Mindfulness in the Workplace: Meaning, Role, and Applications

  • Satinder Dhiman
Reference work entry


Mindfulness has come to be recognized as one of the most enduring buzz words in the recent times. Research has shown that mindfulness improves markers of health (Creswell 2016), reduces physiological markers of stress (Pascoe 2017), and can literally change our brain (Congleton 2015). The research on mindfulness also suggests that meditation sharpens skills like attention, memory, resilience, and emotional intelligence and competencies critical to leadership effectiveness and productivity (Seppala 2015). After reviewing the research on the myriad applications of mindfulness in the “wider context” of psychological well-being, this chapter will focus on the role and application of mindfulness in the workplace, both from the leadership and employees’ perspective.

After defining the construct of mindfulness from multiple perspectives, the first part of this chapter will explore how Theravada Buddhism understands mindfulness. The Theravada tradition based on Pali Canon will be utilized to survey Buddhist approach to mindfulness since it represents, according to most Buddhist scholars, the most “oldest,” and the most “genuine” form of Buddhist teachings. (Bodhi, In the Buddha’s words: an anthology of discourses from the Pali Canon (edited and introduced). Wisdom, Boston, 2005; Bodhi, The numerical discourses of the Buddha: a complete translation of the Anguttara Nikaya (the teachings of the Buddha). Wisdom, Boston, 2012; Bodhi, The Buddha’s teachings on social and communal harmony: an anthology of discourses from the Pali Canon (the teachings of the Buddha). Wisdom, Boston, 2016; Bodhi, The Suttanipata: an ancient collection of the Buddha’s discourses together with its commentaries (the teachings of the Buddha). Wisdom, Boston, 2017; Carrithers, The Buddha. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988; Nanamoli, The life of the Buddha: according to the Pali Canon. BPS Pariyatti Editions, Seattle, 1992, 2001; Rahula, What the Buddha taught (revised and expanded ed). Grove Press, New York, 1974). The second section will present a critical review of the existing mindfulness literature in healthcare and in cognitive and clinical psychology to create a pathway to the exploration of mindfulness in the workplace. Finally, this chapter incorporates views from 12 in-depth, structured interviews conducted by the author with mindfulness scholars, business leaders, and management consultants who have had firsthand knowledge of the application of mindfulness in the workplace.


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Mindfulness: Meaning, Role, and Applications

It is only when we’ve awakened that we realize how much of our lives we’ve actually slept through. ∼Langer (2005, p. 16)


Given our “fast and fragmented lives” – both personally and professionally – few topics are more pertinent in the present times than the art of conscious living and working. Since awareness is considered a universal human capacity and the most fundamental quality of our being, mindfulness accords great application potential in myriad fields involving personal and collective well-being.

Mindfulness has come to be recognized as one of the most enduring buzz words in the recent times. Research has shown that mindfulness improves markers of health (Creswell et al. 2016), reduces physiological markers of stress (Pascoe et al. 2017), and can literally change our brain (Congleton et al. 2015). The research on mindfulness also suggests that meditation sharpens skills like attention, memory, resilience, and emotional intelligence and competencies critical to leadership effectiveness and productivity (Seppala 2015). After reviewing the research on the myriad applications of mindfulness in the “wider context” of psychological well-being, this chapter will focus on the role and application of mindfulness in the workplace, both from the leadership and employees’ perspective.

After defining the construct of mindfulness from multiple perspectives, the first part of this chapter will explore how Theravada Buddhism understands mindfulness. The Theravada tradition based on Pali Canon will be utilized to survey Buddhist approach to mindfulness since it represents, according to most Buddhist scholars (Bodhi 1995, 2005, 2012, 2016, 2017; Buddhadasa 1994, 1997; Carrithers 1988; Gethin 1998; Goldstein 2003, 2009; Goenka 1999, 2004; Gombrich 1988, 2008; Hart 1987; Harvey 2008; Nanamoli 1992; Nyanatiloka 1970; Piyadassi 2005; Rahula 1974; Silananda 2002), the “oldest” and, hence, the most “genuine” form of Buddhist teachings. The second section will present a critical review of the existing mindfulness literature in cognitive and clinical psychology to create a pathway to the exploration of mindfulness in the workplace. Finally, this chapter incorporates views from 12 in-depth, structured interviews conducted by the author with mindfulness scholars, business leaders, and management consultants who have had firsthand knowledge of the application of mindfulness in the workplace .

Self-Awareness, Self-Remembering, and Mindfulness

Weick and Putnam (2006, p. 275) speak about a sign on the wall of a machine shop run by the New York Central Railroad that reads: “Be where you are with all your mind.” This essentially sums up the practice of mindfulness and suggests its potential application in myriad fields. Recently, we have seen mindfulness practice making its way to wellness and health clinics (Kabat-Zinn 2005; Ludwig and Kabat-Zinn 2008; Mindfulness and Leadership 2008), prison houses (1998) (Doing Time, Doing Vipassana: Winner of the Golden Spire Award at the 1998 San Francisco International Film Festival, this extraordinary documentary takes viewers into India’s largest prison – known as one of the toughest in the world – and shows the dramatic change brought about by the introduction of Vipassana meditation. In 1993, Kiran Bedi, a reformist Inspector General of India’s prison learned of the success of using Vipassanā in a jail in Jaipur, Rajasthan. This 10-day course involved officials and inmates alike. In India’s largest prison, Tihar Jail, near New Delhi, another attempt was made. This program was said to have dramatically changed the behavior of inmates and jailers alike. It was actually found that inmates who completed the 10-day course were less violent and had a lower recidivism rate than other inmates. This project was documented in the television documentary, Doing Time, Doing Vipassana. So successful was this program that it was adopted by correctional facilities in the United States and other countries as well., government offices (Parihar 2004) (, law firms (Carroll 2007; Keeva 2004), and business leadership (Jyoti 2000; Muyzenberg 2008; Carroll 2004, 2007, 2013; Marturano 2015; Nakai and Schultz 2000).

Several authors and practitioners have also emphasized the usefulness of meditation and/or mindfulness in promoting our overall well-being within or without Buddhist construct (Hölzel et al. 2011; Houlder and Hourlder 2002; Inoue 1997; Kabat-Zinn and Santorelli 2002, Kaufman 2005; Kaza 2005; Kernochan et al. 2007; Kofman 2006; Kornfield 2008; Lazar et al. 2005; McCormick 2009; Metcalf and Hateley 2001; Michie 2008; Olendzki 2005; Reitz and Chaskalson 2016; Santorelli 2000; Schuyler 2007; Segal et al. 2002; Shaw 2008a, b, 2009; Silsbee 2004; Spears 2007; Suzuki 1970; Vajiranana 1975; Van den Muyzenberg 2011; Wheeler 2008; White 2007; Whitmyer 1994; Williams 2008).

Mindfulness is a complex and multidimensional concept, with exceedingly rich and evolving history. Historically, a Buddhist practice, mindfulness is a universal human capacity (Ludwig and Kabat-Zinn 2008) as well as a skill that can potentially be cultivated through many diverse paths (Bishop et al. 2004; Shapiro and Carlson 2009). In its original Buddhist form, the practice of mindfulness refers to cultivating awareness of the body and the mind in the present moment.

The faculty of self-awareness, a facet of mindfulness, has always been prized by various wisdom and spiritual traditions (Wilber 2000). Socrates believed that “an unexamined life is not worth living” (Durant 1962) and declared cultivating gnothi seauton – self-knowledge – to be the most important purpose of life. Various other wisdom traditions of the world also highlight the importance of garnering a heightened sense of awareness by keeping the attention focused on a chosen object through intense absorption, meditation, contemplation, concentration, remembrance, and recollection. For example, Sufi masters use a special form of meditation called a Zikr to develop “yearning for the divine” through constant remembrance and recollection (Shah 2004).

Christian Desert Fathers likewise used the royal art of “the prayer of the heart” according to which prayer is employed to garner the knowledge of the Divine (Merton 2004). The Philokalia, a collection of texts written between the fourth and fifteenth century by masters of the Greek Orthodox tradition (Kadloubovsky and Palmer 1979), speaks of the virtue of developing mental silence and inner attention in the service of the Divine. In the modern times, Gurdjieff-Ouspensky, two Russian mystics, have laid special importance on “self-remembering” as a unique way to psychological self-evolvement (Ouspensky 1973; Burton 2007). And Krishnamurti (2002), a modern Indian philosopher, popularized the phrase “choiceless awareness” to denote a state of pure alertness where we are fully aware of the moment-to-moment reality “as it is,” yet our awareness is not focused on any particular physical or mental object.

