Working from the Inside Out

More and more companies are incorporating meditation and mindfulness practices. Do they know something you don't?
February 18, 2013

Janice Marturano says she never considered herself a “New Agey type.” She had never practiced meditation. In fact, she says she needed to understand the neuroscience behind it to appreciate it. But during a particularly stressful period in her tenure as a member of the General Mills corporation’s legal team, she attended a retreat conducted by meditation pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Marturano came away from the retreat amazed by “the extraordinary power of stopping, of noticing how much of the time I was living my life on autopilot, and of beginning the journey to explore this largely untrained capability of the mind.”A General Mills vice president who was equally impressed with the training asked Marturano to develop a course that could be offered to more employees. In the six years since, hundreds of employees have gone through the Mindful Leadership program that Marturano helped create.

General Mills, the Minneapolis-based manufacturer of mainstream food products from Wheaties to pizza rolls, may not seem a likely place to find employees involved in meditation-related programs. But companies worldwide are increasingly incorporating the use of meditation and mindfulness into their human resources toolboxes—to boost productivity, improve leadership skills, combat the rigors of high stress and its deleterious effect on employee health, and foster innovation. Apple Computer, Target, Deutsche Bank, Raytheon, Reebok, Hughes Aircraft, Starbucks, Xerox, IBM and Aetna International are among 44 major corporations adopting some measure of mindfulness practice, according to the independent information website Mindfulnet.org.

In 2008, General Mills opened its retreats to people worldwide and has attracted business, nonprofit, education and military leaders from more than 60 organizations.

“In my 15 years as a vice president at General Mills, I worked alongside leaders from every sector of our community and from many different disciplines,” says the 55-year-old Marturano, who recently left the company to found the nonprofit Institute for Mindful Leadership. “These were people with bright minds and warm hearts who went to bed most nights exhausted by hectic schedules, yet also feeling that they could do more or be more innovative but they didn’t have enough time or space.”

People trained in mindful leadership use practical applications of it throughout the day to begin to discern what is important, rather than simply reacting to what is the loudest, Marturano says. She can cite many instances of increased efficiency and creative room “to find the innovative answer rather than a check-the-box reaction.”

Through her New Jersey-based institute, Marturano hopes to spread the leadership curricula she developed at General Mills to all sectors of society. “It is the fundamental training of the innate capacities of the brain that allow each of us to be more focused, see with greater clarity, be more creative and act with greater compassion,” she says. “Those who embody mindful leadership are most likely to make the choices that are a win, win, win—good for the employees, good for the organization, good for society.”

The “Being” and “Doing” Minds

In simplest terms, embracing mindfulness is a process, broadening awareness of our bodies and how we absorb the world around us. Using breathing techniques, a mindfulness participant ultimately learns to observe this activity without thinking about it.

While seemingly simple, the first steps can seem daunting to the overstimulated brain. Sitting in a comfortable position, participants are asked to shut their eyes and begin to notice the physical sensations their bodies are experiencing and the many thoughts bouncing through their brains.

Marturano defines mindfulness as “intentionally paying attention in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” She acknowledges the inherent difficulties: “Being present is quite a complex assignment in a world and global economy that measures time in Internet seconds, conceives of the past as the most reliable tool for analyzing and assessing how to proceed into the future, is increasingly interdependent and relational, and dedicates little or no time toward the development of presence in its leaders.”

Sarah Silverton, an occupational therapist and counselor working for the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice at Bangor University in Northern Wales, describes the differences between the “being mind” and the “doing mind” in The Mindfulness Breakthrough: The Revolutionary Approach to Dealing with Stress, Anxiety and Depression (Watkins Publishing, 2012).

“It is our ‘being mind’ that allows us to explore and be present with details of our experience, either when we are still or when we are doing something,” she writes.

“Someone swimming for fitness, for example, might be using their ‘doing mind’ to count the lengths that they had swum and keep an eye on the time, alert to achieving the required number at the right pace. If the same swimmer was using their ‘being’ mind, they would experience the swimming itself, noticing the feel of their body as it moved through the water, seeing and hearing what was going on around them.”

At work, operating in our “doing mind,” we may make task lists and constantly worry about completing them while a frantic day swirls around us, but that may prevent us from absorbing the full details about our environment. The goal of mindfulness is to learn how to most effectively choose where to focus our attention, allowing a rich and challenging experience, Silverton says.

