a pop­u­lar sub­ject of sci­en­tif­ic inquiry, Jobs, the cofounder and pub­lic face of Apple Com­put­ers, was already prac­tic­ing mind­ful­ness as a way to calm his mind, stay focused, and feel hap­pi­er.

Accord­ing to David Gelles, busi­ness reporter for the New York Times, Jobs is not some lone outlier—the num­ber of busi­ness lead­ers embrac­ing mind­ful­ness is at an all time high, and grow­ing. To write his new book, Mind­ful Work: How Med­i­ta­tion Is Chang­ing Busi­ness from the Inside Out, Gelles trav­eled the coun­try, talk­ing to large and small busi­ness­es and cor­po­ra­tions, to uncov­er how mind­ful­ness meditation—far from being a fringe practice—is going main­stream.

Part of his book is devot­ed to recount­ing how mind­ful­ness prac­tices first became pop­u­lar­ized in the west and lat­er became a focus of inquiry for mod­ern neu­ro­science. He goes over ground that will be famil­iar to many read­ers of Greater Good, review­ing sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies that sug­gest mind­ful­ness has many pos­i­tive ben­e­fits, includ­ing pain relief and decreas­ing stress reac­tiv­i­ty and depres­sion. He also writes of Richard Davison’s work at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin, who’s found that long-term med­i­ta­tors have increased activ­i­ty and grey mat­ter in the pre­frontal cor­tex of the brain—the area respon­si­ble for high­er order think­ing, such as judg­ment, deci­sion-mak­ing, and dis­cern­ment, as well as pro-social behav­ior, like empa­thy, com­pas­sion, and kind­ness.

But while many researchers have shown pos­i­tive effects of mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion, few­er stud­ies have looked at these effects in the work­place. Gelles describes one exper­i­ment in which a biotech com­pa­ny in Madi­son took an eight-week course in mind­ful­ness-based stress reduc­tion taught by Jon Kabat-Zinn and dis­cov­ered that it helped work­ers feel sig­nif­i­cant­ly less stressed than a con­trol group of co-work­ers. Per­haps more sur­pris­ing­ly though, the work­ers who did the course also mea­sur­ably increased their brain grey mat­ter and showed improved immune func­tion.

Research like this, as well as the per­son­al expe­ri­ences of var­i­ous indus­try lead­ers, seems to have gal­va­nized com­pa­nies to try mind­ful­ness in the work­place, and Gelles’ book is pri­mar­i­ly a “who’s who” of those com­pa­nies. We read about the mind­ful lead­er­ship pro­gram at Gen­er­al Mills, which is ongo­ing and has pro­duced a more pos­i­tive work envi­ron­ment for its employ­ees. And we learn how the health insur­ance orga­ni­za­tion, Aet­na, came to offer mind­ful­ness to more than a third of its employ­ees in order to decrease work­er stress and asso­ci­at­ed health­care costs.

Accord­ing to Gelles, many com­pa­ny lead­ers embrace mind­ful­ness not just to improve work­er health and inter­per­son­al rela­tions, though those are wor­thy goals. Many are also find­ing inspi­ra­tion through a mind­ful­ness prac­tice to take more social­ly respon­si­ble action in their com­pa­nies.

The most mind­ful com­pa­nies I observed were those whose founders or CEO’s embod­ied mind­ful liv­ing per­son­al­ly and strived to reflect those same prin­ci­ples in their busi­ness oper­a­tions,” he writes. “They were com­pa­nies that looked deeply at the work they did and strived to do it with com­pas­sion for their employ­ees, respect for their sup­pli­ers and part­ners, and a keen aware­ness of their impact on the plan­et.”

For exam­ple, Patagonia’s CEO has been fos­ter­ing a move­ment of “mind­ful con­sump­tion,” encour­ag­ing cus­tomers to “be hon­est with our­selves about what we need, as opposed to what we want.” Eileen Fish­er, founder of the cloth­ing line, has been prac­tic­ing mind­ful­ness for years, and she is con­stant­ly look­ing for more sus­tain­able ways to make prod­ucts and to share prof­its and deci­sion-mak­ing with employ­ees. And then there’s Face­book, which has tried to increase emo­tion­al self-aware­ness in its users, par­tic­u­lar­ly around pho­to shar­ing and tak­ing down offen­sive pho­tos.

Many of Gelles’ sto­ries are uplift­ing and inspir­ing, but I couldn’t help feel a bit jad­ed by all the cor­po­rate hoopla. For exam­ple, when I read that Mon­san­to had at one point also giv­en mind­ful­ness class­es to employ­ees, it made me won­der: Is prac­tic­ing mind­ful­ness always a good thing?

Hap­pi­ly, his report­ing is a bit more nuanced than it may seem at first glance. He writes of busi­ness­es he vis­it­ed where mind­ful­ness pro­grams were being slapped togeth­er with­out much atten­tion to pro­gram qual­i­ty and with­out mak­ing any kind of deep impact on busi­ness as usu­al. In addi­tion, he includes a chap­ter on those who aren’t quite ready to drink the Kool-Aid, yet—people like mind­ful­ness researcher Willough­by Brit­ton of Brown Uni­ver­si­ty, who sug­gests that too many peo­ple are read­ing too much into the research in mind­ful­ness, pro­mot­ing ben­e­fits that are only just begin­ning to be stud­ied and under­stood.

Some crit­ics cit­ed in the book charge that if mind­ful­ness is seen only as a ben­e­fit to a company’s bot­tom line, then it’s not ful­fill­ing its pur­pose, which is per­son­al trans­for­ma­tion. Yet, while giv­ing voice to their view­points, Gelles ulti­mate­ly seems to dis­agree with their con­clu­sions.

The true pur­pose of mind­ful­ness is to cul­ti­vate com­pas­sion for our­selves and oth­ers, to free our­selves from this peren­ni­al dis­sat­is­fac­tion that makes us feel as if noth­ing is ever good enough,” he argues. And this, he implies, is some­thing any­one can ben­e­fit from—even employ­ees at Mon­san­to.

If he is right, and if mind­ful­ness is infil­trat­ing the cor­po­rate world in the ways he sug­gests, per­haps there is room for opti­mism. Busi­ness lead­ers and cor­po­ra­tions may not under­go rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion through mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion. But Gelles sug­gests that a lit­tle mind­ful­ness is bet­ter than noth­ing, and prob­a­bly won’t hurt.

If, through prac­tice, employ­ees become a lit­tle less stressed out, if rela­tions between cowork­ers become just a bit more har­mo­nious, if com­pa­nies are inspired to behave just a lit­tle better—that will be a good thing indeed.”

jill_suttie.thumbnail– Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Greater Good is an online mag­a­zine based at UC-Berke­ley that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism.

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