Although Hindu, Sufi, and Christian Orthodox traditions employ some form of mindfulness to attune to reality, yet, in no other spiritual tradition, mindfulness has played such a key role in developing awareness of the present reality as it has in the Buddhist spiritual path. In no other tradition, mindfulness has received such a comprehensive treatment as it has in the Buddhist doctrine and discipline, both in the ancient manuals and commentaries and in the modern Buddhist writings.

Mindfulness Construct: Defining Mindfulness

“Mindfulness,” as the traditional English word, has been around for over 300 years (Still 2005; Dryden and Still 2006, p. 3). In the early part of the twentieth century, the term “mindfulness” was coined by the British scholar, T.H. Rhys-Davids, to translate the Pāli word sati (Thanissaro 1996). During the last 20 years, the word mindfulness has gained unprecedented popularity mainly due to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s (1990) mindfulness-based stress reduction program that he pioneered at the University of Massachusetts Medical School during the 1980s. Other teachers who have contributed to bringing mindfulness to the mainstream consciousness in the Western cultures include Nyanaponika (1962), Langer (1989, 2006), and Golstein and Kornfield (2001).

Although the interest in application of mindfulness technique has grown exponentially over the last two decades, the term mindfulness has not been defined operationally (Bishop et al. 2004). The word has many connotations, and various authors have described the term differently to suit their needs and purposes, mostly acknowledging – explicitly or implicitly – its Buddhist roots. Here is a sampling of a few of those definitions:
  • “A process of bringing a certain quality of attention to moment-to-moment experience” (Kabat-Zinn 1990).

  • “Moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness cultivated by paying attention” (Kabat-Zinn 2008).

  • “Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are” (Williams et al. 2007, p. 47).

  • “Remembering to bring attention to present moment experience in an open and nonjudgmental manner” (Huxter 2008).

  • “Keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality”(Hanh 1975).

  • “Awareness of what happens in your own mind and in the world around you” (Sangharakshita 2004).

  • “Process of drawing novel distinctions or noticing new things” (Langer 1989).

  • “Simply the knack of noticing without comment whatever is happening in your present experience. It involves just seeing from moment to moment what the mind is up to, the endless succession of ideas and feelings and perceptions and body sensations and memories and fantasies and moods and judgments arising and passing away (Claxton 1990).

  • “When you are mindful you are highly concentrated, focused on what you are doing, and you are collected – poised and calm with a composure that comes from being aware of yourself and the world around you as well as being aware of your purpose” (Houlder and Hourlder 2002).

  • “Mindfulness is the capacity to be fully aware of all that one experiences inside the self – body, mind, heart, spirit – and to pay full attention to what is happening around us – people, the natural world, our surroundings, and events” (Boyatzis and McKee 2005).

  • “A kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional filed is acknowledged and accepted as it is” (Bishop et al. 2004).

As is evident from the foregoing definitions, mindfulness refers to “intentional awareness of what is unfolding in the present moment” (Williams et al. 2007). When used in the therapeutic sense, the definitions of mindfulness tend to incorporate an element of nonjudgment to facilitate wider acceptance of its use (Richard 2008). Within Buddhist context, mindfulness almost always denotes an awareness of moment-to-moment changes that are taking place in our body and mind .

Mindfulness in the Earliest Buddhist Writings

This section presents the fundamental teachings on Satipatthana as preserved in the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism (the School of the Elders). The Buddha wrote no books or treatises. His earliest discourses are recorded in Pāli bhāshā – the language of Buddhist texts – which is closely related to Sanskrit.

Two Forms of Meditations: Samatha and Vipassana

Meditation constitutes the essence of Buddhism, the very foundation of Buddhist practice. Meditation is to Buddhism What Prayer is to Christianity (Conze 1959, p.11). Buddhism believes that our mind is intrinsically pure; however, it gets “stained” or “defiled” by extrinsic impurities such as greed, hatred, and delusion. The purpose of meditative practice is to expunge these adventitious impurities to help restore the pristine purity of our natural mind so that it can see things as they truly are. The practice of meditation, therefore, starts with stilling or calming the mind to enable it to attain a measure of serenity and then turn it toward insight into reality.

The two main types of Buddhist meditation are (1) samatha meditation, which deals with the development of serenity or calm, and (2) vipassana (“vipassana”= vi (accentuated) + passana (seeing or insight). It comes from the Sanskrit root, pashyati, to see. Vipassana is right seeing or subtle seeing, a deep insight into the essential nature of things.) m editation, which involves the development of insight.

Calm meditation aims to provide the mind essential clarity and makes the mind serene, stable, and strong. By preparing the mind to “see the things as they really are,” it serves as a necessary foundation for insight meditation. Together, calm and insight meditations form the Buddhist path leading to the realization of final awakening or enlightenment. Explaining the role and relationship of calm and insight meditation, Peter Harvey (1990, pp. 253, 255) has observed: “Calm meditation alone cannot lead to Nibbana (Sanskrit: Nirvana), for while it can temporarily suspend, and thus weaken attachment, hatred, and delusion, it cannot destroy them; only Insight combined with Calm can do this….Calm “tunes” the mind making it a more adequate instrument for knowledge and insight….Insight meditation is more analytical and probing than Calm meditation, as it aims to investigate the nature of reality, rather than remaining fixed on one apparently stable object.”

In an introduction to Visuddhimagga – The Path of Purification – Bhikkhu Nanamoli (2003, p. xIiii; originally published 1972) has noted that “concentration is training in intensity and focus and in single-mindedness. While Buddhism makes no exclusive claim to teach jhana concentration (samatha=samadhi), it does claim that the development of insight (vipassana) culminating in penetration of Four Noble Truths is peculiar to it. The two have to be coupled together to attain to the truths and the end of suffering. Insight is initially training to see experience as it occurs, without misperception, invalid assumptions or wrong inferences .”

The Practice of Mindfulness

Mindfulness refers to a special form of awareness or presence of mind. Although we are always aware to some degree, yet, this awareness rarely goes beyond the surface level to reach mind’s deeper layers. However, with the practice of mindfulness, the normal awareness or attentiveness is applied with greater intensity and “at a special pitch.” A renowned Buddhist scholar-monk, Bodhi (1994a), explains the practice of right mindfulness as follows:

The mind is deliberately kept at the level of bare attention, a detached observation of what is happening within us and around us in the present moment. In the practice of right mindfulness the mind is trained to remain in the present, open, quiet, and alert, contemplating the present event. All judgments and interpretations have to be suspended, or if they occur, just registered and dropped…. To practice mindfulness is thus a matter not so much of doing but of undoing: not thinking, not judging, not associating, not planning, not imagining, not wishing. All these “doings” of ours are modes of interference, ways the mind manipulates experience and tries to establish its dominance . (p. 76)

Satipatthana Sutta

The most important and the most original discourse on the subject of meditation delivered by the Buddha is called Satipatthana Sutta. The “Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness” (Satipatthana Sutta) occurs twice in Buddhist scriptures (1) as the 10th Discourse of Middle Collection of Discourses (Majjhima Nikaya) and (2) as the 22nd Discourse of the Long Collections of Discourses (Digha Nikaya). In the second version, it is called Maha-Satipatthana Sutta (“Maha” means great) and differs from the first version only by a detailed treatment of the Four Noble Truths (Rahula 1974; Saddhatissa 1971; Conze 1959; Nanamoli 1998; Nyanaponika 1962; Narada 1988; Piyadassi 1991; Soma 1981; Sayadaw 1990, 1999; Gunaratana 2002; Thanissaro 2004; Goenka 2006; Analayo 2007).

The elaboration of four foundations of mindfulness “seem to be a direct outcome of Buddha’s awakening.” In the opening and concluding sections of Satipatthana Sutta, Buddha himself has declared it to be the direct path to liberation (Analayo 2007, pp. 16–17). Underscoring its universal importance, Buddha has observed, “Mindfulness, I declare, is helpful everywhere” (cited in Khantipalo 1986, 2006, p. 8).

