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Mindfulness in the Workplace…Would you like fries with that?


A recent HuffPo article entitled “Beyond McMindfulness” was sent to me by a colleague.

The piece was written by two very learned Buddhist scholars.

Let me start by saying that I very much respect the authors’ knowledge and intent to honor the traditions of Buddhism.  I agree with a few points presented in the article, but overall, I see things quite differently.

In my reading, it seems the authors’ biggest critique is that the teaching of Mindfulness in the workplace has lost it’s way.  They contend that the practice has been so stripped of it’s Buddhist roots that the current offering (and it would appear they believe there is only one kind of corporate offering) is but a watered-down version, beaming with a range of implications.  They are also vary of the HR departments and consultants promulgating the Mindfulness trend.

I have several thoughts to share in response.

Let’s first take the context of the work environment.  A recent study by Accenture showed that 2/3 of American workers are stressed out.  I don’t think anyone would argue that we are not a stressed-out nation.  The authors don’t argue this either, but they feel that this is due to the underlying foundations of capitalist greed which go unaddressed in these trainings. 

That is a very grand and unrealistic criticism that does very little to make things better.

It seems to me that if you are earning a paycheck–which pretty much includes all of us–are we not all to some degree contending with capitalism, ills included?  With that said, I am no stranger to the fact that especially in recent years, we have seen a range of devastating implications resulting  from what the authors’ contend as capitalist greed. However, we can’t denigrate an entire domain, in this case “the workplace,” as an unsuitable environment in which to learn about and practice mindfulness.  Doing so is not only narrow-minded, but misses an otherwise captive audience.  Most of us have to earn a paycheck, after all.  And that’s a lot of people who could and would benefit from Mindfulness.

I am of the mind that if employers and employees are willing to engage in this mindfulness conversation, why is that so wrong?  If businesses are initially drawn to mindfulness to ease their bottom lines, then that’s the foot that got them in the door.  It is my opinion that the practice itself is more powerful than anyone’s attachment to his/ her own greed, or any other attachment for that matter.  Optimistically and based on my own observations, I tend to believe that people are really seeking a more fulfilling experience than simply trying to find ways to fuel greed.

I believe in engaging people where they are, both literally (at the job site) and figuratively (wherever their emotional and mental landscapes reside).  I can say with a great deal of certainty that most people are not going to just pick up and go to a Buddhist temple for kicks.  They just aren’t.  And certainly, without any prompting, most people certainly are not.  I would even go one step further and say that some people may be turned off to Mindfulness precisely because of Buddhism. Others may be drawn to go learn more after attending a Mindfulness workshop, where otherwise they wouldn’t have before.

So here we have a conundrum.  Do we not, then, want to introduce Mindfulness in a safe and non-religious way to someone who would otherwise not be given an introduction to it?  Let’s not forget that this non-religious system is one that is widely used and has inspired a number of teaching contexts.  I am referring to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn,  founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and also the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. 

I believe that stressed-out American workers should be offered this opportunity.

The authors did not cover the business of the health care field in their piece, but this is an area where many people are introduced to Mindfulness as either a patient or a Health Care Professional.  Do we not want to see cancer patients being safely guided and instructed in Mindfulness?  There is a great deal of research that suggests meditation offers a range of important benefits for cancer patients.  I currently, and have for the a number of years, facilitated meditation groups for both cancer patients and Health Care Professionals with very successful results.

Much research has been done to show the positive effects of a Mindfulness practice.  The authors also contend this to be so.  However, they say that the intent of practicing was never to relieve a specific ailment, and now it seems that the branding of Mindfulness has just been about that.  OK, fair enough.  I can see this point to some degree.  But let’s weigh the criticisms with the benefits.  In addition to the cancer patient who may be interested in learning ways to alleviate some anxiety prior to Chemotherapy treatments, another great example is the overworked Emergency Room nurse.  If a Mindfulness class can relieve some stress and provide some tools so that when this nurse is treating your mother, your spouse, or your child, he/ she will do so with a little more calm and clarity, that has to outweigh any negative.

