I am part of the problem. In 2008, I founded a mindfulness-based training company and for the last decade I’ve taught awareness as a business skill in over 50 countries to employees at multinational corporations. What I do is part of the issue that some long-time meditation and mindfulness practitioners are concerned about and critical of, and rightly so.
The issue of concern is that mindfulness teachings (in and out of professional spaces) are being “watered down” from their Buddhist foundation. The critics are right, and the concerns are valid, as that is happening. Yet at the same time it is the (responsible) watering down of the teachings that are making the content more accessible for people looking to solve, end or reduce apathy, discontent or what the Buddhist tradition would call “suffering”.
Having taught audiences who have never heard of mindfulness, (and who are told to be in the room by management) I’ve found the starting place has to be approachable basics. A math teacher doesn’t begin with algebra – they begin numbers, then move on to addition and subtraction. It is easy for experienced teachers, or by those in the consciousness community no longer in teaching roles, to forget that each teacher and student started somewhere, and likely his or her first drink was indeed watered down.
From my perspective as a teacher specialized in audiences who have little if any awareness of these practices, if the content isn’t somewhat distilled then less people would be willing taste it, let alone take second drink, and it’s only by tasting it that those who are thirstier will be called to drink more deeply. Simply put if one does not know there is a difference choice, how are they ever to make it? And if the modern day “watering hole” is no longer a church or a spiritual center but a place of work, then why not bring the water to where the well is low?
The modern way of life has shifted and it’s now in the workplace that many people learn emotional intelligence and softs skills, making teaching mindfulness a natural extension to support learning and development programs. The mindfulness movement within corporate cultures is a multi-million-dollar industry often referred to as “McMindfulness” having infiltrated the high-tech industry and now making its way to more mainstream Fortune 500 companies and the industry is expected to exponentially grow in the next decade. Even calling it an industry is at issue with many long-time practitioners and teachers and feels odd to me as well.
Being part of the industry, and at the same time conflicted about it evolving as an industry is precarious place to teach from, as I want to both honor and respect the depth of the traditions from which the core principles of modern mindfulness are built upon and at the same time develop programs that people will be open to and discover choice within. It’s not easy, I make compromises as do many of my peers, for example, replacing the word meditation with attention and Sangha with peer groups. Yes, these are minor shifts in language however the impact to such shifts can not be known.
As I ponder the absurdity that the core elements of Buddhism (kindness, compassion, contemplation) is an industry, it leads me to ask the bigger underling question; how did we get to a place where there is an industry and there is a need for companies like mine to teach people to be nicer to each other and themselves?
The marketplace for the corporate mindfulness industry is guided by two motivations. Some corporations seek to implement these types of programs to improve a metric or advance performance score card. For example, they are looking to reduce attrition, improve work-life balance or improve management performance, there is box that needs to be checked and mindfulness training programs are a “new” way to help leaders check that box.
The downside to this is when a company’s motivation is more of the box checking nature it can contribute to the “watering down” of the content. Experienced and inexperienced teachers, (and teachers without a strong peer network), are all at risk of diluting the content at the request of a paying client. I am no exception, when I wrote my foundational program a decade ago it was 2-days long, now I have a 4-hour version of the same content. Sure, I’ve become a more effective teacher and I also removed content that was “too deep” or “too spiritual” for a secular audience at the request of clients and based on feedback from participants.
Other companies are motivated to implement mindfulness-based training because they are committed to creating a specific type of culture. For example, one that will enhance and build employee awareness, accountability and wellbeing. In these cases, the motivation to implement is more altruistic in nature.
This dichotomy used to really bother me, at times I would feel a bit demoralized helping leaders who only wanted to check a box, I felt it denigrated the content in some way. I wanted the leaders I was working with to care as deeply about improving the human experience as I did.
My world view slowly shifted the more feedback I received from participants. One past participant shared with me how the tools he learned helped him mend a rift in his marriage and another person shared some practices he learned with his family and they began to have conversation they had not had before about values and expectations. Other shared they felt more compassion from their peers and others realized how great they had it with the team and company where they worked.
It was then I realized, the motivation of a company to implement these types of programs doesn’t matter because the impact to the people in the program is what matters. With the impact being people are exposed to new tools and new choices to help them create a future that is different from the past – regardless if the make the choice to try the tools are not.
So it’s all true, the teachings are being watered down, the motivation to “learn” (implement) is at times a bit misguided, teachers sometime make choices about content based on payment and not all teachers have a deep well from which they teach. I’m part of the problem and I also hope part of the solution. I market my programs and books and give short mindfulness as a Band-Aid style talks where I share too optimistically about the science that is still in its infancy. And I also I do my part as a teacher to deepen my teaching well, I have a disciplined daily practice, I attend silent retreats yearly, I study with non-secular and secular teachers and right now I’m in a program at UCLA obtaining a certification in secular science-based meditation training.
Being a mindful awareness teacher is my calling, not something trendy to teach, or a business that is easy or convenient to develop, (because it is not) it is just my way-of-life, one I feel called to share with others in the event these practices I’ve learned might bring joy or ease to others in and out of professional spaces. There are millions of people that have no awareness around what mindfulness awareness is, let alone that a different choice exists for how to “be” in the world. For these people, my programs and others like them are a “gateway drug” to the presence of a new possibility for navigating the complexity of being human in this digital and dynamic modern world.