The Buddha described sati as the ability to remember, to be aware of what one is doing in the movements of the body and in the movements of the mind:

And what is the faculty of sati? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering & able to call to mind even things that were done & said long ago. He remains focused on the body in & of itself – ardent, alert, & mindful – putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves… the mind in & of itself… mental qualities in & of themselves – ardent, alert, & mindful – putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. (SN 48:10, trans. by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

Although the Pali word “sati” originally meant “memory” or “remembrance,” in its general Buddhist usage, it has been mostly employed to denote a certain quality of “attentiveness” or “awareness” of the present that the Buddhist doctrine specifies as “good” “wholesome” “skillful” or “right.” It is not just the “bare attention” that is referred to here, rather, it is the “appropriate” or “wholesome” attention, denoted by the Pali word yonisomaniskara. Buddhist psychology identifies three “unwholesome” roots of the mind: greed, hatred, and ignorance. If our attention emanates from any of these three unwholesome roots, then it is not “appropriate” and will not give us the knowledge of reality as it truly is. Used in this sense, it is called sammasati or right mindfulness and forms the seventh factor of the Noble Eightfold Path (Nyanaponika 1962, pp. 9–10).

The Satipatthana Sutta (Sanskrit, Sutra) is divided into four sections that list “four foundations of mindfulness” – the four spheres in which to develop mindfulness – as follows (Analayo 2007; Bodhi 1994a, b; Conze 1959; Harvey 1990; Piyadassi 1991; Nyanatiloka 2000; Goenka 2006):
  • Contemplation of the body: proceeds from mindfulness of:
    • Breathing, postures, and bodily activities

    • Analysis of the body into its anatomical parts to develop disenchantment Series of “Cemetery Meditations” to underscore “impermanence”

  • Contemplation of the feelings: through mindfulness:
    • Developing understanding and detachment regarding:
      • Pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings

    • Developing insight into their “fleeting” nature

    • Overcoming three defilements of attachment, aversion, and delusion

  • Contemplation of the states of mind: mindfulness regarding different:
    • Moods and emotions as they arise and pass away

  • Contemplation of the mental objects, such as:
    • Five hindrances: sensual desire, ill will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and worry, and doubt

    • Five aggregates: form, feelings, perceptions, mental states, and consciousness

    • Six sense spheres: eye and visible forms, ear and sounds, nose and odors, tongue and tastes, body and body impressions, and mind and mind objects

    • Seven factors of enlightenment: mindfulness, investigation of dhammas, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity

    • Four Noble Truths: the truth regarding the reality of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering

As is clear from the above classification, we start with the contemplation of the body – the first sphere of mindfulness – and move to the contemplation of the next three spheres, the spheres of the mind. We begin with the body because it is our most immediate experience and is most “accessible to us.” From the body, we proceed to the contemplation of feelings and note their emotive and ethical qualities. As Harvey (1990, p. 255) has noted: “Once mindfulness of body is established, attention is turned to feelings. They are observed as they arise and pass away, noting simply whether they are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, born of the body or of the mind. No ‘significance’ is attached to them; however, they are viewed simply as passing phenomenon.” Then we move to observe the fleeting phenomenon of mind and mind objects. To quote Harvey (1990, p. 255) again, “Finally, mindfulness investigates dhammas, such as the five hindrances or seven factors of enlightenment, noting when they are present, when they are absent, how they come to arise, and how they come to cease.”

Speaking of the flexible and interrelation of the Satipatthana contemplations, Analayo (2007, p. 269) has observed: “In actual practice, the different contemplations described in the discourse can be combined in a variety of ways and it would be a misunderstanding to take the progression in the discourse as prescribing the only possible sequence for the development of satipatthana .”

Mindfulness of Breathing (Anapanasati)

All forms of Samatha meditation start with an object or phrase to gain one-pointedness of the mind. In most meditation traditions, “breath is considered to be a gateway to awareness.” Breath is employed as a choice object for concentration of the mind since it is closely linked to the mind and because “it is always available to us” (Bodhi 2000, p. 80). For example, in the Sufi and the Greek Orthodox Church tradition, breath is employed as a primary vehicle to immerse and “accustom the mind to descend into the heart and to remain there” (Kadloubovsky and Palmer 1979, p. 33). Similarly, Patanjali, the famous author of Yoga-Sutras, did realize (like Buddha) that the “breath had close connection with the mind and that was the reason why excitement, anger, agitation, etc. led to short and irregular breathing” (Tandon 2007, p. 76).

The meditation practice most respected by Buddhists is called “mindfulness of breathing” or Anapanasati. This method of mind training is given “most prominence in the Pali Canon” (Nanamoli 1998, p. vi). Referring to its great importance, Bhikkhu Bodhi (1994a, p. 80) has observed, “By itself mindfulness of breathing can lead to all the stages of the path culminating in full awakening. In fact, it was this meditation subject that the Buddha used on the night of his own enlightenment.” In the same vein, Henepola Gunaratana, the author of a modern meditation classic, Mindfulness in Plain English, recommends to “start with focusing your undivided attention on your breathing to gain some degree of basic concentration” (2002, p. 45). Accordingly, the following pages will describe the practice of mindfulness of breathing in greater detail.

The basic Buddhist practice here is the practice of being mindful of our breathing. It is said that proper breathing is more important than food. In the practice of yoga also, proper breathing holds a special place. In fact, breath provides the conscious connection between our body and our mind. It is a common knowledge that when we are agitated, we breathe differently than when we are calm and relaxed. Our breath has a wonderful capacity to help us awaken to complete awareness (Rosenberg 2005).

Thich Nhat Hanh, a modern Zen master, uses the term “mindfulness” to refer to “keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality….We must be conscious of each breath, each movement, every thought and feeling, everything which has any relation to ourselves” (1992, p.16, p. 1).

How can we practice mindfulness, we may object, when modern life seems to be maddeningly hectic and so many activities claim our precious little time? Ajahn Chah, a renowned Thai meditation master, is reported to have said: “If you have time to breathe, you have time to meditate.” Thich Nhat Hanh has the following recommendation: “Keep your attention focused on the work, be alert and ready to handle ably and intelligently any situation which may arise – this is mindfulness…Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves…it is the miracle which can call back in a flash our dispersed mind and restore it to wholeness so that we can live each minute of life” (1992, pp. 20–21).

The 118 discourse of Majjhima Nikaya called Anapanasati Sutta is perhaps the “most comprehensive single discourse on the subject” (Nanamoli 1998, p. vi). The following excerpts present the basics of Anapanasati in the words of the Sutta (Nanamoli 1998):

Respiration-mindfulness, bhikkhus, developed and repeatedly practised, is of great fruit, of great benefit; respiration-mindfulness, bhikkhus, developed and repeatedly practised, perfects the four foundations of mindfulness; the four foundations of mindfulness, developed and repeatedly practised, perfect the seven enlightenment factors; the seven enlightenment factors, developed and repeatedly practised, perfect clear vision and deliverance.

And how developed, bhikkhus, how repeatedly practised, is respiration-mindfulness of great fruit, of great benefit?

Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu, gone to the forest, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty place, sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, established mindfulness in front of him, ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.

  1. (i)

    “Breathing in long, he knows, “I breathe in long”; or breathing out long, he knows, ‘I breathe out long.’”

  2. (ii)

    “Breathing in short, he knows, “I breathe in short”; or breathing out short, he knows, ‘I breathe out short.’”

  3. (iii)

    “Experiencing the whole body (of breath), I shall breathe in,” thus he trains himself; “experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe out,” thus he trains himself.

  4. (iv)

    “Calming the bodily formation, I shall breathe in,” thus he trains himself; “calming the bodily formation,” I shall breathe out, thus he trains himself. (p. 5)


Regarding the simplicity of mindfulness of breathing, Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000, p. 81) explains: “The meditation requires no special intellectual sophistication, only awareness of the breath. One merely breathes naturally through the nostrils keeping the breath in mind at the contact point around the nostrils or upper lip, where the sensation of breath can be felt as the air moves in and out. There should be no attempt to control the breath or to force it into predetermined rhythms, only a mindful contemplation of the natural process of breathing in and out. The awareness of breath cuts through the complexities of discursive thinking, rescues us from pointless wandering in the labyrinth of vain imaginings, and grounds us solidly in the present. For whenever we become aware of breathing, really aware of it, we can be aware of it only in the present, never in the past or the future.”

Here is the basic practice of mindfulness of breathing, in the words of Rahula (1974, p. 70):

Breathe in and out as usual, without any effort or strain. Now, bring your mind on your breathing-in and breathing-out; let your mind be aware and observe your breathing in and breathing out…Your mind should be so concentrated on your breathing that you are aware of its movements and changes. Forget all other things, your surroundings, your environment; do not raise your eyes or look at anything. Try to do this for five or ten minutes.

After some practice, we are assured, we develop a “knack” for being mindful so that we can extend this awareness to all spheres of our life. Whatever we happen to be doing, eating, washing dishes, walking, etc. at the moment, we should try to become fully aware and mindful of the act we are performing at the moment. This is called living in the present moment and in the present action. When informed about the English saying about killing two birds with one stone, Suzuki Roshi, a modern Soto Zen master, is reported to have said: “In Zen, our way is: One Bird, One stone.”

