“Deep breath. Feel the air fill my lungs” are the first words of Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir What Happened. In the months after the 2016 election, Clinton gave more thought than usual to breathing. She tried alternate nostril breathing, she told Anderson Cooper on CNN last September, gamely demonstrating how to inhale through one nostril, hold, and exhale on the other side. She drew a long breath as she took her seat at Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. As early as the primaries, Clinton was incorporating quick bytes of calm into her day. “You don’t have to just sit with your legs crossed in some quiet room” to gain “a sense of relaxation and groundedness,” she explained in April 2016. “Literally, you can do it on a plane, or in a car, or waking up in the morning.”
These techniques belong to the practice of mindfulness—an art of paying attention and finding peace. Clinton herself is far from the first politician to try it. In 2013 Davos hosted a mindfulness training session for world leaders, and the next year Ohio Representative Tim Ryan convened a “Quiet Time Caucus,” to instill mindfulness in Congress. Meanwhile Eileen Fisher, Bill Ford, and the late Steve Jobs (who famously took a few moments’ silence to prep for Apple product launches) have applied mindfulness to business leadership. There is a growing audience for such teachings: the recently launched Mindful magazine had garnered 85,000 subscribers as of 2016. By the beginning of 2017, Headspace—the most popular among a host of app offerings—had been downloaded over 11 million times. Clinton’s memoir only marks how far mindfulness has traveled into the mainstream.
Many Americans are now learning to meditate at the office. From Aetna to General Mills to Google, corporate America has bought into mindfulness in a big way, rolling out employee training programs across its campuses and promoting mindful leaders to top positions. These efforts, which gained momentum after the crash of 2008, have coincided with the most precipitous decline in fortunes Americans have seen since the Great Depression—a period of layoffs, outsourcing, and the casualization of labor. Workers who held on to their jobs experienced what journalists Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein have called “the great speedup.” Under pressure to do more with less, Americans struggle to complete an ever-expanding to-do list during ever-expanding working hours without an increase in pay. For many, staying in work has required a fundamental change in lifestyle: In 2002 just 8 percent of employees checked email before arriving at the office. Today 50 percent deal with email before even getting out of bed.
When the nature of work changes, companies reward new ways of feeling about it. The rise of white-collar work in the 1950s birthed the risk-averse organization man, whose highest values were loyalty and orderly conduct. The deregulation of the 1980s made virtues of aggression and ruthless competition. The new economy is characterized by instability and disruption; its ideal worker is calm in the midst of it all, productive and focused. The mindfulness training his company offers isn’t so much a perk as it is the means of turning him into a new type of person. He can work all weekend, multitask frantically on Monday morning, and reset mentally just by breathing in and out on his lunch break. His employer is not just the center of his overflowing, unpredictable working life but the center of his simple, dependable spiritual life too.
Does this leave the mindful worker any better off? There’s little to object to about the practice of mindfulness itself, which Thomas Joiner defines in his new book Mindlessness as an “awareness of the richness, subtlety, and variety of the present moment.” But in the workplace, meditation and calmness initiatives can perpetuate intolerable conditions by creating a culture of acceptance. Encouraged to see their general wellbeing as separate from their economic wellbeing, mindful employees concentrate their efforts on cultivating the first, not the second. This can keep them from noticing how intimately the two are in fact linked, how abundantly job anxiety spills into the rest of life. If happiness lies within, then the lack of happiness is a purely personal matter, and work can’t be the problem.
In its early days, corporate mindfulness training was the preserve of the highest tier of management. With roots in Buddhist traditions, mindfulness had begun to shed its religious associations in the 1970s when Jon Kabat-Zinn—its most prominent teacher today—established a clinic for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction at the University of Massachusetts. The practice is beguilingly simple. Introductions to mindfulness typically recommend sitting with closed eyes and concentrating on how it feels, the flow of air in and out of the lungs, the rising and falling of the chest. Carrying associations with compassionate, open-minded people, mindfulness held the potential to aid a company’s image and make its leaders look friendlier.
Monsanto led an early experiment with mindful leadership in the late 1990s, during one of the lowest periods for the company’s reputation, when Monsanto was criticized for developing “suicide seeds” that could not reproduce (a technology they ultimately dropped) and for contracting farmers to buy new seed each year. As David Gelles of the New York Times describes in his 2015 book Mindful Work—the most thorough account to date of corporations’ use of mindfulness—it was Bob Shapiro, the company’s new CEO, who brought meditation to the multinational. In 1996, he took fifteen top employees to a three-day workshop in Kalamazoo, a plan that nearly fell through when the environmentally conscious instructor hesitated to deal with a company she saw as “a villain in the world.” Though Gelles praises the program as “the most ambitious corporate mindfulness program at that time,” and suggests it made executives more “open,” in truth it had accomplished very little when it was scrapped in 2000. Monsanto “was more responsive to its critics for a time” but ultimately “didn’t abandon GMOs”—or, one might add, its aggressive stance toward farmers.
