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Bill George: The Tipping Point for Mindfulness

The Tipping Point for Mindfulness

Posted: 06/21/2013 8:32 am

Mindfulness practices like meditation have been in existence for thousands of years, but only now are they reaching the tipping point in the Western world. Today’s pace and stress are so great that people are searching for new practices to find resilience in the midst of chaos, and mindfulness programs are helping them find better ways to live.

Mindfulness, the practice of self-observation without judgment, encompasses an array of activities in which we focus inward on our minds and our inner voices. New research studies are demonstrating conclusively that meditation and mindfulness are good for your health — and for your soul. This is why each of us should consider balancing the fast-paced nature of our lives with individual practices that cultivate mindfulness.

My Experiences with Meditation

I began meditating thirty-seven years ago after my wife Penny dragged me “kicking and screaming” to a weekend training program in transcendental meditation at the University of Minnesota. I started meditating twenty minutes, twice a day, and stayed with the practice because I felt better and was more effective at work and at home. Meditation helps me relieve the stress of the day, gain clarity about what’s important, open up creative ideas, and find added energy and a deep sense of well-being. For a practice that costs nothing and doesn’t involve medication, that’s a good bargain.

For years I was reluctant to talk about meditating, as it sounded too “new age,” especially to the media. Today, mindfulness is becoming mainstream, no longer confined to closed-door meditation circles and therapy sessions. Public interest in mindfulness is increasing, as evidenced by the proliferation of literature on the subject; an Amazon search for “mindfulness” brings up 4,006 books.

Let me describe how meditation works in my daily life. When I open my emails, I am bombarded with requests and information. There are packages to read from the boards on which I serve, messages from Harvard colleagues, inquiries about speaking, and an unending stream of requests. Meanwhile, the phone is ringing, people are stopping by my office with questions, and I am trying to prepare to teach my next class. Navigating through these issues requires constant context shifting, which can leave me mentally drained.

After I meditate, I feel calm and centered, having slowed my mind from the adrenalin-fueled, frenetic workday pace. Consequently, I am able to focus deeply on the big questions and do my most productive thinking. The clarity that comes with meditation enables me to escape from my never-ending “to do” list and concentrate on my most important priorities, not letting them be overtaken by the urgent, less important tasks that can be delegated. The self-awareness that comes from meditation helps me understand how others perceive me and how to empower them.

The Science of Meditation

Research has shown that meditation is powerful enough to alter the makeup of the human mind. Thanks to the personal dedication of the Dalai Lama and the Mind and Life Institute he founded in the U.S., neuro science researchers are studying mindfulness meditation. Breakthrough research using fMRI technology conducted by Dr. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison have demonstrated the correlation between mindfulness and changes in the regions of the brain related to learning, memory, and emotion. Other studies have shown that mindfulness is as effective for treating depression as antidepressant drugs.

A Massachusetts General Hospital study discovered that meditation has the ability to change one’s gene expression (which genes are turned “on” or “off”) in as little as six weeks, based on blood samples before and after meditation. Genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion and telomere maintenance were enhanced while genes linked to inflammatory response and stress-related pathways were reduced. Another Massachusetts General Hospital study showed that eight weeks of meditation shrunk the amygdala, the portion of the brain modulating response to fear and stress.

Meditation and its Applications

In a recent Huffington Post article, my wife Penny highlighted the importance of mindfulness in integrative medicine in connecting the mind, body, and spirit. Integrative medicine encourages patients to practice inexpensive and non-toxic activities such as yoga, massage, healthy eating, and mindfulness meditation in combination with conventional Western medicine. Mindfulness is also practiced by health professionals in order to cope with the immense stress of their work. Allina Health, the largest health system in Minnesota, offers resilience-training programs for employees that encourage mindfulness, nutrition, and exercise to manage anxiety and depression.

Most leaders do everything they can to shape their enterprises, but if they don’t step back from constant action, they lose perspective and their sense of priority, as well as their ability to create original solutions. That’s why many companies like Walt Disney, General Mills, and Google have made mindfulness an important element of their company cultures by offering it to their employees.

Thirty years ago, Disney brought in Ron Alexander, a meditation teacher, to teach seminars to inspire their creative teams. Following the meditation seminars, Disney’s teams dreamed up Tokyo Disney, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland. Today, the company incorporates meditative practice into its workplace and is regarded as one of the world’s most innovative companies.

For the past seven years, General Mills employees have engaged in meditation, yoga, and mindfulness practices while at work. General Mills reports that 80 percent of employees practicing mindfulness were able to make better decisions with greater clarity and 89 percent reported enhanced ability in listening to others. Marturano recently formed the Institute for Mindful Leadership to bring mindfulness training to corporate executives.

In April 2012, Google announced a new program titled “Search Inside Yourself,” a free course for employees designed to teach emotional intelligence through the practice of meditation. The program was designed by Chade-Meng Tan, a Google engineer looking for a way to ease the burden of Google’s fast-paced, demanding environment. Mr. Tan’s program is very popular among employees, generating a waiting list each time it’s offered.