We also need to remember our biases and ask ourselves if it can be OK that someone else steps into this world of Mindfulness (which is really just an experience of connecting in the present moment) in a way that is different from one’s own?  I wasn’t introduced to this practice in a work context, but rather through a more traditional path the authors speak about.  Now I teach and use this knowledge as part of my counseling and consulting practices.  I don’t think everyone needs to have my experience in order to have the right experience.

I would wholeheartedly agree with the authors that it is of paramount importance that the trainers, teachers, consultants, etc. are of the highest quality.  As teachers and practitioners we have a tremendous responsibility to create a safe, honest, and instructive space for our participants–many of whom have never meditated before.

I also believe that it is not up to us to tell someone how to be, and certainly not how to be spiritual or religious.  If someone wants to explore Buddhism, then that is great.  If someone else wants to explore Christianity, Judaism, etc. then that is great too.  Who am I to tell you how your faith, or lack thereof, should be?

One of the things I love the most about Mindfulness is that it speaks to people of diverse backgrounds.

Remember, in Mindfulness we are still.  We are with our breath.  We are present and non-judgmental. There is nothing exclusively Buddhist about that.

Psalm 46:10 says “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Finally, we need to honor the parts of the East that change as they come to the West.  We have been down this road before with tradition of Yoga.  Now there is practically a yoga studio next to a Starbucks on every other street corner in America.  Some yoga studios offer a more traditional experience, but the vast majority of them do not.  Most yoga studios do very little spiritual teaching.  The asanas (poses) are really all that is being addressed.  If anyone wanted to further their knowledge, they can do so.  We have the power to choose the kind of experience we need, and we can always seek different experiences as our practice changes.

To wrap up, the following is a quotation from an interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn (referenced earlier in this blog):

Because…the word “meditation” is freighted with so much cultural baggage and so much, really ideological baggage and sort of belief baggage that the essential beauty of it is often really not apparent to people until long after they have somehow wandered into the domain of it. And my feeling was if what the Buddha said was true and that this is a path that potentially leads to the freedom from suffering and if everybody on the planet is basically suffering, why shouldn’t it be accessible to virtually everybody on the planet as opposed to those people who self-identify as, say, Buddhists or as, you know, yogis or people who are into this or that? And so I tried to create a kind of glide path into meditation that would be so commonsensical and accessible and based on what people really need and also fear and are challenged by, that we could at least empirically test whether, if it was framed in that kind of way, regular mainstream Americans would take to meditation. And, in fact, I think the proof after 30 years is pretty much in the pudding that we do.

I think the authors raise some valid questions and impart some important views which can only enhance our understanding and awareness of these issues.  They undoubtedly have a great deal to offer the world.  I thank them, and I thank you for reading and sharing in this conversation.







  1. Awesome website! How do I sign up to follow your blog?

    • Hi Ericha! Thanks, I really appreciate your comment! Not doing a feed right now, so the best way is to get updates from FB and Twitter. Are you on Twitter?

  2. Thanks for this commentary, Melissa. I agree with you and with your comment that “the practice itself is more powerful than anyone’s attachment to his/ her own greed, or any other attachment for that matter.” I teach mindfulness to public school teachers (needless to say a stressed-out group), and I find that, when presented compassionately in a safe environment, the practices speak for themselves and do often lead participants toward more “deep” transformation than people originally intended or expected. Powerful, indeed.

    Thank you for your work!

    • Thank you very much, Betsy. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. I so appreciate the work you do with teachers. Our teachers are so important to our culture, our lives, obviously our children’s futures…so thank you for all you do!!! Great connecting with you.

  3. I really enjoyed reading your very balanced and thoughtful essay!

  4. Thank you, Charlie. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

  5. Hello! Excellent blog you have here! I am appreciative for your posts and will continue to stay updated. Thank you!




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Melissa Marks Garner is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Yoga Teacher and has over 13 years experience.