Insight Meditation (Vipassana)

As noted above, mindfulness of breathing occupies a prominent place in the practice of calm and insight meditation. Although each religious tradition has some form of serenity meditation as part of its spiritual repertoire, the practice of insight meditation is the distinctive contribution of Buddhism to the spiritual heritage of the world. Mindfulness of breathing is employed in both calm meditation and insight meditation with different purpose and emphasis. In calm meditation, the purpose of employing mindfulness is to gain a certain measure of clarity and serenity of the mind through the power of concentration. However, in insight meditation, concentration achieved through mindfulness of breathing is employed in a more analytical manner to gain an insight into the very nature of the phenomenon, i.e., seeing reality in the light of three signs of existence, namely, impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self.

Bhikkhu Bodhi (1994, 2000) clarifies:

Mindfulness facilitates the achievement of both serenity and insight. It can lead to either deep concentration or wisdom, depending on the mode in which it is applied….To lead to the stages of serenity the primary chore of mindfulness is to keep the mind on the object, free from straying….To lead to insight and the realizations of wisdom, mindfulness is exercised in a more differentiated manner. Its task, in this phase of practice, is to observe, to note, and to discern phenomena with utmost precision until their fundamental characteristics are brought to light. (pp. 78–79)

Insight meditation refers to analytical meditation that is practiced to gain direct insight into the very nature of ultimate reality. It means “understanding things as they really are, that is seeing the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and non-substantial (non-self) nature of five aggregates of clinging” (Piyadassi 1991, p. 229).

In an important passage of Samyutta-nikaya iii 44 (Connected Discourses), the Buddha explains it thus:

The five aggregates, monks, are impermanent (anicca); whatever is impermanent, that is dukkha, unsatisfactory; that is without self (anatta), that is not mine, that I am not, that is not myself. Thus should it be seen by perfect wisdom (sammappannaya) as it really is. He who sees by perfect wisdom as it really is, his mind not grasping, is detached from taints, he is liberated. (Piyadassi 1991, p. 231)

So what is the purpose of gaining this insight into the real nature of things? How does a person benefit from this hard-won understanding? In the words of the recurring refrain of Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha assures, thus: “He lives independent, clinging to nothing in the world.” (Analayo 2007, pp. 3–13).

In the opening and concluding section of the Satipatthana Sutta , the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, the Buddha emphatically declares:

This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of pain and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely the four foundations of mindfulness. (Nyanaponika 1968, p. 7)

The cultivation of mindfulness has been extolled as the key meditative practice – the “heart of Buddhist meditation” or even the “heart of the entire doctrine” (Nyanaponika 1962, p. 7) – leading to enlightenment and liberation. Buddha himself declared the four foundations – satipatthanas – of mindfulness as the direct path to realization. The ultimate aim of Satipatthana is nothing less than the final liberation from samsara – the cyclic rounds of births and deaths perpetuated by our own desire-induced actions. Buddhists believe that “for a proper understanding and implementation of mindfulness meditation, the original instructions by the Buddha on Satipatthana need to be taken into consideration ” (Analayo 2007, p. 1).

The Anatomy of Right Mindfulness

Nyanaponika Thera, the German-born Buddhist scholar-monk, who along with Thich Nhat Hanh is most responsible for raising awareness about mindfulness in the West, has explained right mindfulness as comprising two aspects: (1) bare attention and (2) clear comprehension. As bare attention, mindfulness refers to the “clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us, at the successive moments of perception” (Nyanaponika 1968, p. 30). However, as the Theravada Buddhist scholar-monk Bhikkhu Bodhi (2006, p. 15) has noted, the “bare attention is never completely bare” and that the “context and intention one brings to practice and how one practices are very important.” What bare attention really implies, according to Bodhi, is that we have removed our habitual “emotional reactions, evaluations, judgments, and conceptual overlays.” Clear comprehension, according to Nyanaponika, is the right knowledge or wisdom, based on right attentiveness. “Thus, ‘Satipatthana,’ in the entirety of both of its aspects, produces in the human mind a perfect harmony or receptivity and activity” (Nayanaponika 1962, pp. 55–56; italics in the original).

Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1987), a modern Theravada scholar-monk trained in Thai Forest Tradition, has observed that the popular books on meditation assign so many meanings to the word mindfulness that “the poor word gets totally stretched out of shape” and warns us “not to load the word mindfulness with too many meanings or to assign it too many functions.” Thanissaro Bhikkhu further reminds us to always remember that mindfulness is a part of the larger path mapped by the Buddha leading up to the final goal of liberation from existential suffering. The fourfold foundations of mindfulness constitute only a part (7th factor) of this path called the Noble Eightfold Path. Buddhists believe that all eight factors of the path should be simultaneously cultivated to reach the goal of full enlightenment. The Buddhist path, according to Goleman (1988), begins with mindfulness, proceeds through insight, and culminates in Nirvana .

Two Broad Divisions of Mindfulness: Eastern and Western

Mindfulness, as it is currently used, seems to draw its meaning from two fields, Buddhist philosophy and cognitive psychology; firstly, when it is used within the Buddhist context or at least when its Buddhists roots are explicitly or implicitly acknowledged, and secondly, when mindfulness is used in its traditional English language meaning or as Western scientific research paradigm, without any reference to Buddhist meditative practices. Most modern-day healthcare-related adaptations of mindfulness belong to the first category. Ellen Langer (1989, 2000a, 2005, 2009), a Harvard psychologist, uses the term mindfulness exclusively in the cognitive sense. Langer uses the term mindfulness in its traditional English meaning, as the opposite of mindlessness. Weick and Putnam (2006) categorize these divisions as the “Eastern” and “Western” usage of the term mindfulness, respectively.

Approaching mindfulness as a metacognitive skill, Bishop et al. (2004, p. 232) have proposed a two-component operational model of mindfulness that involves the following: (1) “self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment,” and (2) “adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.” Bishop et al. (2004, p. 234) further see mindfulness as “a process of gaining insight into the nature of one’s mind and the adoption of a de-centered perspective on thoughts and feelings so that they can be experienced in terms of their subjectivity (versus their necessary validity) and transient nature (versus their permanence) .”

Mindfulness as a Cognitive State of Mind

Ellen Langer (1989), a Harvard social psychologist, has adopted the term mindfulness in the cognitive sense to denote a state of alertness and lively awareness that is the opposite of “mindlessness.” Langer (2000b, pp. 1–2) describes mindfulness as a process of “drawing novel distinctions” or “noticing new things” which can lead to a number of outcomes, including (1) a greater sensitivity to one’s environment, (2) more openness to new information, (3) the creation of new categories for structuring perception, and (4) enhanced awareness of multiple perspectives in problem solving. The hallmarks of this mindful condition, according to Carson and Langer (2006, p. 30), are (1) ability to view both objects and situations from multiple perspectives and (2) the ability to shift perspectives depending upon context. The first felt experience of mindfulness in essence is nothing short of awakening. Almost in the vein of Buddhist masters, Langer (2005, p. 16) observes insightfully: “It’s only after we’ve been awakened that we realize how much of our lives we’ve actually slept through.” Langer’s research shows that when we are mindful, we are seen as charismatic, genuine, and authentic by those around us. This observation points to the potential role of mindfulness in life and leadership.

Langer (1989) likens the mindful state to:

Living in a transparent house….When in the living room, we can still see the object in the basement even if we chose not to think about it or use it at the moment. If we were taught mindfully, conditionally, we could be in this ever-ready state of mind. (p. 201)

Langer’s description of the subjective “feel” of mindfulness – as “a heightened state of involvement and wakefulness or being in the present” – is very much in line with the Buddhist conception of mindfulness. Clearly, Langer’s work is not based on a conscious link to Buddhism. As Carson and Langer (2006, p. 30) note: “The cognitive state of mindfulness is distinct from the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness, although post-meditative states may indeed be mindful in the cognitive sense.” She agrees that the end result of both approaches – mindfulness as a cognitive state or mindfulness as a meditative practice – may very well be the same. In an interview conducted for this study, Langer (2009) opined: “It is amazing that all you need to do is to notice new things and you get all the same effects that you will get from years and years of meditating.”

