Mindfulness at Work: Eastern Wisdom for Western Business

Mindfulness is all the rage in organizations these days. How does being mindful help you at work? It keeps you from dwelling on the past or obsessing on the future -- keeps you inwhich is where your attention needs to be.
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Mindfulness is all the rage in organizations these days. Google's mindfulness training program "Search Inside Yourself," established in 2007, proved so practical and popular that last year Google spun it off into a freestanding unit -- Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute -- devoted to "creating enlightened leaders worldwide."

The Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University offers a class entitled "Executive Mind" because "all manner of research supports the idea that mindfulness -- paying attention to what's happening in the present moment -- is essential to becoming an effective leader. Good decision-making often comes down to mustering focus, clarity and calm." And lest you be tempted to dismiss this is simply a "California thing," consider the fact that the venerable Midwest giant General Mills has developed its own homegrown mindfulness training program, hugely popular with employees.

Business guru Marshall Goldsmith applauds this mindfulness trend: "Being mindful was never as important as it is in today's high-stress business climate" -- as does Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson: "Most of us could benefit from having a little more of Buddha in us during our daily lives... transcending the tensions of the workplace and facing issues with humor and equanimity." And the late Steve Jobs credited his early studies of Zen Buddhism as a formative influence on his aesthetic sensibilities, as well as his business practices at Apple.

"The ultimate purpose of the Buddha's teachings is to serve and benefit humanity, which entails applying them in practice in our day-to-day lives. This in turn reflects a practical approach to human problems, and I don't believe you need to be a Buddhist to benefit from such an approach," wrote His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Ken Blanchard (aka, The One Minute Manager), who calls himself the Chief Spiritual Officer of his company, concurs: "Does Buddha have anything to offer non-Buddhists in the workplace? My answer is a wholehearted, enthusiastic 'Yes.'"

I've long been curious about this ancient Eastern tradition but didn't make the time to quench my curiosity until about 12 years ago, when I was given the opportunity to team up with Buddhist scholar Franz Metcalf to write a book about Buddhism and business. I was eager to discover how to cultivate mindfulness at work and what it might mean in terms of stress-relief, productivity, and creativity.

The first thing I learned was that Buddha was a human being -- not a god. He compared himself to a doctor, dispensing the medicine of mindfulness -- insight into our human problems, both as individuals and as groups. But more than offering insight into our problems, he taught us how to transcend them.

Beginning with his own experience of enlightenment, or awakening (the word "Buddha" means "awakened one"), he created a system of thought that provides helpful, practical answers to typical situations we face in our lives every day. Buddha's teachings are above all useful. Buddha's teachings aren't about pie-in-the-sky - his teachings are about here and now. Buddha's teachings aren't just theory -- they're about practice. Buddha didn't just teach a way of thinking -- he taught a way of being and doing.

That's one of the things I love about Buddha's teachings -- they're practical. I'm a very practical person. I work with organizations that are grappling with tough problems and Buddha's teachings give me a set of simple, effective concepts and tools I can use right now, today.

When I first started reading Buddha's teachings I was surprised - and also delighted -- at the timeless quality to his wisdom. Buddha was the smartest psychologist I've ever read! His insights into how the human mind works are spot-on. Turns out, the human mind has changed very little -- if at all -- since Buddha was teaching his followers some 2500 years ago.

One of the most helpful concepts is that of the "monkey mind." Buddha pointed out that the human mind is filled with non-stop chatter -- much like drunken monkeys jumping around, screeching, calling to us, pulling our attention this way and that. We all have these voices in our heads -- some call them "the committee" -- some refer to the voices as their "inner dialogue" -- some even give it a medical label, "attention deficit disorder." Whatever you call it, we all have monkey minds -- to a greater or lesser degree.

Once we understand and accept that the normal human mind is a monkey mind, we can take steps to begin to tame our monkeys. Buddha taught his followers simple, easy, practical meditation techniques to focus attention, calm the monkeys, and wake up to reality in the present moment. Some people practice a form of breathing meditation; others, a chanting meditation. Some prefer walking meditation. Personally, I find that Transcendental Meditation works well for monkey-management. Often, gentle, compassionate self-talk works, too. (See "How to Tame Your Monkey Mind") There are many paths to mindfulness. To be mindful is simply to be awake, to be conscious, to be aware.

How does being mindful help you at work? Mindfulness keeps you from dwelling on the past or obsessing on the future -- mindfulness keeps you in today, which is where your attention needs to be. Mindfulness makes you aware of what is going on around you, so you are more likely to spot opportunities. Mindfulness makes you conscious of what is going on within you, so that you're less likely to self-sabotage or get in the way of your own success. Mindfulness enhances creativity and innovation. Mindfulness reduces stress. Mindfulness enhances gratitude, appreciation, and happiness. With all these terrific benefits -- and more -- it's no wonder that we find more and more corporations embracing elements of Eastern wisdom.

As the founder of a start-up that grew into a worldwide organization, Buddha knew a lot about organizational life. We can learn many lessons from Buddha because his organization was built to last -- it has stood the test of time. Buddha was a wise, insightful, skillful CEO -- a brilliant leader whose legacy lives on today -- not just in Buddhist organizations, but in the consciousness of enlightened leaders and mindful employees in the Western workplace as well.

BJ Gallagher's latest book (with Franz Metcalf) is Being Buddha at Work: 108 Ancient Truths on Change, Stress, Money and Success (Berrett-Koehler)

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