Big, company-wide mindfulness programs came later. These initiatives aimed to do more than cultivate a friendly image; they focused on managing employees’ emotions. Janice Marturano, who was deputy counsel at General Mills in the 1990s and 2000s, had gravitated toward one of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s retreats after going through a particularly difficult period in her life. When General Mills acquired Pillsbury in 2001, it was her job to navigate a labyrinth of anti-trust regulation, a task that stretched over eighteen exhausting months. Over that same period, both of her parents died. As Gelles tells it, the mindfulness tools Marturano brought back from the retreat enabled her to regain her mental resilience and keep calm in high-pressured meetings, a trait her colleagues admired. In 2006 she developed a curriculum for General Mills employees, launching their first program and inspiring many more in other companies. Sessions can last two hours, including yoga, group discussion, and poetry readings. Today every building on the General Mills campus has a room for mindfulness practice.
The origin stories of corporate mindfulness initiatives are big on executive heroics. Fresh from weathering a personal crisis, a kind-hearted visionary feels moved to spread the relaxation and focus among her co-workers, unleashing all manner of bottom-line-friendly good vibes. Aetna’s Mark Bertolini turned to mindfulness after a ski accident nearly killed him in 2004, and left him managing chronic pain. Overcoming his injuries to ascend to CEO in 2010, he instituted a yoga and meditation course at the health insurance company, which has so far been offered to a third of its nearly 50,000 employees. Bill Ford, a scion of the automotive manufacturing company, faced a different challenge when he went into the family business. “An environmentalist and a practitioner,” he asked himself, he told Gelles, “how could I maintain my sense of humanity while still working there?” Though Ford didn’t establish a program for employees, he practiced mindful leadership, meditating every day as he determined to face challenges “with a sense of compassion and loving-kindness.”
Companies argue that mindfulness training programs and the guidance of mindful leaders make employees feel better about their work. One measure of success is uptake: hundreds of Adobe employees have enrolled in the in-house program Project Breathe, 1,500 Intel employees participated in Awake@Intel, and Google’s Search Inside Yourself has a waitlist numbering thousands. Another measure is efficiency. Aetna invited Duke University to measure the results of its program: savings of $2,000 a year for each employee in healthcare costs, and productivity gains of $3,000 a head.
After his visit in 2012, Gelles described the “humane atmosphere” at General Mills’s headquarters, where employees seemed “decidedly more relaxed” even amid layoffs. At Ford too, Gelles noted a more compassionate corporate culture. As Bill Ford oversaw layoffs, “some of the fired employees would write the CEO letters”—not in anger but to express their thanks for happy years.
It’s hard not to notice how often corporate mindfulness aligns seamlessly with layoffs. Between the beginning of the financial crisis and 2010, Ford let go of over 15,000 employees. Just months before Gelles visited General Mills, the company announced that it would cut 850 jobs, including over 400 from the Twin Cities’ 3,000-strong campus. In the years since, the company has suffered several rounds of layoffs, cutting another 1,400 jobs in 2016. Mark Bertolini’s appointment as Aetna CEO followed three successive years of cuts, as enrollment dipped during the financial crisis. Some 1,700 took early retirement in 2011, and at the beginning of this year Aetna looked to cut up to 4,000 more positions. While mindfulness is often pitched as a perk of the newly compassionate corporation that values blue-sky thinking, employees need a sense of calm too when their employer is flailing. Those productivity gains—an extra sixty-nine minutes of focus per employee per month—count for more when the ranks are thinning.
Both Gelles and Kabat-Zinn see mindfulness as a valuable coping strategy for precarious times. Only 47 percent of Americans today are satisfied with their jobs, Gelles reminds us, while work-life balance has been “blurred beyond recognition,” and uncertainty and economic insecurity are rife. For him, mindfulness is about adapting to the new normal, and salvaging some joy from it. “By bringing mindfulness to work,” he writes, “we can change the way that boss affects us, and change how we respond to the prospect of tough hours on the job.” Kabat-Zinn is more of an evangelist. Recovery, he says, “is not just a matter of bailouts, stimulus packages, and magically creating confidence in the economy. We need to create a different kind of confidence and a new kind of economics . . . Mindfulness can help us open the door to that.” Neither considers how a culture of calm and acceptance might actively interfere with workers’ ability to resist unreasonable demands at the office, or to organize for a better deal in the new economy.
To be sure, well-implemented programs may actually bring employees measurable health and lifestyle benefits, as the study at Aetna showed. But advocates for mindfulness at work do not take stock of what the pacified workforce might be missing out on. “A cult of mindfulness,” David Brendel, an executive coach, cautioned in an interview with the Boston Globe, “could actually replace more tangible employee benefits.” Companies that offer their employees yoga and breathing exercises may neglect “actual stress reduction, with more flexible work hours, more vacation, more collaborative and less hierarchical work structures.”
Time and again we read that mindful companies aren’t perfect, but that they’re better for their employees and for the world than most. General Mills still sells “junk food to kids and empty calories to adults,” David Gelles has written, but the people are friendly. Ford vehicles still burn fossil fuels, but the firm avoided being hated like the tobacco industry. Between “invading people’s privacy at one turn” and “snuffing out competitors at the next,” Google has hardly lived up to its own motto “don’t be evil.” But its embrace of mindful culture, Gelles concludes, shows it hasn’t “lost touch with its idealism.” Companies, too, need to tell themselves uplifting stories about the way of life they create. In mindfulness, they’ve found their new way of feeling.
Laura Marsh is literary editor of the New Republic and a contributing editor at Dissent.