“Mindful Work”: Drowning social ethics in a sea of neoliberal niceness (book review)

Mindful WorkIn the closing pages of Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business From the Inside Out, author David Gelles shares a final vignette that (like the rest of the book) is more revealing for what it omits than what it describes. Interviewing Chade-Meng Tan, founder of Google’s wildly successful “Search Inside Yourself” mindful business training program, Gelles asks him why mindfulness is so popular in Silicon Valley today. Meng replies, “The corporate spirit here is to radically change things for the better, to take radical steps for improving the world . . . It’s a very altruistic and idealistic culture.”

Gelles shares Meng’s self-congratulatory explanation without additional context or commentary. Yet it’s well known that the Silicon Valley tech boom has created unprecedented socio-economic inequality in the Bay area, with record numbers of homeless and a hemorrhaging middle and working class. Such facts, however, which raise important questions about Meng’s vision of “radical altruism,” are invisible to the world of Mindful Work. The larger social context in which Silicon Valley’s “radical steps for improving the world” are supposedly occurring is never mentioned, let alone analyzed and discussed.

This isn’t to suggest that the tech industry hasn’t, in fact, made positive contributions to the world in many ways. But Mindful Work provides no criteria by which to measure either the positive or negative social impacts of the business world’s “mindful revolution.” Instead, it zig-zags between presenting bombastic claims without critical commentary (Meng, for example, claims that SIY training “leads to Level 5 leadership. And happiness. And world peace”) and assuring readers that if mindfulness might make bosses just a little bit nicer, and workers just a little bit more able to manage their stress, then it’s all good.

I believe that we can and should set the bar higher, both analytically and pragmatically. The value of mindfulness in the workplace needs to be evaluated in concrete terms that include both individual, interpersonal, organizational, and social dimensions. Personally, I found it to be a poignant, if not depressing sign of the times that Gelles, a New York Times journalist, evidences significantly less social and political awareness than the progressive-minded CEOs of luxury clothing brands Patagonia, PrAna, and Eileen Fisher, who he interviewed for the book. Whatever happened to the Fourth Estate?

 

Troubling Silences

Bill Moyers on journalism and democracyNot all that long ago, elite journalists were expected to cultivate a broad social vision, and analyze current events through a lens informed by a commitment to (small-“d”) democratic values. Gelles’ authorial voice is certainly likeable: he comes across as a genuinely nice person who’s enthused about mindfulness because it enables him to be more present with his family at mealtimes despite the relentless demands of his job. His writing, however, evidences not the slightest hint of old-school journalistic, let alone politically progressive values.

Instead, Mindful Work conveys the taken-for-granted neoliberalism of someone who’s been thoroughly socialized into the politics of the post-Reagan and Thatcher eras, in which “there is no such thing as society.” Everything of consequence is assumed to happen at the individual level; consequently, there’s no need to think into the social and organizational contexts in which businesses operate and work actually takes place. “But for all this talk of stress, we rarely examine its root causes,” Gelles writes. “Stress isn’t something imposed on us. It’s something we impose on ourselves.”

Given this framework, the claim that mindfulness is important because it gives us the tools to manage our stress makes perfect sense. As does the silence surrounding the work context in which said mindfulness is being employed. This mindset implicitly endorses the view that the way to reduce stress in any work situation is simply to add mindfulness, rather than assess whether it’s possible to improve working conditions in more concrete and systemic ways.

For example, Gelles happily reports how “at Green Mountain Coffee, based in Waterbury, Vermont, mindfulness has become part of the fabric of the company”:

At Green Mountain, mindfulness training started with the top executives and soon spread to midlevel employees. But Fried and her colleagues realized that much of the workforce was still not being served. The frontline workers who put in 12-hour shifts roasting coffee beans, packing boxes, and shipping them off . . . also need a bit of on-the-job stress relief . . . in a bid to reduce injuries, and perhaps increase mental well-being as well, she made it mandatory that all frontline workers do a series of mindful stretching exercises before beginning their shifts.

While Gelllabor movement 1927es quotes two workers saying they came to like the “Mindful Stretching” program because they found themselves in less pain at the end of the work day, one has to wonder how they’d feel about being offered 8-hour shifts at a higher wage rate instead. Mindful Work, however, doesn’t bother with questions such as what their pay scale might be, and why they are working 12-hour shifts.

Gelles does, however, report that “while it may be hard to draw a direct line form the mindfulness program to the bottom line, Green Mountain is thriving”:

Though meditation is no guarantee of a rising stock price, Green Mountain’s market capitalization increased fifteen-fold in the five years after it introduced mindfulness . . . And managers like Laura Fried view the company in a new light. ‘Look at this as a whole spectrum of offerings,’ she said. ‘Basic services that we provide to people who are dealing with their morning commute, and people like me who are facing existential issues . . . We are providing them with opportunities to enhance their own experiences at work and at home.’

 

Dismissing Critics

Two hundred pages later, Gelles reports that Green Mountain’s founder and former CEO, Bob Stiller, who “was once featured on the cover of Forbes as he meditated,” squandered his fortune on “trophy real estate,” such as a $17.5 million apartment in Manhattan, after retiring in 2007 as a billionaire who’d reached “the highest realms of American capitalism.” While Gelles uses Stiller’s story to illustrate the fact that “practicing mindfulness is no antidote to materialism,” he (rather oddly) presents this seemingly frank admission of the limitations of the corporate mindfulness movement as a means of rebutting David Loy and Ron Purser’s widely read “Beyond McMindfulness” article.

