Mindfulness Misunderstood: A Process, Not a Product

The Perils of Discounting Empathy and Compassion

Photo Credit: Radachynskyi Serhii/Shutterstock
Photo Credit: Radachynskyi Serhii/Shutterstock

Author, professor and longtime Zen devotee Ron Purser questions the value of mindfulness in general and in the corporate setting in particular. Purser asks, what if mindfulness, instead of teaching people to change the world, instead teaches them to tolerate injustice and inequality? Can mindfulness be an instrument of corporate compliance?

Purser envisions mindfulness as a personal, intellectual pursuit, and argues that encouraging individuals to learn to mitigate their personal stress functionally relieves corporate entities of the burden to support their workers’ well-being. This understanding of mindfulness is incomplete and incorrect. Mindfulness divorced from the body, as Purser presents it in The Nation, is not mindfulness. There is no mindful life without the embodied experience: the breath, the pause, the observation, the ceaseless rhythm of tension and release that accompany mindful practice.

His attacks on “mindfulness merchants” as “very rich, very elite white men,” are true, but do not present the full picture, and could not be more opposite to our experience at Kripalu. (We sadly acknowledge the misdeeds of too many male leaders.) Additionally, Purser’s challenge to the credibility and trustworthiness of scientific evidence, which he does not cite, refute or argue in any particular, contradicts more than a decade of clinical research at Kripalu, which links mindfulness meditation with positive psychological changes including a significant reduction in stress and significant improvement in resilience. The work of pioneering mindfulness advocates, including MIT-trained Jon Kabat-Zinn and others, supports these findings.

We at Kripalu believe in the power of embodied mindfulness to shape culture for the better. We have seen it, time and again, in settings as diverse as youth-detention facilities and first-line law enforcement, where familiarity with mindful practices has changed how people respond to crisis, effectively altering how organizations consider and reshape their response to stress. While attention to the bottom line may surely drive many corporate decisions – perhaps the motivation is a corporate desire to retain millennial employees or the ability to bill insurance providers for wellness services – the outcome is unarguably positive: People who breathe together learn to co-exist in a new way, and in so doing, come to see each other and themselves with fresh eyes – opening the opportunity to relate and build a human community in parallel with the corporate setting they inhabit.

Most vitally, however, we expand Purser’s narrow conception of mindfulness as a set of practices divorced from the body to include embodied compassion and empathy, integral parts of the process and practice of mindfulness. Without the embodied experience – the breath, the pause, the observation, the tension and release – mindfulness becomes an intellectual parlor game. Without the embodiement of compassion and empathy, Purser’s “mindfulness” is blind to human diversity and becomes, as he predicts, the province of rich elites.

Our commitment to improving this troubled, complicated world is micro and macro, individual and organizational. We educate individuals as well as corporate and nonprofit leaders who are similarly committed. Mindfulness is, at bottom, the process of becoming more deeply connected to the self, with the goal of self-observation without judgment. From that clear, seeing place, we can see others – without judgment or preconceptions, experience compassion and empathy, and foster positive growth.

Mindfulness is not a zero-sum game, one that lets corporations win by placating their naïve and exhausted workforce. People are smarter than Purser suggests, from his own elite perch. People who learn and practice mindfulness understand that it is a lifelong pursuit with benefits and “wins.”. The benefits of mindfulness resonate across structures and systems – beyond the bottom line and the c-suite. The compassion and empathy that are foundational to mindfulness take root independent of the motivations of corporate leaders, and yield benefits that are not limited to dollars and cents.

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