Langer’s studies of mindfulness with relevance to social issues fall in three major categories: health, business, and education. Langer and her research associate conducted several investigations in elderly populations and found that mindful treatments had dramatic effects, such as decreased arthritis pain and alcoholism and increased life span (Langer 1989). In the cognitive-behavior therapy realm, mindfulness fosters a state of self-acceptance since it encompasses an attitude of acceptance of and exploration of present experience rather than of self-evaluation and self-criticism (Carson and Langer 2006, p. 31). Similarly, Langer’s studies of mindfulness in business context have shown that increases in mindfulness are associated with increased creativity and decreased burnout. For Langer, the capacity for mindfulness involves the development of a “limber state of mind” (p. 70) and always remaining aware that the “various possible perspectives will never be exhausted” (p. 69).

Langer believes that mindful, creative activities hold the key to living meaningful, fulfilled lives. In her book titled On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity , Langer (2005, p. xxi), backed by her landmark scientific work on mindfulness and artist nature, shows us that “leading a more mindful and rewarding life is readily available to anyone who can put evaluation aside and just engage in new, creative endeavors.” Langer defines creativity in terms of mindfulness – the art of noticing new things (2014); she approaches creativity in its most pragmatic terms; and she highlights the fact that creative activities hold the key to living meaningful, fulfilled lives .

Applications of Mindfulness

The term “mindfulness” has come to be used in a variety of ways and contexts in the modern times. Starting as a meditation technique more than 2500 years ago, mindfulness has found its way in the recent times in universities, schools, hospitals, health clinics, prison houses, wellness centers, police departments, government offices, law firms, corporate boardrooms, and other organizations.

Mindfulness and Mainstream Medicine and Psychology: Therapeutic Applications

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

MBSR remains “the most frequently cited method of mindfulness training in clinical literature” (Baer 2003, p. 123). MBSR program, derived from Buddhist meditative practices but adapted to secular context, was originally developed as a stress reduction and pain management technique at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Medical School during the early 1980s by Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues. It is generally conducted as an 8-week course in which the participants meet for 2 to 2 and 1/2 hours for instruction in mindfulness and various coping strategies. The participants are encouraged to practice these skills outside group meetings (first with the help of audio recordings) for about 45 min per day, 6 days per week. The practice (as summarized in Richard 2008, p. 234) consists of two main categories:
  1. I.

    Formal practice: This comprises three distinct exercises: (a) the “body scan,” a gradual movement of attention/awareness through the body feet up to the head, carried out while lying down; (b) “sitting meditation,” directing attention/awareness to the sensations of breathing while sitting; and (c) “mindful movement,” various slow, gentle stretches and postures designed to develop mindfulness when moving.

  2. II.

    Informal practice: This involves mindfully carrying out various everyday activities (e.g., walking, standing, and eating), the aim being to cultivate a continuity of awareness in all activities in daily life. It is this which is described as the “heart of the practice” in MBSR but which requires the continuing support of regular formal practice if it is to retain its ability to stabilize the mind (Kabat-Zinn 1990, 2000, 2003).


In all the three formal practices mentioned above, mindfulness of breathing, suggested by Kabat-Zinn (1990, p. 71), serves as “a very powerful and effective anchor for all other aspects of meditative awareness.” Clearly, all of these formal practices are abstracted from Vipassana system (as taught by S.N. Goenka based on U Ba Khin’s method, particularly body scan and directing attention to body sensations in sitting meditation), and the informal practice takes cue from Thich Nhat Hanh and his colleagues’ work (2008) on mindfully carrying out daily activities with awareness of breath serving as an abiding anchor. There are, however, subtle differences (Richard 2008, pp. 233–235): for example, there is little or no regard for the “recollective aspect of mindfulness afforded by early Buddhist concentration; the need and the extent of the role for a preliminary degree of samadhi is unclear as well as the ‘subsequent development of samatha seem not to be an important consideration of the MBSR training.”

Kabat-Zinn (1990, pp. 33–40) describes the following seven attitudinal qualities that serve as a foundation of mindfulness practice:
  1. 1.

    Nonjudging – Nonjudging is described as a “stance of an impartial witness to your experience” and involves “suspending judgment and just watching whatever comes up, including your own judging thoughts, without pursuing them or acting on them in any way.”

  2. 2.

    Patience – The wisdom of patience involves an understanding and acceptance of the fact that things can only unfold in their own time.

  3. 3.

    Beginner’s mind – Beginner’s mind reminds us the simple truth that each moment and experience is unique with unique possibilities. It involves a willingness to see everything as if for the first time. This perspective prevents us from getting stuck in the rut of our own expertise and brings freshness, clarity, and vitality to our experience in each moment rather than seeing things through a fog of preconceptions.

  4. 4.

    Trust – Developing a basic faith in one’s intrinsic goodness and wisdom and in the validity of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and intuition. The practice of mindfulness fosters trust in one’s own being and thereby makes it easier for us to trust others.

  5. 5.

    Non-striving – Non-striving is “having no goal other than for you to be yourself” as you currently are. In the meditative domain, says Kabat-Zinn, the best way to achieve your own goals is to back off from striving for results and instead to start focusing carefully on seeing and accepting things as they are, moment by moment.

  6. 6.

    Acceptance – Acceptance here refers to an openness and willingness to see things as they actually are in the present moment which sets the stage for acting appropriately in one’s life under all circumstances. Acceptance, however, does not mean passive resignation to one’s circumstances or conditions nor does it mean to like everything or to abandon our values or principles.

  7. 7.

    Letting go – “Letting go is the way of letting things be, of accepting things as they are.” This attitude of nonattachment to our both our pleasant and unpleasant feelings is the key to a successful mindfulness practice. Through mindfulness we can develop our ability to acknowledge the arising and passing of experience without becoming entangled in the content of it .


Mindfulness at Work: Buddha’s Arrival in the Workplace

It has been said that the “order or confusion of society corresponds to and follows the order or confusion of individual minds” (Nyanaponika 1962, p. 22). The modern civilization which excels in “manufacturing irrelevances” – to use a phrase coined by Aldous Huxley – has splendidly managed to shorten our attention span through myriad trivial pursuits geared toward instant satisfaction. In this age of “continuous partial attention,” and in our “TV-oriented and movie drenched carnival culture,” mindfulness has a great potential role to play in developing clarity through attentiveness and in sharpening the power of concentration by ensuring immunity from distraction, delusion, and discursive thoughts. The practice of mindfulness accords greater value and presence to the activity at hand and thereby enhances our performance of the task and the resultant fulfillment.

Many business leaders and writers have acknowledged the benefits of meditative practice both in their personal and professional lives (Chapman-Clarke 2016; Marturano 2015; Steinhouse 2017). “Meditation has been integral in my career; it is the single best thing that happened to me in terms of my leadership,” says Bill George, the ex-CEO of the Medtronics Inc., who also sits on the supervisory boards of the Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp., and Novartis AG, and is a professor of management practices at the Harvard Business School. “Meditation enables one to focus on what is really important; and I haven’t had high blood pressure since the 1970s.” The owner of the world’s most popular Internet search engine, Google Inc., has had regular meditation sits for the past 2 years at its London, Pittsburgh, Mountain View, California, Sydney, and New York locations. In addition, the company in October 2007 initiated a “search inside yourself” meditation and mindfulness course (Brandt 2008).

In addition to Google, corporations such as the Hughes Aircraft and Deutsche Bank have introduced meditation classes for their employees. Given the psychological pressures and the current financial state of American economy, meditation, according to Brandt (2008, p. 2), in corporate America is more than an expression of an executive’s good will or personal interest. Companies lose an estimated $300 billion annually to lowered productivity, absenteeism, healthcare, and related costs stemming from stress, according to a study by the American Institute of Stress. Stress-related ailments account for upward of 60% of all doctor visits, according to the study.

In an informative brochure for annual retreats organized by the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, University of Massachusetts Medical School, aiming to bring awareness and insight to the business of life and life of business, Kabat-Zinn (2009) reminds us that “in this era of mounting fluidity, uncertainty, and rapid change, against the backdrop of an increasing recognition of the interconnectedness and interdependence of the global marketplace and the global village, a deep grounding in mindfulness can help build more coherent, cohesive, and effective communities of purpose and value within the work environment. It can also lead to an improved climate for problem identification and problem solving, and wiser and more effective policy decisions, thus making work more satisfying, both for ourselves and for those with whom we work.”

Mindfulness, for Kabat-Zinn (2009), is about “being fully awake in our lives” to gain an “immediate access to our own powerful inner resources for insight, transformation, and healing.” Mindfulness meditation is not for the faint-hearted, reminds Kabat-Zinn to his participants during a 5-day intensive retreat for leaders and innovators: “It is for individuals interested in the adventure and challenges of self-exploration and transformation, for those who wish to taste and explore new ways of knowing and new ways of being.” For individuals who are immersed in the warp and woof of the business of life as well as the life of business, mindfulness “can give rise to greater insight and clarity, as well as greater empathy for oneself and others, and can help us be more in touch with our own deepest and most trustworthy moral and ethical instincts, reminding us and grounding us in what is most important in our own lives.”

