Bosses can transform their businesses and the happiness of their employees using meditation, author David Gelles has argued - and it's definitely no longer a religious practice.
Gelles, a New York Times reporter and author of the book Mindful Work, stressed that mindfulness meditation had moved away from its Buddhist origins and didn't have to involve "sitting for hours on end with our eyes closed".
He told an audience at The World Post Future of Work conference that there was a quiet revolution going on in businesses around the world - including in Britain.
After holding two meditation demos with the audience, Gelles said “there’s a lot of closet meditators out there. I’ve just outed you.”
He said mindfulness was “an innate human quality” but that he couldn’t “hide the ball” that it was originally a practice deep-rooted in Buddhism.
“But over the last 30 years, and I cannot emphasise this enough," he continued, "it has become a truly secular pursuit. Mindfulness has really been taken out of its religious trappings and presented in a purely secular form.
"There’s absolutely nothing religious about what the people of Goldman Sachs, and Facebook, and General Mills are doing... That is why big companies are embracing this and finding true value in it.”
He added that meditating didn’t mean conforming to the stereotypes we might imagine: “There are many ways to practice mindfulness meditation, it doesn’t require that we fold our legs, it doesn’t require that we sit for hours on end with our eyes closed… [it is] just taking a moment to be present in a very intentional way and notice what we are feeling, that’s really he bedrock of this practice.”
Gelles took up mediation as a student, when he went to a Zen centre in northern California. He then visited India and spent time on meditation retreats, before becoming a business journalist and writing an article called 'The Mind Business' that went viral.
He visited General Mills, the company that makes Green Giant sweetcorn, Haagan-Dazs and Old El Paso, and found it had “a meditation room in every single building."
He then went on "a journey into the contemplative heart of heart of corporate America – the corporate world really, as so many people in the UK are doing this too.”
"What I found was it’s not just a business here and there, it’s not just big businesses, it’s small businesses. It’s happening on the factory floors. Intel, Adobe, Google: the list of companies bringing the to bear in one way or another is growing every single day.”
Gelles defines mindfulness as “paying attention, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” and “ejecting a bit of space in our very frantic lives.”
“It’s really about being right here, right now, not letting ourselves get swept away with thoughts of the future, not ruminating on the past, but actually taking a moment to bring a measure of self awareness to the present moment.. and when that happens, all sorts of incredible things transpire.”
“What are [the businesses doing this] finding? Well, mindfulness makes their employees less stressed, it helps them be more focused, productivity is actually increasing and it’s improving their health.”
“In the course of your work day, whatever you do, there are innumerable instances where just taking that moment to consider the appropriate response could lead to gentler, more effective, more compassionate communications with your colleagues, with your bosses, with your clients.”
Mindfulness is "happening in some unlikely corners of the working world too," he added. "Militaries round the globe are using it for their snipers.”
It’s “no panacea," he cautioned. "I don’t want to oversell it here. It’s not going to make a bad boss behave better, it’s not going to get you that raise right away.”
Mindfulness also extends far beyond meditation, Gelles said. He saw one company that encourages its workers to practice 'mindful eating' at work.
“So often, just as we rush though our days, when we take a meal, we rush through that. I can’t tell you how often I’ve found myself being mindless. I’m eating soup and looking at my phone, while my screen is on too, and I don’t think I’m looking at what’s there, or tasting my soup.”
The employees lost weight, enjoyed food more and chose healthier food, he added.
Another boss decided to raise the wages of his lowest-paid staff by 33%, after he adopted yoga and meditation, and said it made him “more aware of his effects in the world.. of how his decisions as CEO can affect the lives of thousands, tens of thousands of people”.
Gelles said he also believes that mindfulness “can actually make us perhaps more socially responsible, perhaps more ethical.”
He cited another business leader, Eileen Fisher, who transformed her clothing company by first changing "the way they ran their meetings and reducing their corporate hierarchy". She then thought: “Wait, if I can change the way I’m relating to my employees, what about those thousands of people making my clothes in China?” Gelles explained.
Fisher started sourcing her clothes more responsibly, started an entrepreneurship programme for her factory workers in China, gave them pay rises and reduced the use of harmful dyes in her brand's clothes.
Gelles said Fisher told him: “There’s no way I would have made these decisions if I hadn’t found moment after moment to become more self aware."