Mindfulness at work: can we really be the change?

Mahatma Gandhi’s quote is a touchstone for just about every yogi, activist and seeker I know, including me. We believe that personal transformation is the starting point for change in the world.

Yoga, meditation and other practices are fundamental to the way we transform and become more empathetic, compassionate, creative and questioning.

There’s plenty of scientific proof that this transformation is literal. It’s not just about changing our ideas, what we believe. I’d like to give the example of a conversation I had with a friend as we were drinking tea after a yoga class. Unlike me, she is a scientist, pro-business and has an MBA. We were talking about whether practicing yoga has changed us. My friend was sure it had.

‘In what way?’ I said.

‘I have more empathy and compassion,’ she said.

She was still as much of a scientific businesswoman as she ever was, but she saw things differently.

‘Do you think becoming more mindful makes you a kinder person?’ I said.

‘I don’t see how it can do anything else, can you?’

I don’t indeed. And my belief is that the practice of meditation and mindfulness, within yoga or without, changes us whether we like it or not.  This is the reason I co-authored The Healthy Office Revolution, with Elizabeth Nelson last year.

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Healthy office, healthy employees, healthy organisation

I believe organisations only ever become more transparent, engage in corporate social responsibility and encourage their employees to be physically and mentally healthy purely because it’s good for the bottom line. But I don’t have a problem with that if people benefit. I also acknowledge that there are individuals within corporations who want to do the right thing simply because they believe it’s right.

The Healthy Office Revolution was born out of a research project carried out by Elizabeth in the offices of a multinational corporation. Elizabeth's results proved that creating healthier offices and employees is in the best financial interest of organisations. The book offers a blueprint for practical change based on science and, ultimately, tells a story of hope.

My involvement with The Healthy Office Revolution came about partly because Elizabeth has a great story but also because I believe that becoming healthier, especially through meditation and mindfulness, changes us whether we like it or not. My logic is that healthy, mindful employees have the power to change organisations.

So, I couldn’t agree with the criticism of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey that followed his tweet that he’d been on a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat over last Christmas.

For Vice.com, Dorsey’s tweet ‘drives home a problem with this self-proclaimed nirvana-seeking population: Silicon Valley is exploiting age-old spiritual practices for the benefit of tech companies. And it’s in direct conflict with the actions of the people who are leading the industry.’

The thing is, practices like Vipassana trigger real transformation in people. Everyone I’ve known who’s gone on a Vipassana retreat has come back profoundly affected by the experience. The change bought about by 10 days of silent meditation may not have been permanent but the potential for it to be so was there.

I would say that Dorsey’s tweet, crass as it might be, is a massive step in the right direction. I’d also say that he has as much right as anyone else to go on a Vipassana retreat. He might need it more than you and me.

But the real problem with so many commentators who criticise meditation and mindfulness as simply part of the ‘wellness ideology’ is that they don’t immerse themselves in these practices.

Treating the wellness syndrome

The Wellness Syndrome (2015) by Carl Cederström and Andre Spicer is concerned with how wellness has become an ideology. It received rave reviews when it was published, including this one by Simon Critchley of The New School for Social Research: ‘A wonderful piece of work that exposes the wellness ideology for what it is: a stupid and dreadful fantasy of authentic self-mastery’.

At the beginning of the book, the authors write that ‘Our concern…is not with wellness per se’. They’re interested in the way that health has become an ideology, with the result that not being healthy has become a stigma. Although they do write about the wellness syndrome in relation to society as a whole, I’m most interested in what they have to say about health in relation to work.

The authors’ argument is that business assumes that healthy bodies are more productive so they ‘devise new ways to boost their employee’s happiness, from coaching sessions and team-building exercises to the recruitment of Chief Happiness Officers.’

Looking at the rise in phenomena like walking meetings, treadmill desks and bicycle desks – some of which Elizabeth introduced into the office in which she carried out her research – the authors write: ‘On the face of it, measures ranging from workplace wellness programmes to the treadmill desk are all relatively harmless… But if we look a little closer at attempts to make the workplace healthier, we notice it is not just about creating a healthier, happier and more productive workforce…Pounding away on a treadmill desk is more about the production of an ideal worker than achieving productivity goals.’

This is not what Elizabeth found. The employees themselves embraced things like walking meetings simply because they felt more healthy and productive, without being obliged to do so. Mind you, Carl and André may well argue that this was because the employees had internalised wellness syndrome until it had become the ‘wellness command’. They believed that by improving the body they were improving themselves.

