I don’t really distinguish between meditation and my private life or meditation and work anymore. When I go to work, it doesn’t feel like my meditation practice is on hold. What that means is that I try my best to be present and skillful at all moments. My project managers call or come into my office all the time with a stream of challenges like “We’re a million dollars over budget,” or “The Egyptian limestone shipment has been delayed three months.” Often, unreasonable expectations from designers or clients are met with intractable obstacles. Each of these situations requires mindfulness and beyond mindfulness, they require some kind of insight. What exactly is this person — a project manager, an owner — trying to say? So the practice starts with listening, then slowing down and asking: how can we help in this situation? Because it’s always about helping. Whatever the challenges, we talk about them and find the best path to resolution. The running joke in the office is, “So we’re all good, then!” And that’s how we move forward — we’re good, we can solve this, it’s not a problem. One of my teachers used to say that problems are promises, right? If we didn’t have problems, we wouldn’t have a business. Construction would be easy, everybody could manage it. But in fact, construction at our level is inherently problematic. Thousands of people are working on these big projects and stuff goes wrong all the time. Deliveries don’t happen, things come in the wrong size, there’s miscommunication…
As a part of my series about leaders who integrate mindfulness and spiritual practices into their work culture, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bart Mendel. He is the founder and president of Stonemark Construction Management. Headquartered in Los Angeles, Stonemark is a leading construction management firm in Southern California with a focus on unique and challenging commercial projects, upscale residences, multi-family, and sacred spaces.
Besides construction, Bart is passionate about meditation. He has studied and practiced under the guidance of some of the world’s most accomplished meditation masters. A meditation teacher himself for many years now, Bart and a small team created Mindworks, an app/website, that provides access to outstanding, transformative teachings on how to apply meditation in daily life.
Thank you so much for joining us Bart! Can you please share your “backstory” with us?
I became an entrepreneur by working myself up through the ranks. I started as a tradesperson in the construction field and with each project, I’d discover something new. I learn best by doing, by figuring out things as I go. From the trades, I became a general contractor doing small remodels, then moved on to larger commercial projects. I found that my business skills and general aptitude naturally gravitated towards a bigger view, so I became an owner’s representative and construction manager. My firm oversees the entirety of projects from land acquisition, selection of the professional team, design and entitlement, all the way through to construction and completion of complex commercial and high-end residences, generally valued at $25–100 million and more.
Meditation is an integral part of every aspect of my life. My practice gives me the tools to better work with my mind, particularly in demanding situations, regardless of what’s coming at me. I’ve studied with some of the best meditation teachers in the world and in my twenties, I lived at a meditation center in New England for three years. Over time, I became a meditation teacher myself.
For many years, I kept my meditation practice and work track separate — one was my personal life and the other my professional life. Over the years they’ve naturally become intertwined and now beneficially inform one another. My practice has led me to be more genuine. It inspires me to engage in clear communication and skillful means that form the basis of a successful business. Similarly, my business experience makes me a better teacher because I truly understand how to apply meditation to real-life situations that can be very challenging.
What role did mindfulness or spiritual practice play in your life growing up? Do you have a funny or touching story about that?
When I was young, I felt there was something missing in my life — a sense of meaning or purpose. Growing up in Dallas as an upper-middle-class Jewish boy, I was interested in the spirituality of all kinds. I read every spiritual book I could get my hands on; I was shopping and looking for a guide.
When I was 20, I was traveling through Colorado and picked up a hitchhiker. We started talking and he asked me if I was a Buddhist. At that point, I identified with all major religions, so I said, “Yes!” He began talking about Buddhist teachings and great masters. I nodded along with him even though I had no idea what he was talking about. But he was so genuine and passionate that I met his teacher and ended up studying with him for many years.
How do your mindfulness or spiritual practices affect your business and personal life today?
I don’t really distinguish between meditation and my private life or meditation and work anymore. When I go to work, it doesn’t feel like my meditation practice is on hold. What that means is that I try my best to be present and skillful at all moments.
My project managers call or come into my office all the time with a stream of challenges like “We’re a million dollars over budget,” or “The Egyptian limestone shipment has been delayed three months.” Often, unreasonable expectations from designers or clients are met with intractable obstacles. Each of these situations requires mindfulness and beyond mindfulness, they require some kind of insight. What exactly is this person — a project manager, an owner — trying to say? So the practice starts with listening, then slowing down and asking: how can we help in this situation? Because it’s always about helping.
Whatever the challenges, we talk about them and find the best path to resolution. The running joke in the office is, “So we’re all good, then!” And that’s how we move forward — we’re good, we can solve this, it’s not a problem. One of my teachers used to say that problems are promises, right? If we didn’t have problems, we wouldn’t have a business. Construction would be easy, everybody could manage it. But in fact, construction at our level is inherently problematic. Thousands of people are working on these big projects and stuff goes wrong all the time. Deliveries don’t happen, things come in the wrong size, there’s miscommunication…
Even though most of my staff aren’t meditators, they know how I manage people and pick up on my methods through osmosis. I may not have a company full of meditators, but I do have a company full of professional, highly skilled people that know how to listen and solve problems.
