New book

The appeal – and limits – of bringing spirituality to work


May 21, 2019

In many professional workplaces, mindfulness has become a seeming panacea. Its proponents argue that it will not only help workers de-stress and improve their health, but become more self-aware and self-actualized both in and outside of work. The argument goes that, by helping develop happy, healthy, and therefore more productive employees, the large companies, schools, public agencies, and other organizations will benefit.

Mindfulness meditation includes a wide-ranging set of contemplative practices aimed at training oneself to pay “attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally,” as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society. Mindfulness has been developed and differentiated in the course of being marketed by its proponents to a variety of organizations, from Ivy League universities to Fortune 100 businesses.

As the practices were moved into new institutions, meditators adapted the Buddhist-inspired practices to align with professional cultures and the structures of targeted institutions.

In a new book, I investigate where the mindfulness movement came from, and how the practice’s proponents made this Buddhist-inspired practice so popular among professionals of all stripes, and increasingly, the American public. I show how elite institutional entrepreneurs embedded in powerful institutions can mobilize a cultural movement, and rapidly spread new cultural practices and programs with the support of external movement organizations.

To investigate the spread of mindfulness across powerful social institutions in science, healthcare, education, business, and the military, I travelled around the country talking with leaders of the mindfulness movement. What I found was an elite cultural movement which, at times grandiosely, pitched mindfulness as a remedy to nearly any problem, ranging from individual stress to social inequality.

For employees who felt that in their workplaces it was uncommon to be able to bring their whole selves to work, including their spiritual, religious, and sometimes moral selves, mindfulness enabled them to press back against the Weberian institutional “iron cage,” and bring their personal morals and spiritual practices into their everyday work.

With the growing popularity of mindfulness, its proponents have also received other benefits they had not expected. For many, their mindful work actually helped propel career success, as it demonstrated their authenticity, sense of meaningfulness in their work, and intrinsic motivation to enhance their companies and organizations.

In short, this cultural movement fostered characteristics of the new elite, as described by the work of sociologists, such as Shamus Khan. Mindful work thereby helped propel its advocates into further career success, making this work a win-win for most of the leaders of the mindfulness programs with whom I spoke.

So where did this movement fall short?

Through a series of logical, sensible steps, the well-intentioned, elite-driven mindfulness movement began to stray from its public mission, as it adapted in manifold ways to appeal to other elites and the institutions it courted. In fact, it is not uncommon for some newer practitioners to express surprise, or even indignation, when confronted with the fact that many founders of early mindfulness programs rooted their programs in Buddhism or had sought activist-minded ends in the past.

While mindfulness’s impact off the cushion on the larger organizations and communities in which it is practiced remains to be seen, most mindfulness programs have yet to confront the many larger-scale social problems we face as a society.

It is also not clear that mindfulness programs have much of an impact on the larger organizations they are part of. In speaking with dozens of program leaders and mindfulness teachers, only a handful had any evidence at all that their programs’ impacts extended beyond the program’s direct participants and into the larger organizations they were a part of.

The impact of mindfulness practice, even among top CEOs and corporate leaders, is largely not trickling down into their larger companies and causing them to cut down expected work hours or loads or increase wages, which are the fundamental causes of the stress many Americans face today. While meditation practices may individually improve the lives of practitioners, and perhaps even those they regularly interact with, it is less clear how the practices lead to the collective action needed to address the complex social problems we face daily in our workplaces and in our democracy.

The mindfulness movement can be seen as both a success story, and as a cautionary tale, depending on the light through which it is viewed. Regardless on the side on which one falls, learning about the successes and pitfalls of this elite movement lends many lessons for both spiritual practitioners and scholars of cultural and institutional change, movements, and inequality alike.

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