If the Dalai Lama Ran General Mills

Business leaders are turning to the modern mindfulness movement to make their employees happier and more productive. But what is mindfulness? And do its practices really work if they are motivated by the desire for profit?

Seeking to make their companies more productive and their employees happier, some business leaders are turning to the modern mindfulness movement. In Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business From the Inside Out, David Gelles recounts success stories of firms launching meditation and yoga programs: Aetna, Apple, LinkedIn, Google, General Mills, Newman’s Own Organics, and Prana.

Yet those bent on leading businesses mindfully should not charge mindlessly into mindfulness.

The modern mindfulness wave prompts hard questions. What will come of the continued commodification and secularization of mindfulness? Does such a turn contain the seeds of its own destruction? To what extent should neuroscience be relied upon to substantiate the benefits of mindfulness to advance therapeutic and corporate interests, given the risk of a reductive characterization of moral virtues as physical brain-states?

The Dalai Lama says he is a socialist. What happens if you place a CEO-clone of His Holiness at the helm of a publicly-traded company like General Mills that has been hard-wired for self-interested shareholder wealth maximization?

To answer these questions, it is important to understand the differences between the forms of mindfulness pursued by Zen Buddhists, Catholic contemplatives, empirical scientists, and corporate leaders. These groups have deep-seated philosophical differences about human nature and the path to the good life, but they also have much to teach us—and each other.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness denotes both a set of contemplative practices (such as meditation, yoga, t’ai chi, focused breathing, chanting, or lectio divina) and a collection of virtues and capabilities that encompass separate yet interacting elements. One key sense of mindfulness cultivated in contemplative practices is the ability to be attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present. This aspect of mindfulness involves the capacity to notice and observe one’s own thoughts. Mindful individuals maintain enough distance from their thoughts to view them impartially, with a quality of consciousness that is observant, receptive, and non-judging toward one’s current experience. This facet of mindfulness is a metacognitive skill, involving cognition about cognition. There is also a stream of empirical research employing the term “mindfulness” in connection with an ability to categorize familiar stimuli in new ways; the ability to perform certain active operations on external stimuli, such as seeking new ways of approaching a familiar task. Finally, mindfulness refers to moral awareness of the interconnectedness of all living beings, and the capability of transcending oneself—from a self-focus to a selfless presence that is robustly compassionate and inclined toward alleviating the suffering of others.

Yet as alluring as mindfulness seems, competing orthodoxies are at play as the modern mindfulness movement exerts influence in the corporate sphere and seeps into the wider culture. Critical essays in What’s Wrong With Mindfulness (and What Isn’t) suggest that commercialized tendencies within the mindfulness movement—dubbed “McMindfulness”—pose dangers of deracination, instrumentalization, and secularization.

Deracination refers to the uprooting of selected features of mindfulness and meditation from their origins in ancient Eastern spiritual disciplines and strategically using them to reap secular rewards in non-religious and non-sacred contexts. Instrumentalization means using mindfulness and meditation practices once considered intrinsically valuable to achieve key performance indicators (KPIs) like organizational profitability and happier, less stressful, more effective workplaces. Secularization can be seen in the process of laicization whereby founders of the American mindfulness movement studied Zen in the East and, rather than becoming monks, turned to teaching mindful meditation to non-renunciant Western audiences.

A serious, authentic pursuit of mindfulness, as opposed to superficial and opportunistic dabblings in it, triggers profound questions about the human person: the nature of the self, attachments to material wealth and success, the contested moral responsibilities of individuals and organizations. But mindfulness is pursued in divergent ways, and for profoundly different ends.

The View from the Ashram

Sincere Hindus and Buddhists (and other contemplatives hailing from ancient Eastern disciplines) reject the materialism (in the sense of quest for material possessions as a source of well-being) at the heart of a profit-maximizing corporate world that seems keen to appropriate selected features of mindfulness as the latest management fad. Mindfulness, understood as a difficult-to-attain spiritual practice and a treasured virtue, has a venerable tradition of being cultivated by dedicated practitioners over exceedingly long timespans through meditation, breathing, chanting, and other contemplative practices. The end sought is enlightenment—losing attachment to the self and its endless desires, cravings, and suffering.

The View from the Church

Western religious practitioners—such as Catholic contemplatives—reject, like Buddhists, the egoistic acquisitiveness of secular materialism. Yet their ultimate purpose is different: they pursue mindfulness as a path toward deepened devotion to and communion with God through centering prayer and lectio divina. In Reflections on the Unknowable, Fr. Thomas Keating stresses the spiritual rewards of engagement in prayerful meditation and contemplation: “Through the practice of interior silence, forgetfulness of the self, and the humble service of others, the Son returns to the Father in us, and we return to the Father in him.” Qualities of character associated with mindfulness, such as compassion (misericordia) are understood as moral dispositions, either received into the soul through divine gifts (as infused natural virtues), or cultivated from repetition of natural acts (as acquired natural virtues).

The View from Laboratories, Fitness Studios, and Health Clinics

Writers such as Jon Kabat-Zinn divorce mindfulness from the spiritual and religious context, seeking to substantiate its benefits with scientific studies, especially the empirical findings of neuroscience. Scientifically controlled research studies reveal that mindfulness meditation promotes positive feelings and lessens anxiety. Empirical studies show increased brain and immune functioning occurring after an eight-week introduction to mindfulness through an educational program modeled on a prototype developed for a range of occupations. Findings such as these have rendered mindfulness attractive from a medical and therapeutic standpoint, as demonstrated by Kabat-Zinn’s worldwide success in developing Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs, which he recounts in his recent book Mindfulness is Not What You Think.

