When Curt Franklin and I first discussed what I'd be writing for E2, both of us wondered if the subject of mindfulness would meet some pushback from the rigorously rational CIO community. As it turned out, we needn't have worried.
From the beginning, there's been a great deal of interest and a considerable amount of engagement around a relatively "soft" topic. That's not to say, though, that there hasn't been pushback against the concept of mindfulness as a business productivity topic. It came, though, from a somewhat unexpected source.
In a widely discussed blog post, San Francisco State University management professor Ron Purser and author David Loy (both Zen teachers), expressed misgivings about the proliferation of "a stripped-down, secularized" version of techniques that have ancient and religious roots. Purser and Loy argue that the mindfulness featured in most corporate environments, removed from its ethical and Buddhist framework, is not only inadequate, but also potentially counterproductive for neophyte practitioners.
I'm an enormous fan of David Loy's, but I'd like to suggest that there's a perspective that he and his co-author might have overlooked. While the current mindfulness movement -- often disparaged by critics as McMindfulness -- certainly doesn't deliver the same benefits as the fully contextualized mindfulness that Purser and Loy prefer, it represents an introduction to concepts and techniques that might otherwise remain undiscovered by an overwhelming majority of corporate managers and workers. Perhaps McMindfulness can't get someone very far along a transformative path, but it might be precisely the thing to get him or her out of the starting gate.
Purser and Loy acknowledge but don't otherwise address the fact that there's a potential downside to keeping mindfulness tightly coupled to its Buddhist heritage. Such an approach would likely keep mindfulness training out of the workplace altogether. It could result in foreclosing the participation of potential practitioners who might one day decide to learn more about Buddhist teaching on "self-restraint, wholesome mental states, and ethical behaviors."
Sure, employers might have self-serving reasons for sponsoring mindfulness in the workplace. As Purser and Loy point out, we've seen that before. I believe, however, that regardless of someone's motivation in getting started, exposure to mindfulness can create its own momentum. After all, the real "hook" of mindfulness practice is experiential, not intellectual. Not in every case, but in some cases, at least, practitioners will use McMindfulness as a launching platform for a bigger journey.
Let's assume that, as a CIO, you've embraced -- in theory -- the benefits of grounding your department in mindfulness. Are there any circumstances under which you'd consider implementing a mindfulness program that acknowledged and embraced the practice's roots in Buddhism?
For many E2 readers, I suspect the answer would be no. (If you'd like to weigh in on this question in the Comments section, I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts.) The question that remains, then, is whether or not there can be real value -- to individuals and to companies -- in a program that's been "secularized." I'd submit that the answer to that question is yes.
A physical fitness program that that doesn't contemplate an Ironman triathlon as its ultimate objective can still deliver plenty of benefits for companies and their team members. And every once in a while, a team member will embrace the concept and wind up at the starting line in Kailua-Kona. I don't see any reason why mindfulness programs wouldn't work the same way.