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From the era of bottom-line thinking, the tireless quest to maximize human capital, and a fascination with the pace of technological advancement, a nostalgic reaction has emerged. We are no longer surprised when Apple rolls out the next iteration iThing, or excited by the prospect of asking Siri to “call mom.” We roll our eyes when we see late-night emails pop up on our work phones, and we can’t stand it when pedestrians text and walk (or worse, text and drive). We’d love to read a book – an actual paper book – before bed, but we can’t remember the last time we did.
We long for real relationships, authenticity, spontaneity, and the natural world, but we don’t know how or where to start.
Out of these sentiments, a new buzzword has emerged in business media: mindfulness. The trend emerged in Western tradition in the late 1970s and has grown in popularity since 2011. Huge companies like Google, General Mills, and Aetna are incorporating mindfulness into their corporate culture, both to build more effective leaders and to improve the quality of life of their employees. Initial reports out of Aetna’s training program, for example, indicate that it has a positive effect not only on staff stress levels, but also on sleep quality, pain, and medical costs – which seem like winning outcomes across the board.
If you’re looking to explore mindfulness for yourself, your organization, or your team, you’re probably aware that it manifests itself in our culture a number of ways. Some companies provide yoga classes during lunch, others hold meditation sessions during office hours; others still promote journaling exercises before and after meetings. All of these are great office perks, but the various Western interpretations of mindfulness look very different (and decidedly more white-collar) than their Eastern roots, which are quickly taking a back seat to skim-as-you-go articles about how to tap into the latest trend.
In fact, some publications are bringing the problematic aspects of modern mindfulness to the forefront of the conversation, asking whether or not its aim is self-care or just a temporary reprieve from chronic #firstworldproblems. A Wired article on meditation in Silicon Valley noted that the area is “doing more than simply seizing Buddhist practices...[it is] reshaping them to fit the Valley’s goal-oriented, data-driven, largely atheistic culture. Forget past lives; never mind nirvana.” It’s here that the mindfulness conversation gets messy.
First, any tradition that belongs to another culture is best integrated thoughtfully and respectfully – with consideration and learning given to the original source. Second, mindfulness is popular right now because we’re longing for authenticity and purity in our lives, and leveraging it as just another tool undermines its value as a cultural staple and spiritual practice in and of itself. These cautions are not to say that we Westerners can’t tap into this ancient tradition, but rather to say that there’s a way to do so, well, mindfully.
Here’s our take on a mindfulness practice that not only pays homage to its roots but also feels authentic for you and your employees.
Start simply by doing research. Whether this means going to your local Buddhist center to pick up a book on the various manifestations of mindfulness, chatting with a practitioner (someone who understands Eastern cultures, not necessarily your yoga instructor) or doing some digging on the Internet, make a concerted effort to understand not only how we Westerners interpret the practice, but how it was originally conceived and created. This understanding will move your practice toward appreciation versus appropriation.
After you’ve found resources on the topic, you’re all set to explore the best way to incorporate mindfulness into your work or personal life. If you’re leading a team on this journey, then give them the resources you were exposed to so that they can make an informed decision about their practice. Mindfulness isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of living, and an alternative means of stress relief or work-life balance may work better for some people than others. The most important outcome is to make each person feel authentically enhanced by the practice – and in doing so, you’ll see a change in work product, office culture, and employee satisfaction.
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