Most business school professors teach subjects such as brand marketing, derivative analysis or supply chain management. Laurence Freeman teaches meditation.
If you believe this is something that MBA students would be unwilling to invest hard-earned cash in, you would be wrong. At the McDonough school at Georgetown University, Washington, the meditation course run by Father Freeman, a Benedictine monk and the director of the World Community for Christian Meditation, is oversubscribed.
How did the business school connection begin?
Fr Freeman was invited to teach undergraduates at Georgetown University 10 years ago and would always begin the class with meditation. “Many students said it was the best part of the class,” he recalls.
The business school became interested about two years ago, with a university event on business meditation. The dean of McDonough, David Thomas, who himself meditates, takes a personal interest in the course. “I think [business] schools are aware they have to produce leaders who can keep a sense of perspective in a situation or a crisis,” says Fr Freeman.
The first six-week course in meditation and leadership ran in January and February. It will be repeated in September and October.
What does the course involve?
“At the beginning I must admit I was curious about their [MBA students’] motivation,” says Fr Freeman. “I thought they might have thought it was an easy course.”
It certainly proved otherwise. MBA students attend two classes a week for six weeks and earn three credits. The first part of the course helps them to understand meditation, putting it into its historic and religious perspective. It also looks at the scientific and medical research – the first medical study on meditation was completed in 1931.
“In the last part of our course we ask them to reflect upon what they have learnt and how they will relate that to the field in which they will work,” says Fr Freeman. The 30 students who enrolled were expected to meditate twice a day for 20 minutes each time. They were all given an online log to write short notes on their meditation and all receive feedback.
“Most of them struggled with it, some struggled a lot . . . I was pleased that the average performance was 70 per cent,” says Fr Freeman. Only four MBAs completed all the meditation sessions. “What everyone discovered is that this is simple, but not easy.”
As a result of meditating, most students said they reacted differently in the classroom and were more collaborative and helpful. “They all said the clarity of their mind and their concentration had improved and they enjoyed the teaching and the writing more.”
Are meditation and mindfulness the same thing?
Fr Freeman draws a distinction. Meditation is a discipline, something that is built into daily life and achieved through practice. Mindfulness is a technique or tool.
“The mindfulness programme is basically a way of achieving a calmer mind and a reduction in stress, giving a greater ability to focus,” says Fr Freeman. “Meditation produces mindfulness in daily life as one of its benefits. Mindfulness prepares the mind and body for meditation.”
Will the course encourage more ethical leadership?
Fr Freeman believes so. “I think what they [MBA students] realised is if they are in an environment of high stress, and that stress is having an impact on the humanity of that organisation, they won’t be sucked into that culture. They won’t get involved in that craziness.
“The leader has to be out in front and has to have a certain level of solitude. It can be lonely and lead you into isolation, or it can be a place of integrity.”