Mindful Work by David Gelles

On March 31, 2015, in Book Review, Heather Bussing, HRExaminer, Learning, by Heather Bussing

‘The ultimate promise of mindfulness is much larger, much more profound than simply cultivating our attentiveness,” said Jon Kabat-Zinn. “It helps us understand that our conventional view of ourselves and even what we mean by ‘self’ is incomplete in some very important ways. Mindfulness helps us recognize how and why we mistake the actuality of things for some story we create. It then makes it possible for us to chart a path toward greater sanity, well-being, and purpose.’    mindful work

I get a lot of offers of free books from marketers who hope I will read and review them. I ignore almost all of them because, well, most of the books are awful – either self-absorbed promotional pablum for the author’s business, or just complete bs supported by “case studies” that have way too much detail and not much substance.

But this one caught my attention. Partly, it was because the blurb from the publisher was well written and personally addressed. Partly, it was because the marketing manager actually asked me if I would be interested and would like a copy instead of just assuming I was and telling me what to do.

In other words, the pitch was mindful. Thank you, Ayesha Mirza.

I have also been in a place where I have been burnt out and overwhelmed. Some gentle reminders about meditation and compassion (for myself and others) was just what I needed.

So I read the book. It’s really good.

The author, David Gelles, is a former Financial Times reporter who currently covers mergers and acquisitions for the New York Times. On the surface, he’s an unlikely author of a book on meditation and mindfulness. And that’s one of the points of the book. Just because something looks one way, it may not be, and it doesn’t have to be.

It turns out Gelles has a long and colorful meditation practice. He has learned from many teachers in interesting circumstances, and has developed his own well considered views of what works and doesn’t work for him, and why his meditation practice continues to evolve.

He is also very familiar with the principles of acceptance, kindness, compassion, and nonviolence that underlie most mindfulness practices. One of the best chapters in the book is “McMindfulness,” in which he looks at how some of those principles get lost when meditation becomes one more tool to maximize profits.

More importantly, Gelles is very clear that there are many ways to meditate and to bring care and compassion to our thinking, actions, and decisions at work. It’s okay to try any of them and figure out what works for you. At the back of the book is a simple and easy to understand guide on how to meditate and a great list of resources.

Much of the book explores different approaches in companies that have tried to integrate meditation and mindfulness. It turns out that a lawyer at General Mills, Janice Marturano, was one of the first people to try to teach meditation at a major company.

Gelles also looks at meditation initiatives at Ford Motor Company, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Monsanto, the military, medicine, academia, and even the media. Many programs worked well to increase awareness of the consequences of our actions and attitudes and to provide tools to deal with anxiety and stress. Some were abandoned with changes in management (you can probably guess which). Some were incomplete and inadequate.

The book reviews the science, data, and studies that explain how meditation changes our brains and outlook. There is uncontroverted data that meditation reduces stress.

“If stress results from out-of-control thinking, the solution, it stands to reason, is learning how to, if not control our thoughts, at least not let them control us. William James knew as much when he said, ‘The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.’”

The best thing about the book is that Gelles walks his talk. He doesn’t try to sell you any particular idea, form of practice, belief, or ever tell you what to do. He is also open and honest about how hard it can be to sit with yourself and deal with your thoughts and feelings without running around and fixing things.

Meditation is not for wimps.

“(E)mbarking on a serious introspective journey is no walk in the park, and that while the benefits can be ample and obvious, there are risks too.” Brown University professor Willoughby Britton explains, “The fact that adopting mediation may be very disruptive to your life, that you might require supplemental therapy, or that you might be a little less functional and lower performing while stuff gets kicked up and you are working through. That’s not really in the current marketing scheme.”

This matches my own experience. I started meditating about ten years ago as a desperate attempt to manage my grief, fear, anger, and relief during my divorce. The feelings were overwhelming and I wanted to run, fix, do, eat, work, numb out, and pretty much anything else besides deal with them. I started meditating by setting the microwave timer to 5 minutes then sitting on the couch. My deal with myself was that I would sit there until the timer went off. No rules or special technique, I just was not going to get up or pick up something else to do while I was there.

Eventually, the time got longer, I figured out how to follow my breath, and how to let go of thoughts as they wandered through my head asking me to play, dream, worry, or freak out. I took refuge with a Zen group. I studied koans. And I thought I was ready for a silent retreat. But during the first long meditation session, the absurdity of all those people sitting together trying to improve and fix themselves, and the posturing and competitive energy in the room just made me laugh hysterically. I had to leave, and never really went back.

I still meditate. I read Buddhist teachings, and still work with koans. But I have learned that all of it is there simply to help me open my own mind and heart in whatever way works for me. There is no special technique, mantra, posture, method, or secret. And the only way to understand meditation is to do it.

I am much better for it and because of it. But meditation did not fix me or my issues. It did show me where to look and where the work needed to be done. And mindfulness helped me heal by learning to start where I am and to be kind to myself, as well as others. If this doesn’t seem to make sense, that’s the perfect place to begin.

So, if you have considered trying meditation but want to know more about it first, this is a great book to start with. If you already meditate, but want to know more about how to practice mindfulness at work, this is a balanced exploration of what’s been tried and how it’s working.

Mindful Work is also a beautifully written book that demonstrates the principles of compassion and curiosity as well as explaining them clearly.





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