Once a niche activity for the spiritual set, meditation and mindfulness have made their way into the corporate world, with numerous CEOs opening up about their meditation practices, and more and more companies offering mindfulness training programs for their employees.
So what do the leaders of the mindfulness movement have to say about these shifts occurring in the workplace? During a panel discussion at the Rubin Museum on Monday co-hosted by the Garrison Institute, meditation expert Sharon Salzberg, Focus author Daniel Goleman and Janice Marturano, founder of the Mindful Leadership Institute, discussed the mindfulness at work phenomenon with host David Gelles, New York Times journalist and author of the upcoming book Mindful Work.
Research has linked meditation to boosts in focus and productivity, among a number of other benefits that may transfer over into the workplace. Mindfulness practice has also been associated with emotional stability and improved sleep, reduced stress and anxiety, and improved mental clarity. At a time when more than eight in 10 U.S. employees report experiencing stress at work, and stress costs American companies an estimated $300 billion each year, the mindfulness movement could be just the change we need.
But mindfulness isn't just about relieving stress. Among the workers she talked to while researching her new book, Real Happiness at Work, Salzberg saw it as a "quest for resilience."
Marturano has spent more than 25 years working with leaders in the corporate world and teaching them the principles of mindful leadership. The one phrase she heard from burnt-out leaders more than anything else was: "I just need some space."
"So can we begin to cultivate that space?" Marturano asked. "That space where we get to touch our principles, our ethics, who we are."
Mindfulness practice can give people the "space" they need to become their most effective, said Marturano. It's a break from the constant digital distractions, a mounting to-do list and non-stop thoughts and worries that keep us from feeling that we're doing our best work.
A mindfulness practice helps us to notice when the mind has wandered and then bring it back. "That's what strengthens the mind," said Goleman, explaining that mindfulness helps us let go of attachment to our own thoughts.
"So often we're trapped by our own mind in this accelerated stream of consciousness that just keeps coming and coming," said Goleman. "And it's such a relief to not go after it."
Goleman also noted that our increasing dependence on technology is creating a greater need for mindfulness in the workplace and beyond.
"The norms for attention have changed," said Goleman. "In particular, technological devices are intruding continually on our focus and attention, whether it's at work or with other people."
Besides improving attention and other cognitive functions, one of the traditional reasons for practicing meditation is to boost compassion for oneself and others. In modern workplaces, we've seen that mindfulness benefits employee health and corporate bottom lines. But can mindfulness actually breed more compassionate leaders?
"Mindfulness serves not just to heal ourselves," says Salzberg. "But it also serves as a platform for insight. It's out of that insight that compassion arises."