Very early this morning my husband Paul gently kissed me goodbye as he was getting ready to leave on a two week business trip. His parting words: ”There is an op-ed piece in today’s Times about meditation. You should read it. It’s how I feel.”
The piece is called “Can We End the Meditation Madness.” Adam Grant, the author, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania, finds himself “stalked by meditation evangelists.” While he finds meditation useful for some, he warns, “it isn’t a panacea.”
My husband feels, like Grant, that “meditation is just one of many ways to fight stress,” and that “you don’t need to meditate to achieve mindfulness either.”
The other night, he was at a Mets game with his friend Rob, who is not only a rabid baseball fan, but an advocate of Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace. While Rob expounded on the benefits of this multi-million dollar meditation app, I’m pretty sure Paul would have rather analyzed pitching styles and stats with his buddy. His best friend has tried lovingkindness meditation with Sharon Salzberg. To top everything off, I publish YogaCity NYC, a site dedicated to yoga and meditation, and I’m active in The Lineage Project, an organization that brings meditation to young people who find themselves in at-risk environments, like detention centers.
For the last decade I have found meditation to be a very powerful tool for reducing stress, anxiety, understanding the cause of my actions, and investigating the repercussions of those actions. Kids we work with at Lineage find alternatives to violent impulses by learning mindfulness-based practices. Meditation has bettered my individual life and allowed me make more positive contributions to society.
So, I think it surprised Paul when I emailed him and told him I actually agree with much of Grant’s piece.
Especially when Grant writes there are “plenty of other techniques for raising our conscious awareness of the present.” He adds, “every benefit of the practice can be gained through other activities.”
In fact, I feel it is especially problematic for employers to dictate meditation as a prescriptive for their employees. Meditation in the workplace amounts to pressure, either supervisory or peer, that can strain office relationships. No one should feel forced to participate or made to feel “less than” by not. This only adds to stress and anxiety for many workers that no amount of TM will erase.
Any practice is a tool and the intention with which the tool is taught is very important. An individual can meditate, practice yoga, paint, knit, swim, or play the clarinet and find it engaging and useful. When done mindfully, with clarity and consciousness, all these activities provide similar health benefits.
Meditation should not be brought into a corporate environment as a blanket solution to problems that are inherent in that organization’s overall mission. We tend to feel positive towards a company that offers meditation as a benefit to employees, just like we feel positive towards companies that “give back” by donating a percentage of profits to a cause or charity.
Here are a few of the companies that promote employee meditation: Apple, Google, AOL Time Warner, McKinsey & Company management consultants. These are really high-stress places. Sure, meditation makes them sound friendlier. It is a good marketing technique. But the unethical behavior of an employer can’t be meditated away.
If a bank is ripping off those with smaller accounts by providing cheaper services to those with larger ones, then no amount of mindfulness practice is going to keep the poor from getting poorer and the rich from getting richer.
Indeed, meditation can be damaging. Grant suggests that a Brown University Medical School professor has discovered numerous cases of “traumatic meditation experiences.”
Maybe that’s what Paul thinks is going on—damage, a societal brainwashing or conditioning that suggests that one tool is an elixir for all that ails us. We’ve seen this omnipotent snake oil salesman before. Maybe Grant should write a piece titled “Let’s Investigate This Meditation Madness.”