Wildmind Meditation News
May 31, 2011
Management as meditation
Dominique Haijtema: Your mind is like a wild buffalo.” This comment from a Buddhist meditation leader in Sri Lanka struck a chord. When I first heard it years ago, though, it didn’t work for me to sit still and concentrate on my breathing. And today, I still can’t calm my head. The thoughts tumble over each other. Did I call back the client? Have the invoices been sent?
I sit in an uncomfortable chair in a beautiful classroom in Amsterdam’s center. It’s the first day of a 10-week course, “Resilience for Managers,” in which meditation exercises play an important role. The group of managers is diverse and comes from the business world and the government sector. The motivation for attending varies from problems with stress and tension to the desire to gain insight into a radical company reorganization.
Meditation and mindfulness are essential for management, says course teacher Rob Brandsma, founder of the Dutch Institute for Mindfulness and Management. “How you deal with your emotions and thoughts as a leader has a direct effect on employees and organization,” he explains. “By meditating, you learn how to deal with stress and take your mind off things. It has to do with discovering consciousness and performing activities, such as meetings or listening, with more attention, whereby you function less on automatic pilot.”
More and more businesses and managers are becoming interested in meditation, according to Brandsma. The word no longer conjures images of vagueness or flakiness, but is increasingly seen as a practical method Read the rest of this article…
Many view meditation as a way to keep calm, cool and collected in uncertain times. According to Time magazine, 10 million people meditate daily in the U.S. No hard figures exist on the number of businesses that offer meditation. However, organizations such as Google, Deutsche Bank, AOL Time Warner and Apple let workers meditate. Meditation’s role in maintaining physical and mental health is also increasingly backed up by scientific research. According to researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, meditating regularly results in lower blood pressure and less insomnia. Using MRI scans, neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School found that meditation boosts the immune system, lowers heart rates and improves circulation. Golf star Tiger Woods and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson claim meditation is partly responsible for their sporting accomplishments.
Interest in the practice in countries like Norway, Australia and the U.K. is picking up, too. According to research from the Identity Foundation, even in conservative Germany, 10 percent of managers consider it “body building for the brain”; whereas sports train the body, meditation trains the spirit. The cliché image of Indian hippies and incense persists, according to Susanne Hauptmann, a German meditation teacher and yoga instructor who works with businesses, but once people give mindfulness a try, they’re usually convinced. “The positive effects, like relaxation, are quickly noticeable,” she says. Managers in particular report that meditation helps them achieve greater insights and make better decisions.
The advantages of meditation for business are clear. In 2008, the University of Wisconsin reported meditation not only improved concentration, but fostered feelings of friendliness and empathy. In 1988, Bengt Gustavsson at the University of Stockholm proved it enhanced the cooperation and communication of management teams. Meditation’s role in stress reduction is crucial for companies, too, since stress-related absenteeism is a big cost to business. Researchers from the American Institute of Stress estimated that stress costs businesses in the U.S. $300 million a year due sick days and lost productivity.
Jack de Graaf, manager of safety, health and environment at the Dutch biopharmaceutical company Centocor in Leiden, is doing research with Leiden University on the effectiveness of employee sport and meditation programs. Centocor, which has about 1,000 employees, offers on-site sport and relaxation exercises, such as meditation. De Graaf’s research found that only the relaxation exercises had a positive effect on well-being and absenteeism. While the sports program was mainly useful for employees who were already fairly healthy, according to De Graaf, the program for mindfulness and meditation was popular among employees with stress-related complaints. “Meditation might be laughed about, but there was definitely interest, not only from managers but also from production workers,” De Graaf says. “If I have 1 percent fewer absences as a result [of meditation], then … as an organization you can’t say no to that.”
R.W. “Buck” Montgomery is a long-time believer in the business benefits of meditation. He instituted regular meditation sessions at his Detroit chemical manufacturing firm in 1983. Within three years, 52 of the company’s workers, from upper management to production line employees, were meditating 20 minutes before they came to work and 20 minutes in the afternoon on company time. Within three years, absenteeism fell by 85 percent, productivity rose by 120 percent, injuries dropped by 70 percent, sick days fell by 16 percent—and profit soared by 520 percent. “People enjoyed their work; they were more creative and more productive” as a result of the meditation breaks, Montgomery says. “I tell companies, ‘If you do this, you’ll get a return on your investment in one year.’
