On the agenda: mindful work

These days, everybody’s on edge. We ask each other “How’s it going?” as we rush past, and answer over our shoulders, “Busy!” With the possible exception of newborns, we’re all hustling more than ever, especially on the job. Taking into consideration this striving for efficiency and productivity, why is it so hard, for example, to make a decision? New York Times Reporter David Gelles explores alternatives to corporate stress in his new book, Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out.

Taking a minute to appreciate Dogwood blooms; Cathedral Avenue NW, Washington, DC.

If you’re skeptical of combining the words mindful and business in the same title, take a deep breath and keep reading.

In fact, mindfulness is all about the breath, as Gelles explains. Mindfulness presses the pause button as you hurtle through another crazy day. Take a look inside your head. Notice what you’re feeling. Underneath the adrenaline you might discover anything from anger to physical pain. Just that level of awareness makes a difference in how you’re going to respond to the next email. At work, your reactions seal your reputation, as well as that of the organization you represent.

Great, you might be thinking, but what if there’s no time to even take a breath? You’ve got a draft due by COB, and a meeting starts in five minutes. No lunch today, instead you’re gulping down an energy drink.You’re trying to concentrate while your colleague’s on speakerphone again. Meanwhile, you can’t even spare a minute to go to the bathroom.

In his book, Gelles takes us to offices just like yours, all across America.

Mindfulness, maybe already at a corporation near you

Gelles interviews people, from workers to senior leaders, who have included mindfulness into their business routines and share their experiences.

Today’s mindfulness isn’t affiliated with any religion, and the professional – and personal – benefits are noteworthy. Those who practice say their approach is calmer, they get more accomplished, and, best of all, they feel happier. As Gelles shows in his profiles, mindfulness can change how people do business. Even routine tasks take on new meaning.

In a book on focused awareness, what a surprise when the corporate giant Monsanto makes an early appearance. This company, known for its determined vision to genetically modify foods and its aggressive control of seed patents, hardly seems like a good match for anything involving contemplation or compassion. Yet in the early 1990s, then-CEO Bob Shapiro decided to experiment with a mindfulness practice among employees.

The mindfulness instructor whom Monsanto hired, a fan of sustainable agriculture, initially felt reluctant to work with the pilot group of top-level staff. The core concepts of her retreat, focus areas like silence and loving-kindness, seemed far removed from the company’s daily combative operations. Indeed, participants showed up for the retreat in suits and brought their briefcases.

After hours of relaxation exercises and meditation, though, came unexpected breakthroughs. One aspect of mindfulness is the practice of sending well wishes to all sentient beings through concentration. Sentient beings, of course, include the insects that Monsanto’s chemicals kill. Gelles describes the retreat participants’ reactions, which included tears and, later, an openness on behalf of the company towards modifying some of the harshest policies and directions.

Although Monsanto encouraged this mindfulness program for a few years, the impermanence of corporate life prevailed. With the arrival of a new CEO, all things related to mindfulness were eradicated, just like the bugs. Fascinating to read about Monsanto’s stint with mindfulness (and unfortunate that it’s no longer a company priority). The book’s thought-provoking research gives insight on why businesses would do well to ensure mindfulness – once embraced – won’t be just a passing trend.

If mindfulness is going mainstream, that’s a good thing, right?

The concept of mindfulness in every cubicle isn’t everyone’s idea of wonderful.

As Gelles shows in a chapter called McMindfulness, traditionalists don’t like the idea of such a sacred practice being commodified. On the other side, hard-core labor advocates resent anything woo-woo invading the office. Even some who are all for mindfulness get worried that, as it becomes more and more popular, the qualities will get diluted.

Gelles points out that the mindfulness label is everywhere in current marketing trends, from Weight Watchers’ “Mindful” line to a butcher known as “Mindful Meats.” Seeing the word connected with so many products that have nothing to do with meditation does tend to weaken the important tenets of the practice.

Get a mindfulness fix faster than you can update a resume

The book’s last chapter gives guidance on how all of us can practice mindfulness, wherever we happen to work. Just five minutes a day makes a noticeable difference in tension levels. Here’s a basic summary of the process:

  • Find a comfortable position
  • Relax and breath naturally; be aware of any sensations
  • Focus on breathing in and out
  • If your attention wanders, just bring it back to the breath

Sounds simple, right? Try it, you’ll discover that it’s harder than it seems.

“Don’t worry if it’s difficult at first…What matters is that we make the effort to become more mindful of our bodies, thoughts, and emotions.” (Mindful Work, Instructions)

Gelles has written a balanced study of how businesses are experimenting with deeper concepts than just making more money. He presents a absorbing look inside companies that aspire beyond conventional workplace policies, and what that extra awareness means for corporate culture. Mindfulness can potentially lead to a combination of values and practice that has the potential to transform our old concepts of work.

Besides, it might slow us down enough to have a real conversation with our colleagues.

Do you practice mindfulness during your workday?

2 Replies to “On the agenda: mindful work”

  1. First of all, I love the peaceful looking photo of the beautiful, graceful dogwood bloom against the leafy green backdrop. The inclusion of a bit of cityscape says much in the way of the possibility of being able to combine a feeling of relaxation and beauty in the midst of a chaotic world, especially in the workplace. It is interesting that the Monsanto mindfulness instructor included loving-kindness as one of her core concepts as I have been thinking about that subject lately and the need for it as we interact with one another. As for me, whenever I feel “frenzied” and somewhat out of control emotionally, I pray to God asking Him to give me His thoughts on the matter at hand and meditate on a biblical Scripture verse, all accompanied by deep breaths. If this approach goes along with practicing mindfulness, I am all for it.

    1. Hi Gladys:
      I think you totally get mindfulness! Sometimes it feels like a shortage on loving-kindness out there, but when we encounter it – or give it – what an awesome feeling.

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