Gelles quotes Loy and Purser’s critique that “corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employees: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments” verbatim. Yet, rather than seeing the parallels with some of the stories he’s presenting and claims he’s making, Gelles scoffs at this “seductively nefarious vision” of “corporations brainwashing their minions with meditation, turning them into more efficient, profitable drones.”

Rather than acknowledging that he already endorsed the view that stress is a personal problem and trying to defend it as correct, Gelles simply sidesteps the heart of the McMindfulness critique by assuring readers that “rarely, if ever, does exposure to meditation make someone a worse person.”

mindful cog in wheelMindful Work is so deeply immersed in the neoliberal mindset that despite devoting an entire chapter to rebutting “McMindfulness” as Lefty claptrap, Gelles appears oblivious to the ways in which his book exemplifies many of the issues that Loy and Purser identified. Gelles, for example, approvingly cites research stating that “mindfulness can be a source of employer value proposition and may in the long run provide organizations with a valuable tool to manage high burnout levels of employees within the workplace.” He doesn’t, however, ask why employee burnout levels are so high – let alone investigate what, if anything, might be done to address this other than offering mindfulness programs based on the premise that it’s up to each individual to cope with the stress that they presumably manufacture of their own accord.

 

Unacknowledged Alternatives

Happily, Mindful Work also reports on several companies in which mindfulness is integrated into a broader commitment to developing and implementing socially responsible business practices. The founder and Board chair of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, has struggled “to bring his personal mindfulness into the operations of his business,” which, he recognizes, only goes so far given that the company’s bottom line is selling high-end outdoor clothing. Still, the company has worked hard within the parameters they have to lighten their environmental impact, pioneering the technique of using recycled bottles to make fleece jackets, and facilitating “a robust aftermarket for used Patagonia products.” The company is also fiercely committed to its employees: Patagonia hasn’t fired anyone since 1991, and bucked powerful business trends by refusing to lay anyone off during the Great Recession.

Similarly, PrAna, another high-end active wear company, does more than simply take a company-wide “meditation break” at 3 pm daily. It also works to realize its commitment to socially responsible business practices by taking concrete steps such as increasing its use of organic cotton and other environmentally sound fabrics, and having senior managers openly discuss how best to handle any necessary trade-offs between the company’s financial goals and ethical commitments.

Similarly, Eileen Fisher, a high-end women’s clothing company, combines mindful work breaks and inclusive “Circle Way” company discussions with concrete policies such as distributing at least 10% of annual after-tax profits to staff, sourcing environmentally sustainable fabrics, and increasing salaries and reducing hours for the Chinese workers who produce their fabrics.

Mindful Work apparently went to press before Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini made headlines by raising the wages of the company’s lowest-paid workers to $16 an hour. Gelles does, however, recount the story of how a near-fatal skiing accident eventually caused Bertolini to explore yoga and meditation as a way of getting off pain killers and rebuilding his health. After returning to work and being promoted to CEO, Bertolini instituted yoga and mindfulness programs in the workplace.

Unsurprisingly, Mindful Work highlights the fact that an evaluation of these programs showed participating employees lowering their stress levels in ways that positively impacted the bottom line, dropping their “overall health care costs to the tune of $2,000 per employee per year.” Happily, however, Bertolini — unlike Gelles — was also interested in thinking into the company’s working conditions more broadly.

As NPR reported in April, Bertolini and his team took the time to investigate the “challenges their low-wage workers face”:

(T)hey discovered that to make ends meet many were on public assistance, such as food stamps, or Medicaid for their children. Bertolini says he was taken aback, shocked “that we as a thriving organization, as a successful company, a Fortune 100 company, should have people that were living like that among the ranks of our employees.”

Bertolini was committed to changing that, but he discovered the cost of boosting compensation for his low-paid workers would be significant — about $27 million a year. But he also found that research shows there are costs associated with paying low wages. Low-paid workers quit more often, and the turnover is expensive. There’s also evidence higher-paid employees provide better customer service. Bertolini thought the potential benefits could offset the $27 million cost and improve his company’s profits in the long run.

Skeptics contested this sunny view that it’s possible to raise wages and improve profits at the same time. Bertolini, however, was undeterred, contending that “even if it doesn’t boost profits — and maybe even if it costs the company something — raising wages is still the right thing to do”:

“There definitely is a moral component and, you know, I had plenty of arguments that the spreadsheet wouldn’t pencil out,” he says. “And my view was, in the end analysis, this is just not fair . . . We need to invest in our employees. We need to help restore the middle class, and that should be good for the economy as a whole. And so for us it is as much — probably, for me personally, more — a moral argument than it is a financial one.”

According to NPR, “Bertolini has become an evangelist on this subject, handing out a how-to packet to other CEOs to encourage them to look closely at boosting their low-income workers’ compensation. He says he’s getting positive feedback from many.”

 

Living Wage Canada

 

The Real Bottom Line

These are strange days, indeed. When it comes to wages and working conditions, the CEO of Aetna is many times more radical than a New York Times journalist writing a book about mindfulness. Similarly, the top execs of high-end clothing manufacturers Patagonia, PrAna, and Eileen Fisher link their mindfulness programs to ethical commitments and company policies far more demanding than America’s leading mindfulness teachers generally advocate.

If Mark Bertolini can become “an evangelist” on the subject of how to increase wages for low-income workers, then why can’t the “conscious communities” that practice yoga, meditation, and mindfulness do the same? And why can’t elite journalists advocate for more than a little more niceness and tools for individual stress-reduction in today’s radically unequal labor market?

Today’s mindfulness movement has much to offer. Gelles is right to champion the virtues of learning to manage one’s own stress more effectively, as well as fostering a kinder and more considerate workplace. The problem, of course, is that in a time of relentless work speed-ups, ever-increasing inequality, unprecedented environmental devastation, and unraveling democratic values, this simply isn’t enough.

