I must openly admit, I used to talk about mindfulness and performance at work. I used to think that corporate mindfulness meditation was all about being better at your job, by being more focused, by having more clarity in your thoughts. By being less impulsive, less reactive and more articulate. Some of my older posts relate to that.
I was into the science of mindfulness. I was sold into the idea that I could change the shape of my brain if I meditated enough – that after 30 years of consistent practice, I would have more grey matter, and I would live longer. I would enjoy better mental health, and my decision-making would improve, free of the torment of emotions that rages within so many.
I was sold into the delusion that mindfulness meditation (and meditation generally) was all about “techniques” and “tools”, as if it was a missing piece in the puzzle in terms of improving individual performance in the workplace. If one could regulate their emotions, surely they would perform better at work? It all makes perfect sense. Mindfulness was a pill to be consumed, numbing any pain or discomfort, allowing one to continue to do their job, “mindfully”.
The Age of Coronavirus & Corporations
Then everything changed. COVID-19. The Coronavirus pandemic has left a path of destruction that the world has not seen before in recent times. Apart from the enormous effect upon public health, livelihoods have been destroyed and millions have lost their jobs. I am fortunate that I am not one of those, yet indirectly I have been affected. I suffered periods of anxiety and helplessness. Cut off from family and friends in Australia, the pandemic has been one of isolation, not just for me, but for all those around the world who have had to come to terms with social distancing measures and working remotely.
It’s during this period that I ‘doubled down’ and dedicated more time to practice mindfulness meditation at least once a day, sometimes twice a day.
But there’s more to the story. At the same time, I decided to stop associating mindfulness meditation with performance in the workplace. I did so, because I had a strong realisation that the practice of mindfulness had been taken out of context from its historical Buddhist roots, changed into what is now almost an unrecognisable form.
Worse, when I read about people in power actively meditating or using one of the many apps out there, and at the same time making decisions that will cost the jobs and livelihoods of thousands, all in the name of shareholders and the mindless pursuit of profit, I realised the association of mindfulness with improving one’s performance at work had to stop.
So when HSBC decides to “press on with 35,000 job cuts” in spite of the worst economic crisis in the UK for at least 300 years, we can see that something’s gone wrong with the development of mindfulness within institutions. “Why Now?” asks one of the Unions representing employees, and quite rightly, the question should be asked. Of course, the response lies somewhere around what’s best for clients and shareholders, the bottom line etc…
When the practice of corporate mindfulness meditation is taken in isolation and without compassion for one’s self & others, including society & the environment, then what we are left with is a specific, calculated practise that is devoid of empathy and feeling. If the practice of corporate mindfulness meditation means that we sever the links between our limbic system and the frontal lobes parts of brain, which are involved in decision-making, such that emotions no longer guide our decisions, what are we left with? A cold-hearted pre-occupied practice that is obsessed with ego, results and identity without any awareness of the universality of human affliction and suffering.
It is one thing to introduce a practice that helps people overcome anxiety and distress, it is another thing when a practise is reduced to a technique which empowers people to make decisions without feeling for others. It’s one thing if it assists you in becoming more courteous and kind to your colleagues and clients, it’s another thing when you see them as a tiny cog in the finely tuned, well-oiled corporate machine. It’s just not mindfulness. It’s simply another form of mind control.
Welcome to Compassion
What is needed rather is compassion. Through compassion comes “wisdom”, as my teacher, Cyndi Lee said. Compassion, it is said:
“is the heart that trembles in the face of suffering”.
When practising compassion, one cannot help but feel the pain of other beings. Within the mindfulness tradition, it is seen as one of the highest qualities and the motivation towards healing and ultimately liberation from all forms of suffering.
The Dalai Lama once said:
“If you want to know what compassion is, look into the eyes of a mother or father as they cradle their sick and fevered child.”
Compassion is a multi-layered response to pain, sorrow and anguish, and has qualities of kindness, empathy, generosity and acceptance. Within this, also comes tolerance, courage and equanimity. Above all, it’s about being open to the causes and reality of suffering and a strong desire to heal.
The Fictional Nature of Corporations
In order to answer the question whether there is a role for mindfulness within organisations, it is necessary to look at the nature of corporations themselves. The concept of a ‘corporation’ exists conventionally, but ultimately is a fiction held together through a complex web of legal contracts and a commonly held notion of collective identity. One works for this legal fiction known as the ‘organisation’. If one is to ask can I find the organisation I work for, the answer is you can’t. It simply does not exist in the real world.
As the crisis has demonstrated, the ability to ‘work from home’ means that the idea of working for a ‘corporation’ is just the difference between having access to a virtual organisation, and not having access.
With the illusion that organisations independently exist, the concept of ‘profit’ arises, with the never-ending insatiability and unquenchable thirst for more. The result? Employees, who believe they work for an ‘organisation’, are capable of being instantly jettisoned when ‘performance’ isn’t good enough, because it is deemed that is what ‘shareholders want’ – all in the name of the fictitious ‘organisation’. It all becomes an vicious cycle where the tail is always wagging the dog, constantly seeking to be re-stimulated by corporate profits and other return metrics.
In this context, is there a place for mindfulness within organisations within the narrowly defined view that corporations (and their directors) are held accountable solely to shareholders?
Indeed, right view and right mindfulness within the Buddhist tradition dictate that each object is dependent upon its cause and effect, or conditions without a nature or essence of their own. It’s inherently “empty”. What we find within the commonly held notion of the ‘organisation’ is indeed emptiness, yet we attempt to create corporate mindfulness meditation programs within this void that perpetuate the belief that the practice of mindfulness is all about being ‘better’ at your job, without questioning the causes and conditions as to why performance is lacking in the first place. As Ron Purser says, it’s all ‘McMindfulness’.
Does Corporate Mindfulness Meditation Have a Future?
Of course, organisations, despite their construct, are a source of income and employment for many, ultimately contributing to the wellbeing of society. Their role and conventional truth is accepted and is somewhat necessary for our economy to function and achieve a level of harmony.
That said, if mindfulness is to have a place in such organisations, it is one that fosters harmonious relations amongst all stakeholders, takes its account the impact of its decisions and activities upon all its stakeholders, including the environment and society, and is not solely driven by the pursuit of mindless profits. Without a strong sense of compassion as part of its purpose, corporate mindfulness meditation just becomes a vehicle for more suffering, something which is at its heart, the very antithesis of the mindfulness practice.