Magazine | December 18, 2017, Issue

‘Buddha’ in the C-Suite

On the strange fad of corporate mindfulness

Andy Lee has an interesting job title: He is his company’s “chief mindfulness officer,” and he is not employed at some voguish Silicon Valley start-up or by a chain of organic-food co-ops — he works for Aetna, as old-fashioned a corporate giant as you could ever hope to find. In an interview with Healthy Workplace author Leigh Stringer, Aetna’s mindfulness program was described in familiar terms: “Participants are regaining 62 minutes per week of productivity,” Stringer wrote. “They are seeing an approximate dollar return, in terms of productivity alone, of more than $3,000 per person per year.”

Never mind karma — this is a bottom-line issue.

“Mindfulness,” a meditation practice that is in essence Buddhism without Buddha, is everywhere in corporate America and celebrity culture. (The two are no longer entirely distinguishable: Bill Gates is a celebrity, and Oprah is a vertically integrated global conglomerate.) Google offered a course under engineer-guru Chade Meng Tan (employee No. 107) that at one point had a six-month waiting period; Meng has since gone off on his own. Goldman Sachs has caught the mindfulness bug and uses a mindfulness app to keep its employees mindful. Intel is on board, and a study undertaken by the National Business Group on Health and Fidelity Investments found that one in five of the companies surveyed offered mindfulness training, with another 21 percent planning to do so — at a cost of up to ten grand per session.

When they aren’t pushing Häagen-Dazs out the door, General Mills employees and executives have access to a seven-week mindfulness program. After completing the program, 80 percent of executives reported that their decision-making skills had improved. One wonders about that datum: Were these executives going to tell their superiors that their decision-making skills had been degraded, or that they’d wasted their time? Bear in mind that Häagen-Dazs doesn’t actually mean anything in any language — the guy who founded the company just thought it sounded cool and that people would buy it. There may be a bit of that at work here, too.

Scientifically, mindfulness is way down there with yoga, acupuncture, and homeopathy in terms of empirically observable results. The evidence for its effectiveness is largely subjective, e.g. self-reported improvements in mood, attitude, stress, or sleep. A recent paper published in Perspectives on Psychological Science — co-authored by 15 prominent psychological and cognitive-science researchers — gently derided the “pervasive mindfulness hype” associated with research on the subject and concluded that there was very little evidence for its effectiveness on any metric. There were predictable design problems with the research: inconsistent and conflicting definitions, lack of control groups to adjust for placebo effects, lack of replicable results. A review in American Psychologist found that fewer than one in ten mindfulness studies had included a control group. “A 2014 review of 47 meditation trials, collectively including over 3,500 participants, found essentially no evidence for benefits related to enhancing attention, curtailing substance abuse, aiding sleep or controlling weight,” Scientific American reports.

Mindfulness training is a $1 billion–plus business in the United States alone, and growing robustly.

Why?

Ronald Purser has an interesting perspective on that: As a professor of management in the business school at San Francisco State University and an ordained teacher in the Zen Taego Buddhist tradition, he has a foot in both the corporate and mindfulness worlds, and he is a trenchant, at times scathing, critic of corporate mindfulness, which he dismisses as a kind of prosperity gospel for coastal liberal elites — Joel Osteen in a saffron robe.

“I’ve been to a number of corporate mindfulness conferences,” he says, “just as a fly on the wall to see what’s going on. Some of the consultants selling this stuff are Buddhist practitioners. But the Buddhism is backstage. At the Awakened Leadership Conference, a big mindfulness event, one of the consultants told me:

We know we’re teaching Buddhism — but they don’t. “They” meaning the corporate sponsors. In order to sell, they’ve really had to go stealth, selling mindfulness as a scientifically proven method. And the conference was all about how to sell the program, how to sell this stuff in corporate-speak, how to get them to perceive it as a performance-enhancement technique.

Cf. Aetna’s purported $3,000-per-person-per-year productivity kick.

Purser says he is sometimes accused of being a “Buddhist fundamentalist,” but his attitude toward corporations and corporate culture is pretty much what you’d expect from a college professor in San Francisco. He thinks that corporations are a major source of the problem that mindfulness advocates purport to mitigate, especially stress:

Arianna Huffington published a book a few years back, called “Thrive,” that’s a classic capitalist-spirituality type of book. It assumes that we can all get rich and be perfectly healthy and happy, and that our well-being will flourish, that we’ll flourish as humans, and that we don’t have to worry too much about systems and structures in society, such as corporations, which are notoriously not exactly caring about human beings. Mindfulness has had an overwhelmingly positive popular reception because the idea that our well-being is totally within our personal control — that we are masters of our own destiny and that practicing mindfulness will make us more healthy and more wise — resonates seamlessly with the neoliberal imperatives: Don’t depend on the state, don’t look to the government, you are responsible for your own well-being — you have to become an entrepreneur of your self.

