mindfulness at work – it’s all good?

Here’s something I’m wondering about.. in putting these thoughts out there, seeing what others make of it, I’m hoping it’ll help me make sense of it for myself.

Mindfulness for better performance

Impressed by the growing evidence base, companies are increasing taking up secular mindfulness meditation programmes to improve employee performance and productivity. Mindfulness featured at the recent World Economic Forum at Davos. The corporate agenda going on here is clear, unambiguous.

Yet to my mind the pursuit of profit, increased corporate power and status jars awkwardly with the spiritual origins of mindfulness, and the cultivation of compassion, empathy and love, the heightened sense of interconnectivity that develops through a committed practice.

Spiritual integrity

IMG_1003What happens to the spiritual integrity of mindfulness when it is adopted as an instrument for corporate ends? Does it get co-opted and corrupted, or does it also subvert and undermine? Maybe people who transform through the practice can influence their organisation to engage in more ecologically responsible behaviour.

We know it’s possible, a couple academic studies have demonstrated a link between mindfulness and pro-social, pro-environmental behaviour. [1] Or is it that if their newly activated values clash too harshly with the dominant organisational culture, they tend to leave?


There is also the possibility that the way an individual practices mindfulness actually feeds a ‘disharmony’ within themselves, like narcissism or detachment, unwittingly. [2] Or perhaps not so unwittingly. I was disturbed to read in a Guardian article that at his trial, Anders Behring Breivik argued that he was fully capable of empathy but had used a meditation technique to override his feelings. “If you are going to be capable of executing such a bloody and horrendous operation you need to work on your mind, your psyche, for years,” he apparently explained. The US military use mindfulness meditation – we can assume this is not for cultivating empathy and compassion for the enemy. [3] Clearly, intent is important to mindfulness is applied.

Authentic to the heart 

In a chapter in a book on Buddhism and Science, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes of a gathering that he was present at in 1990 where the Dalai Lama was asked about the “danger of bringing the Dharma into the world in ways that might require giving much of the traditional form and vocabulary, and whether that was possible without destroying the religion and culture from which it springs, and also without, in some way, profaning and betraying the moral and ethical foundations of Dharma practice.” His response was “There are 4 billion people on the planet. One billion are Buddhists, but 4 billion are suffering.”

light beam on waterKabat-Zinn interpreted this to mean “it made no sense to withhold the Dharma, which we know to be fundamentally universal, so that its teachings are only accessible to Buddhists. The challenge is to make it accessible to all human beings, and to do it in ways that are authentic, true to the heart of the Dharma but at the same time not so locked in or wedded to tradition and vocabulary that prevent the practice from assuming new forms over the years, to grow and deepen (as it has always done) as it encounters new cultures.” [4]

The key word in that interpretation it seems to me, is ‘authentic’.

Useful living

In San Francisco in a couple weeks, I, along with 1,400 other people from all kinds of personal and professional backgrounds including Google and Ford Motor Company, are gathering at the Wisdom 2.0 summit to address “the great challenge of our age: to not only live connected to one another through technology, but to do so in ways that are beneficial to our own well-being, effective in our work, and useful to the world.”

What does ‘useful to the world’ mean? For me it means a way of living, of organising society, that enables all of nature to flourish. It has got to include less consumption. Less stuff. An economic system not dependent on growth and a change in the law about companies having to create profit for shareholders. Greater income equality. Workers rights in the supply chain. Not using toxic chemicals or conflict minerals. Not designing products for obsolescence. Better product lifecycle design. Closed loop systems. Less corporate greed, for god’s sake.

Research shows that mindfulness is indeed associated with lower materialism, less consumerism, and greater compassion, care and empathy for others. [5]

So how does this social and ecological consciousness, cultivated through mindfulness practice, that motivates us to act in more responsible ways, get reconciled with a corporate agenda of using mindfulness as an instrument for increasing profit? When that may include encouraging more consumerism and keeping costs low by not attending to social and ecological issues in the supply chain.

That’s the kind of discussion I am hoping to have at Wisdom 2.0. I hope you’ll join me!


[1] Brown K.W. and Kasser, T. 2005. Are psychological and ecological well-being compatible? The role of values, mindfulness and lifestyle. Social Indicators Research 74 (2) p349-368; Schneider,  S.C. et al 2010. Developing Socially Responsible Behaviour in Managers, Journal of Corporate Citizenship, 39 Autumn pp.21-40

[2] Welwood, J. 2012. Realisation and Embodiment: psychological work in the service of spiritual development. pp. 137-166. in Watson, G. Batchelor, S & Claxton G. Eds. The Psychology of Awakening

[3] Chaskalson, M. 2011. The Mindful Workplace

[4] Kabat-Zinn, J. 2012. Indra’s Net at Work: the mainstreaming of Dharma practice in society. pp. 227-228. in Watson, G. Batchelor, S & Claxton G. Eds. The Psychology of Awakening

[5] Brown & Kasser 2005

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2 Responses to mindfulness at work – it’s all good?

  1. alcsmith says:

    Hi Nadine

    V interesting post. I had exactly this kind of discussion with an MBSR practitioner. My fear is a) that sharing mindfulness and meditation practices becomes something you have to have a professional qualification for, and b) that the heart of what mindfulness is about is taken out. Hopefully, on b) mindfulness inspires people to think more deeply about the interconnectedness. However your point that in organisations those people might then leave is a concern. I bring mindfulness briefly into training on areas like assertiveness, delegation skills and train the trainer. I always talk about it in the wider context and I usually find people are v interested.


  2. Anna G says:

    The fear that someone else will corrupt the teaching of mindfulness has not stopped any teacher or master in the past. Not because it’s not possible to corrupt it, but because that action most of all falls back on the person who tries to use it for selfish ends.
    And if just one single individual benefits from the teaching, the whole existence will rejoice.

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