The Buddha’s new clothes

I’ll start by stating an interest. I practice mindfulness and meditation. I have done so for over 15 years. While mine is a personal practice, I do lead mindfulness meditation at yoga workshops. I make meditation stools for friends and family. I have become accustomed to the accusation that this is hippy shit.

However, over the past few months my inbox has become a magnet for newsletters promoting courses in mindfulness courses for businesses.

My first question is why? What is mindfulness for?
Mindfulness is a practice that encourages compassion and loving kindness, as distilled in metta bhavana meditation. Mindfulness is practiced in order to become more mindful. Full stop.

Compare and contrast. Adriana Huffington, one of several senior executives who have embraced mindfulness says, “”there’s nothing touchy-feely about increased profits. This is a tough economy. … Stress-reduction and mindfulness don’t just make us happier and healthier, they’re a proven competitive advantage for any business that wants one.”

Mindfulness, in that it instills contemplation and calm, may reduce stress. But that isn’t what it is for. In reducing stress and improving focus it may help people to become more effective at work. But that isn’t what it is for.

But if the outcome of practicing mindfulness is a more compassionate person does the reason the person started to study really matter. Does the ends justify the faulty intent?

Thich Nhat Hanh, considered by many to be the father of mindfulness in the west, is typically generous and feels that as long as business leaders practice “true” mindfulness, it does not matter if the original intention is triggered by the drive for bigger profits. I’m less confident. Can it really be OK to teach mindfulness to US Marines before they are deployed overseas in order to make them more focussed killers? Is this true mindfulness. Surely if they had learned fully the concepts of compassion they would leave the army rather than simply head off in a more relaxed state?

In true mindfulness the question is irrelevant as the means and the end are the same thing. The key is in the word “true” and in true mindfulness. If the original intent is solely for personal or corporate gain are the practitioners really practicing mindfulness or just subscribing to the latest business fad?

Which leads me to my second question is, who’s doing the teaching. Becoming a Buddhist meditation teacher takes many years of dedication, commitment to practice and study. Notice that I said earlier that I lead meditation practice at workshops. I do not teach mindfulness. I introduce people to the concept of meditation and encourage further reading and study. I myself was originally taught by Buddhist monks, practiced regularly with the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, read ancient and modern works and have a dedicated personal practice yet I do not feel that I can teach mindfulness. Yet it would appear that anyone can, and does, set themselves up as a mindfulness trainer and charge handsomely in the process.

Corporate mindfulness training is tailored to meet the needs of an organisation. Training is not offered as a movement towards personal compassion but as a way of accessing some of its possible by-products, such as dealing with stress or meeting increased productivity goals. In doing so it has become a corporate tool, along with other methods of increasing profits and far removed from the Buddhist concept of ‘right livelihood’.


karenbirchbw-245x3001Karen Birch is an entrepreneur with a wealth of experience in creating and supporting co-operative enterprises. Founder member at the3rdi magazine, Karen is also managing director of Maroan Limited, specialising in supporting and promoting ethical business practices.

Karen knows how to bring businesses together to foster collaboration and generate growth and change across both public and private sectors.

Karen is Chair at Glasgow Women’s Library, is on the advisory board for Co-operative Development Scotland and is one of the women cited by Co-operative Women’s Challenge as being most influential within the co-operative movement.

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