Do you find that you are more successful or less successful because of your integration of spiritual and mindful practices? Can you share an example or story about that with us?
More. Here’s an example. I was working on a university faculty housing complex where a hundred PhDs lived — a widely disparate group of people. There were dozens and dozens of homes and all of them had been leaking since they’d been built twenty years back. My job was to create a project plan that would work within their many constraints. We had to come up with a creative solution and fix the homes — strip the exteriors, the windows, all the roofs, the stucco, etc. — while everyone was still living there. We made lots of compromises and came up with a great plan that could fit into their budget.
I periodically held town hall meetings to inform the residents about the project status. The meetings were difficult and often contentious. One professor systematically tried to challenge and discredit me in front of the residents — that seemed to be his m.o. At one meeting he proclaimed the stucco being used was the wrong chemical composition; from a physics and chemistry perspective, it wasn’t going to work. It would definitely create problems. He basically had no idea what he was talking about.
Instead of getting mad or upset, my practice was to simply listen to him. I never could have stayed calm and listened without the support of my practice. I honored his perspective and said that I would research it and get back to him. The outspoken professor needed to be heard; he wanted his intelligence to be appreciated in front of his peers, even though his comments didn’t make any sense.
The bottom line is that I was able to create consensus among this large, disparate group of educated (and challenging) professors and manage a project that was entirely successful — and that was due in large measure to my meditation practice and the insights that arise from it.
What would you say is the foundational principle for one to “lead a good life”? Can you share a story that illustrates that?
Be genuine to yourself. You don’t need to twist things for your own benefit; you can just be who you are — a genuine human being — and ethics and dignity will come out of that. So, to me, “leading a good life” has to do with learning to trust your fundamental moral fiber, a basic human characteristic that pervades how you live and has to do with ethics and honesty. Everybody has this moral compass, but people who cheat others aren’t connected to it.
Authenticity and trust come from a basic sense of integrity and basic integrity comes from being who you genuinely are. Meditation practice gives you the tools to access and develop this.
Can you share a story about one of the most impactful moments in your spiritual/mindful life?
Some of my most impactful moments involved meeting exceptional Buddhist teachers back in the 1970s. The teachers who influenced me early on were incredibly wise, powerful beings, but what really blew me away was their kindness; I was deeply inspired by the vastness of their minds and their ability to manifest kindness. It was so palpable, so tangible; when you were near them, you could feel it. It was as if you were carrying a burden and walked into a room and somehow that burden was shed, just by virtue of their presence.
Experiencing that made me think: who wouldn’t want this? Who wouldn’t want to train their minds to develop those qualities, even in some small measure? Those early encounters determined the entire trajectory of my life.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’d been meditating for a long time when I founded Stonemark twenty-two years ago. My company quickly began attracting challenging projects along with very demanding clients. Our projects are always difficult!
Back in the beginning, it really wore on me to constantly deal with the exacting demands of my clients and the problems associated with their difficult projects. When something went wrong, they’d invariably blame me. Whatever it was, it was always the construction manager’s fault. One day, I was complaining to one of my teachers about how I spent all of my time, all of my energy dealing with this string of problems, but I really wanted to have a simpler life, maybe just meditate and teach. “No!” he said. “You should make your business bigger! You should expand and take on more and more difficulties!”
It was a bit shocking to me because up until that point, I had resisted what was naturally happening. The fact was, I had a talent for diffusing situations and creating a kind of sanity, calmness, and clarity in bringing complex projects to successful completion. But I was tense because I had been taking complaints personally.
I realized I could relax more with the process. It wasn’t personal; my clients were upset about something and I could actually help them. Once I’d made that transition in my outlook, my business grew organically. I don’t lose sleep over projects at this point and it isn’t because I don’t care — I deeply care. But I understand these situations come and go and I can deal with them on the spot through mindfulness practice and applying insight.
Can you share 3 or 4 pieces of advice about how leaders can create a very “healthy and uplifting” work culture?
In terms of positive work culture:
1) Base your business on integrity;
2) Create an environment of safety where mistakes are allowed and not penalized;
3) Never compromise your principles;
4) Learn how to listen, because what people say and how they act can be misleading; it isn’t necessarily what they mean.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I feel fortunate to have received expert guidance from the meditation teachers I’ve met; they’ve been incredibly generous with me. Meditation has really helped me in my life, both in terms of business success and in giving me a tremendous sense of well-being and purpose, of meaning and joy.
I want to give back to the world what I’ve received: an opportunity to practice meditation so that it becomes transformative. To that end, our team created Mindworks, a non-profit app, and a website that makes meditation accessible and helpful in everyday life. We’ve gathered some of the best meditation instructors from around the world to present instructions in a methodical and relevant way.
If you can maintain your meditation practice and bring it with you into the world, you will experience a better way of being and will be of great benefit to others. That’s the movement I’m hoping to inspire.
How can people follow you and find out more about you?