Corporate mindfulness is, in his view, just a way to gussy up an old-fashioned management program with a bit of Eastern exoticism — but not too much.

“It’s just another self-help program,” he says, one that shifts responsibility from institutions, especially businesses and government, to the individual.

The mindfulness debate is part of a larger religious — some would object to the word — convulsion: American Buddhism is having a Protestant moment, with longstanding institutions and centers of power coming into conflict with reformers mindful of corruption and skeptical of authority. Buddhism, from its more orthodox varieties to more vaguely defined notions of Eastern spirituality, has for a certain subset of Americans come to fill the social and moral purpose once served by what is sneeringly called “organized religion,” meaning mainly churchgoing Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Judaism. But it got organized very quickly and, in some of its more colorful expressions, resembles nothing so much as a New Age reimagining of Catholicism emphasizing the ceremonial and ritualistic elements of Buddhism: The black cassocks and tonsures are replaced by more colorful robes and shaved heads, the apostolic succession replaced by the ceremonial listing of a guru’s teacher, his teacher’s teacher, his teacher before him, etc. The question of “guru devotion” is very much on the mind of American Buddhist reformers such as Stephen Batchelor, a self-described Buddhist atheist and author of Buddhism without Beliefs. His worries about “elevating the guru to the same status as the teachings themselves” are recognizably Lutheran: sola scriptura, in effect.

In the 1960s, Christian religious brothers and sisters were coming out of the cloisters and into the streets, and American Buddhists began moving, intellectually if not physically, in the opposite direction, with an emphasis on monasticism, formalism, and hierarchy, albeit a very democratic and consumerist one, and one ensnared by all the familiar concerns of American identity politics. From a recent edition of the Buddhist journal Tricycle: “By paying lip service to female empowerment but not materially supporting Western female monastics, we leave them — and the future of Tibetan Buddhism in the West — in doubt.” The democratic and consumerist impulses have shaped mindfulness in basic ways: Prior to the 20th century, mindfulness meditation was almost entirely restricted to full-time religious practitioners in monastic life. Lay meditation is a relatively new phenomenon.

“There is a void,” Purser says. He’s cagey about the question of whether he would describe himself as “religious,” but he is skeptical of trying to reduce meditation to a mere technique deracinated from its cultural context and Buddhist tradition. “People are skeptical. Institutional religion has lost its luster, but people still desire something to fill the void.” Mindfulness? “It’s the new capitalist, secular religion. But calling something ‘secular’ doesn’t make it secular.”

Secularism is culturally mandatory for corporate America. The promises made by mindfulness gurus aren’t materially different from those made by earlier generations of faith healers. But the limits of secularism are very much on the minds of American Buddhists such as David Loy, a popular writer who is skeptical of “McMindfulness.” “For the Protestant reformers,” Loy writes,

secular life was a preparation for our ultimate destiny: this world is a means to a higher end. However, as the sacred pole — God, the guarantor that life is meaningful and salvation possible — faded away, the original religious reason for that distinction (eternal life in heaven) was lost. The evaporation of the sacred left us with only the secular pole. As the mode of life became increasingly separated from any religious perspective or moral supervision, modern consciousness grew bereft of the spiritual orientation the Reformation had originally promoted. . . . That final Darwinian stroke left the modern West stranded, for better or worse, in a mechanistic and desacralized world, without any binding moral code to regulate how people were to relate to each other.

Attempts to harmonize the demands of secularism with the need for shared ethics have been not entirely successful. Google famously described its ethical position as “Don’t be evil,” but it has of necessity found itself making accommodations for some pretty substantial evil, including the government of the People’s Republic of China, which does not have a great record when it comes to meditation-based health-and-wellness movements such as Falun Gong.

The embrace of mindfulness need not be understood quite so cynically as Purser and other critics do. It may in fact indicate that among reasonably enlightened, good-faith leaders in the business community, there is an understanding that something is wrong with life here in the rich, healthy, peaceful, free, capitalist world, that something is missing. But if there is a hole in the soul of the West, it probably isn’t shaped like a designer meditation cushion ($349.99 from Walmart), and it probably will not be healed by something so vague and diluted as “mindfulness.”

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