The corporate world’s flirtation with meditation

Sofa and a table

It’s almost old news: the business world’s new interest in meditation

The Financial Times reports regularly on it, Forbes, Wired, Business Insider, the New York Times all have great write-ups, and this month the Economist gives a neat little round-up of how corporations are embracing meditation as the latest “thing”. The same facts circulate:

  • Google offers staff mindfulness courses through its “Search Inside Yourself” programme, introduced by one of its original engineers Chade-Meng Tan, affectionately called the “Jolly Good Fellow”; it has even built a labyrinth in its office for walking meditation,
  • On Tuesday mornings at General Mills, executives gather and meditate together; every one of its buildings has a meditation room
  • Ebay has meditation rooms
  • “Evan Williams, one of Twitter’s founders, has introduced regular meditation sessions in his new venture, the Obvious Corporation, a start-up incubator and investment vehicle.”  -The Economist[1]
  • “Nike, General Mills, Target and Aetna encourage employees to sit and do nothing, and with classes that show them how” – The New York Times[2]
  • Facebook’s engineering director Arturo Bejar uses Buddhist principles of compassion to design it’s social interaction tools
  • Wisdom 2.0 Conference took place in San Francisco in September, an event to encourage discussion on how to “disconnect to reconnect” and manage technology rather than letting it manage us – 1700 people showed up including top executives from all the above mentioned companies plus LinkedIn, Ford, Cisco, and the Dalai Lama’s English interpreter, Thupten Jinpa

We get it. It’s the big “thing”. And it’s great. They talk about the neuroscience of mindfulness, the benefits of compassion in the workplace, they cite the research, and embrace it. But as with anything that becomes this fashionable so quickly, one has to ask… is it a keeper or is this just a fling?

Why are they doing it?

There are good reasons for businesses to encourage meditation. Scientific research into its effects has been growing, and many of its benefits are particularly relevant for busy corporates: reduced stress and anxiety, increased focus, heightened sense of wellbeing, and its ability to make us less emotionally reactive and more considered, rational. People are able to make more efficient use of time, better decisions, and a positive work environment if they experience even some of these benefits over time.

It’s also a great time for something to come along and tell us to “switch off” from the outside world for a few minutes. This era is a technological paradigm of device-dependent living; we barely spend a minute without consulting a screen. Something had to trigger a little warning – switch off, tune in.

Will it last?

On the surface, there shouldn’t be any reason to doubt if the interest will last. Why wouldn’t corporations want more focus, less stress and calmer more rational minds for its employees as this will only benefit the business. If employees really start practicing as they are encouraged to, and the results materialise, then it will last.

There are just a few issues that concern this writer:

1. Positioning meditation as just a productivity tool limits its potential

A stress-busting, focus-getting, “neural hacking” method to increase productivity – these are the terms being used to market meditation to the busy employees by some of its more modern proponents. Research does show that even short-term meditation can help on these fronts – but the really powerful effects of mediation are only discovered when people approach it with openness and curiosity as to where it will lead them. The benefits can be much more vast, just as our minds are vast, because meditation is ultimately a means to understand our minds, and master it.

The other risk of selling it simply as a productivity tool is that people will go into it wondering when the results will materialise. “Exactly how long will I have to meditate to become sharper, happier, calmer?” The answer is that perceivable results may take longer for some than for others. This might lead to frustration, which will impact the commitment to its practice, and may even interfere with the method – which is ultimately one of observation, not expectation.

2. Enlightenment is an easy sell, not an easy get

Noah Shachtman wrote in Wired on August about how Vincent Horn the founder of Buddhist Geeks, and well-known meditation teacher Kenneth Folk in San Francisco, say they are enlightened[3]. Apparently enlightenment is not some mysterious goal and everyone can get there following the steps required. They run a web Forum Dharma Overgound where they share experiences for “hardcore meditation” that will lead to enlightenment.

This rings alarm bells. Who knows whether one is enlightened? The monks find it difficult to describe, and the researchers haven’t yet found one definition from all the ancient texts. We don’t hear Jon Kabat-Zinn, Matthieu Ricard or even the Dalai Lama going around saying they are enlightened. It’s a great thing to sell, but one has to be wary about who is selling what.

3. Compassion in the workplace: will they live and breathe it?

One of the often-overlooked cornerstones of meditation, is that it has to go hand in hand with a feeling of compassion. In mindfulness meditation, we train to observe the present moment with compassion towards our thoughts and experiences, so that we don’t pass judgement on them. In compassion meditation it is of course the feeling that is the central point of focus. Buddhists emphasise how essential it is to develop compassion as well as other aspects of meditation. Research shows that compassion is something that we develop with meditation.

It’s great that corporations are encouraging employees to exercise compassion, or using it to develop social networking tools. But how far will the companies live and breathe it? Will they be as compassionate towards their customers? Will they do everything they can to alleviate the suffering of others, which is what defines compassion?

A hope and a prediction

I hope that the corporate world’s current fascination with meditation develops into a real relationship. When the make-up is off, the newness is gone, and with time and patience people discover what it really is, will it still be as alluring?  I predict the corporate interest will rise over the next 2-3 years…and then as with S-curves the growth will slow a little. Outside of corporations, meditation will draw more people to it and as more research is published on what it can do, it will become more ubiquitous. Once this happens, corporations won’t need to shout about it as a perk or a productivity tool any more.



2 Comments on “The corporate world’s flirtation with meditation

  1. Lovely article Adiba,I think you make the point really clear and that beyond productivity the real human benefits of mindfulness and meditation will reveal themselves,and if we get beyond then there is some real hope

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