August 28, 2012

The Mind Business

"Yoga, meditation, 'mindfulness' ... Some of the west's biggest companies are embracing eastern spirituality as a path that can lead to bigger profits."

That's the subhead of "The Mind Business," an article that appeared last weekend in the Financial Times. (The online version drops the "bigger profits" angle in the subhead). The point of the article is that Buddhist mindfulness practice and other "eastern spiritual practices" have entered the corporate mainstream, and the trend seems to have hit its stride at General Mills, where some 3,000 employees can avail themselves of the practices. The program's founder explains:

“It’s about training our minds to be more focused, to see with clarity, to have spaciousness for creativity and to feel connected,” says Janice Marturano, General Mills’ deputy general counsel, who founded the programme. “That compassion to ourselves, to everyone around us—our colleagues, customers—that’s what the training of mindfulness is really about.”
There are apparently other benefits as well:
Other companies have found that such programmes can generate both health benefits and cost savings. Aetna, partnering with Duke University School of Medicine, found that one hour of yoga a week decreased stress levels in employees by a third, reducing healthcare costs by an average of $2,000 a year.
The introduction of mindfulness meditation practice to corporate culture—and to those about to enter the corporate world—has a strong rationale, perhaps best articulated by Mirabai Bush, cofounder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society and an early pioneer in the field. Bush and her colleagues concluded that there would be great benefit in introducing contemplative values to some of the most controversial corporations. In a Tricycle interview in 2001 ("Contemplating Corporate Culture"), Bush discussed her own initial ambivalence and her decision to go forward. The center's first corporate retreat, in 1997, was with Monsanto:

How did you feel about Monsanto?

Monsanto was a big challenge for me personally, because I had spent the previous ten years working in sustainable agriculture with Mayan people in Guatemala. At that point Monsanto wasn’t involved in biotechnology, but their main product was Round-Up, the largest-selling herbicide in the world. It had been used extensively in Guatemala, where the heart of my work was the recovery of land that had been destroyed by chemicals. I believed that Round-Up had contributed to destroying the land, to the hunger and poverty that the Mayan people were living in. So I knew a lot about Monsanto.

Why did you decide to go forward with them?

I was persuaded to work with Monsanto because so many people work inside corporations, and because of the increasing power of corporations, not just economically but culturally, worldwide. I concluded that it could be very beneficial to change consciousness inside a corporation. Once I began to think that way, I saw my own resistances, and saw the challenge of going into this situation without judgment. We certainly needed to maintain discriminating awareness about the products this company was producing, but if we could conduct a practice retreat in a space of nonjudgment and be open with each other, then we could see whether, indeed, this practice could help people open to a wider view, as it did for me.

When I first started practicing I wasn’t making Round-Up, but I was holding all kinds of misunderstandings about the nature of reality. Now it’s clear to me that one of the most challenging tensions is teaching with no judgment—being simply a supportive guide to beings whose intentions are good—while holding my own opinions. And teaching in new contexts makes this even more challenging.

Since that time, companies of all sorts—from traditional businesses to tech giants—have eagerly adopted eastern contemplative practices for a number of reasons and have made them their own. While the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society grew out of a "conversation about the relationship between contemplative practices and social change, and the relationship between individual and social transformation," a lot has changed since then, and not everyone is so optimistic about the turn things have taken. In the current issue of Tricycle, for instance, contributing editor Richard Eskow reviews Wisdom 2.0 ("Buying Wisdom"), an annual conference bringing together the tech industry and proponents and teachers of mindfulness practice:

If “mindfulness” is to create genuine change in our society, it must involve being mindful of more than just our own need for comfort, good health, or serenity. It must entail being mindful of the social and economic forces that allow some to prosper while others struggle, forces that promote and perpetuate certain behaviors and thought patterns while discouraging or suppressing others. Without that awareness, “mindfulness” will quickly descend into another luxury item that permits the few to ignore the impact of their behavior on others. If they are to attain the significance to which they aspire, conferences like Wisdom 2.0 must open themselves up to a broader kind of awareness than they can achieve by promoting a feel-good, tunnel-vision version of “mindfulness.”

Over the years, Tricycle has followed what some call the "mindfulness revolution," and has among its contributors some of its strongest supporters—and now, its toughest critics. We've heard from fans and detractors both, although the former—among them, comments posted to the article itself—have been more numerous than the latter. Expect more discussion here.

The FT article concludes with the author's neutral reflection on the many contradictions spiritual practices' entry into corporate culture presents:

These contradictions—Buddhist teachers who aren’t Buddhists, corporations with spiritual communities, capitalism embracing traditions that shun materialism—are perhaps unsurprising in the modern age. Just as General Mills products are sold around the globe, feeding people from India to Indiana, so too the fundamental tenets of the world’s great religions are freely traded in every corner of the earth. The result is that the people who work hard to make high-margin, low-calorie breakfast cereals are at the same time striving to improve their spiritual equilibrium and even get a taste of enlightenment. “There is no work-life balance,” Marturano says. “We have one life. What’s most important is that you be awake for it.”

Take a look at the latest and let us know what you think. The discussion is only just getting started.

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treegirl's picture

right livelihood - yes, a very important choice we all must make

Dominic Gomez's picture

This brings to mind a variety of issues as the Law (Dharma) goes modern. Corporations make causes and reap effects just as real people do. Mirabai Bush was helping Monsanto change its karma in Guatemala. In the public sector our government's policies and practices present to the international community our collective karma as a nation. It's obvious much of it must be transformed if we desire to be seen as the not-so-ugly Americans. We as Buddhists who have the good fortune to live in the United States owe our fellow living beings this much at least.

ritaduval24's picture

Does this come back to the Eightfold Path? Right Livelihood is an important choicewe all should make.

Richard Fidler's picture

Hmmm...So making more profits for a company that constructs drones--which are used to kill people often innocent of any crime--is a desirable outcome of a company staff that practices mindfulness at work? Don't think so--any more than I think Zen Masters in Japan were doing a service for combat soldiers by instilling in them an implacable desire to defend the Emperor at all cost to themselves. If that is what mindfulness is all about, I don't want any part of it. Practice cannot be separated from ethical behavior. Mindfulness should be practiced solely to enrich the entire community, not to enrich some elements of it, elements like individuals and corporate entities.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Being mindful of more than just (one's) own need for comfort" underlies the bodhisattva practice, i.e. compassion for the suffering of others.