The View from Corporate Boardrooms

Corporate honchos, along with New Age secular hedonists of contemporary culture, largely reject the Buddhist quest for detachment from desire and material possessions. They also discard contemplative religion’s embrace of mindfulness as a path toward the divine. In The Mind of the Leader, a how-to book geared toward executives of for-profit companies, the authors praise servant-leader qualities of “mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion (MSC leadership)” in the name of “a global movement that’s making corporations more people-centric to achieve great results.” Yet the authors insist that such attributes are neither “spiritual” nor “emotional” but rather neurological brain-states to be trained on the spot, using three-minute checklists, thanks to the scientific wonder of neuroplastiticity. One senses the eagerness of pharmaceutical executives hoping to market a pill for this one day.

A Clash of Orthodoxies

The range of different orthodoxies of mindfulness reveals competing metaphysical, political, and moral commitments. New Age and corporate promoters of modern mindfulness do not make demands on practitioners to renounce their hedonistic and materialistic lifestyle; they tacitly remain committed to the values of mainstream consumer culture. The therapeutic benefits of mindfulness are touted in a come-as-you-wish way, avoiding sustained disciplinary regimens, and without necessitating any significant changes in the way one lives or the values one embraces.

Introducing mindfulness and meditation into the corporate context is often carried out under the rationale of enhancing the happiness and well-being of employees, and even promoting world peace. But such initiatives, such as Google’s “Search Inside Yourself,” attract suspicion when they become slanted in the direction of bolstered productivity and merchandisable creativity. Consultants tout “mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion” as the Rosetta Stone of contemporary business leadership. Is this setting the mindfulness movement up for the sort of cynicism and “greenwashing” that has ensued from instrumentalized business ethics and corporate social responsibility?

Likewise, basing purported benefits of meditation on neuroscience is problematic. Consider Thomas Nagel’s essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Studying changes in brain activity does not capture what is happening from the standpoint of the subject’s inner experience and comprehension. It does not follow that if, after meditating, a region of the brain lights up in an fMRI, that area is responsible for having a compassionate mental state, much less for generating one’s consciousness. The brain is not the same thing as the self, nor is it the same as one’s thoughts, emotions, and will, or one’s consciousness. The tools of science are not equipped to manufacture compassionate wisdom and enlightened moral judgment.

Seeking Positive Discourse

Can harmonious synergy arise out of these differing perspectives on mindfulness? What might alternative standpoints on mindfulness have to teach each other? I offer the following reflections on potential points for cross-fertilization.

The Eastern traditions of mindfulness can contribute an important element missing from extant approaches to servant leadership and business ethics. That component is the inner motivation for selfless caring about others and for doing the right thing for its own sake. Whereas theories of servant leadership stress the positive impacts compassionate and ethical leaders can have on an enterprise, they do not tell us how the inner drive to serve others can be cultivated. The Eastern disciplines for sustained mindful meditation practice are a powerful means of fostering inner thoughts, emotions, and motivations. Moreover, in the wake of many corporate ethical failures and financial crises, a detachment ethic may resonate with those questioning the egoistic, wealth-maximization economic assumptions of mainstream business.

Neuroscientific studies of the impact of mindfulness on stress reduction, productivity, and overall well-being help to repel unwarranted skepticism about meditation being mere tree-huggers’ delusion. Hard scientific data is helpful for corporations needing to substantiate expenditures on wellness programs that incorporate mindful meditation and yoga for their workforce.

For Catholic contemplatives, Eastern spiritual practices such as yoga can speak to the embodied nature of the faith. As Thomas Ryan C.S.P. suggests in Prayer of Heart and Body:

One would think that between our two central doctrines of the Incarnation and the Resurrection—the one, in which God chose to call human bodiliness “home,” and the other, in which that broken, weary body is not discarded but re-embraced and taken into the very life of the Trinity for all eternity—we could do better at helping people to embrace and relate positively to their enspirited flesh as a joyful mode of existence!

A philosophically sophisticated virtue ethics (such as Aquinas’s version in the natural law tradition) can assist as a check against naïve treatments of mindfulness. Naïve views portray the fruits of meditation as measurable brain-states whose deterministic behavioral outcomes—like a glowing wish for others’ happiness—can simply be taken at face-value. But ethicists point out that virtues are complex and subtle; reasonable people of good will may disagree about what is the “compassionate” way to respond to a colleague’s poorly written memo (should you shower him or her with encouragement and praise for a well-intentioned effort, or be brutally blunt with “tough love?”). Western moral philosophy stresses the interpretive nature of character dispositions such as compassion. They are context-specific and are ordered by rationality and interconnectedness with other, possibly competing virtues. All of that matters when one is setting out to exemplify moral virtues such as compassion and selflessness in a business context, where competitiveness and self-interest are important countervailing traits.

The perspective of Eastern contemplative practices can, in turn, expand the horizons of Western virtue ethics by bringing in a distinctive (“on the mat”) practice dimension often overlooked by the latter’s tendency to emphasize theory.

The Purposes of Mindfulness

By considering alternative perspectives on mindfulness, we can deepen our understandings about its deeper purposes—beyond burnishing corporate image and boosting profits and toward greater human flourishing and social responsibility. Given that corporations are today’s dominant institutions, it will be a good thing if the mindfulness movement can make even modest changes for a more human-centered approach to management.

We should be grateful for the mindfulness movement’s entry into the corporate sphere. Even if it doesn’t transform every C-suite executive into a bodhisattva, it may still contribute to human flourishing and care for the planet. Maybe Pascal was on to something when he mused in his Pensées: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

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