Participants come away more focused, calm, and inspired. Says one participant: “My experience was profound. I came away more deeply committed to the practice of mindfulness because both intuitively and experientially I know it significantly enhances all aspects of my life.” Another participant describes its value in all walks of life, thusly: “I find myself constantly going back to that place of comfort and tranquility I discovered through the Retreat. Wherever I am – during a stressful work day, waiting in a traffic jam, or any time I feel pulled in different directions – I know that I can go on ‘retreat’ and touch base with my being in a way that makes my life more healthy, happy, and productive” (Power of Mindfulness Retreat with Jon Kabat-Zinn Brochure, 2009).

More specifically, the following benefits accrue to the participants of these retreats, as a result of mindfulness training:
  • Greater integration of your doing life with your being life

  • Increased access to emotional intelligence for work and family

  • Enhanced clarity and creative thinking

  • Deeper insight into business and social situations and their connection to wise livelihood and meaningful work

  • Increased energy and sense of well-being

  • Heightened appreciation of what is really important

  • A more refined sense of how you want to be as you pursue your life’s calling

As Marturano (2009), director of the Corporate Leadership Education, Center for Mindfulness, has noted: “As leaders practicing mindfulness, we strengthen and hone the ability to see the big picture and selectively focus attention – to listen deeply and learn to respond rather than react. At the same time, mindfulness practice gives us the ability to relate in a disciplined and efficient manner to the steady stream of thoughts that can clutter the present moment and obscure the stillness from which true innovation and clear-seeing emerges.”

In an explanatory study examining the effects of mindfulness on people’s life, Hunter and McCormick (2009, p. 4) present their analysis of eight interviews with managers and professionals who had a meditative practice. Their initial analysis of the interviews tentatively suggests that practitioners of mindfulness “are more accepting of their work situation; are more selfless; are less concerned with material acquisition and wealth; have a more internal locus of evaluation; are more likely to derive meaning in life from more sources than just work; are better able to cope and remain calm in difficult work situations; enjoy their work more; are more adaptable at work; and have more positive interpersonal relations at work.” These potential benefits of mindfulness are very similar to those shared by several participants of Jon Kabat-Zinn who led annual retreats organized by the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, University of Massachusetts Medical School .

Mindfulness in Leadership

In a video prepared by The Institute for Mindfulness in Management, Netherlands, Kabat-Zinn (2008) likens organizations to organisms and underscores the role of mindfulness in the survival of an organization: “Mindfulness is incredibly important to organizations because organizations are like organisms; they are alive, they are made up of people and if you are not aware of the various ways in which people’s mind expresses itself, then the organization can really get into some kind of mental space where no one is talking to anyone else and no one is really listening. People discount what other people are saying. So there are all sorts of examples in business as in every organization when at certain point the organization goes from being really successful to losing its way….The kind of things people talk about when they are through this training translates into feeling in some sense more comfortable in their skin, more able to share, delegate responsibility, to trust in other people, to see the beauty in other people, to keep in mind the real purpose of the collective enterprise we call business.”

Boyatzis and Mckee (2005, pp. 2–4) view mindfulness as an essential element of resonant leadership and define it as the capacity to be fully aware of what is happening inside and around us. Cultivating mindfulness, according to these authors, “is not just a nice-to-have or something to be done for private reasons: it is actually essential for sustaining good leadership.” By bringing together the fields of cognitive psychology and Buddhist philosophy, these authors are able to apply the abstract concept of mindfulness to the actual practice of leadership. They recommend a three-pronged regimen for cultivating mindfulness: reflection, meditative practice, and supportive relationship.

Mindfulness means being acutely awake, aware, and attentive. Boyatzis and Mckee (2005, p. 5,7) bring out the intrinsic ethical dimension of mindfulness, thusly: “When we attend to ourselves holistically, and become more fully engaged with people, our communities, and our environment, it become much less likely that we will do harm and more likely that we will do good….Mindfulness, then, is both an antidote to shutting down (and creating dissonance) and also a necessary condition for creating resonance.”

Much of leader’s work consists of navigating the unknown and understanding the environment and people. Mindfulness plays a crucial role in both of these situations. When we are mindful, as observed by Boyatzis and McKee, we are more in control of ourselves and situations simply because we see reality more clearly. These authors equate developing mindfulness with developing emotional intelligence: “When you are resonant within yourself, you can create resonance with others” (p. 28).

A new generation of business leaders is turning to mindfulness as a cutting-edge leadership tool. Consider some of the popular titles that have recently been published which suggest the application of mindfulness in the workplace and leadership arena: Putting Buddhism to Work (1997), What would Buddha Do at Work (2001), Buddha 9 to 5 (2007), The Art of Happiness at Work (2003), The Awakened Leader (2007), and Mindful Coach (2004); more specifically, Mindfulness and Meaningful Work (1994), The Mindful Corporation (2000), The Mindful Leader (2007), The Leader’s Way (2008), and Conscious Business (2009); and more recently, Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out (2015), Leading Well from Within: A Neuroscience and Mindfulness-Based Framework for Conscious Leadership (2016), Mindful Management: The Neuroscience of Trust and Effective Workplace Leadership (2016), Leading Well: Becoming a Mindful Leader-Coach (2017), Mindful Business Leadership (2017), and Mindfulness at Work: Turn your job into a gateway to joy, contentment and stress-free living (Mindful Living Series); Still Moving: How to Lead Mindful Change (2017).

Michael Carroll, a Buddhist-trained HR executive with many years of experience in both the corporate and Zen worlds, states that “mindfulness – learning to be fully present in the moment – can be a transformative leadership tool for gaining clarity, reducing stress, and optimizing job performance.” Carroll contends that a mindful leader demonstrates an inner authenticity that manifests itself in four marks: elegance, command, gentleness, and intelligence.

In his book Mindful Leader: Ten Principles for Bringing out the Best in Ourselves and Others , Carroll opines that the regular practice of mindfulness meditation can help develop ten innate leadership talents needed to revitalize our workplace: simplicity, poise, respect, courage, confidence, enthusiasm, patience, awareness, skillfulness, and humility. Developing these innate talents through mindfulness, the author believes, can lead to cultivating courage, establishing authenticity, building trust, eliminating toxicity, pursuing organizational goals mindfully, and leading with wisdom and gentleness (Carroll 2007).

Carroll (2007, p. 2) provides the following examples of what is happening in the United States and across the world in terms of people taking the time to “stop and sit still:”
  • Confronted with the distressing fact that over 60% of medical interns were exhibiting symptoms of severe burnout, Dr. Craig Hassed of Monash University Medical School in Melbourne, Australia, taught his doctors to meditate.

  • Companies such as the Raytheon, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nortel Networks, and Comcast and many law firms have offered their employees classes in mindfulness meditation.

  • When Harvard Law School sponsored a conference of practicing attorneys to investigate why lawyers tend to get trapped in adversarial mindsets and suffer from remarkably high rates of depression, it began the conference by practicing mindfulness meditation.

  • “Protecting and Serving without Fear,” a seminar offered to law enforcement agents in Madison, Wisconsin, taught the attending police officers how to meditate.

  • Executives such as Bill Ford Jr., the chairman of the Ford Motor Company; Michael Stephen, the former chairman of the Aetna International; Robert Shapiro, the ex-CEO of the Monsanto; and Michael Rennie, the managing partner of the McKinsey, meditate and consider such a practice beneficial to running a corporation.

Carroll (2007, pp. 7–8) sums up the essence of being a mindful leader, thusly: “Learning to open up to our daily experience and discover a willingness to ‘be’ counterbalances our incessant drive to ‘achieve’ – and this ability to present in the moment is a natural wisdom that lies at the heart of being a mindful leader.”

In the concluding sections, we present key findings of 12 in-depth interviews conducted by this author with Buddhist scholars, practitioners, leaders, and couches .

Buddhist Scholars’ Interviews

[The Buddhist scholars interviewed included Ajahn Amaro (2009); Bhikkhu Bodhi (2009); Carroll (2009); Chordon (2009); Goldstein (2009); Hopkins (2009); Harvey (2009); Thanissaro (2009); Shaw (2009); and Sopa (2009). Richard (2008) was contacted to seek clarification of some Buddhist concepts during the early part of this study].

