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Thich Nhat Hanh, Google, and Right Mindfulness

In the world of corporate mindfulness, Google -- which is so ubiquitous that its name is synonymous with "search online" -- has an equally impressive teacher: Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay, as he is known by followers, has sold more than 2 million books in the U.S. and is deeply admired and respected.

He recently spoke to The Guardian about his message to Google and other tech companies.

It doesn't matter, he said, if companies begin promoting mindfulness to make their workers more effective of increase profits. If they are practicing "true" mindfulness, it will fundamentally change their perspective, opening the door to greater compassion.

"If you know how to practice mindfulness you can generate peace and joy right here, right now. And you'll appreciate that and it will change you.

In the beginning, you believe that if you cannot become number one, you cannot be happy, but if you practice mindfulness you will readily release that kind of idea. We need not fear that mindfulness might become only a means and not an end because in mindfulness the means and the end are the same thing. There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way."

Thay's optimism that mindfulness will transform business people rather than corporations transforming mindfulness isn't universally shared. David Loy and Ron Purser write that   "McMindfulness," the watered-down, stress-relieving version taught in some companies, is not what the Buddha intended.

According to the Pali Canon (the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha), even a person committing a premeditated and heinous crime can be exercising mindfulness, albeit wrong mindfulness. Clearly, the mindful attention and single-minded concentration of a terrorist, sniper assassin, or white-collar criminal is not the same quality of mindfulness that the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist adepts have developed. Right Mindfulness is guided by intentions and motivations based on self-restraint, wholesome mental states, and ethical behaviors -- goals that include but supersede stress reduction and improvements in concentration.

Their essay was published on The Huffington Post, whose founder, Ariana Huffington, a meditator herself, wrote there about using yoga and meditation to reduce work stress. "I do want to talk about maximizing profits and beating expectations -- by emphasizing the notion that what's good for us as individuals is also good for corporate America's bottom line."

Huffington pointed to Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, who practices yoga and meditation. Bertolini was paid $30 million in 2013. How can you be mindful of $30 million? Aetna is headquartered in Hartford, Conn. If you head a few miles east, you'll come to Bolton, a town whose entire budget is less than $20 million.

Thay told the Guardian that if executives are in the practice for selfish reasons, then they are experiencing a mere pale shadow of mindfulness.

"If you consider mindfulness as a means of having a lot of money, then you have not touched its true purpose," he says. "It may look like the practise of mindfulness but inside there's no peace, no joy, no happiness produced. It's just an imitation. If you don't feel the energy of brotherhood, of sisterhood, radiating from your work, that is not mindfulness."

As he puts it: "If you're happy, you cannot be a victim of your happiness. But if you're successful, you can be a victim of your success.

... What is the use of having more money if you suffer more? They also should understand that if they have a good aspiration, they become happier because helping society to change gives life a meaning."

But how is suffering understood in these corporate environments? Or happiness? Do these meditators get the idea that happiness cannot be found in impermanent, material things but only from within?

Here's Huffington: There's nothing touchy-feely about increased profits. This is a tough economy, and it's going to be that way for a long time. Stress-reduction and mindfulness don't just make us happier and healthier, they're a proven competitive advantage for any business that wants one.

Mindful competition. So much for releasing the idea of being No. 1.

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Maybe it'll all work out

Thanks for the post Nancy.

I guess I'm torn between disliking the idea that corporate America is co-opting the language and practices of buddhism and hoping that it has some positive impact, regardless of corporate intent.

Putting my value judgments aside, I wonder if this is theoretically different from encouraging employees to go to the gym and eat right (which many of these corporations do). Being active and eating good food keeps you healthy, energized, and focused - and exercise supposedly stimulates creative thinking, etc. All of this is good for corporations and their bottom line - while also being good for the individuals involved. Maybe it could be the same for this corporate mindfulness movement. Who knows, maybe come CEOs get down with mindfulness and some things start to change around here...yay for wishful thinking.

That said, I will add this: if this kind of thing were done involving any other religion's practices people would be losing their minds. Corporate prayer would be attacked by the Left - and striping some particular Christian spiritual practice (I can't think of a good one to use as an example) of it's religiousness in order to promote improved worker habits would have the Right screaming at us from our TVs. Our society's love of looking at buddhism as if it's not a religion, but simply something from which to cherry-pick fortune-cookie-like wisdom, is frustrating.

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