The difficulty for many of us is in disengaging our “doing mind,” she says. This can create stress. “We find ourselves being busy and doing when it isn’t needed. We can feel driven and find it hard to switch off because our ‘doing mind’ keeps telling us that job isn’t completed yet. Becoming aware of which mode of mind we are using through mindfulness practice allows us the choice to switch to the mode most suited to the task.”

Stress Soup

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (part of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that stress-related ailments cost companies about $200 billion a year in increased absenteeism, tardiness and the loss of talented workers. Between 70 and 90 percent of employee medical visits are linked to stress, and job tension is directly tied to a lack of productivity and loss of competitive edge, the institute reports.

Elissa Epel, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, specializes in stress research. “We all respond to the same situations so differently—in our thoughts, the nuances of our emotions and our physiological responses,” she says. “And each of those channels is not even tightly correlated. One can have a big emotional response but small physiological response. So stress is a complex and fascinating nut to crack. It’s the response to things in our life that determine long-term health.”

People experience good stress when they feel control and see an opportunity for some good to come out of a situation, Epel explains. “Toxic stress is an overwhelming situation we can’t control. If we keep our stress response elevated for too long, that causes wear and tear on our body. If we can turn off the response and have quick recovery from daily insults—no sweat, literally—we can live through the inevitable stressors in life, like surfing the waves without going under, although we all go under some of the time.”

While stress is unavoidable, our resilience to it can be improved through exercise, social connections, and cultivating mindfulness and positive psychological states, Epel says. Mindful awareness and relaxed breathing can change the “stress soup” inside of us in healthful ways.

Working with 2009 Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., Epel has focused her research on a piece of DNA called the telomere at the very tip of each cell’s chromosomes. A telomere shrinks each time a cell divides, which is indicative of aging. Highly stressed people also tend to have shorter telomeres, research shows.

“Telomeres index the insults of life,” Epel says. “They register both psychological and chemical stresses. They shorten over time and predict early onset of diseases of aging.”

The good news, according to Epel’s and Blackburn’s research, is that meditation practices can help by boosting levels of telomerase, a substance that protects the telomeres. In their study, they monitored the brains, bodies and behavior of 60 people who were put through demanding computer-based perceptual and attention-gauging tasks. The participants were split into two groups with one group instructed in the art of shamatha (“calm abiding”), a series of methods for enhancing one’s attention such as mindfulness of breathing. At the end of the retreat, this group showed telomerase levels 30 percent higher than those in the control group. Even when a cell’s chromosomes have short telomeres, “if it has telomerase, it’s going to go on living,” Epel says.

Finding the Core

Molecular biologist Kabat-Zinn, an early pioneer in the study of mindfulness, was the founding director of the University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society. His groundbreaking works include best-sellers Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (Dell, 1990) and Wherever You Go, There You Are (ROUGH CUT) (Hyperion, 1994).

Kabat-Zinn explains that some of the lessons of mindfulness include “learning how to stop all you’re doing and shift over to a ‘being’ mode, learning how to make time for yourself, how to slow down and nurture calmness and self-acceptance in yourself, learning to observe what your own mind is up to from moment to moment, how to watch your thoughts and to let go of them without getting so caught up and driven by them, how to make room for new ways of seeing old problems and for perceiving the interconnectedness of things.”

Now 68, Kabat-Zinn began practicing meditation at age 22. During his long career, he has worked with medical care professionals; athletes, including the 1984 U.S. Olympic rowing team; and corporations. (It was his retreat that changed Marturano’s thinking and led her to create the General Mills program.)

“To cope effectively with work stress as an individual practically requires that you look at your situation with eyes of wholeness, no matter what the particulars of your job may be,” Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living. “It helps to keep things in perspective if you ask yourself from time to time, ‘What is the job I am really doing, and how can I best do it under the circumstances I find myself in?’… We may find ourselves resisting innovation and change and becoming overly protective of what we have built because we feel threatened by new ideas or requirements or by new people.”

