Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).
David Gelles is staff writer for the New York Times and its business blog, DealBook, and was previously a correspondent for the Financial Times. He has practiced meditation regularly for more than a decade since he studied the technique while living in India. He’s written a book titled Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from the Inside Out. Gelles spoke with Stew Friedman about how caring for one’s mind and spirit through mindful meditation is changing the business world — for the better.
Here are excerpts from their conversation:
Stew Friedman: David, you’ve been a well-known business reporter, how did you first come to mindfulness?
David Gelles: Well it was actually as simple as picking a book off a book shelf. I was in college at the time, I knew I was going to be studying Eastern religion and the current semester I was home on vacation and there was a book about Buddhism. I picked it up I started reading and for the first time something started to make sense.
SF: Let me just jump I here for a second David; what book was it?
DG:I don’t remember; I wish I did. It was like an introduction to Buddhism. There’s nothing specific about meditation in Buddhism but this was my first introduction to meditation. I went home and I started meditating the very next day. A year later I moved to India and spent a better part of my junior year in college there. So that was my introduction. But that was 15 years ago and a lot has happened since then.
SF: A lot has happened to you for sure but also to our world. So you were referring to what happened to you or to the world or both?
DG: I was referring to both and to mindfulness. It has emerged as a truly secular practice something that is very different from the things that I studied in India. And personally I have been on my own career journey and my own personal journey and I have discovered that mindfulness, not necessarily Buddhism, but mindfulness is a powerful technique that I can use that helps me maintain wellness in a job that is, at times, as you say, high stress.
SF: Let’s start at the beginning of this conversation by defining what you mean by mindfulness because that is a term that has become widespread in the business world today; what is your definition?
DG: Mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment, on purpose, in a particular way, and non-judgmentally. It is being here, right now in the present moment. Not dwelling on the future, not getting lost in thoughts of the past. It is just paying attention, in an accepting way, to whatever is happening right now.
SF: Be here now” is what Baba Ram Dass said 40 years ago when I was in college.
DG: It is still the same.
SF: So that is mindfulness; simply paying attention, without judgment, to what is happening in you and around you?
DG: Exactly; it is as simple as that and yet, of course, innate as that capacity is in all of us, it is not always easy to achieve. Our minds are conditioned to run a million miles an hour. It is easy to distract ourselves. So it is simple but not necessarily easy.
SF: So what is the greatest challenge to be able to truly attend to the moment? What have you discovered and what have you learned as you were bringing these ideas to a much broader public?
DG: The most basic challenge is our wandering mind and that is something we all contend with even as we are just trying to get our work done. How often have you been in a meeting and you think you are paying attention, you think you are participating in the meeting and the next thing you know you hear noise you have no idea what anyone is saying because you are thinking about work, or you are thinking about your child after work? The mind wanders and so mindfulness, as a practice, is something we need to cultivate through years of practice.
SF: What is that effort?
DG: Mindfulness meditation is the practice of trying to cultivate that state of being and it always happens through meditation. So a simple way that we practice that is just by coming back to ourselves; picking a sensation, something like our breath, air passing in and out of our nostrils, our diaphragm rising and falling with each breath, and trying to focus on the physical sensations of it. You just notice those sensations. When the mind wanders, as it inevitable will, just notice that the mind has wandered and then just simply bring your attention back to the breath. It is as simple as that.
SF: And how much time do you spend as a novitiate, someone just learning to practice this on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis? How long does it take to get to a sense of it, if not mastery?
DG: I am still working on it myself. Mastery I can’t speak to, but as for impact, there are studies that show that as little as ten minutes of meditation a day can have an impact. Other studies show that more intensive periods of training, several hours per week over the course of several weeks can have a long lasting impact even long after one has stopped meditation. For myself, my practice has varied widely. I have a 13 month old daughter and a pretty demanding day job so I would be lying to you to say that I sit on a cushion for an hour or even 30 minutes every single day at the exact same time. I feel fortunate that I have been practicing for 15 years now and try to incorporate the basic teachings from that practice into my daily life and also bring in the various little hacks that I have made that allow me to come back to the breath, come back to the present moment, in shorter periods many times during the day. And that is actually pretty effective, too.
SF: In your new book you are claiming that mindfulness is changing the business world; how is it changing?
DG: In remarkable ways. Small businesses are reviewing their corporate hierarchy; they are making progressive choices about sustainability, about how they source products, about labor decisions, about how much they pay people. Bigger companies are doing the same thing but on a much greater scale. I wrote about Mark Bertolini, the CEO of the health Insurance company Aetna. Inspired by his meditation practice he introduced mindfulness meditation yoga to thousands of his employees. And also inspired by his insight as a practitioner decided to raise the minimum wage for many of his employees; so that is a sense of the range of what happens when people start to meditate and bring it in to their business decisions — things start to change.
SF: People start to act in ways that are more compassionate, as in the case of this CEO, is that what you are saying?
