This most recent coverage has been triggered by Mindful Work, a new book by the New York Times reporter, David Gelles, which documents – and largely celebrates – the discovery of meditation by hedge fund managers, health insurers, Ford, Target, Goldman Sachs and the Bank of America as a way to reduce stress and boost employee productivity.
Arianna Huffington is thrilled by the news; the Wall Street Journal is excited; even the Marine Corps is interested. Now, obviously,it should not be suggested that Goldman Sachs, Bank of America or the US military don’t always have humanity’s best interests at heart in everything they do, but we should probably pause – mindfully, of course – to ask if the corporate mindfulness revolution is something to be entirely happy about
Not because meditation doesn’t reduce stress or boost productivity: those benefits, along with numerous others, are among those to which a growing mountain of scientific evidence does point. (It’s not noted often enough how many of these studies are explicitly preliminary, using small samples and reaching tentative results – but there are certainly a lot of them by now.)
And also, not because meditation, as Buddhists sometimes argue, needs to be kept pure. (It’s been used for questionable ends at least since medieval times, when Japanese samurai meditated to become more fearless killers.) Instead, the problem is one familiar from corporate attempts to impose organized fun at the office: just because some activity is good in itself, it doesn’t follow that good things will happen when it’s co-opted by the engines of commerce.
As Joe Keohane points out in a New Republic essay, mindfulness classes at the office are part of a broader focus on restoring “meaning” to work – not least because, as a 2013 Gallup survey found, “companies whose employees are comparatively more engaged generate 147% higher earnings per share”.
There’s something obviously a bit troubling about treating personal meaning (which is, by definition, the ultimate reason for doing anything) as just another means to an organisation’s ends. “Workers who are emotionally invested in their work also tend to be less motivated by earthlier enticements, such as pay, vacations, flextime and good hours,” Keohane noted. It’s easy to see how meditation could serve a similarly ideological purpose as an enabler of workaholic culture, rather than a counterweight to it – making a bad situation just a little more bearable, and therefore, in the long run, perpetuating it.
Either that, or meditation at work could become one more thing in which employees feel obliged to participate, so as to curry favor with bosses. In which case, as with managerially imposed “fun” activities, it’ll simply make a bad situation worse. In Gelles’s book, we learn how Mark Bertolini, chief executive of the health insurer Aetna, was driven to meditation following a skiing accident in Vermont.
That’s the kind of desperate crisis that can invest a spiritual quest with intense personal significance. But Aetna’s employees didn’t encounter meditation in the same way: they were offered classes because Bertolini “decided to use his company as a laboratory”, to see if it might help them. To be clear, he seems like a great boss: at the same time as introducing meditation classes, he gave his lowest-paid employees a 33% pay rise, after reading Thomas Piketty. Yet even the best boss might struggle to avoid communicating a subtle pressure to take part – and meditation undertaken out of a reluctant sense of obligation seems unlikely to be of much help.
In any case, it’s worth asking what’s really meant by that word “help”. Because like all the best happiness techniques – psychotherapy, religious spiritual practices and secular ones, such as Stoicism – meditation isn’t necessarily best thought of as a “technique” at all, if by that one means an efficient way of reaching some predetermined end. Much more momentously, it might cause you to reconsider the ends themselves. Here’s the meditation teacher Kenneth Folk on the notion of meditation as productivity booster:
For some people, the enhanced focus and creativity that often comes from training the mind through meditation might translate into Getting Shit Done. For others, greater intimacy with their bodies and the inner workings of their minds might result in Getting Less Shit Done as they reconsider what is most important in their lives… Using meditation as a productivity tool is like using your car for a greenhouse. It’s not that your car wouldn’t be a good greenhouse; it very well might… [But] your car is good for a lot of things, including driving to the market on the odd chance that your own garden fails.
Besides: isn’t there something a little perverse in demanding that a practice dedicated to paying attention in the present moment (the only kind that ever exists) should justify itself through being useful for some future moment (which never arrives)?
As with the other wellness interventions we’re ceaselessly urged to adopt – getting enough sleep, spending plenty of time in nature – it’s understandable that one might be drawn to meditation in order to make other aspects of life run more smoothly. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, in an ideal world, paying attention to the present, sleeping well and hiking in the mountains wouldn’t need to be justified on productivity-related grounds. So what is the point of them? They are – or ought to be – their own point.