Regarding the role of the practice of mindfulness in one’s daily life, all interviewees felt that mindfulness is of high importance in one’s everyday life. Bodhi and Amaro underscored the importance of meditation in strengthening one’s mindfulness. Amaro even referred to mindfulness as the path to deathlessness, because the mind never dies. Amaro, Thanissaro, and Hopkins also stressed the alertness that mindfulness brings in its wake. They stressed the importance of being alert in day-to-day activities and held that against the background of mindfulness. Goldstein felt that mindfulness is the key because if we’re not mindful, then we are just playing out the habits of our conditioning. In Bodhi’s view, it is important to make it a point to have at least two periods of meditation each day in the morning and the evening for about an hour. He also suggested applying this mindfulness to one’s conduct and to one’s actions.

Amaro stated that some of the most potent teachings of the Buddha pertain to mindfulness. To underscore its importance, Amaro quoted verses 20 and 21 of Dhammapada: Mindfulness is the path to the deathless. Heedlessness is the path to death. The mindful never die. The heedless are as dead already. Thanissaro pointed out that mindfulness is the remembrance and alertness would be paired with it, since that’s the quality that makes sure you’re alert of what you are doing. In Hopkin’s view, mindfulness is a faculty that doesn’t allow for forgetfulness of one’s object of concentration.

To the question regarding the benefits of mindfulness in the personal life, the overarching themes that most interviewees presented were greater awareness, resulting in many other positive qualities, such as wholesome and wiser choices (Goldstein); less forgetfulness, less scatter-mindedness, and less trouble (Hopkins); more tranquility, patience, and appreciation (Harvey); better listening, improved relationships, better moods, and greater adaptability to changing circumstances (Amaro); greater sensitivity and better focus on what is important (Hopkins); calmer, more aware, energy, patience, concentration, resolve and determination, and joyfully appreciative of simple natural things (Harvey); and more skillfulness and scrupulousness in behavior (Thanissaro).

Regarding the challenges of applying mindfulness in the daily life, the interviewees agreed that distraction is the main challenge, even though they presented various examples and manifestations of distraction. In general, they referred to two categories of distraction: personal distractions, which can come in the way of leisure, preoccupation, or emotional wanderings, and professional distractions, which are usually fueled by excessively busy schedules, multiple demands, and multitasking. Among the challenges, the interviews identified the following specific challenges: easy access to information on the Internet (Bodhi); over-busyness and five hindrances ((1) sense-desire, lust, or greed; (2) hatred, anger, aversion, or fear; (3) sloth and torpor or sleepiness and sluggishness; (4) restlessness and worry or agitation in the mind and body; and (5) doubt or uncertainty) (Harvey); and fixed views and being preoccupied with too many things (Amaro).

Regarding suggestions to overcome these challenges, the interviewees stated paradoxically that the challenges to mindfulness in daily life can be overcome by practicing mindfulness! Goldstein suggested mindfulness of the body and mindfulness of speech, which can keep one centered and grounded. Bodhi and Shaw elaborated on meditation as a means to overcome the challenges. Bodhi added that one could enhance focus through meditation and gather better qualities while getting rid of worse ones. Amaro stressed the act of consciously working on adaptability. Thanissaro suggested breathing exercises, which could be classified as some type of meditation. Hopkins, finally, recommended reflection on impermanence, as this will restore one’s priorities and a sense of perspective.

Regarding the topical question about the role of mindfulness in the professional/work life, most interviewees felt that mindfulness played an equally important role in both their personal and their professional lives. There was also an agreement on the fact that mindfulness enhances insight, understanding, considerateness, and responsibility in relationships. Bodhi referred in that regard to need for listening and the six principles of harmony, while Harvey affirmed that mindfulness helps in constructive communication. He agreed that harmony is a good thing to aspire for at work but indicated that “sometimes certain things need to said in the right way at the right time” and that he “wouldn’t go for harmony at all price, at all cost.” Shaw underscored this by pointing out the opposite: it helps you refrain from negative communication such as gossip and backstabbing. Hopkins, finally, stressed the positive effect mindfulness can have on openness in relationships and thoughtfulness in communication.

To the question regarding how mindfulness benefits the professional/work life, the interviewees again referred to the overarching theme of awareness and harmony. Goldstein explained the benefits from his position as a teacher of mindfulness and how this quality spills over into his personal life, creating a mutually positive effect. He also underscored the role of mindfulness in “sorting out interpersonal conflicts in a harmonious way.” Harvey listed awareness-related qualities as patience, energy, concentration, and understanding. Shaw included the important factor of healthy detachment and a better view of our actions. Thanissaro alerted us on the fact that mindfulness opens the realization of negative patterns, so that one can refrain from falling in their traps again. Hopkins, finally, mentioned the greater insight which mindfulness brings in one’s daily life.

Regarding the challenges in applying mindfulness in one’s work life, the common theme among the interviewees was distraction. Whether it was through too much work (Harvey), too much competitiveness and too much temptation (personally and materialistically – Bodhi), too much focus (Shaw), too many deadlines (Thanissaro), or too much pressure (Hopkins), the factor of distraction was an unmistakably the unifying theme. Thanissaro also presented an interesting insight that a professional challenge may be that mindfulness alone is not enough for success at work: one will also need negotiation skills, clarity, and good personality skills to have a positive work experience. Harvey alerted that sometimes the interpersonal conflicts in the organization get very intense which can be challenging and added that “the biggest thing is that people often get too busy to practice, and so it slips away.”

Regarding the suggestions to overcome these challenges in applying mindfulness in one’s work life, the main strategy of overcoming the challenges lies in awareness of the actions that can help one maintain it. Goldstein suggested finding the appropriate discipline to keep going and subsequently making sure you do it. Bodhi advised to take some moments in-between busy practices to regain mindfulness. Harvey recommended regular meditation to keep up the practice of mindfulness. Shaw reflected on his own body mindfulness, which helps him remember to stretch regularly and do something else. Thanissaro suggested breathing checks, and Hopkins recommended turning inward to find mindfulness when things become challenging.

Regarding the organizational benefits of the practice of mindfulness, the interviewees were in agreement that mindfulness could bring about great benefits for organizations, due to the fact that organizations are made up of people. They all underscored that mindfulness will bring greater well-being for each employee and, through that, will translate in greater performance, efficiency, joy, sensitivity, adaptability, insight, creativity, harmony, mental capacity, and less distraction, backbiting, or stress. Bodhi warned that organizations might have the best chance on bringing this practice into the workplace if they adopt it as a secular practice and don’t tie it to Buddhism. Shaw stressed four different levels of well-being: (1) physical well-being (through external, work environment-related comfort), (2) emotional well-being (through consideration of co-workers’ feelings), (3) mental well-being (by giving people opportunities and work they appreciate), and (4) team well-being (by ensuring positive collaboration among co-workers).

Regarding the limitations to applying mindfulness in the workplace, the interviewees offered interesting perspectives, starting with the contention that mindfulness is not a panacea and cannot do everything for you (Goldstein, Amaro, and Shaw). One can be mindful yet lack other important skills and characteristics to be successful in your work. A different way of interpreting the limitations to implementing mindfulness in the workplace is to see it as an effort to be exerted onto co-workers: not everyone may be interested in learning about mindfulness. Bodhi asserts that one can also find that there is no time or place for meditative mindfulness at work and that the mindfulness of attention might be the only mindfulness to implement at work. Harvey brings in the perspective that mindfulness practice might be limited by the very nature of the organization: if it is unethical as a whole or if the people are lazy or greedy. And then there is the external factor that, in spite of a mindful organization and mindful stakeholders, times may just be tough and the organization may still not succeed (Shaw).

Do you feel that there is downside to the hype around mindfulness, especially when it is taught/practiced outside of the Buddhist context? Goldstein raved about the timelessness and universality of Buddhist practice of mindfulness. He said he cannot think of any downside to mindfulness and added that “once people understand what mindfulness is, it’s life changing because we see there’s no choice then, because what’s the alternative, to be unaware. So once you see the possibility of awareness, it really becomes life transforming because you see this is a whole life past, because the alternative is so undesirable.” Stressing the overall importance of mindfulness in life, Goldstein averred that, once a person experiences mindfulness and understands its advantages, the senselessness and unattractiveness of staying unaware become entirely clear .

Business Leaders’ Interviews

Business leaders and business coaches interviewed included Laurens van den Muyzenberg (2009); Marturano (2009); Winston (2009), and Caroll (2009).

