15-13 Story 2: Mindful Work: Meditation and Business


Synopsis: We’re always hearing about how everyone is stressed these days, that we have too much to do and too many people asking for a moment – or more! – of our time. What can we do to keep our bosses happy, our clients needs fulfilled and ourselves from pulling out our hair? We talk to two men who have found that meditating can help workers become more productive, less stressed and happier overall.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guests: David Gelles, business reporter, NYTimes, author of “Mindful Work: How meditation is changing business from the inside out.” Allan Lokos, founding and guiding teacher of the Community Meditation Center in NYC, author of “Through the Flames: Overcoming disaster through compassion, patience and determination.”

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Mindful Work: Meditation and Business

Marty Peterson: Corporations are always looking for ways to increase productivity and creativity in their employees, and reduce stress for better work outcomes. These days “mindfulness” classes are taking their place alongside team building outings and coffee bars at the office. They seem to be doing the job for many workers, but how? What is it about mindfulness and meditation that reduces stress and helps someone be better at their job? We spoke to two men who are specialists in those areas. David Gelles is a business reporter for the New York Times and author of the book, “Mindful Work: How meditation is changing business from the inside out.” Gelles says that mindfulness is a way to stop and think in the often chaotic business world…

David Gelles: Mindfulness is often described as paying attention in particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally. And I know that sounds like quite a mouthful, but when you actually just break it down, it’s about being right here right now instead of getting lost in thoughts about the past and dwelling about the mistakes we may have just made, or obsessing about the future and worrying too much about everything we have to do. Instead it’s about being right here, right now, taking care of the task at hand.

Peterson: But doesn’t business also require you to think ahead? To make plans for the future? If you’re thinking only about the moment, how can you do your job?

Gelles: This isn’t saying that we shouldn’t think, or that we shouldn’t plan ahead, or that we shouldn’t engage in very critical thinking from time to time, or that we shouldn’t work fast. I’m a mergers and acquisitions reporter for the New York Times. I’m paid to respond quickly when news breaks. But what mindfulness can do is when we’re actually in the moment doing that work, I can do it well, I can do it better, actually I find, when I’m actually focused on just doing that, instead of when I’m trying to do my work also getting obsessed about, well what are people going to think about this work? Or the last time I did it my boss was not so pleased with me, so I better do it differently this time. It can all be tremendously distracting from actually just getting the work done.

Peterson: Allan Lokos says it’s not difficult to start to meditate if you are determined. Lokos is the founder and guiding teacher of the Community Meditation Center in New York City, and author of the book, “Through the Flames: Overcoming disaster through compassion, patience and determination.”

Allan Lokos: It has to do with how deep one’s interest goes. No, I don’t think it’s difficult to sit down and close one’s eyes and begin to bring awareness to the sensations of the breath. However, almost immediately, you will notice that that’s not so easy.

Peterson: Lokos says that our minds are used to jumping around from thought to thought and distraction to distraction – a state that meditators call “monkey mind”…

Lokos: Now the process is retraining the mind. When the mind wanders we’re going to bring it back to that object of concentration. And over time, we can develop what’s called “a single pointed focus.” And when I say “over time,” there’s no way of measuring how long that time is going to be. For some people, it might be a matter of weeks; for others it might be a few months. And there’s also no way of saying at what point one has developed a level of concentration that’s really going to be useful in the practice. We’re looking for a level of concentration in which we pretty easily notice when the mind has wandered and we easily bring it back.

Peterson: Gelles says that learning “mindfulness” in the business world is a bit different than traditional meditation that’s come down through the ages from the Buddhist religion…

Gelles: That’s one of the things that’s the things that’s so curious is exactly how they’re weaving these together and how someone can make the transition from one to the other. So I go to both, personally, because I have an interest in both. And in a more formal Buddhist settings there’s going to be all sorts of ritualistic trappings that you would never, never find in an office environment. And that’s largely for the good. I think that if people just started to teach Buddhism in the office, you wouldn’t get a lot of attendees, I suspect.

