The Real Reasons Why Mindfulness is Good for Business

It's not about meditating to make millions.

Despite a promising forecast from Google’s resident mindfulness trainer, Chade-Meng Tan, mindfulness may not be poised to make your company “a shitload of money.” Indeed, it’s questionable whether Google, General Mills, Aetna and other major companies who’ve adapted the practice are slapping an ROI target on meditating employees.

Having said that, hedge-fund managers and CEOs, as well as politicians in the US and UK, are meditating. But they’re not just doing it for the bottom line.

You don’t meditate to “make a killing.” You do it so work doesn’t kill you.

When Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, collapsed from exhaustion, injuring her head, it was a rude awakening for her about how she was running her business and her life.

“When I collapsed in April 2007, I was—by our society’s definition—very successful, but by any sane definition of success, I was not,” Huffington told Mindful. “As long as our culture defines success as money and power, we’re stuck on a treadmill of stress, sleep deprivation, and burnout.”

The statistics suggest we don’t know how to turn off. Forty-two percent of people check their phones on vacation. We’re taking fewer vacation days than we’re allotted. And at the same time, a Gallup Poll shows that 70% of us also admit to having “checked out” or “actively disengaged” at our jobs. It’s the work hamster wheel du jour: never checking out from our jobs, but barely checking in.

It’s not about increasing productivity—that’s a byproduct of paying attention to your mind and what’s going on around you.

A practice you do yourself to achievement calm will always “run the risk of cultivating and even glorifying self-involvement,” warns Jeremy Hunter. As assistant Professor of Practice at the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University, Hunter’s been teaching executives in MBA programs about mindfulness for over a decade. One of the largest critiques he’s encountered about introducing mindfulness into business is that mindfulness can turn into a tool to teach people to cope while they continue on the same old course that caused the problems they sought meditation to address in the first place.

In order for mindfulness to be genuine article, it has to be connected to others, to the community, to the larger environment. Hunter gives an example of how that’s starting—incrementally—within some of these organizations:

A decade ago, Mirabai Bush, founding director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, introduced a mindfulness program at Monsanto, a company that had been widely criticized for perpetuating shortsighted and damaging agricultural practices. At a corporate retreat, a top scientist approached her after a session and said, “I realized that we’re creating products that kill life. We should be creating products that support life.” It’s a long journey from a personal insight like that to large-scale change, but at least we can say that mindfulness was starting to serve as a disruptive technology from within the company.

You don’t meditate for success. Meditation helps you keep your edge.

Whether you’re in a traditional or progressive environment, on your own or in a sea of cubicles, work life is full of challenges. By asking yourself what’s going on in that zoo in your head, you can meet these challenges differently.

“Ask yourself: what is the quality of my mind at work? What’s happening in my mind as the hours at work go by day in and day out? Is my mind working at its utmost?” says Tara Healey, program director for Mindfulness-Based Learning at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

In this way, we’re not meditating on the idea of success, or conjuring crystal-clear focus on our competition and mission as a company. We’re getting rid of old habits, says Healey:

Each time we stand up against a habit—whether it’s checking our smartphone during a conversation or reacting defensively to a coworker’s passing remark—we weaken the grip of our conditioning. We lay down new tracks in the brain and fashion new synaptic connections. We become less likely in the future to default to patterns that can trap us into being satisfied with ineffective and outmoded strategies. We take steps to improve not only how we are at work but the work environment itself.

Keeping track of what we’re thinking and feeling has implications for zoning out at work, or getting lost in worries. Janice Marturano, author of Finding the Space to Lead and founder of the Institute for Mindful Leadership, talks about how informal moments of mindfulness, or purposeful pauses, can pull us back into the present moment:

Once you start to become aware of the sensations of your breath and your body, for example, when I’m sitting in a conference room and now my mind goes off to my three o’clock meeting in the afternoon instead of listening to what I have to listen to here, I can more readily begin to realize when my mind takes a hike and most importantly I know how to redirect that attention by using either the sensations of the breath in my body or feeling my feet on the ground under the table and I can bring my attention back.

So if you’re considering how meditation and work might intersect for you, it’s best to ignore the latest promises of high profits and super-charged productivity. Mindfulness happens on the ground level: paying attention to the mind, body, and emotions so we can begin to approach the world with more openness and inquisitiveness. And that’s not just “hippie bullshit,” says Bill Duane, an engineer at Google. “Seeing meditation in the context of how the brain functions—that the mind is something that can be hacked—was eye-opening.”