Gelles dismisses such concerns as beside the point, concluding Mindful Work with the hand-waving truism that mindfulness “won’t transform out entire economic system on its own . . . Perfection is more than should be expected from a simple meditative technique.” Of course, that’s true. What’s also true, however, is that over-hyping the “quiet revolution” of corporate mindfulness may end up doing do more harm than good. This is particularly true when it’s praised both for its potential to “reduce stress, making drab days in cubicles more bearable” for office workers, while serving as “a source of employer value proposition” by providing “valuable tools to manage high burnout levels of employees.”

triple bottom line

Critics of the contemporary mindfulness movement rightfully contend that teaching tools for quieting the mind and focusing non-judgmentally on the present moment without any accompanying ethical framework is problematic. Even with an ethical framework, however, it’s impossible to harness the power of mindfulness to promote positive changes in business without considering the organizational and social context in which it’s operating. While Mindful Work presents some important examples of how mindfulness, social ethics, and business practices can be combined, it does so in a way that obscures, rather than highlights the essential point that this combination is, in fact, the real bottom line.

 

 


5 Comments

  1. Rhonda Travis

    Not having read the book, I can only comment on this particular review rather than the book’s journalistic shoddiness that appears to be the central complaint of the reviewer.
    It seems to me that the over-arching purpose behind mindfulness has been glossed over and distilled down to seeing its primary value in sedating or numbing pain induced by self-imposed stress. While this is a credible aspect of mindfulness, it negates the premise that this is only a first step on the path to stilling the mind in order that we may achieve mental clarity and proceed with action out of the full awareness of our choices. Without achieving the mental space required for “360 degree panoramic inner-vision” we remain beholden to the automaton-like behaviours of our conditioned default reactivity. When mindfulness/meditation are used in a way suggested by Horton, its affects are similar to alcohol or drugs minus their specific side-effects, but still arguably part of a futile realm of addiction. The meditative process has much vaster implications, partially resultant from releasing us from the punishing effects of living in endlessly cortisol-elevating environments. By taking our minds back to their innate realm of stillness, we allow ourselves to enter the space between all the reactivity and mental chatter. This noiseless gap, once accessed can be skillfully lengthened through meditative training; permitting us to cultivate our innate creativity, insight, and wisdom. All that exists outside of this gap is layer upon layer of external voices we have errantly come to recognize as our own. This chatter results in cognitive dissonance that acts as the source of our “self-imposed” stress. Whether in the corporate world or personal domain, this place of inner awareness resonates with our sense of dignity and purpose in life and propels us forwards towards meaningful action.
    Perhaps those highest up in the corporate hierarchy have the greatest potential of cultivating a socially responsible response simply because they have the top-down influence, however history has shown that it is naive to ignore the positive effects that may accrue to bottom-up processes especially where social activism is concerned.
    A more full understanding of the process of mindfulness need be explored to accurately assess its potential in the corporate environment as more than a placebo for numbing the masses into blind acceptance.

  2. Laura S.

    Carol, even though I haven’t read Mindful Work, this review is really great reading! You bring up a lot of points that stand on their own as discussion topics that deserve attention. As I read, the corp-speak mantra “Work smarter, not harder” kept popping into my head. When I worked in the corporate world, it was the go-to retort used to shut down virtually all voiced concerns about the amount of work expected out of each employee or the chronically high stress level of trying to meet increasingly unrealistic demands. I think this new emphasis is basically Work Smarter Not Harder 2.0 with a new-agey faux-compassionate twist to it. Over the years preceding my crash-and-burn exit from corporate culture, I saw – at several different companies – what appeared to me to be an ever-increasing reliance by management on all sorts of “feel-good” methods of convincing employees (and possibly themselves) that it is somehow possible to consistently increase profits in spite of consistently decreasing investment in the resources (including human) needed to do so. Inevitably, the only way to do that is to place increasingly unrealistic expectations on the work force. The saddest part of this to me is that I doubt Gelles or the executives who think like him are doing this consciously; this outlook has been woven into the fabric of U.S. corporate culture. That is why the few corporate leaders who are bucking this culture (e.g., Bertolini) are so remarkable. I hope that their success is enough to someday turn the tide.

  3. Good analysis, Carol. This type of thinking about mindfulness in the workplace has become so pervasive that it has affected the thinking of even the most “traditional” and respected folks in the meditation community (assuming there is such a community). This spring I attended the opening talk of a “Mindful Leadership” workshop in Madison that was led by a very prominent mindfulness researcher and a very well-known and respected Buddhist teacher. In their talk they both focused on the payoffs of mindfulness in the workplace that you mentioned above — less self-inflicted stress, higher productivity, etc. When questioned about why they focused on the worker’s response to working conditions rather than the working conditions themselves, they cautioned about “setting the bar too high.” It was very disappointing. I’d also like to point out that the work itself, not just the working conditions, often contribute to the pervasive malaise of the American workforce. Can a 3pm mindfulness break relieve the stress of working for a corporation that exploits natural resources, produces a product that harms the health of its users, or participates in acts of warfare? Individual change is a beginning, but cultural change must be the goal.