DG: Absolutely. Yes, and how is it that focusing on our own breath can somehow make us more compassionate to other people? We find that when we begin to practice, our own struggles, our own suffering is not so different. You start to realize, through meditation practice, it’s possible to let go of the struggles and the sufferings with all the people with whom we interact, with all the people that we employ. One of the insights that many meditation practitioners have is that we have the opportunity, and maybe even the responsibility, to try to alleviate that suffering in other people.
SF: There’s a sense of a greater awareness of the interconnection among all things; a kind of spiritual awareness that comes from focusing on one’s breath and seeing it as a part of a larger universe of living things.
DG: That is exactly right and isn’t it extraordinary that something like a greater sense of the interconnectedness of humanity, and maybe even our planet and ourselves, is something that can come out of wellness practices that are being introduced at big fortune 100 companies around the country?
SF: So this gets why has mindfulness and meditation become such a popular activity in so many different parts of our business society?
DG: That is a more complicated question. Businesses, as you well know, are quick to go on to the latest trends, the latest wellness trend that may appeal to their workforce. And this notion of mindfulness, which is a commoditized version of mindfulness and meditation, is around for a reason. Some businesses are probably acting too quickly, they are acting without totally clear intentions. And yet, I think a lot of businesses are doing it because they recognize that their employees are stressed and meditation can help reduce their stress levels and increase their health levels and that’s probably a good thing for the business and maybe even the bottom line.
SF: Can you give us a brief summary of what has been found in the research on the impact of mindfulness and productivity not to mention wellness and retention of people at work?
DG: Study after study, and the research that has been done over the last few decades, is quite substantial, and growing every day, indicating that mindfulness meditation can monstrously reduce our stress levels and that is not just on a self-reported basis, that means that our cortisol levels are reduced, our heart rate invariably goes down. Meditation can improve our wellness, our health; our immune systems are functioning at a higher level, things like cirrhosis can be overcome and healed more swiftly when people are practicing mindfulness meditation. Also, in some cases, mindfulness as you alluded to earlier actually makes people more compassionate and more empathetic. There’s a sociological experiment that shows that people who practice meditation and mindfulness are quicker to offer that chair to a person on crutches in the waiting room.
SF: So why aren’t more companies adopting mindfulness as part of their regular practice in employee development and training?
DG: It’s still early days. My friend Dan Harris, an ABC anchor, who wrote 10% Happier, says meditation still has a PR problem, meditation still has this new age, peculiar scented hippy connotation. And I frankly think that if there are people in the business who still have those perceptions then maybe it is not the right time for that business to try this. I am not here to suggest that every business needs to mandate meditation amongst employees. I am simply suggesting that for those businesses who think it might be beneficial, businesses that think that there are opportunities for their workers to become less stressed and healthier, then this is one good alternative, one good option for those companies that want to introduce practices like this.
SF: It doesn’t cost very much. It makes so much sense for an insurance company like Aetna to be investing in something like this because it is entirely congruent with what they are trying to do with their primary business. So you can see that for an insurance company or healthcare company it would be so much easier because it is in accord with what they are trying to do. It might be a little tougher in other settings where the connection is not so obvious, right?
DG: That’s right. It still again early days when we are talking about what place does contemplation have in capitalism but I think we are all trying to figure it out.
SF: There are a number of people listening who I am sure are thinking, this sounds great, how can I get started, what can you tell them David?
DG: If you personally have an interest in starting a group, a lot of the big programs I profiled actually grew organically, bottom up, individuals getting together just practicing meditation. All of a sudden there are dozens or hundreds of people participating and HR takes note and begins to support the project. For those people who might be managers or executives who have authority to introduce a big program, that is another way to do it. Big companies like Google have gotten their own programs started that way. So there are a lot of different ways. Also if it is not going to show up at work for you there are many opportunities in just about every city across the country to find introductions to mindfulness. Mindfulness brings stress reduction and it is the most popular and accessible introduction. I did a course which I wrote about it in the book and it is a wonderful way to get exposure to some of these practices.
There are apps like Headspace and eMindful making programs much more accessible within larger organizations. Some people say they like doing it this way because they don’t have to do it face to face with people. In a work environment it might be uncomfortable to own up to your colleagues that you are a meditator but these apps give you an opportunity to practice and develop this on your own.
SF: In the last minute here David, with your book Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business From the Inside Out what is your big idea; what impact are you trying to have with this volume?
DG: My hope is that, through the reporting and stories of other businesses in this book, people will see that mindfulness and meditation is an effective way to help reduce stress. It is not necessarily for everybody, but if individuals and organizations become a little bit stressed, a little bit healthier, a little bit compassionate, as you said, a little more empathetic towards one another, make better choices for themselves, for the environment, for their workers, then I think mindful work will hopefully have done its work to make this world a better place.
SF: Awesome, I strongly recommend it to our listeners.
To find out more about David Gelles and Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from the Inside Out visit www.davidgelles.com and follow him on Twitter @DGelles.