In one of many sessions he has conducted for the information search company Google, Kabat-Zinn acknowledged that meditation is still considered outside the mainstream and that many people find something “weird about stillness or about silence or self-reflection.” In science, however, “it’s not what you know; it’s what you are willing to know you don’t know.” He uses the example of how you may be working and working on something, banging your head against the wall and unable to find a solution. Only when you stop and clear your head does the answer come to you.

“Sometimes it might be called intuition; sometimes it might be called creativity.... I call it awareness,” he says. “For me, meditation is an act of love, of sanity.… We’re talking about befriending our mind.” He compared the mind to the Pacific Ocean: Even at its most tumultuous, reacting to atmospheric conditions, the Pacific has a gentle calmness always present if you learn to dive down 20 or 30 feet.

He jokes about his work being much ado about almost nothing. Since meditation involves “non-doing” it might at first blush seem “awfully anti-American,” Kabat-Zinn says, “since we’re such go-getters and it’s all about doing and getting it done. But if we get out of touch with who’s doing the doing, actually, that can be quite tragic.”

Google and the Jolly Good Fellow

Kabat-Zinn became a regular fixture at Google, participating in a program for employees called Search Inside Yourself. The program was developed in 2007 by Chade-Meng Tan, an early Google engineer who credits Kabat-Zinn as being “the first person to bring mindfulness into mainstream modern culture.”

Tan grew into a human resources role after distinguishing himself with what started as a joke. “A few years after I joined Google, the company grew big enough to have ‘career ladders,’” he says. “The highest-ranking engineer in Google (equivalent in rank to vice president) is a Google Fellow. I wasn’t a Google Fellow, but I joked, ‘Why be a Google Fellow when you can be a Jolly Good Fellow?’ Everybody laughed. So as a prank, I sent in a request for ‘Jolly Good Fellow (which nobody can deny)’ to be printed as my job title on my business card. It turns out the people in HR also had a sense of humor: They approved my request. Later on, when that job title was mentioned on the front page of The New York Times, I got stuck with it.”

“I eventually became the first engineer in Google’s history to leave the engineering department and join People Ops (what we call our human resources function) to manage this and other personal-growth programs,” Tan writes in his related book, Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace) (Harper One, 2012). “I am amused that Google lets an engineer teach emotional intelligence.”

Tan’s curriculum focuses on three steps—attention training, self-knowledge and self-mastery, and the development of beneficial mental habits. He cites anecdotal evidence that his Search Inside Yourself program has had a major impact on many Google employees. “Some participants said they got promoted because of the skills they acquired in Search Inside Yourself,” he says. “Others reported meaningful changes in their personal lives, such as improved quality of their marriages. A few told me they noticed improvements even in their physical health. I haven’t figured out how to measure the impact of Search Inside Yourself on Google as a whole, though.”

To make the program accessible outside Google, Tan co-founded the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI, pronounced “silly”). “So far, we have been approached by dozens of organizations, including companies, schools, hospitals and government bodies,” he says. “There is a lot of interest and excitement.”

Tools to Manage Life

Former Honeywell and Medtronic executive Bill George knows firsthand the power of mindfulness. Now a Harvard professor of management practice, George devised an elective in Harvard’s master’s of business administration program called Authentic Leadership Development.

“The practice of mindful leadership gives you the tools to measure and manage your life as you’re living it,” George writes in the October 2012 Harvard Business Review blog. “It teaches you to pay attention to the present moment, recognizing your feelings and emotions and keeping them under control, especially when faced with highly stressful situations.”

George says Harvard is challenging its students to think hard about their definition of success, to view it as making a “positive difference in the lives of their colleagues, their organizations, their families as a whole.” The former executive vice president at Honeywell first discovered in 1988 that although he was professionally successful, he was “deeply unhappy.”

“When you are mindful, you’re aware of your presence and the ways you impact other people,” George writes. “You’re able to both observe and participate in each moment, while recognizing the implications of your actions for the longer term. And that prevents you from slipping into a life that pulls you away from your values.”

Google’s Tan says the most surprising benefit of mindfulness is “how it extends to practically every aspect of life.”

“In a way, it is like physical health and fitness,” he says. “If you are physically healthy and fit, then every aspect of your life improves as well. Mindfulness increases both mental health and fitness, so in a similar way, when you are strong in mindfulness, every aspect of your life improves as well, ranging from work performance, self-confidence and a general sense of happiness.”

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