Mindfulness and meditation is becoming more and more mainstream. Many companies have adopted the Buddhist discipline but can an ethical philosophy coexist with corporate culture? And does it really work?
It has been a strange journey from underneath a tree in India, 2500 years ago, where Gautama Buddha is said to have reached enlightenment, to the boardrooms of multinational businesses in the 21st Century. Mindfulness was until recently a term confined to Buddhist texts and meditation retreats, part of a spiritual path to awakening. (The Pali word sati, usually translated as mindfulness, does not refer to a single practice but to a focusing of attention that can be cultivated in various ways.) But for the increasing modern burdens of stress, depression and anxiety, mindfulness has morphed into a healthcare intervention. The NHS website (www.nhs.uk) describes it as an "evidence-based step" for better mental health: "Paying more attention to the present moment -- to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you -- can improve your mental wellbeing."
I decided to put this to the test and booked myself on a ten-day silent meditation retreat run by the Vipassana Trust in Hereford and I am compelled to share my experience with you. They claim to teach people the exact same technique that helped Buddha reach enlightenment - it has been passed down from student to teacher over the last 25 centuries in its pristine form. This was something I simply needed to experience!
I love to push the boundaries of my comfort zone and have run marathons, climbed mountains and even completed an Ironman Triathlon, however they were a walk in the park compared to spending ten days disconnected from the world, in complete and absolute silence, meditating (sitting cross legged on a cushion) from 4am to 9pm every day.
It sounds a pretty extreme thing to do, however even though it was one of my toughest 'endurance events' it was also by far one of the most rewarding. We spend so much of our lives distracted by work, emails, the internet, TV, food, alcohol, etc that most of us never really have the head space or the time to reflect, to be creative, to reconcile experiences, to work through things that we have supressed. We are told to defrag our computers regularly however how many of us defrag our minds?
I had a few tough days and plenty of unexpressed emotions rising to the surface, however as the pace of the mind and body slowed I started to feel lighter and more free. I felt more balanced and the sharpness and my clarity of thought had returned. I started having new ideas and thinking of things with a fresh perspective. I had the idea for my next book and even managed to start planning the chapters and content in my mind.
One of my key light bulb moments was that the more our minds wander and we are distracted, the less healthy and more unhappy we are. We become reactive to our emotions and external stimulus and we lose the 'balance of the mind'. Meditation seems to be the antidote to this!
There were approximately 130 people on the course - with a pretty even male/female split. The sexes are kept in complete segregation apart from in the communal meditation hall and as there was no communication whatsoever you have no idea as to who the other delegates are. It was classified as an 'executive course' aimed at senior business professionals and it wasn't until the last day when the silence was broken did I come to learn the diverse range of people that had gathered for this course. There were senior executives from across Europe - A top High Court judge from Scandinavia, the head of a large manufacturing corporation, a business leader from one of the world's largest FMCG companies, a private fund manager and the list goes on.
Upon my return I did some research and the list of blue-chip businesses and public bodies that have adopted meditation or mindfulness programmes includes Google, Apple, Sony, Ikea, Transport for London and the Department of Health. Yet the juxtaposition between the ethical ideals of Buddhist philosophy and the hard-nosed pragmatism of business is strange and striking. Is it all too good to be true?
For those who value mindfulness as a spiritual or ethical path, it's hard not to feel a twinge of concern that something traditionally subversive of mainstream values and goals is being used in support of them. The teacher on our course had suggested that ' The framework offered by Buddha is one that orientates you towards something bigger and beyond yourself, whereas the danger when you remove that framework is that you reduce it to something that actually is just about you, one simply of utility. Part of the process of growth is moving away from the I, me and my of the ego.
Is this something that could benefit you or your organisation? As I learnt on my retreat - don't do it because you read somewhere it's a good idea, or someone told you its good - do it because it works and the only way to determine that is to give it a fair trial as they have within the government. An All Party Parliamentary Group is studying the benefits of bringing mindfulness into public policy. Nearly 100 MPs, peers and parliamentary staff have taken mindfulness meditation courses.
I did, and it worked and I am extremely grateful. Now my challenge is to incorporate the daily practice into my life so I can continue to enjoy the benefits!