Mindful Work by David Gelles, Profile Books; Eamon Dolan Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt £12.99 ($27)
Is the practice of mindfulness and meditation ultimately compatible with the cut-throat ethos of capitalism? This is the dilemma at the heart of David Gelles’s intriguing, timely, and enjoyable new book, a fascinating account of the increasing adoption of these ancient oriental disciplines by western businesses as means of improving corporate efficiency, reducing employee stress, and, directly or indirectly, boosting the bottom line.
Gelles is a reporter for the New York Times and former Financial Times journalist who is also a long-time practitioner of mindfulness meditation — “the ability to see what is going on in our heads, without getting carried away with it”. It is a useful combination: he has both an initiate’s appreciation of how meditation works, and a journalist’s objectivity and ability to tell a story.
In a potted history of mindfulness in the US, Henry David Thoreau gets Gelles’s vote as the earliest New World proponent and an inspiration for the Beat generation Dharma bums Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
More recently, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist who pioneered mindfulness based stress reduction at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, takes centre stage. His willingness to downplay the spiritual side of meditation, Gelles argues, helped make mindfulness acceptable to mainstream science and medicine.
The core of the book concerns the adoption of mindfulness by corporate America. Using expertly crafted anecdotes and case studies, Gelles illustrates the benefits of meditation that companies from General Mills to Aetna are seeking to harness. Arianna Huffington sums up the rationale for all this corporate interest: “Stress reduction and mindfulness don’t just make us happier and healthier, they’re a proven competitive advantage for any business that wants one.”
The data seem to bear this out. Aetna employees who took a Mindfulness at Work course saw their healthcare costs fall by $2,000 a year relative to a control group. On an Orwellian note, it also improved their productivity, “resulting in more than an hour’s gain in work time per employee per week”.
But is it not the case that the more one practices mindfulness, the less interest one has in competition, profit, and all the other commercial imperatives that underpin capitalism? Is mindfulness really a neutral instrument that can be used for any end — or is it inextricably bound up with the elimination of selfishness, the cultivation of compassion and the rejection of materialism? And might not promoting mindfulness among one’s employees be a bit risky as a result — because if one succeeds, they might stop bothering with anything so trivial as profits?
Gelles certainly does not dodge this central question — indeed he devotes a whole chapter to it — but he does not really resolve it either. The most revealing answer comes from the chief executive of Prana, one of the “mindful” businesses he visits. Challenged by Gelles on his claim to combine compassion with capitalism, Scott Kerslake responds: “We’re still crappy at this. But we’re less crappy than a lot of people.”
The reviewer is a bond fund manager and the author of Money — the Unauthorised Biography
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