Zen and the art of work

Illustration by Jon Krause

Gathered together in the Chicago boardroom of global management consulting firm Oliver Wyman, they sit in a circle, in silence, eyes closed. A small bell rings, and they begin to open their eyes and look around the room. From a show of hands, nearly all of the 20 consultants indicate that their mind had been wandering.

“It can be shocking to realize how often our attention isn't where we want it to be," says Brandon Rennels, the former management consultant who led the workshop.

A 2010 study of 2,250 adults by two Harvard University psychologists found that people’s minds wander an astounding 47 per cent of the time. It concluded that “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

Our minds naturally wander. We wander into regrets about the past and worries about the future. We replay scenarios over and over again, not because we want to, but because we can’t seem to stop.

Wandering minds also compromise the quality of people’s work. “High-quality attention is the productive basis for knowledge workers, and we do very little to cultivate that essential resource,” says Jeremy Hunter, a professor at the Peter F. Drucker School of Management in Los Angeles. Hunter is one of the leading teachers of mindfulness in the workplace, with clients like Toyota, Bank of America and Starbucks. “As a society, we have fundamentally ignored the value of attention.

“Mindfulness is a simple practice to cultivate attention,” he adds. “It teaches us to skilfully manage the forces that exist inside all of us. Mindfulness raises awareness of what’s going on inside of you, so you can better deal with what’s going on outside you. It’s the education we never got.”

Mindfulness has its origin in ancient meditation practice. The term was popularized by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. In secular settings, its use was pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program.

Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally. There’s a shift in perspective as we take a step back from our thoughts and feelings and view moment-to-moment experience with more clarity and objectivity. We are able to appreciate life in the present moment, whether it’s the presence of a loved one, a blossoming flower or the face of a co-worker telling us that something’s wrong, even when they don’t say anything.

With practice, we change the neural pathways in our brain. Scientists used to think our brains became hard-wired early in life. Now we know our brains change and develop all our lives in response to how we think, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.

Scientists have correlated activity on the left side of the pre-frontal cortex with feeling energized, enthusiastic and joyful, and on the right side with anxiety and sadness. They studied senior Tibetan monks and found left-side activity that was off the scale. Indeed, studies have shown mindfulness training increases happiness, reduces stress and anxiety, and improves emotional intelligence, resilience, attention, decision-making and creativity.

Hunter contends mindfulness “can shed light on the contradictions of how we go about working and bring our actions into greater alignment with our values.” Those values themselves can be shifted. A recent study found training corporate managers in mindfulness “can succeed in shifting psychological traits and personal values towards increasing levels of social consciousness, and therefore towards increasing likelihood of socially responsible behaviour.”

Diana Chapman Walsh, former president of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, says mindfulness allows her to see other people’s internal struggles, and to do so “with compassion and empathy.” It gives her “the ability to see in a penetrating way.”

Chade-Meng Tan, the creator of Google’s mindfulness program and author of the book Search Inside Yourself, cheerfully claims that mindfulness can bring fun and profits to a workplace. Developing mindfulness may be simple, but it’s not easy. To be effective, it’s not enough to understand it intellectually. You have to train your mind, and that takes practice, diligence and determination.

Hunter says business is still at an early stage in recognizing the value of attention and mindfulness training. However, “the conversation is different now than it was 10 years ago. Then, it was not a foregone conclusion that managing yourself was important. Today, people are more open and heads readily nod.” He adds that “it took about 60 years for the West to optimize industrial work. After that we had enormous productivity gains. We’re about 40 years into a widespread knowledge economy.”

Hunter asserts that mindfulness can provide the foundation for both huge productivity gains for employers and a more socially responsible form of capitalism.

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