Ancient Wisdom Practices and the Next Economy

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - It’s not often in the middle of the workday, or at a business conference, you see a circle of colleagues in suits participating in a session of meditation practice. But that is exactly the type of activity some organizations, such as Google, are beginning to use to empower and de-stress employees. How much can this practice contribute to shifting organizations to the next low carbon economy?
Dr. Bronwen Rees, Director, Centre for Transformational Management, at the Lord Ashcroft International Business School in the UK, recently presented her research on mindfulness and business management at Sustainability Applied 2013 in Mississauga, ON, hosted by Bloom Centre for Sustainability. She also got everyone doing sitting and walking meditation—an interesting shift out of ‘standard work mode.’ Listening to Dr. Rees, there is a fit between the collaborative, circular economy we need in future and the practices of focused attention and awareness found in Buddhism and other spiritual paths.
The benefits for companies of supporting and encouraging employees to meditate at work include less conflict, greater sensitivity and compassion by employees towards clients, increased creativity, and awareness of context. Being able to step back and literally breathe at work can allow people to calm down and think before acting – and that can arguably lead employees off autopilot and towards making an ethical or sustainable choice. This nicely fits with ethics programs like Giving Voice to Values, which teach values-based leadership skills.
Dr. Rees introduced Google as a good example of an organization using this tool to benefit employees. Rich Fernandez, Senior People Development Lead, and long-time mindfulness practitioner in his personal life, introduced the practice and found there was huge interest by their busy Silicon Valley staff. To date 4,000 Google employees have taken mindfulness, wisdom or well-being programs at work. Well-known practitioners Thich Nhat Hahn and Eckhart Tolle have also visited the office. There are meditation rooms at work and videoconference meditation sessions called ‘meditation hangouts.’
In a high performance culture like Google, successful take-up of such an ancient practice means telling employees ‘what’s in it for them,’ according to Fernandez. “People in high functioning organizations like to think of themselves as high functioning…so anything to accelerate that is going to be…attractive to them. So, for example, instead of a mindfulness course we might call this ‘achieving peak performance’ or ‘optimising productivity through mindfulness practice . . .’  They need to see how these practices really relate to day-to-day life or organizational performance,” Fernandez describes in an interview with Rees.1
While it’s clear that mindfulness practices are a proven way to help employees feel and function better, the through-line to organizational change for sustainability is blurrier. 
Can a practice that is intended to be the one goal-less moment in a demanding workday, clearing the mind briefly of temporal thoughts, be shouldered with the major task of change? Fernandez argues that, “moralistic calls for practice, such as: ‘Let’s all meditate so we can transform society’—these make it unappealing for people to take up these practices.”2 Therefore, the link between meditating employees and a low carbon company may simply be one of healthier people making healthier and more aware/contextualized business choices over the course of time.
Dr. Rees notes that we are in the middle of a huge evolutionary leap globally, the likes of which has not occurred since 500 BC – an “interregnum between empires.” A tool popularized by Buddha can also help us at this time of environmental, economic and communications transition. As Gil Friend, another Sustainability Applied speaker, noted later in the conference, major change is coming and we can have a hard or soft landing. Mindfulness seems a good tool to soften and accelerate the transition.
1,2 Rees, B. (2013). Wisdom and mindfulness as tools of organizational practice at Google, Interconnections, 9, 49-59.