Mindfulness meditation is having a Moment.
According to Fidelity Investments, 22% of employers offered mindfulness training progarms last year. That number is expected to double in 2017.
Harvard scientists have found that meditation conclusively and positively changes brain structure. And the Harvard Business Review reports that mindfulness meditation reduces stress and helps practitioners rely more on executive functioning over impulses.
Aetna, the health insurance company, calculated that it gained $3,000 in productivity per employee that went through a mindfulness program. That constituted a eleven to one return on investment!
As the research builds, apps that promise increased productivity, decreased stress, and deeper connection proliferate on mobile platforms: HeadSpace, Insight Timer, Simple Habit and others make expertly guided recorded meditations available anywhere and anytime.
This is all great. I’m a meditation and breathwork facilitator. I’m not going to say that more people meditating is a bad thing.
The use of purely functional language to describe, justify, or ‘pitch’ meditation to the masses reduces meditation to a ‘mind hack.’ This is dangerous on two levels. First, it robs meditation of its fundamentally spiritual foundations. Second, it can lead unwitting practitioners into confrontations with themselves that they may not be prepared for or expecting.
In his book Eternal Echoes, the poet John O’Donohue writes:
Functionalist thinking impoverishes presence. The functionalist mind is committed to maintenance and efficiency. The priority is that things continue to work.
The more we focus on our lives, and ourselves, as machines to be ‘hacked’ to enhance their function, the more we close ourselves off to the experience of being truly present. ‘Presence’ is about more than performance. It’s about, as O’Donohue puts it, being with and even appreciating the ‘natural unevenness and unpredictability of living.’
At its root, meditation is a practice rooted in helping us connect with a deeper, more nuanced sense of being present in each moment. When we’re truly present, we are able to build awareness of and connection with the world around us. This sense of connection leads to an increase in empathy. This experience of being connected with something greater than ourselves is one of the hallmarks of a ‘spiritual’ practice and has no direct link to productivity.
There is a distinction to be made between breathing exercises and meditation. Breathing exercises such as those described here are developed to reduce stress, increase energy, or deepen concentration. They are tools to be deployed as needed to relax and center.
Meditation, in contrast, is more than a relaxation tool. It is deeply confrontational. Which brings us to the second ‘danger’ of reducing mindfulness to a ‘hack.’
As the ‘mindful revolution’ sweeps into corporate life, there is another narrative that swims just beneath the surface: articles like this one exploring claims that meditation ‘ruined’ people’s lives, leading to job loss, break ups, and feelings of going ‘crazy.’
What the functionalization of mindfulness glosses over is that, practiced regularly, meditation can initiate a journey of self-inquiry. As the assumptions underlying core beliefs fall away, the beliefs themselves may erode. In spiritual terms, this represents great progress towards self-definition and disentangling from the web of thoughts and emotions that exert invisible pressure over our decisions and behavior.
In ‘functional’ terms, this self-inquiry may show up as a loss of motivation, missing days of work, re-examining and reconfiguring relationships, even a reduced tolerance for the structure of a traditional work environment. Ultimately, this all passes. But the process, particularly if the practitioner started meditating as a productivity hack, may take time and bring disruption.
I’m in no way suggesting that people, or companies, should shy away from mindfulness or meditation of any kind. I hope, however, that they embrace the practice as more than a way to reduce stress or increase output and frame it as part of a process of growth, self-discovery, and even deep confrontation with our own assumptions, sense of self, and place in the world.