When it comes to mindfulness, Carl and André cite the fact that the most popular course offered at Google is called ‘Search Inside Yourself’ offered by Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s official ‘Jolly Good Fellow. In his book Search Inside Yourself, Tan describes the goal of the course as ‘helping participants “optimize” themselves by increasing their emotional intelligence’.

(Given that ‘emotional intelligence’ relates to qualities like empathy and compassion rather than, let’s say, logic or practicality isn’t it more the case that the 1000 Google employees who’ve taken the course are looking to become better people, not better workers?)

In fairness, Carl and André pick Google purely to demonstrate the rising popularity of mindfulness. They even give the example of US Marine Corps ‘mind fitness training’ to combat post-traumatic stress and high suicide rates. I agree that this does seem pretty weird.

It’s also the most extreme manifestation of the use of mindfulness to normalise ‘a vision of reality in which everything is in a constant state of flux and fluidity, it throws us back into the only immediate reality we know – our own body.’ This leads to us becoming what Simon Critchley calls ‘passive nihilists’ who focus on perfecting ourselves because we can’t change anything else.

As far as work is concerned, this means learning to live with the precariousness of employment today – the gig economy – and, if we’re in permanent employment, the culture of overwork. I’d say that there’s a lot of truth in this. But if you remember the Gandhi quote we began with, perfecting our own minds and bodies is the beginning of becoming the change we want to be.

At the end of their damning and persuasive indictment of wellness syndrome and the institutions that promote it as an ideology and co-opt it as a means of control, Carl and André suggest that ‘Instead of dwelling on our own sickness, we would do better to look at and act on the sickness of the world.’

Absolutely. But, The Wellness Syndrome is not about exploring the benefits of wellness and its potential to trigger transformation. Perhaps to redress this, in their next book Carl and André spend a year ‘testing everything that the self-improvement industry had to offer with the plan to write it up in a book’.

Diving into self-improvement

Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement (2017) is what Carl and André describe as a social experiment. In May, they attempt to practice spirituality.

At the beginning of the chapter, Carl and André adopt a wry, amused tone when confronted by practices and people they find preposterous.

Carl visits a spirituality centre in Stockholm. Here he tries mindfulness, chakra meditation dancing, yoga and a session of Kundalini meditation. He also does Dynamic Osho Meditation and goes on a weekend retreat in a forest where he shares his experiences but finds this ‘painful’. Driving home afterwards, he has a kind of revelation. ‘Before going to the retreat, I had thought of spiritual training as a middle-class indulgence. But now, after I saw the pain that these people were suffering and how desperate they were to get better, I could no longer stand on the side and laugh. I was ashamed. After going there and intruding on all their pain, I felt cynical and exploitative.’ Exactly.

André journeys into religion and is taken with Buddhism. He starts with Buddhist meditation. At first, all that happens is that his leg falls asleep. Afterwards he stops in a park to read a chapter of the Diamond Sutra under a tree and has an experience that makes him realise everything is unique and impermanent. ‘Perhaps I had finally had a spiritual experience’, he wonders.

Later, he chants and loses his ‘sense of self’. Afterwards, he notes prosaically that researchers have found that ‘when subjects were asked to chant a mantra, they experienced a significant reduction in mind wandering’.

At the end of the chapter, André climbs Ben Nevis. On the way up, he stops, takes out his mala beads, closes his eyes, assumes a meditation posture and chants OM. It seems perfectly natural to him and he writes ‘I want to hold on to this moment for the rest of my life…I thought that maybe this was the spiritual experience I had strived to achieve.’

Carl admits he hated most of the month but, from mindfulness, he’s learned not to be judgmental and to come back to his breathing, as we all do.

Reading the chapter on spirituality, it’s clear that something has happened to Carl and André. Those of us who’ve had our lives changed by practices like yoga would say ‘Of course?’ That’s what they’re designed to do.

Let’s hope Carl, André, Jack Dorsey and everyone who takes up yoga, meditation and mindfulness practices stick with them. It’s one way we might have a chance to change our world.

Because, just when I was feeling nice and smug, I thought I’d look up the provenance of the Gandhi quote. Reading Elephant Journal, I discovered that ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’ appears not to have ever been said by him. He did remark that ‘If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him…We need not to wait to see what others do.’

Gandhi is saying that ‘personal and social transformation do go hand in hand’ but not that personal transformation is enough. He understood that it takes large numbers of people all working together to overthrow unjust authority, whether at work or in the wider world.

David Holzer