Cultivating mindfulness takes daily practice. Mindfulness allows us to live in the present, bringing a deeper understanding of what is happening and how we respond to it. I urge you to give it a try. You will be glad you did, and so will those around you.

Bill George is professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and author of True North and Authentic Leadership. He is the former chair and CEO of Medtronic. Read more at, or follow him on Twitter @Bill_George.

Bill George: The Tipping Point for Mindfulness.


Karen Gifford: Meditation Saved My Job and Changed My Life

I began meditating when I was a litigator in the enforcement section of the New York Fed’s legal department. I led investigations into misconduct in the banking industry and brought civil enforcement actions based on what I found. My cases involved activity like embezzlement, loan fraud and misconduct on the trading desks that were new at banks at the time.

I loved my work. It was fascinating and I was lucky to have brilliant colleagues. I also believed — and still do- that what I was doing made the financial system run better and more fairly.

At the same time, my job came with obvious stresses. Cases that can result in significant fines, injunctions and bans from the industry are extremely contentious, to say the least. The bankers I brought cases against thought I was ruining their lives and took my enforcement actions personally. Shouting and swearing were very much part of my day; my opponents were often best lawyers in the country who could outspend me by many multiples.

While I was managing this challenging but rewarding legal practice, I was raising young children with a spouse who traveled four days a week. We were lucky to have a wonderful nanny; still, the demands were intense. Many nights I fell asleep on the floor of my children’s room, so exhausted I didn’t realize what happened until I woke up hours later with creases from the rug on my face.

At first I saw meditation as a way to cope with the demands of my work situation. I could see I needed to do something to make my life function better, and I really didn’t want to give up my job. I’d heard meditation helped with stress, so I began trying to meditate every day.

After my experience, I’m amused when business people tell me they can’t meditate. A good meditation practice just requires some discipline, concentration, and the ability to set goals and work towards them. These traits are the common currency of most professionals, and ones that I used when I began meditating.

The hardest part for me was getting started. I had many reasons to be motivated, but sitting still and watching my thoughts didn’t come naturally to a “do-er” like me. At first I sat for just two minutes a day — and that was hard! Eventually though, I found my way, and meditation became one of the pillars of my day. I learned that no matter how crazy things were at work or at home, I could go inside and find a place of deep calm, sweetness, silence and even joy.

So meditation helped me stay at my job and I was happy. I didn’t realize, though, that the calm I felt was just the beginning. Meditation is a transformational practice, not simply a means of stress reduction. Far from tamping down my nervous system so I could endure the difficult parts of my life, meditating made me more aware, present and open to change — and many changes ensued.

For one thing, meditation changed my home life. I enjoyed the time I had with my kids and spouse more fully, without being so pulled into work problems, or worse, stressing out over how little time we had together. Of course, sometimes I was more aware of things that weren’t working at home, but even that became more productive than upsetting. After a while, everyone at home was happier. This is a beautiful surprise of meditation — the changes it brought seemed so simple, but had a profound impact.

More surprising was what happened at work. As I got to know my mind a little better, I began to realize that my thoughts weren’t me, and I didn’t always have to believe them. I could decide whether the opposing counsel screaming at me over the phone was actually a terrible person out to torment me, or just another human being having a bad day. I began to feel more comfortable questioning my preconceptions than always trying to defend them.

This shift had a radical effect on my experience of work. I started to view work difficulties not as something to push away, but as opportunities to engage with my own mental constructs. And believe me, I had lots of opportunities! If you want to see your own patterns and assumptions, a demanding job will bring them to the fore. My office became a place for deepening self knowledge, not just somewhere I got things done.

Ironically, all this inner work made me more effective at my job. Watching stressful feelings come and go during meditation gave me tools I put to use in many situations: I was less reactive in negotiations, less intimidated by the “big guns” opposing me, worried less about outcomes and therefore was more able to do my best work. I was more myself in court, and I believe that made me more persuasive.

Did meditation turn me into the most invincible lawyer ever? Probably not. But it helped me become the best lawyer I was capable of being. Meditation certainly helped me keep a job I loved for years longer than I would have otherwise. Later, it created the mental space to question the all-work-at-all-costs ethos that dominates the legal profession, and find a way to practice part-time. And eventually, when I decided it was time to move on, meditation helped make the move out of legal practice — a notoriously fraught transition — pass relatively smoothly.

So if you work in the professional world, don’t think that meditation isn’t for you. You have the skills you need to build a strong meditation practice. If you take the plunge and start sitting, I can’t predict all the ways meditation will affect your personal and professional life. What I can promise is that it will, and how it does will surprise you. And I’m happy to say the surprises just keep coming.

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Karen Gifford: Meditation Saved My Job and Changed My Life.