  4. Comments from Facebook – copied here for posterity in case anyone’s interested:

    Jody Greene great piece, Carol. Kerri Kelly i see you tagged but i’m gonna double tag you here.
    Unlike · Reply · 2 · June 25 at 7:32am

    Annabel Chiarelli What a wonderful kick-ass review, thank you.
    Like · Reply · 1 · June 25 at 7:35am

    Jo Brill Yes!
    Like · Reply · June 25 at 7:40am

    Alice Peck Insightful, tempered, and smart–what a fine review. Thank you!
    Like · Reply · June 25 at 7:47am

    Theodora Wildcroft I like this lots, thanks Carol
    Like · Reply · June 25 at 8:20am

    Matthew Taylor If the practice doesn’t make one and those around them uncomfortable, then what’s purpose? You brilliantly spotlighted the limitations of the book and the topic specifically Carol. Time to go beyond “cafeteria yoga” classes to pacify the minions.
    Like · Reply · 7 · June 25 at 8:28am

    Angela Dancey Great analysis!
    Like · Reply · June 25 at 8:33am

    Ann Gleig nice one, Carol.
    Like · Reply · June 25 at 8:58am

    Kevin Knox This is clear, insightful and balanced Carol – thank you very much for sharing it!
    Like · Reply · 1 · June 25 at 9:02am

    David R. Loy Very good — thank you for this review.
    Like · 2 · June 25 at 9:22am

    Natalia Mehlman Petrzela I love that the core of your critique has to do with the disappointing journalistic coverage of this realm. I totally agree- this is serious business (and not just in the corporate sense) and needs more probing analysis than what sounds like an extended puff piece.
    Unlike · Reply · 5 · June 25 at 9:31am

    Kristen Krash Meanwhile, this article does a good job at describing what’s really going down amidst all the talk of mindfulness:
    “When people work an excessive number of hours, they devolve – meaning they degenerate inexorably from a higher state of capability and consciousness to a more primitive, reactive one. Fatigue, as Vince Lombardi so accurately observed, makes cowards of us all.
    Fear is the primary driver of this crisis. Public companies live in morbid fear of being outflanked by competitors, failing to meet their quarterly targets and watching helplessly as their stocks are pummeled by impatient investors.”
    http://www.nytimes.com/…/excessive-demands-at-work…
    Escalating Demands at Work Hurt Employees and Companies
    The work demands for employees have become…
    nytimes.com|By Tony Schwartz
    Unlike · Reply · Remove Preview · 6 · June 25 at 10:26am

    Bob Weisenberg This is a great article, as usual, Carol. But personally I think it is as unrealistic to expect a mindfullness program to reflect and embody a comprehensive econo-ethical system as it is to expect the same from, say, an aerobics or weight-training program. The socio-economic issues you raise are critical, I agree. But I don’t see them being affected much one way or the other with mindfullness training. Better to put one’s efforts directly into the nitty-gritty of actual politics and economics, I think.
    Like · Reply · 3 · June 25 at 11:12am

    Matt Helmick I think Carol’s point, Bob, was that the critical work of real journalism wasn’t accomplished in this book. I don’t see where she’s claiming that a mindfulness program can embody an economic system. Rather, it seems to be the author of the book, Gelles, who is making the claim regarding how “Meditation is Changing Business.” Carol is pointing out that the organizational and societal context receives little, if any, critique in this book and it does seem appropriate per your concern.
    Like · Reply · 6 · June 25 at 12:08pm

    Bob Weisenberg You may well be right, Matt. Not having read the book, it would be hard for me to comment further. In the quotes I’ve read, he seems to be accepting the limitations of mindfulness. But yes, if he’s saying mindfullness automatically makes business itself better or more ethical, I would disagree with him, too. I think mindfullness is inherently neutral, available equally to ardent pacifists and Samurais in training, to democrats, socialists, and republicans alike. In other discussions with Carol, I’ve argued the same thing about one of the original mindfulness texts, the Bhagavad Gita itself.
    Like · 1 · June 25 at 12:52pm · Edited

    Matt Helmick I haven’t read the book either, Bob, but based on the quality of Carol’s critique I will probably avoid it. I agree with your assessment that mindfulness is, for the most part, value neutral–or at least it can be taught that way.
    Like · June 25 at 1:34pm

    Frank Jude Boccio Here it is again. Mindfulness as it’s been mainstreamed is certainly value-neutral, which is why it does raise my hackles when any of these teachers say they are teaching a Buddhist practice or even something derived from Buddhism. Sati BY DEFINITION is value laden (as samyak sati or right mindfulness).
    Unlike · 2 · June 27 at 6:51pm

    Matt Helmick Frank Yes! I was referring to the mainstreamed variety of mindfulness, but you raise a great point and makes me think my statement was too broad (unskillful) of a stroke: there ARE implicit values in not only the practice and teaching of mindfulness, but also the appropriation of it by organizations and corporations. There is also implicit irony in that a practice originally designed for selfless ends has been appropriated by profit-oriented interests.

  5. Be Scofield Carol. It sounds like you are upset that people use mindfulness in a way that goes against it’s inherent progressive/caring grain. Yet, there is no ethical/political grain to mindfulness for anything to go against. You are concerned that people using mindfulness aren’t radical enough. But this is a complete categorical mistake to conflate a particular social/ethical/political directionality with something like mindfulness (or any spiritual/transformative practice) which is in a different category itself. If corporations introduced poetry sessions into their workplace to help improve business, make money and reduce stress would you decry this? Would you say they aren’t radical enough? I’d be at a loss to understand if you decried people using poetry for things you personally disagreed with as if it’s only able to be paired with one political persuasion. I can’t see how a corporation including mindfulness is any different than one incorporating poetry.
    Like · Reply · 2 · June 25 at 1:33pm · Edited

    Kevin Knox Replying to Bob Weisenberg and Be Scofield’s comments: Mindfulness as the author of the book in question is using it is Buddhist (not Hindu – the Gita really has nothing to do with it) in origin, albeit far removed from sati as the Buddha actually taught it. In context it’s simply remembering to keep your mind on the meditation object and that context is the Noble Eightfold Path, which includes, among other things, right view and a very strong ethical component before you ever get to right mindfulness, the 7th of the 8 components. Right mindfulness is absolutely NOT ethically neutral.