If the advantages of meditation are so evident, why isn’t my course for managers in Amsterdam sold out? Seven of us are participating; the organization had hoped for 14. Those taking part don’t want to give their names or titles either—not because of any negative connotations around meditating, but because they don’t want to be seen as having stress-related issues.
Brigitte van Baren understands their reticence. She’s a Zen master and founder of Inner Sense in Laren, a leafy town outside Amsterdam. Inner Sense offers leadership training in the Netherlands, Germany and England, with mindfulness a core part of the instruction. “‘Meditation’ is still a loaded word and is still too much associated with religion,” says Van Baren. “I prefer to speak of attention training, mindfulness and meaningfulness. Managers and businesses can deal better with these concepts. If you call it ‘learning to focus’ instead of meditation, it’s the same thing, but it sounds less flaky.”
In India, managers aren’t as shy about combining management and meditation. Meditation is, in fact, seen as an essential part of leadership. Apoorva Lochan, director of the recruitment and training firm Cerebral Solutions in New Delhi, meditates daily for 90 minutes, something he believes everybody should do. Meditation makes him less reactive and gives him a broader perspective, Lochan says. “I don’t let myself get as crazy from stress or negative results. I am more patient with my employees, but also with my children at home. Cutting back on meditation in times of stress is about the dumbest thing you can do. I am convinced that meditation is one of the best investments an organization’s leader can make.”
Nevertheless, Van Baren has noticed less investment in meditation during the recession. This ultimately backfires, she believes, because work pressure and the resulting stress increase even more. “Before a meeting, if managers first take a couple of minutes to be still and focus on what is most important to them,” she says, “they will get results faster.”
How managers deal with stress and tension, according to Van Baren, is determined by an organization’s culture. If a manager leads by example and regularly creates an atmosphere of quiet and rest, it has a direct effect on employees. It will still take time before meditating is as normal in a business setting as, say, drinking a cup of coffee, but Van Baren is optimistic: Meditation is “becoming increasingly normal and people have more of a need to be meaningfully busy and to have balance in their lives.”
Meditation isn’t an easy fix, though. It requires discipline to train yourself in silence and attention, especially for managers, who are focused on “doing” rather than “being” or “feeling.” Often it isn’t the work or colleagues who cause the stress, the Institute for Mindfulness and Management’s Brandsma observes; it’s our thoughts, ambitions and judgments. Work will always be stressful, so the trick is not so much to eliminate stress but to deal with it effectively and productively.
In a 2008 documentary produced by the Institute for Mindfulness and Management, Jon Kabat-Zinn, former director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, explains it well. “You can’t stop the waves, but you can surf. Organizations are living organisms comprised of people who deserve and need real attention.”
Back in my mindfulness course in Amsterdam, we lie on our backs with our eyes closed, directing our attention to different parts of our bodies. Everyone seems to react differently to the exercises. Some people fall asleep; I become restless and feel the urge to move around.
There is no right or wrong way to meditate, according to Brandsma. “Try to observe without judging,” he says. “Look at which patterns you have discovered in order to deal with difficult situations. Many people are stuck in patterns in which they see no solutions, while sometimes they only have to take a step back or concentrate to understand what they’re about.”
During another exercise, we have to listen to someone for 10 minutes without interrupting, asking questions or reacting in any way. It proves challenging. We’re so accustomed to steering conversations and focusing on what we’ll get out of our encounters that we find it hard simply to listen to another person. Ten minutes of full, uninterrupted attention is difficult. “Everything must have to do with something or be of some use,” says one of the managers. “Just doing nothing is just not done. And so we often speak, work and live in a thoughtless way and miss many beautiful experiences.”
Of course, you can’t obligate managers to mediate, just as you can’t command someone to be spontaneous. The entire effect of meditation relies on willingness and openness. Mindfulness isn’t a recipe for instant problem solving, in professional or personal life. To relax, we need patience, trust and time, according to German meditation teacher Hauptmann. “Whoever thinks that meditation is a waste of time will never have the patience for it,” she says.
And what about that wild buffalo my Sri Lankan meditation teacher talked about? We can’t turn off the noise from our thoughts, according to Inner Sense’s Van Baren, but we can bind the wild beast. “More than anything, meditation has to do with the taming of our spirit.”