Meditation in Business: A Potent Medicine with Potential Side Effects

A recent article in Harvard Business Review stated that meditation is "close to taking on cult status in the business world." Indeed, in the past year the use of meditation in business seems to have hit a tipping point. A number of prominent leaders have begun to speak openly about their own personal meditation practices. General Mills, Proctor and Gamble, AOL Time Warner, Google, Target, Apple, Nike, McKinsey, and Goldman Sachs are only a few of the companies that are now offering meditation on the job.

A strong case can be made for teaching meditation and mindfulness practices to leaders. We cannot be our best self in a chronic state of stress. We cannot lead at our highest level if we are chronically anxious. Many organizations are beginning to recognize that well being is integral to the foundation of good leadership. This awareness has been born out of the painful fact that the speed at which we are working and moving has outstretched our human capacity to keep up.

The typical response to this inordinate pressure is to go into emergency mode, triggering a fight/flight response. When this happens, all functions in the body that are not needed for emergency are tamped down including digestive and immune function. Clearly, this is not a good baseline state from which to work and live. And yet this is the inner state of most leaders. Over a decade ago, in an attempt to help my clients liberate themselves from this chronic state, I introduced contemplative practices into my wok.

This eventually lead me to ask the question, "What is the ideal inner state of a leader?" This is a critical question because every management and leadership skill passes through this inner filter. The ideal state of a leader is a paradoxical combination of being both relaxed and alert, calm and efficient, open and focused.

Meditation is a phenomenal tool for increasing access to this paradoxical state. It increases moment to moment awareness, making it more likely that we act consistently from our highest intent. It has the potential to give us breathing room between impulse and action, impacting the quality of our relationships. It can deepen our access to intuition and increase innovation and creativity. It helps us become aware of the actual state that we are in, leading to greater clarity.

But there is another aspect of meditation that is rarely spoken about - an aspect that can be detrimental if not properly managed. When we begin to meditate, we are either intentionally or inadvertently beginning an inward journey. Meditation not only evokes the relaxation response but can bring to the surface of our awareness aspects of ourselves which may be unprocessed or buried. Pouring sand into water, it will come to rest at the bottom of the glass and the water will remain clear. But if the glass is shaken the water will become cloudy. Similarly, meditation shakes up latent material that lives within us. This can be the source of profound growth, but it can also be problematic if we do not have the proper support and guidance to process what is arising.

Business leaders are usually ambitious. If ten minutes of meditation is good, wouldn't one hour be better? The potential for the overzealous use of meditation without adequate support is a genuine concern when we bring these practices to the business world. What, then, would be a reasonable amount of time to meditate? Begin with five to ten minutes of practice a day, increasing this to a maximum of twenty minutes, an adequate amount of time for calming the mind and balancing the autonomic nervous system. If you begin to experience intrusive thoughts or tap into material that you find overwhelming then either lay down the practice and find other tools that are less potent or find a skilled practitioner who can help you work through the challenges.

I teach meditation to many of my clients. But the vast majority of our work together is not the pursuit of contemplative practices but rather working on character development: increasing self knowledge, learning to read others more accurately and with greater compassion, learning to serve with greater purity, and bringing balance and harmony into one's own life, and, in turn, into the lives of others. This is the real work of leadership development, and there are no short cuts.

Meditation is a wonderful tool for those who are not only interested in lowering stress but also wish to grow inwardly and to deepen. When this is the case, the shaking up of negative tendencies can be a portal for true transformation. We are living in a period of history in which our cultural values are so fundamentally corrupt that we need leaders in every sector of our society who have the courage to work on themselves in this way, bringing greater alignment between their highest self and their work. But contemplative practices should be respected for their potency. We need to make sure that we have adequate support in place before pursuing them too rigorously.