    The popular version – Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment – is something else entirely. Check out “mindfulness – Buddhist” vs. “mindfulness – modern psychology” in Wikipedia to get a good sense of the huge gulf between in context and out. Frank Jude Boccio has been writing about this better – and for longer – than anyone else I know of and I still think this post of his is a great refresher:

    Mindfulness Yoga: So, What IS “Mindfulness?”
    A blog dedicated to the practice of mindful living. Written…
    mindfulness-yoga.blogspot.com|By Poep Sa Frank Jude
    Like · Reply · Remove Preview · 5 · June 25 at 1:42pm · Edited

    Be Scofield Kevin Knox Simply positing a “strong ethical component” or “Eightfold path” does nothing to answer “who’s ethical component?” Again, when you say ethical component you have certain progressive/radical concepts of what is ethical and then falsely attach these to ethically vague things like the Eightfold Path. Adding an Eightfold Path or declaring “strong ethical component” does nothing to help us address whether abortion is ethical or not. Is abortion the “right view?” Anyone can use yogic, Buddhist…etc. ethical systems to meet their own ends. I see no reason to add spiritual ethical systems into the mix, as they only confuse things more and don’t really do anything to help solve the original social/political dilemma. Of course spiritual ethical systems have been used for a myriad of differing and varying political and social goals throughout history including supporting patriarchy, war…etc.
    Like · Reply · 1 · June 25 at 1:50pm · Edited

    Carol Horton At a NVC workshop all day; will read & comment later. Thanks!
    Like · Reply · 3 · June 25 at 1:54pm

    Be Scofield Kevin Knox I’ve already debated and hashed this topic out with Frank and others at length. I’m not going to get into a huge thing again.
    Like · Reply · June 25 at 1:57pm

    Jerry Steward · 2 mutual friends
    As a former techie I can say that stress caused by the pressure to perform has been around for a long time, in companies both large and small. Giving the stressed out workers a way to work with their stress is a generous and compassionate action. Change may come to the industry, or not, but there’s no ethical reason to withhold effective means of working with stress.
    Like · Reply · 2 · June 25 at 6:13pm

    Ron Purser I don’t think anyone is saying such programs should be withheld or stopped.
    Unlike · Reply · 1 · June 25 at 6:54pm

    Kevin Knox Exactly Ron. And I read Carol’s critique as a “both/and Jerry: use meditation to help reduce stress, but not at the expense of addressing excessive work hours or the harm done by the business one is working for.
    Like · Reply · June 25 at 7:37pm

    Be Scofield Kevin Knox For many years businesses have been offering wellness benefits to help reduce stress and increase productivity. They offer fitness packages, healthy food, in office massage, yoga classes…etc. But no progressives ever raised hell when other wellness benefits like massages were offered rather than reducing work hours. But when meditation or mindfulness is offered, all of a sudden progressives get concerned. I’m still trying to understand what is unique to mindfulness that would make it such a target of focus as opposed to other wellness benefits that corporations have been adding in for years now. Why is mindfulness being singled out when it is just one of numerous other wellness options offered to employees? Why have people like Carol remained silent about the ways in which wellness benefits have been pushed without calling for a reduction in work hours instead?

    Corporations have been achieving similar goals with their wellness platforms as they are now doing with mindfulness for years. Now mindfulness gets added into the wellness packages and spiritual liberals are freaking out. I can’t understand why, other than they believe that mindfulness/meditation is inherently “moral” or “ethical” – read “liberal” and “progressive.”
    Like · Reply · 2 · June 25 at 8:21pm · Edited

    angel Kyodo williams | changeangel imho, people are up in arms because we buddhists/yogis “sold” mindfulness and it got away from us when others took it and ran with it. so livelihood, relevance and for many, decades of time put into a practice that made us “experts” can now be usurped by someone that takes a certificate course and hangs out their shingle. further, institutions are validating the invalidation of spiritual/wisdom tradition offerings of mindfulness by heading towards requiring certifications (which naturally locks people into paying institutions). we find ourselves having 20-30-40 years of practice, looking at the prospect of having to hand over money for 6 months courses only to be seen on par with folks that just showed up “yesterday.” turns out other people are better at marketing it than we are and since we commodified it, we’re uncomfortable acknowledging that so we cry foul from the moral high ground instead. heh. i find the crabs in a barrel scramble all rather amusing.
    Like · Reply · 7 · June 25 at 9:18pm

    Kevin Knox The native context of sati – mindfulness – is as an essential facet of an integrated practice path geared towards the eradication of the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion. As David Loy, among many others, has pointed out, corporate America – with Google as a shining example – is all about making money from such delusion.

    Lay Buddhist practice in SE Asia is all about the precepts, while the white American version often thinks meditation-cum-mindfulness is a complete path unto itself. IMHO if we have to choose one side of this let’s go with the ethics and examine right livelihood and corporate conduct using it. That’s what Ajahn Buddhadasa did and it led to him insisting on Dhammic Socialism. We need a lot more of the engaged Buddhism he advocated – and a lot less of “Mindful” magazine and leading Buddhist teachers schmoozing with CEOs who see mindfulness as pill-free Prozac to keep their employees docile, productive and convinced that any problems they experience are purely reflections of personal shortcomings.
    Like · Reply · 1 · June 25 at 10:09pm

