January 5, 2013 - NYT Business Section
Knowing Every Breath You Take
By MIRABAI BUSH
IN 1972, I was a 30-year-old American traveling in India, with the smell of incense in my hair and mantras repeating in my ears. Back then, if you had told me that I would someday be training employees of corporate America to apply contemplative practices to help them become more successful, I would have said you’d been standing too long in India’s hot noonday sun.
Yet not long ago, I was standing in front of employees at Google in Mountain View, Calif. They were dutifully following my instructions to feel the sensations of their breath as it passed in and out of their nostrils, and learning how to send e-mail mindfully, by taking three deep breaths before hitting “send.”
I am a co-founder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, a nonprofit organization that is now 16 years old, and we have undertaken a daunting task: to convince people in their workplaces that the simple meditation techniques developed 2,500 years ago by the Buddha might help increase productivity, reduce absenteeism and inspire greater creativity. We have introduced contemplative exercises that can reduce stress and heart rate and increase attention and awareness of self and others. We teach what we call “mindful listening,” so that a speaker is fully heard.
For our first project, we chose a large corporation in the Midwest whose C.E.O. knew one of our board members. We created a three-day, mostly silent retreat off site.
I encountered workers who were exhausted, overworked and stressed. They were curious whether these practices could help, but also skeptical. Before the retreat, several people said, in effect: “Stress got me where I am. I don’t want to lose my edge.”
I thought to myself: This won’t be easy; maybe they won’t even attend.
But they all showed up. First, I asked them to lie on the floor for a deep-relaxation exercise. They didn’t balk; instead, they followed my instructions to let go and relax their bodies. We also introduced mindfulness meditation, which we believe builds attention and insight and helps people become more kind and loving. We taught the practice of bringing our minds to our breath, noticing our breath, and returning to our breath each time the mind wanders off — a task that’s tougher than it sounds.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said the C.E.O., who had a brilliant mind and thousands of employees. But the participants learned how to bring their minds to a place that was calm and clear, a great place to begin thinking and making decisions. When it was over, all felt that it was helpful.
SINCE that first foray into the corporate world, we have worked with many other organizations. For a small group, we have had a big reach, working with high-profile organizations like Yale Law School, Hearst Publications and the Army. We’ve offered programs as diverse as one-hour introductions, four-day intensive retreats, and courses with six weekly sessions.
At first, resistance was everywhere, but so were the possibilities. A litigation lawyer thought that if he became more compassionate toward the opposition in his cases, he couldn’t be a zealous advocate for clients. But he found that being calm, clear and compassionate gave him better insights and better timing.
An environmental leader thought that if others knew he practiced meditation, they wouldn’t take him seriously — and would write him off as a tree-hugger without scientific rigor. Instead, he found that he became more resilient, and less overwhelmed by climate-change predictions, and that he collaborated better with colleagues.
Magazine editors thought that they would miss deadlines; in fact, they learned to focus on priorities and work better in teams to meet the deadlines in new ways. Data-driven Google engineers questioned the value of developing capacities that can’t be quantified, but many of them learned better ways to communicate. One engineer told me his wife had noticed a change in the way he listened to her. She asked him: “What happened to you?”
As we continue exploring the benefits of mindfulness for work, scientists are researching the effects of the practices on the brain. Neuroscientists have confirmed much of what we were experiencing: that meditation improves attention, reduces stress hormones, increases appreciation and compassion for others and helps us recover faster from negative information.
Personally, this work has made me feel more connected to the world. Watching the responses of so many people — from an economics professor to Army soldiers — I’ve come to believe that it’s a basic human need to be calm and clear, to be aware of ourselves and others, to be kind and collaborative, to be fully present in each moment.
It turns out that people work better when they are happy and feel aligned with their work. I know I do.