Peterson: So how does it work in real life? Gelles says that it’s benefitted some Fortune 500 companies such as General Mills. He recalls how their Deputy General Council, Janice Marturano, was stressed out during the merger process, and turned to mindfulness to help her focus on the job at hand…

Gelles: Several years ago she was working on the 10-billion dollar acquisition of Pillsbury, and this took a year. There were some anti-trust concerns in Washington and so regulators nearly blocked the deal, and she spent a better part of a year there fighting with regulators. On top of that professional stress, in the midst of this, both of her parents died. So there was this personal blow that added to it. And she got back to the office after this grueling period and she was just depleted, she had nothing left in the tank – she couldn’t find energy, she couldn’t find motivation. Eventually she began practicing mindfulness and in a bit of a turnaround she essentially got the step back and got going again at work through mindfulness practice. She found that it made her less compulsively dwelling on the grief that she was still experiencing. It’s not that she ignored it, but it wasn’t hanging up. And she was also able to focus more at work, and perform at a higher level.

Peterson: Not only does mindfulness help at the office, Gelles says it changes people’s behavior in other areas of their lives…

Gelles: Many people say that mindfulness has improved their home lives as much, if not more, as how it’s impacted their work life. They report, and I’ve heard these stories over and over, that it’s made them get along with their spouses better, that the time they spend with their children is more meaningful. And that the little fights, the little squabbles, that for so many of us kind of define the landscape at home, just the little moments of bickering that are all too common in some domestic relationships, they tend to evaporate when people begin practicing mindfulness in a meaningful way. And that’s largely because, again, you’re a bit more self-aware. So rather than just snapping back, reverting to old patterns and old habits and just falling back on that ready impulse to just snap back, people actually stop, pause, consider the appropriate response and it may be to respond just a bit more compassionately.

Peterson: As Gelles said, in many instances the practice of mindfulness can make for happier employees. Lokos cautions that it’s not just a matter of bringing meditation into the office and having everyone take a class…

Lokos: If the motivation and the intention is about creating a more pleasant work space, a more pleasant atmosphere, more compassionate thinking toward our employees and employers, then I think we’d be using this practice well, and its potential, I think, would then be revealed. However, if we’re using motivation thinking that “well I’ll get employees to mediate and therefore I’ll make them more productive and they’ll want to work harder,” then I’d be careful. Because I think that intention is very significant. If intention is missing, we can create greater concentration, we can create greater awareness, but without a good, wholesome intention, we’re not going to create mindfulness.

Peterson: So how do you know if you’re doing meditation or mindfulness right? Lokos says that it’s not important to work toward a goal of “doing it right”…

Lokos: There really isn’t such a thing. There really isn’t a doing it right and doing it wrong. It’s just a matter of doing it. And that’s kind of foreign to our western minds because we’re very much a result-oriented society. So you say on one level, “Why should I do this if I’m not trying to achieve some sort of result,” or as you just said “I’m doing it right”? Well sure there is an overall goal in mind, whether that goal is to bring greater abiding happiness to my life and to those around me, or to deal with anger that seems to be more present than I would like, or impatience. But in the actual practice we have to leave those goals alone and just sit and work on the practice.

Peterson: In his book, “Through the Flames,” Lokos tells how meditation and Buddhism helped him heal after being severely burned in a plane crash in 2012. As the subtitle of the book says, he learned how to overcome this disaster through compassion, patience and determination – the feelings that Gelles says he has also cultivated by practicing meditation and mindfulness…

Gelles: Mindfulness I’d like to think has affected just about every facet of my life. When I spend time with my 11-month-old daughter in the morning, I tend to be truly present with her. And it’s very easy for me to catch myself when I’m, my mind’s wandering, if you will. At work, I do my best — I’m not always successful — but I do my best to both focus and be very attentive and be “at” my work and “present” at doing my work when I’m actually here. And I also try to be a bit kinder and more compassionate with myself when things don’t go so well, I try not to beat myself up about it. And finally, I also try to be a bit more caring and kind with the people I engage with on a day-to-day basis, be they my spouse, or my colleagues, or my friends, or my parents. And we’re all trying to do the best we can, and I find that mindfulness helps me potentially take it easy on my own self, and kind of give people the benefit of the doubt.

Peterson: You can find out how mindfulness and meditation have helped David Gelles and read the stories of how it’s being used in some of the biggest corporations in the country in his book, “Mindful Work, “ available in stores and online. He also invites listeners to his website at David G-e-l-l-e-s.com. To learn how one man overcame a horrific disaster in his life with the help of Buddhism and meditation, pick up Allan Lokos’s book, “Through the Flames,” also in stores and online. You can also find out more about Allan and his accident on his website, Allan L-o-k-o-s.com. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.