at WORK

The Mindful Office

Mirabai Bush's new mindfulness practice CD incorporates techniques she shared with successful mega-companies such as Google and Monsanto. 

Photo © Colourbox.com

The most stressful job I’ve ever had was as a radio news reporter. Change is constant in news, and there’s a lot of burnout in the industry. After the 2008 recession, a restructuring effort at my workplace made things more chaotic, and the divide between some colleagues was palpable. 

So it made me turn my head when I found out that Hearst Publications, a major U.S. media company, took on the workplace stress issue by hiring a meditation teacher.

Mirabai Bush, founder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, helped establish Google’s Search Inside Yourself program and has taught mindfulness practices to other big businesses, such as Monsanto. Recently, Bush shared some of her techniques in an hour-long audio CD called “Working with Mindfulness.”

The CD contains a series of two- or three-minute practices, punctuated by anecdotes from Bush about working within different companies. She begins with a fairly common statement: we spend a lot of time working, yet we feel a disconnect between what really matters to us and what we do at work. It’s as if there are two worlds, the professional realm where work has to be done, and the realm outside of work, where we feel more creative, more like ourselves. Bush proposes there are certain things we can do in the workplace that can wake us up, inspire us, and get us a little closer to the lives we want to live. And thus, we’re off the races with mindfulness, which she describes as:

"becoming intentionally more aware of just what is happening in the moment without judgment. Very simple. Just seeing things as they are, from the tree outside your window to a complex algorithm. Whatever is in front of you. Just noticing.”

The practices range from basic mindfulness meditation, including listening and walking meditation, to more work-specific instruction, such as coping with difficult colleagues and responding to emails.

While the CD is intended for newcomers to meditation practice, it’s easy to see how the practices could resonate with more experienced practitioners who are looking to bridge the gap between their private practice and work life, or are looking for ways to develop mini-practices away from the meditation cushion. For example, Bush includes a lot of small but important reminders, like bringing mindfulness to all activities. Mindful emailing is an approach to correspondence that emphasizes putting yourself in the shoes of the person receiving the email. It can be as simple as drafting a message, taking three mindful breaths, and then re-reading the message from the perspective of the receiver.  She also suggests taking three mindful breaths before starting a meeting, or even taking a minute or three before meetings to sit with everyone and practice some mindfulness meditation together.

Bush’s anecdotes between sessions give the CD a more lively feel—it doesn’t feel so much like solitary practice because you get to hear what’s it like to work at some of these big companies. In one particular exercise called awareness-with-change, Bush begins by describing how Google employees are constantly subjected to change. In the lobby of the Google headquarters, there’s a wall where text is projected. Every time someone around the world types a search into Google, the text floats up the wall. On one level, the parade of text looks like pure chaos, but on another level, Google uses those searches to find patterns—Bush mentions how Google can track flu outbreaks simply by looking at what people are searching for at a given time. Likewise, while change can evoke chaos and stress in our own lives, Bush says we can learn how to “flow with change” by noticing how sensations, thoughts, and insights are continually rising and falling away. We can see that it’s all change and consider ourselves the “still awareness that notices everything as it changes.”

From a newcomer’s perspective, the practices offer a refreshing take on a subject that many expound on but few actually address, in terms of the locus of work-related stress. Media organizations like the Huffington Post, Life Hacker, and Fast Company are constantly churning out “progress pieces” about how to be productive at work, how to become more successful, and how to turn off that autopilot feeling. Bush, on the other hand, begins by asking you to focus on your breath.

The first exercise, a two-minute guided practice focusing on the breath, serves as an introduction to meditation. From my perspective, a fair-weather yogi and a digital editor who is used to filling her spare time at work with more Internet windows, the practice was challenging, especially after a few cups of coffee. As I sat with my eyes closed at my desk, it felt as if my chair was a saddle and my mind was a bucking horse.

Perhaps due to the warm-up from the first practice, the second practice, on mindful listening, seemed to budge my body and mind in the right direction. Bush asks you to focus on the sound of a bell, from the moment it chimes until the reverberations fall away. As the bell dissipated, I felt a space between my neck and shoulders open and loosen. But as I listened for the texture of the sound, my mind went wild thinking of the dissonance in the reverberations (which I had never noticed before), with the final sound reminding me of the introduction to Wagner’s ring cycle, the motif of the originating sound. Having said that, for the five or ten seconds that I could concentrate on the bell, there was a noticeable change in my body. Opening my eyes to start on with the next task, it felt like a new moment. 

On a final note: More Than Sound has generously provided Mindful's readers with a sample of the listening meditation practice. You can listen to the six-minute track here.

Working With Mindfulness is available for download at morethansound.net.