Alex Payne

Writer, backer, erstwhile technologist.

Meditation and Performance

Our notion of knowledge work is approaching its sixth decade. Having exhausted management fads and novel office furniture arrangements, attention has now turned to meditation as the next performance enhancer for cerebral endeavors.

Mindfulness meditation, a popular Buddhist-derived contemplative practice, has become a business buzzword over the past several years. You’ll find mindfulness heralded in The Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, The LA Times, Forbes and The HBR again and again and again. Google has a famous mindfulness program. NYU is teaching mindfulness at their business school. Mindfulness will make you a better recruiter, a better CEO, and a better pro basketball player. There is an exclusive conference at which executives can explore the intersection of mindfulness and business. Here in Portland, a former Simple coworker has cofounded a meditation center aimed at professionals. Finally, from America’s heartland, the Indiana Gazette says “meditation is settling into the mainstream”.

When I was 13, I had an intimate conversation with a family friend. Having earned my trust with her utter genuineness, I shared with her the whirl of conflicting, self-undermining thoughts that gathered in my head day after day – in retrospect, early signs of depression. Being the rare adult with the kindness not to condescend to the young, she listened and commiserated. “I get that too,” she said. “Meditating helps. It helps a lot.”

It did help, and still does when I make time for it. I’m by no means an expert on mindfulness in particular or meditation in general, but I can say that I’ve had an on-again, off-again meditation practice for more than 15 years. I’ve read a lot on the subject, from research to scripture. I’ve taken classes, but never gone on a retreat. My personal practice is secular, yet my appreciation for meditation’s unarguable religious roots is sincere.

When I read about the general spread of mindfulness, I’m gladdened and encouraged. It is a simple thing, available as freely as breath to practically every human, that can steady our faltering steps on the path of life. I would not begrudge anyone their mindfulness practice, no matter what form it takes.

When I read about mindfulness in the business world, though, I’m left with uneasy questions. Apparently, I’m not the only one. In their review of David Gelles’ Mindful Work, the Financial Times hits the nail on the head:

“Is mindfulness really a neutral instrument that can be used for any end — or is it inextricably bound up with the elimination of selfishness, the cultivation of compassion and the rejection of materialism? And might not promoting mindfulness among one’s employees be a bit risky as a result — because if one succeeds, they might stop bothering with anything so trivial as profits?”

Writing in the wake of a protest action against the Wisdom 2.0 conference, a pair of professors cut deeper, accusing the event’s corporate hosts of selling a hollow “McMindfulness”:

“Many in the mindfulness — and Buddhist — community have been seduced by what Google and the Wisdom 2.0 crowd is doing. After all, it’s mindfulness, and maybe it will make corporations kinder, gentler capitalist entities. But mindfulness has escaped its moral moorings. Without a principled anchor, mindfulness is a renegade technology on the loose, and the conspicuous absence of an explicit ethical framework in corporate mindfulness programs reflects and mirrors the already fraught relationship these businesses have with regards to social and environmental responsibility. […] What they insist on calling ‘wisdom’ does not extend beyond corporate cultural values.”

Focusing on the more explicitly Buddhist aspects of mindfulness, Salon recently addressed the turmoil within this movement:

“Most American converts still see Buddhism as a path to individual spiritual development through meditation. Few convert groups focus on building fellowship and camaraderie, engaging families or getting involved in their local community. Even fewer regularly do service work, much less activism. In that environment, groups like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and Buddhist Global Relief often struggle for support.”

Most damning, Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh – likely the single person on the planet most responsible for the spread of mindfulness – had this to say about his tradition’s new business suit:

“If you consider mindfulness as a means of having a lot of money, then you have not touched its true purpose. It may look like the practice of mindfulness but inside there’s no peace, no joy, no happiness produced. It’s just an imitation. If you don’t feel the energy of brotherhood, of sisterhood, radiating from your work, that is not mindfulness.”

The current adoption of mindfulness in business is wrapped up in the idea of the “quantified self”, an individualistic outcropping of the corporate habit of foisting difficult decisions onto (often questionable) statistical models. Research has made discussing meditation socially acceptable amongst the self-serious. With data in hand, mindfulness is no longer woo-woo: there is a chart, and the line on the chart goes up and to the right, and so the monk is given a badge and pointed towards the office cafeteria.

I do not, as I said, begrudge anyone their mindfulness practice. If you are meditating because adding ten additional IQ points appeals to you, or you want to shave a few minutes off your daily programming tasks, there is no harm in those goals. I’ve enjoyed such benefits from my own practice.

Mindfulness is so much more than a performance enhancing tool, though. If that’s what you’re searching for, you’re better off with caffeine; there’s better data on it, anyway. A mindfulness practice can bring clarity and focus, but it should also raise questions. Questions like: “why do I want to be better at my job?”, “who benefits if I’m more productive?”, and “does my labor reduce suffering more than sitting in mindful contemplation?”

As I’ve progressed in my career, my mindfulness practice has progressed as well. No coincidence, then, that I find myself more radical and questioning of our capitalist system at an age (and in a tax bracket) that’s most commonly associated with creeping conservatism. I credit my practice not just for helping me to survive the stresses of work, but for putting that work in context. Sometimes, that new context has led me to serious reevaluations of my priorities.

One of the first things a new meditator learns is that sitting in contemplation is not always pleasant. Your body may ache, and you are forced to feel it. Your heart may ache, and there is nothing to distract you from it. We sit with our suffering, and in doing so we foster the empathy that lets us genuinely engage with the suffering of others. If you have not yet had that experience in your own practice, you are fortunate, because it is there, waiting to transform you, when you’re ready.