    Be Scofield Kevin Knox The issue is that even if you think you have a “Buddhist” perspective of social ethics, or think you know what greed, hatred and delusion are in the context of corporate America there are many people who will say no, actually your conception of the correct form of social/ethical Buddhist change is not radical enough. Who’s to say that their critique of your less radical view of what it will take to eradicate greed, hatred and delusion isn’t right and you are wrong? There are a bunch of white liberal spiritual folks who claim that corporations are corrupting mindfulness and that they have the correct application of it. But then there are more radical folks who look at these white liberals with disdain for incorrectly using Buddhist ethics to support their limited and oppressive views. This is exactly why I’m vary wary of people like yourself making claims to the “correct” or more liberal versions of Buddhism, precepts or concepts of greed, delusion and hatred. Because they are often still oppressive and miss the mark, but then they are claimed to be rooted in the “true” or “authentic” Buddhist views. Which gives them a false sense of authority.
    Like · Reply · 1 · June 25 at 10:36pm · Edited

    Nick Walser I think any attempt, whether through yoga or mindfulness or whatever, to suggest that systemic suffering is in fact the “fault” of the individual is wrongheaded. Also, at least a massage or juice bar gives some physical benefit/enjoyment whilst allowing a person to be resistant to the corporate ethos, whereas mindfulness seeks to undermine this resistance itself, making everyone into good subjects willing to set aside their anger and their questioning of working practices.
    Unlike · Reply · 2 · June 26 at 9:25am

    Carol Horton Thanks everyone for the commentary. I’m thinking of copying and shifting it to the blog for posterity – it’s nice to have comments in a more lasting forum than FB – so if you’ve commented above and have any objections to that, please let me know.

    Otherwise, to respond as best I can to the discussion:

    Be, we and others had the discussion around whether mindfulness, yoga, meditation, etc., have any inherent political or ethical component when practiced in isolation from any guiding set of principles several years ago and you decisively won that round. I am not suggesting that mindfulness is inherently liberal or radically politically, or that there is a singular “right” set of Buddhist principles that it “really” belongs with.

    So, you ask, why make a bigger deal of it than corporate wellness programs in general? Several reasons: 1) I have been writing about yoga for awhile now, and am interested in exploring the parallels with mindfulness more. That just happens to be my personal interest and something that I feel I know something about. 2) Big claims are being made for the wonders of mindfulness right now – it’s been all over the news for the past year. The main point of this review is to insist on more clarity and critical thinking on the “mindful business” movement, particularly from those who have the time and professional training to do so (i.e., a NYTs journalist writing a book).

    3) Personally, I feel that the popularity of mindfulness creates an opening to harness the practice to what I see as important social ethics. More attention is starting to be paid politically to issues like raising the minimum wage. Given that this is desperately needed (in my view), and mindfulness is so popular, the current moment strikes me as an excellent time to join these two trends.

    It seems perhaps that lots (perhaps most?) folks out there who have been deeply involved in yoga and mindfulness for years either are profoundly disengaged from such social issues, or their politics are such that they simply don’t care much about things like minimum wage, unionization, health and safety protections, democratizing the workplace, work/life balance for working parents, etc. There is a lot of very tightly focused identity politics concerns and/or holisitic anti-capitalist politics that I hear voiced in forums like this one.

    Clearly my politics are different; I care about these more mundane issues because that’s where I feel that it’s possible to get real traction that will concretely improve countless lives right here and now. I am not a Marxist and while I support a lot of identity politics positions, ultimately I am more of an old-school left-liberal social democrat.

    I also feel that mindfulness (and yoga and meditation) can be a really valuable tool for managing stress, aiding communication, regulating emotions, and connecting more authentically with one’s self and others. I think that many people in the business world are just as interested in finding a way to live a sane, healthy life, and have their work be as positive a force in the world as possible as in any other sector.

    From what I’ve seen, alternative cultural spaces have pretty much the same mix of out-of-control narcissists and good-hearted sane people trying to cope with the circumstances they find themselves in as most of the business world (although I’d bracket certain sectors, such as Wall Street, out of that assessment. But in general, I am not anti-business).

    So, basically, this review was first and foremost a demand for clearer thinking and analysis. It annoyed me that the author thought it was OK to let Google and others spout off about how their corporate mindfulness program was going to bring world peace without any critical questioning of these claims simply because he would then shift into saying, well, if it ends up making my boss just a tad nicer, then it’s all great. It’s not all great because as has been often pointed out, it then becomes just another way of quashing discussion of the very real issues that need to change in the workplace today in terms of time, sustainablity, etc.

    Second, while I didn’t get into it so much, my suggestion that it would be possible to imagine combining mindfulness practices with a stronger commitment to (and respect) for the importance of ethical business practices, which also require looking at the concrete conditions that a company is operating in, and what they can realistically accomplish (or not).

    As I point out in the review, there are already good examples of where this is being done. But it’s problematic that neither the author nor the larger “mindfulness movement” – nor that larger critque of said movement – bother to differentiate between business like Aetna, where the mindfulness program helped build out other good business practices, and places where it’s a stand-alone add-on used to legitimate ignoring excessive hours, unequal pay scales, etc. etc.
    Like · Reply · 11 · June 26 at 10:45am · Edited

    Diana Alstad Everything you say is right on! Add my comment below to your blog comments if you like.
    Like · June 27 at 11:53am

    Diana Alstad Well done, Carol!! Terrific review – an insightful, broad-ranging, sorely needed critique of “corporate mindfulness” as a panacea for worker “stress” – It respectfully broadens awareness of the social limitations of mindfulness.
    Like · Reply · 1 · June 27 at 11:38am

