Mindful

When Mae—the main character in Dave Eggers’ satirical novel The Circle—arrives naïve and fresh-faced on the campus of the Silicon Valley giant where she’s just been hired, she’s delighted to get a good job in a tough economy. It soon becomes clear, though, that Mae’s workplace is so insidiously controlling that it’s more like a cult than a company.

The culture there is all about connection, but the connections are forced and superficial. She has no room to examine her choices, as she’s mindlessly absorbed into a corporate culture where people don’t cultivate their own attention. They only seek it from others: see me, see me, like me, like me, share me, share me.

It’s a fictional account, but the concern about over-controlling workplaces is very real. Back east, Michael Lewis’ chronicles of Wall Street collapses—in The Big Short and Liar’s Poker—portray a culture of disconnection. The stewards of the world’s capital certainly didn’t care about Facebook likes, as they took massive risks that wreaked havoc on the lives of others while taking little responsibility for it. In their view, Lewis tells us, success is about individual achievement, while failure is a social problem.

Depictions like these of unchecked control or greed cause us all to be wary of corporate bad behavior, and some commentators are now wary that the rapid growth in workplace mindfulness programs will simply enable these kinds of excesses. The Economist, for example, worries that “the ancient art of meditation” is being cheapened and that “the whole point of the exercise is lost.” A blog on The Huffington Post warned of the dangers of “McMindfulness.”

Certainly, mindfulness can be oversimplified (it’s just about being present) or oversold (a few minutes a day will totally change your life), but it doesn’t have to be. It can effect real change in a workplace. Rather than enable bad behavior, it might actually decrease it, and in fact promote good behavior.

One key factor is the person teaching it. Like teachers of any discipline—from Pilates to violin to firefighting—mindfulness teachers need ongoing training and practice. Like health-care providers they need a code, which must include that real mindfulness may begin at stress relief but doesn’t have to end there. It naturally leads to inquisitiveness about our own minds and examination of how we’re connected to other people, of the causes and effects of our actions. Good mindfulness teachers are encouraging people to use the power of their minds—steadied through meditation—to look inside, outside, and all around.

Mindfulness may begin at stress relief, but it doesn’t have to end there. It can go much further.

Mindfulness practice, then, is not only about healing; it’s also about our actions and our performance. It has also been shown to draw out our creativity and caring. Leaders touched by mindfulness may find innovations to solve real problems and help make a better life. Who knows what a leader—in workplaces from Ford Motor Company to the Los Angeles Fire Department—might do for the greater good with the aid of a little mindfulness?

Many companies offer counseling, because people are their most precious asset. And it’s helped employees become healthier personally and also better parents and spouses. But the counselors must be independent. If their mission is to counsel employees to follow corporate directives, they’ve crossed a line.

Just the same, people who teach mindfulness within organizations need to have a strong measure of independence. If they’re there, even subtly, to use mindfulness to cajole and control or merely to build focus—rather than help people to see their own choices clearly—then it’s not really mindfulness they’re teaching.

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