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Mindfulness moves from the monastery to mainstream

By David Gee

Less stress. More focus. Increased productivity. Better health. How about that little list for some new year's resolutions? According to lots of mental health experts, and some hard data, mindfulness can help anyone achieve those things. If you just put your mind to it!

“Over the past few years, mindfulness has begun to transform the American workplace,” says business writer David Gelles in his book "Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out." “Many of our largest companies, such as General Mills, Ford, Target, and Google, have built extensive programs to foster mindful practices among their workers."

Where The Journey Begins
Many years ago Gelles traveled to India and learned how to meditate. After spending nearly a year living in monasteries and going on silent retreats, he returned to college and eventually became a business journalist.

“But even as I wrote about Wall Street for the Financial Times and The New York Times, meditation remained an important part of my life,” recounted Gelles in a phone interview with me. “Then a few years ago, I started to hear stories about office workers meditating on the job. I was curious, and even a bit skeptical about whether office workers could really be mindful like the monks I knew in India? Soon it was clear that the answer was yes and I wanted to detail how mindfulness works in and for the companies that adopt it, revealing the profound impact mindfulness can have on the world of work.”

Gelles says meditation is simply a way to train the mind. "Most of the time, our minds are wandering — we’re thinking about the future, dwelling on the past, worrying, fantasizing, fretting or daydreaming. Meditation brings us back to the present moment."

It’s estimated that around eight percent of the American population, or around 18 million people, meditate either daily or with some regularity. That’s not necessarily a mass movement, but as cover stories in TIME, the Scientific American and dozens of other media outlets indicate over the past couple of years, the mindfulness movement is definitely visible on the national radar.

In the book Gelles states that mindfulness lowers stress, increases mental focus, and alleviates depression among workers. He also offers real-world examples of how mindfulness has benefited companies that have adopted it; from the millions of dollars Aetna has saved in health-care costs to the ways Patagonia has combined leadership with mindfulness.

Hard Data
There is research to back up those claims of health benefits. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, suggests that practicing meditation may reduce blood pressure, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression, insomnia, and the incidence, duration, and severity of acute respiratory illnesses (such as influenza).

Results of studies also suggest “that people who practiced meditation for many years have more folds in the outer layer of the brain. This process (called gyrification) may increase the brain’s ability to process information. And a review of three clinical studies suggests that meditation may slow, stall, or even reverse changes that take place in the brain due to normal aging.”

Overall, about a third of U.S. health care consumers reported using complementary therapies such as yoga, herbal products, acupuncture, meditation, massage and chiropractic care according to a national survey.

Some scientists however have reportedly argued that much of this research has been poorly designed.

To address this issue, some Johns Hopkins University researchers “carefully reviewed published clinical trials and found that although meditation seems to provide modest relief for anxiety, depression and pain, more high-quality work is needed before the effect of meditation on other ailments can be judged.”

Everyone Can Be Mindful At Work
Research and hard data aside, Gelles says from his own personal experience he knows that mindfulness and meditation can help make offices and factory floors around the world a bit more humane, a bit gentler, a bit more kind. And he says anyone can do it, and everyone can benefit.

There are many ways to cultivate mindfulness at work, he says, from walking during the day to taking purposeful pauses when eating. One of the most reliable ways is simple meditation.

“Meditation isn’t just for white-collar executives or eccentric tech companies in Silicon Valley,” Gelles told me. “It’s something that can be valuable from the boardroom to the factory floor, in multinationals and small businesses alike. Finding time to practice mindfulness at work isn’t easy—as with any new discipline, it takes dedication and practice. But for those who commit to becoming more mindful at work, the benefits can be profound—less stress and more focus are just some of the regular benefits I achieve with a meditation practice, and others can as well. The growing mainstream acceptance of meditation and mindfulness amazes me and I expect it to continue.”

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