    Be Scofield Nick Walser – How do you know that meditation/mindfulness will “make” people into “good subjects willing to set aside their anger and questioning of working practices?” That seems pretty far-fetched to me. Plus, there is just as much of a chance that mindfulness could actually help someone become even more empowered and clear about their frustrations at work and voice them. What you are saying is that an overworked, stressed employee can get an in-house massage and retain their frustration at their workplace, but if someone starts meditating all of a sudden they become passive, automatons who abandon their frustrations with work. This seems highly unlikely to me.
    Like · Reply · 3 · June 27 at 11:51am · Edited

    Ron Purser Be, it seems the real question, and common ground here is, “Who knows?”
    Like · Reply · June 27 at 11:51am

    Be Scofield Right, but Nick Walser is claiming to know. Stating that meditation will make someone drop all resistance to workplace frustrations while massage would not is pretending to actually know the power/limitations of meditation. It’s not based on anything.
    Like · Reply · 2 · June 27 at 11:56am · Edited

    Ron Purser I think it is big open question either way.
    Like · Reply · June 27 at 3:34pm

    Be Scofield eh, it’s only as big of an open question as “Does massage make people into good subjects willing to set aside their anger and questioning of working practices?” Until there is reason to believe that massage could do this it’s not really something to take seriously. One could say just about anything is a “big open question” in which there is no evidence for, like “Do unicorns exist?” But that doesn’t mean one should believe unicorns may exist simply because it’s a “big open question.”
    Like · Reply · June 27 at 3:50pm · Edited

    Ron Purser Not really. Both you and Kevin put forth testable empirical hypotheses. It is an open question because there is no empirical evidence to verify whether mindfulness (and what type?, how long the training, etc) in corporations leads to more acquiescence to the status quo (H1) or whether it leads to more vigilance, whistleblowing, organizational citizenship behaviors (H2).
    Like · Reply · June 27 at 4:00pm

    Be Scofield Right, you can’t 100% confirm that Zeus does not exist. It is an open question because there is no empirical evidence to verify whether Zeus exists or whether Zeus does not exist. But this doesn’t mean much to me. It means as much as Nick’s question. The person who makes a claim has the burden of proof, not the person questioning that claim.
    Like · Reply · June 27 at 4:04pm

    Ron Purser Yes well but corporate mindfulness advocates HAVE made such claims.
    Like · Reply · June 27 at 4:07pm

    Be Scofield My comments are specifically focused on Nick’s claim that: meditation/mindfulness will “make” people into “good subjects willing to set aside their anger and questioning of working practices.” I have to evaluate one claim at a time. Not sure what other claims you are talking about.
    Like · Reply · June 27 at 4:09pm · Edited

    Carol Horton I think that one can reframe Nick’s statement in less deterministic terms and see that there’s a useful insight there. That is that the set of ideas and practices that mindfulness is situated in within a given organizational culture will influence how most people experience it. If the message that’s constantly being communicated is to give 100%+ to your job and pretend that the rest of life will take care of itself even if there is virtually no time and energy left for it – and that if you don’t comply you are disposable and will be easily replaced – and the organizational practices back up that message – then adding mindfulness into the mix along with the message that “this is a way to fix any problems YOU have when it comes to optimal work/life balance” – then – that will impact how it’s experienced for people.

    Of course nothing is deterministic – some people will rebel, others will ignore, etc. But we can learn to work with our minds in various ways – to tune into deeper feelings or to tune out of them, for example. The mind is a powerful tool. How are mindfulness teachers encouraging students to work with it? And is that supported by the larger environment?

    It seems to me that the question that matters is very concrete. That is: now that mindfulness has become a hot new trend in the business world, does it open any new doors to work with for those who care about pro-social business practices? I would say that the answer is quite obviously, yes. Unfortunately, we seem stuck between the rah rah advocates who feel that mindfulness will magically take care of everything, and the anti-business types who assume that nothing good can ever possibly come out of business in any event, so why bother thinking into this question? This is an unfortunate dichotomy and a wasted opportunity.
    Like · Reply · 4 · June 27 at 4:56pm

    Bob Weisenberg Hi, Carol, you left out the third alternative, my alternative, which is simply that mindfulness is irrelevant to the larger issues that are important to you (and me, too). As I wrote in my early comment above, and as reinforced by this entire discussion: “I don’t see them [the larger socio-economic issues] being affected much one way or the other with mindfullness training. Better to put one’s efforts directly into the nitty-gritty of actual politics and economics, I think.”
    Like · 1 · June 27 at 11:08pm

    Bob Weisenberg …to further explain, I believe if you take 100 random people and put them through even the best mindfulness training you can think of, they would come out on the other end with all their core going-in values intact and unchanged–democrats will still be democrats, republicans will still be republicans, ethical people will still be ethical, jerks will still be jerks. etc. If you want to change the world to act more in accordance with your perspective (an impulse I admire), I just don’t think mindfulness is much of a factor in that process one way or the other.
    Like · 2 · June 27 at 11:14pm

    Be Scofield Thanks Carol. I’d simply say that yes mindfulness “could open new doors to work with for those who care about pro-social business practices.” But it wouldn’t be unique to mindfulness. Mindfulness wouldn’t be the cause of the new doors opening. It’d merely be because it was a hot/popular trend and everyone wants to be a part of it. Thus, because there are more possibilities and ways to engage with mindfulness in the workplace there are more opportunities for progressives to pair it with pro-social business practices. But this same pairing between mindfulness and pro-social practices could be equally achieved with yoga, tai chi or dancing if those things had as much draw and importance in corporations right now.
    Like · Reply · 1 · June 27 at 5:05pm

    Carol Horton I agree – but there’s another point to be made, which is – what do yoga, tai chi, mindfulness, and some forms of dancing have in common? They develop intereoception – they work to integrate “mind” and “body” – learning to do this opens up lots of very important possibilities for human beings. It expands our resources for how we deal with our selves and others, how we process stress, handle emotion, etc.