Laurens van den Muyzenberg, who wrote a book with the Dalai Lama, titled Leader’s Way: Business, Buddhism and Happiness, presented some interesting views in his interview. In this book, Muyzenberg (2011) distilled the essence of Buddhist approach into two key practices that he calls: right understanding and right conduct. He avers that right understanding inevitably leads to right conduct which is the path and the goal of all personal and professional development. Having worked for large, nonprofit entities during most of his adult life, Muyzenberg pointed out that there is not so much difference between nonprofit and for-profit businesses as people usually think. He commented that “right view,” “right conduct,” and the six perfections – generosity, ethical discipline, enthusiastic effort, patience, concentration, and wisdom – play a key role in his life. Yet, he also admitted that he experienced ego-centeredness and the inability to obtain control over negative emotions, leading to defensive behavior, as important challenges toward realizing these key principles. He considered simple exercises such as walking, sitting, and breathing effective ways to overcome these challenges.

Contemplating on the application of Buddhist values in the workplace, Muyzenberg commented that the most important factor in workplace harmony is trust. The challenge in establishing Buddhist practices in workplaces, according to Muyzenberg, is that trust cannot be built overnight. “It requires a lot of patience. You have to take the initiative. And there will be problems with reciprocity. You will experience many instances that you think you act justly but others do not see it that way.” Overcoming the challenges of mistrust in workplaces can happen through patience and enthusiastic effort, according to Muyzenberg. He brought up the skill of listening and used the Dalai Lama as an example of a great listener.

In his interview, Muyzenberg (2009) also listed the opinions of non-Western CEOs who were practicing Buddhists and what the benefits were of their practice. These business leaders mentioned advantages such as (1) better decisions, (2) greater self-confidence, (3) increased ability to cope with stress, (4) fewer meetings and misunderstandings due to better communication, (5) more open-mindedness toward innovative ideas, (6) less judgmental intentions, (7) a more relaxed attitude toward the bottom line, (8) more crisis resistance through the realization of impermanence, (9) focusing on the future and not dwelling on the past, (10) greater creativity and innovation, and (11) embracing change.

Janice L. Marturano, the founder and executive director, Institute for Mindful Leadership, is the author of Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership (2014). While fulfilling her duties as a strategic leader within the General Mills, she also co-developed the very first mindful leadership curricula at the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness. In her interview, Marturano stated that she considered mindfulness as a highly important practice in her daily life that provided her with greater clarity and focus on her immediate environment. Given her practice as a coach of business leaders, she distinguished between formal and informal mindfulness practices. The formal practice pertains to her meditation, while the informal practice is geared toward bringing mindfulness into everyday events of leaders. Marturano stated that being mindful is not always easy due to the many distractions we encounter in our daily activities. Yet, she offered a very practical way of disarming the challenges: placing triggers that remind you of being mindful. She emphasized that these triggers could be very simple, such as a hallway that you walk through daily, which can serve as a reminder. Marturano clarified her mission in corporate life: to enhance mindfulness among business leaders. She clearly distinguished between practices such as MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction program) and her own teachings. She felt that MBSR was too limiting a way of thinking about mindfulness. She therefore developed a 4-day intensive retreat for leaders and found that the effects expanded beyond her expectations.

Diana Winston had been teaching Vipassana meditation to members of the Spirit Rock Buddhist community but felt that the teachings should be made available to a larger audience. She is the director of the Mindfulness Education at the UCLA Semel Institute’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) and the co-author, with Susan Smalley PhD, of the Fully Present: The Science, Art and Practice of Mindfulness (2010). In her interview, she stated that she considered the principles of mindfulness, the interconnection, the “Four Noble Truths,” and the causes to, and paths to, end suffering as the main ethics of guidance in trying to live a life that can have a more liberated mind and heart. She explained that regular meditation and staying in close connection with her Sangha and the people she trusted, anything that reminded her of the Dharma and that connected her back to it, helped her to retain her mindfulness. The main advantages she gathered from adhering to Buddhist practices were self-awareness and understanding. Winston affirmed that her work-life experience got enhanced through the adherence of principles such as ethics, non-harming, harmony, interconnectedness, and interdependence. Reflecting on her personal life, she stated that the Internet formed a great distraction to her mindfulness practices. This was in line with the opinion of Bhikkhu Bodhi, one of the Buddhist teachers interviewed. Just like Bodhi, Winston asserted that the Internet provides such a flood of information that it is hard to retain mindfulness.

In contrast to Muyzenberg, Winston felt that there was a clear difference in approach in for-profit business compared to nonprofit. In a nonprofit setting, according to Winston, there was more of a martyr sense as opposed to in the corporate world, which seemed to be often financially and ambition driven.

Michael Caroll, author of the Awake at Work (2006), The Mindful Leader (2008), and Fearless at Work (2013), has held executive positions with such companies as the American Express, the Simon & Schuster, and the Walt Disney Company during a 25-year business career. He currently has an active consulting and coaching business with client firms such as the Procter & Gamble, AstraZeneca, Starbucks, Lutheran Medical Center, National Board of Medical Examiners, and others. A Buddhist practice that he regularly engages in is Vipassana meditation. Much in accordance with Marturano, Caroll asserted that he engaged in formal and informal mindfulness. Only, he named this distinction differently. He referred to on-the-cushion and off-the-cushion behavior. On-the-cushion behavior was the “formal” mindfulness practice as Marturano referred to it, and off-the-cushion behavior had to do with the “informal” practice of acting more mindfully in daily life. As a simple example, he presented a visit to a grocery store, as we all do, seeing something lying on the floor that doesn’t belong there.

Regarding Buddhist practices in the workplace, Carroll presented a very interesting example of a CEO who got disheartened about his lack of success in the company he was leading. He was a Buddhist but felt that his approach was not taking the company anywhere, so he asked Carroll to come and take a look and give him feedback. Carroll concluded that the CEO was focusing too much on harmony in the company and with that was discouraging any type of confrontation or healthy conflict, which could have led to innovation and creative outcomes. Due to the fact that conflict was pushed below the surface, an unhealthy culture emerged where people only whispered about their conflicts behind closed doors and kept up an unrealistic impression of harmony. In describing an organization that is run on Buddhist practices and principles, Carroll first made the assumption that such an organization would engage in right livelihood as a prerequisite. Carroll underscored:

I recognize that there is always going to be conflict; there’s always going to be limited resources; differing points of view; and that we shouldn’t be afraid of conflict. There are ways that we can work with it that are dignified and appropriate.

In addition to the above, Carroll warned that effectiveness is not a main focus in Buddhist practices, which may also conflict with the day-to-day workplace mindset. At the same time, Carroll underscored that the practice of being a Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be) would be very helpful toward authenticity and better relationships and performance at work, because Bodhisattvas practice patience and generosity. The challenges that may hinder these behaviors are, according to Carroll, fear and arrogance –“which is just a form of fear masquerading as confidence – and impoverishment in the sense of feeling inadequate and not worthy of one’s experience.” These three emotions cause a person to feel that he or she cannot be generous, open, and giving. Carroll felt that the most advisable way to get over these challenges is through sitting meditation in order to get rid of the confusion and obtain a right view .

Concluding Thoughts

It has been said that the “order or confusion of society corresponds to and follows the order or confusion of individual minds” (Nyanaponika 1962/1996, p. 22). Our modern civilization, which excels in “manufacturing irrelevances” (to use Huxley’s phrase), has splendidly managed to shorten our attention span through myriad trivial pursuits geared toward instant gratification. In this age of “continuous partial attention,” mindfulness has a great role to play in developing clarity through attentiveness and in sharpening the power of concentration by ensuring immunity from distraction and delusion. The practice of mindfulness accords greater value and presence to the activity at hand and thereby enhances our performance of the task and the resultant fulfillment.

When we carry out all activities in our usual daily life with mindfulness, with conscious presence, then every task becomes special; every act becomes a rite and a ceremony. And our whole life becomes a wondrous celebration! “If we practice the art of mindful living,” says Thich Nhat Hanh, “when things change, we won’t have any regrets. We can smile because we have done our best to enjoy every moment of our life and to make others happy” (1998, p. 124). And in making others happy, moment to moment, we discover the true secret to our happiness!

Mindfulness has tremendous potential in enhancing workplace well-being through improved communications, efficient meetings, optimum performance, better decisions, and greater understanding. If “change within is a prerequisite to a change without,” then mindfulness accords the best place to begin the journey of inner transformation, personally and professionally. In the ultimate analysis, one can only determine the efficacy of the practice of mindfulness by practicing it diligently. Ehipassiko, said the Buddha, “Come and see for yourself.”


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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of BusinessWoodbury UniversityBurbankUSA

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