Jon Kabat-Zinn, a father of the mindfulness and meditation movement in America, traveled to Beijing in November to help lead a cross-section of Chinese leaders and thinkers in a seven-day retreat. Chinese government workers, health care professionals, academics and scientists attended the well-being workshops, but it was the presence of several Buddhist monks that most surprised Kabat-Zinn. He was flattered, but also puzzled -- what enlightenment could an American possibly offer to monks steeped in a culture and tradition of mindfulness going back thousands of years?
"To think that Buddhist monks would be coming to practice mindfulness meditation with American teachers, it doesn't compute at first -- until it does," Kabat-Zinn told The WorldPost. It wasn't the first time he had experienced this kind of cross-cultural openness. "What they say is that they feel like we have found a way to articulate what we call the dharma" -- essentially, the idea of cosmic order -- "in a way that people can really hear."
There has been a striking shift in tone in recent years as leaders around the world -- in politics, business and beyond -- have opened up the conversation and renewed the focus on well-being, and its potential to create lasting, tangible gains for productivity, profits and the overall health of societies. But the resulting global exchange of ideas goes beyond the intersection of East and West, shaking up institutions and reversing long-held stigmas across cultures. Taking time off, getting more sleep or practicing contemplation and meditation have often been seen as admissions of weakness; now, the pursuit of mindfulness is touted as essential for success.
The statistics around stress and burnout begin to explain the growing appetite -- and need -- for a different, healthier way of living and working. In late 2012, the World Health Organization estimated that more than 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression. In the U.S., self-reported levels of stress have increased 18 percent for women and 25 percent for men in the last 30 years. In some cultures, death and suicide related to overwork are common enough that countries have specific words for them -- "guolaosi" in China, "gwarosa" in Korea and "karoshi" in Japan.
"This is a tidal wave that is hitting us," Chris Ruane, a Welsh member of the British parliament, told The WorldPost, referring to the huge rise in antidepressant prescriptions in the U.K. in recent decades, and also to the general mental health issues facing countries around the world. "It's out there, it's coming, it's getting closer, the problem is getting bigger. Have we got the policies to deal with it? And I think mindfulness should be at the core of that."
From U.S. business schools, where future CEOs are taught meditation, to the annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland, where this week leaders from around the world are coming together in sessions with titles such as "Health Is Wealth," "Creating Healthier Outcomes" and "Mindfully Yours," well-being is getting prioritized right alongside growth and profit.
With increasing evidence of the benefits of mindfulness, more and more leaders have shed their skepticism and become evangelists for the cause -- even in politics, where image-sensitive officials might be expected to avoid attaching themselves to any idea that might be construed as soft.
Last year, Kabat-Zinn, the American mindfulness advocate, helped establish a program for British lawmakers, including meditation lessons. Since then, according to Ruane, the British MP, 68 members of parliament have attended. Next month, he said, an all-party parliamentary group devoted to mindfulness will expand the conversation on how members, regardless of their political affiliation, can apply its lessons to actual policy, from education and health care to business and the prison system. "We can see policy implications for mindfulness across all of government," Ruane said.
Germany's minister of defense, Ursula von der Leyen, perhaps has been more vocal on the issue than any other politician in the international community, sounding the alarm about the costs of stress and burnout and connecting the dots between individual well-being and the health of the society at large. "Nothing is more expensive than sending a good worker into retirement in their mid-40s because they're burned out," she told AFP. "These cases are no longer just the exception. It's a trend that we have to do something about."
In the United States, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat, has emerged as Washington's mindfulness representative. The author of A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit, he believes mindfulness can benefit veterans and those recovering from addiction.
For those who have been studying mindfulness for a long time, the adoption of such principles by those in the halls of power is nothing short of miraculous. As Kabat-Zinn put it, "If I said back in 1979 that parliament was going to be practicing mindfulness, and that a sitting congressman -- a young one -- was going to be writing a book called A Mindful Nation, you would have locked me up in a mental hospital."
In business, the growing scientific and anecdotal evidence supporting the benefits of a less stressful, more mindful life has led to a new paradigm of success. Several factors -- the ongoing effects of the financial crisis and global recession, skyrocketing employee stress and several high-profile cases of executive burnout -- have led some corporate leaders to rethink the approach to business that exclusively prizes working faster, harder and longer in order to achieve short-term gains.
Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic, one of the world's largest medical device companies, wrote on The Huffington Post in June that he was skeptical of mindfulness until his wife dragged him "kicking and screaming" to a transcendental meditation program. He then began a twice-daily meditation practice and incorporated what he'd learned into his classes at Harvard Business School, where he is a professor of management practice. "Most leaders do everything they can to shape their enterprises," he wrote, "but if they don't step back from constant action, they lose perspective and their sense of priority, as well as their ability to create original solutions."
The German companies Volkswagen, Puma and BMW have sought to combat workplace hyper-connectivity by limiting after-hours employee emails. As Le Huffington Post has chronicled, France has seen a rise in workers leaving behind hyper-connected professions for "le monde tangible" and a more hands-on existence -- ranging from agricultural and restaurant work to opening motorcycle repair shops. This month, several U.S. investment banks -- notorious for their grueling schedules and cutthroat cultures – began telling junior employees to take weekends off.
And last fall, Lee Kai-Fu, the former president of Google China, told his social media followers that his cancer diagnosis had caused him to reconsider his life choices. Where he had once been fueled by sleepless nights and macho competition, he had now learned how important it was to take care of himself. "It's only now, when I'm suddenly faced with possibly losing 30 years of life, that I've been able to calm down and reconsider," he wrote. "That sort of persistence may have been a mistake."