    So, it’s not a frivolous thing, the mind/body. And it is news to most people that they can actually learn concrete tools for working with themselves in ways that enhance the ability to let go of negative self-talk, process rather than block emotions, etc. But all of that has to be taught – and – the teaching has to have some support from the surrounding culture and other demands of life.

    So – for example – mindfulness can be hugely helpful in group discussions where it’s necessary to talk through issues that raise up a lot of intense emotions and potential conflict. Used in a pro-social way, this could be a huge plus, ALternatively mindfulness could be harnessed to an agenda of learning to self-regulate to suppress whatever feelings don’t conform to the dominant standard. It’s all very flexible and takes someone skilled and insightful to work with people in an empowering way.

    But in these contexts, there also has to be attention paid to the larger ethical commitments and organizational practces. Otherwise, even good teaching wont’ go far to create a more pro-social, ethically responsible organization.

    Personally I am most concerned with the ethical part of it. If that’s there, then whatever bolsters that is good. Mindfulness could be a huge bolster. But it cant’ do the job on its own.
    Like · Reply · 3 · June 27 at 5:19pm · Edited

    Be Scofield I get what you are saying Carol. From my standpoint it doesn’t seem like all that of an effective strategy. Trying to infuse some pro-social values into the few mindful programs in corporate America that would accept them wouldn’t be where I’d personally focus my efforts. I think the impact would be small and not that worthwhile and it’s just a huge unknown. I could be wrong but I don’t see much value in it. It’s like Off the Mat going to the Republican convention. Not sure that did much at all. I’d rather focus on other ways to make an impact and encourage folks to do things that I think are more effective. I’d rather educate, teach and raise awareness about issues without tying them to some spiritual/wellness practices. Seems like I could have more of an impact this way and avoid the muddiness/confusion that often occurs when combining spirituality and activism. But if someone believes in this and is passionate about it then I say go for it.
    Like · Reply · 2 · June 27 at 5:55pm · Edited

    Ron Purser All very interesting dialogue
    Like · Reply · 1 · June 27 at 5:56pm

    Pankaj Seth stress mgmt seems a more accurate descriptor than mindfulness.
    Like · Reply · June 27 at 7:24pm

    Kimberly Dark Great thread. Thanks for the reading.
    Like · Reply · 2 · June 27 at 7:56pm

    Carol Horton Be just to be clear, I am not suggesting that this is “the” issue to tackle or the most important thing out there . . . I would say though that it’s something that’s happening now, where there is a certain sort of opening. Someone with a background in business who’s also grounded in mindfulness would be the right sort of person to work it. That is not us. I am actually more interested in how yoga and mindfulness are moving into major social institutions such as schools and prisons, because that is where they are connecting with more of lower-income America. But I think that parallel issues arise in those settings in terms of organizational culture, ethical framings, coordination with larger work trajectories, etc. That is really why I bothered to read this book; I wanted to get more up to speed on where the public discussion is at this point, And based on what I’ve seen on the whole, there is, shall we say, a lot of room for growth.
    Like · Reply · 1 · June 27 at 9:03pm

    Bob Weisenberg A lot of people don’t realize that the mindfulness movement is not new to business. One of the best-selling business books when I was starting my business career in 1975 was “The Relaxation Response”, by Harvard professor Herbert Benson, who was into Eastern meditation techniques. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Relaxation_Response . I personally found this book to be exceptionally useful in helping me deal with my own stress, and to be a more effective leader, but it never occurred to me or anyone that it would influence our ethics or politics.
    The Relaxation Response – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    en.wikipedia.org
    Like · Reply · Remove Preview · June 28 at 12:12am

    Andrea R. Jain Well done, Carol! Thanks for sharing. I hope to discuss this more in person next time I come to Chicago.
    Like · Reply · June 29 at 11:37am

    Phil Goldberg I’ve been following this discussion with great interest. Let me offer a few thoughts. 1. I fully appreciate Carol’s critique and, even more, her concerns. 2. Let’s all be careful not to conflate the terms mindfulness and meditation. We need to be mindful, as it were, that there can be huge differences in practice, not only between techniques properly called mindfulness and those properly called meditation, but there are also differences within those two categories. Those differences may not be trivial when one contemplates their effects. Why assume – as the media does – that different practices would have the same outcomes? 3. As Bob says, this is not new, and his example of Herbert Benson is the right choice. I had a front row seat on this back in the 70s. I was a subject in Benson’s first experiment on TM, and I had become a TM teacher by the time subsequent studies were done and TM went from Beatles/hippie phenomenon to mainstream. When Benson cashed in with Relaxation Response, he claimed he’d simply de-Hinduized TM and his practice was identical. That was obviously bogus – and very unscientific – and studies decades later proved the practices produced non-identical results. 4. In the 70s and 80s, a lot of companies introduced meditation, doctors started recommending it, etc. The current mindfulness phenom is recapitulating what happened 3-4 decades ago, and that history can be instructive. 5. There were hyperbolic claims and predictions then, as now. Merely introducing meditation into a life/family/company/community was to produce utopian results. Didn’t happen, and a lot of us radicals-turned-spiritual-activists were mighty disappointed. At the same time, these practices DO transform people for the better. So the odds of larger collective change go up, but not to the degree we would like to see – and certainly not as fast or as predictably. I’ve seen too many long-term meditators whose lives are infintely better than they were – or would be – without the practice nevertheless behave unethically or maintain apathy about social issues. So it’s a complex, multifacted issue and should be approached objectively, cautiously and patiently.
    Like · 4 · June 29 at 1:33pm

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