Charting a path toward greater sanity, well-being, and purpose—and changing business from within

Author David Gelles

Author David Gelles

When my article “The Mind Business” was published, I wasn’t sure how readers would respond. In previous years, I had interviewed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in Silicon Valley and Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff in prison. Those articles got passed around plenty, and I was establishing myself as a business reporter. But how would Financial Times subscribers respond to a story about meditation?

“The Mind Business” went viral. Readers reached out and asked which other companies were doing similar work. They wanted to know who else was teaching mindfulness to corporations. Mindfulness practitioners and trainers were thrilled to see their burgeoning movement get some mainstream press and wondered when my next story on the topic was coming out. I didn’t have all the answers to their questions at the time. But I wanted to find out.

A little digging revealed that companies including Aetna, Salesforce.com, Green Mountain Coffee, and more were already incorporating mindfulness into their operations in one way or another. And in the past few years, mindfulness has burst into the mainstream, gaining traction within the business world. At the 2013 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, policymakers from around the globe took time out for a session of mindfulness training; the event was standing room only and covered by BBC Television. A month later Mindful magazine launched, giving the burgeoning movement a presence on the newsstand. An article on “mindful leadership” in the Harvard Business Review became one of the publication’s most-shared stories of the year. From 2004 to 2013, the number of Google searches for “mindful” and “mindfulness” more than doubled. Mindfulness is being practiced at technology startups like Etsy and Medium, where young founders and early employees weave it into the corporate culture, doing their part to establish a new norm when it comes to work-life balance. And it is being practiced by big companies like General Mills and even Goldman Sachs, which offers meditation sessions to employees at its $2.1 billion office building in downtown Manhattan.

Viewed one way, the growth of mindfulness in the workplace is the logical next step in the movement toward greater corporate social responsibility. Many companies already strive for profits, aim to help improve society, and are environmentally conscientious. This is the foundation of the “triple bottom line,” the modern rubric by which companies assess their holistic impact on the world. Now, some companies are adding a fourth dimension to this framework. In the same way that corporations widely accept that spewing pollutants into the atmosphere is bad for the environment and their reputations, so too are some companies recognizing that it’s bad for their employees to be so stressed out that their health falters, or so distractible that they can’t concentrate. These companies are beginning to ask how they can also contribute to their employees’—and society’s—emotional and spiritual well-being. And they are finding one answer in mindfulness.

“Mindful Work” the book by David Gelles

“Mindful Work” the book by David Gelles

So what is mindfulness? Ask a neuroscientist and you’ll get one answer. Ask a psychologist and you’ll get another. Ask a Buddhist scholar and you’ll get a third. The truth is that there is no one universally accepted definition. Yet if you listen closely, you find that each response holds the same essential truth. Mindfulness is about being fully present. It is about attending to the here and now, without being lost in thoughts about the past, or fantasies about the future.

It is a quality of being that embodies kindness, curiosity, and acceptance. To be mindful is to actually feel the sensations in your body, even unpleasant ones, without clinging to them or wishing them away. It is to observe your thoughts without letting them become the only version of the truth. It is to attend to your emotions, embracing whatever it is you’re feeling in the moment, even if it’s not particularly comfortable. It is to be more sensitive and compassionate toward the people and situations around you. And when practiced diligently, it can transform our health, our relationships, and our impact on the world.

The most widely accepted definition of mindfulness today comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, a PhD who founded the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn has done more than anyone to popularize mindfulness in recent decades. He developed a new clinical framework for training and pioneered MBSR [Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction], the course that has introduced so many people to the practice. As if all this were not enough, he has tirelessly taught thousands of people, including Janice Marturano, on countless retreats over the years.

Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” As a practice, that’s it. Mindfulness is just about observing whatever it is we’re experiencing, and not allowing our minds to run amok. Yet mindfulness is a complex word, with multiple, layered meanings, each building upon the next.

In Sanskrit, the word for mindfulness, smriti, means “remembering.” And indeed, remembering is a core part of the practice. We must remember to return to the present moment, over and over, even as our thoughts relentlessly try to take us away from it. The word smriti also points to a deeper sense of remembering. In practicing mindfulness, we ultimately remember our true nature, a state unclouded with incessant thinking and constant judging. In Pali, mindfulness is translated as sati, which means “awareness.” This, too, still resonates today. The practice involves keen awareness of the sensations in our bodies, the thoughts in our minds, and the emotions in our hearts. And again, there is a larger meaning to the word—the awareness of the causes and conditions of those very sensations, the awareness of phenomena arising and passing, the awareness of the interconnectedness of all things.

As difficult as it can be to attain, mindfulness is an innate capacity, something that every one of us has experienced. When we take a walk through the woods and are absorbed in the sights, sounds, and smells of nature, instead of our thoughts, that’s a form of mindfulness. When a mother looks into her baby’s eyes and experiences their visceral bond, that’s a form of mindfulness. When we savor a bite of our favorite food, delighting in the tastes rolling across our tongues, that’s a form of mindfulness, too. Mindfulness can be quite magical, transporting us from the familiar, often taxing realm of our own distracted minds to a place of pure, focused awareness. But mindfulness is a bit of a rabbit hole. Keep practicing, and the nuances only become subtler, the revelations more profound, the mysteries deeper. Indeed, mindfulness is about much more than simply observing sensations as they occur. It is about what happens to our minds, hearts, and actions when we deliberately continue these practices for weeks, months, and years.

Mindfulness is a practice that allows us to achieve more sustainable happiness and to grow more compassionate. And over time, mindfulness requires one to confront thorny concepts like impermanence and compassion.

“The ultimate promise of mindfulness is much larger, much more profound than simply cultivating our attentiveness,” said Jon Kabat-Zinn. “It helps us understand that our conventional view of ourselves and even what we mean by ‘self’ is incomplete in some very important ways. Mindfulness helps us to recognize how and why we mistake the actuality of things for some story we create. It then makes it possible for us to chart a path toward greater sanity, well-being, and purpose.”

Practicing mindfulness develops several beneficial qualities: reduced stress, focus, and compassion chief among them. Mindfulness helps us become less stressed by, in part, helping us understand what we can and cannot change. As we observe our breath and bodies, we begin to see that certain things are simply out of our control. We can’t always make a pain in our legs go away, but we can control our reaction to it. We can’t stop the rain from falling, but we can control to what extent, if any, getting rained on makes us upset. With time, mindfulness reveals just how often our minds are rapidly assessing a situation, passing a judgment, and often causing us stress, making us unhappy. We realize that stress isn’t caused by what is happening; it is caused by how we respond to it, which determines our happiness at any given moment.

 Excerpted from “Mindful Work” by David Gelles. Copyright © 2015 by David Gelles. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.