The following is an excerpt from David Gelles's Mindful Work. In the book, Gelles discusses how meditation could be the key to happiness in the workplace. Exploring examples of effective mindfulness employed by businesses large and small, he shows how lower stress levels lead not only to employee satisfaction, but to productive workflow.
Right around the time I began hearing about mindfulness at work, and plotting my trip to visit Janice Marturano at General Mills, I got a promotion. This was back when I worked at the Financial Times; after I had been covering media for a few years, my editor asked me to become the paper’s sole mergers and acquisitions reporter in the United States. It was a big offer, but I was reluctant to accept it at first. I enjoyed covering media and felt as if I was just hitting my stride. There was also the reality that covering M&A is notoriously competitive. Reporters on that beat are expected to be on call 24/7 and often work Sundays, chasing the deals that might break on so-called Merger Mondays. And in the United States, the FT was outmatched, competing against large teams of reporters at the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg. Nonetheless, it was a great opportunity to take on a prominent beat, and I accepted the job, even as I expected that the stress would be immense. I was right.
The job, instantly, was overwhelming. For the first three months I had breakfast meetings, lunches, and after-work drinks on top of long days at the office. Anytime a deal broke, or was even rumored, I was expected to match the story or take it forward. It was exhausting, and I noticed my stress levels ratcheting up. Luckily, I knew what to do. Though mindfulness works best as a preventive medicine, it can also prove an effective remedy. And after a few intense weeks of M&A reporting, I sensed it was time to recommit to meditation.
Though I had practiced mindfulness on and off for almost fifteen years, I had gone all that time without ever trying out what is probably the most popular form of meditation training today: Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. MBSR, more than any other class, curriculum, or teacher in the last thirty years, has helped mindfulness go mainstream. As a reporter, I had to figure out what it was all about. And at a personal level, reducing my stress level sounded pretty good, too. My job was more intense than ever, and I was trying to write a book on the side. With this kind of a schedule, I figured I could use all the mindfulness I could get. So with stresses at work mounting, I signed up for my inaugural training in MBSR. I even managed to convince my wife, Alison (never much of a meditator herself but often the most considerate person in the family), to join as well.
It was a difficult time for us. In addition to our busy work lives, we had just suffered a personal blow: Alison had had a miscarriage, and we were reeling, trying to process a complex flood of emotions. Like Marturano when she went off to the desert and learned from Jon Kabat-Zinn, we were personally and professionally depleted. And yet I knew I needed to renew my practice, and Alison intuited that mindfulness would help her heal. Which is how it came to be that at 8:30 p.m. on a Thursday evening, after a long day at work, while our friends were dining out or going to a show, we were at our first MBSR class, staring at a raisin.
We were at the Open Center, a New Age mecca in the shadow of the Empire State Building. We had entered through the gift shop, an incense-scented store hawking biodynamic brown rice wraps and crystals. We hustled through and made our way upstairs to a large classroom, where we took our seats in a big circle, along with twenty-eight other professionals from across Manhattan.
My butt was planted on an uncomfortable metal folding chair. The room we were in, a large space with double-high ceilings and big windows facing north onto the bustling streets, had seen better days. The mauve carpet was stained, and a fluorescent ceiling light flickered. It wasn’t the most soothing environment, but then, mindfulness asks that we be at peace even in uncomfortable situations. From down the hall, squawks from a Native American flute class pierced the air. And while my classmates were all there of their own volition, there was definitely some trepidation in the air. An introduction to mindfulness, it turned out, can be a cause for stress.
Our teacher for the eight-week course was Amy Gross, the former editor of O magazine, the print arm of Oprah Winfrey’s media empire. A compact woman with smooth features, a bushel of dark hair, and warm eyes, Amy did her best to make the group feel welcome in an admittedly awkward environment. Everyone seemed to know things were going to get intense, but no one knew quite what to expect. But I figured we were in good hands. Because she had worked with Oprah for years, I suspected Amy knew a thing or two about stress at work. And after dispensing with some formalities and doing a round of introductions, she got down to business.
Eager as I was to learn MBSR, it was a challenge to be fully present. I’d just had an intense day at the office, full of rolling deadlines, screaming editors, anxious colleagues, and evasive sources. I was still thinking about the story I’d just filed, which would be posted online any minute. The turmoil from the miscarriage continued to demand my emotional attention. Even though I was sitting down, I could feel the momentum of the day still trying to carry me along, as if I had just stepped onto solid ground after hours on a train. And now, a half-hour into the first class, we were staring at a raisin, which was supposed to be the object of our attention for the next ten minutes or so.
Amy told us to examine the raisin in our palm as if we’d never seen such a thing before, as if it were an alien object that magically appeared from another planet. Consider it anew, she said, with all five senses. We began with sight. What did it resemble? A rock? A piece of bark from a tree? The skin of an elephant? I examined the small pebble of dried fruit, noting the contradictions in its form. It had sharp ridges covering its globular body. Between its creases were flecks of a dried white substance, the sugar from its evaporated juices, clinging to its shriveled flesh.
Next: sound. What noise does a raisin make? None, I figured. Bringing it close to my ear, I squeezed gently. In fact, I could hear a small crackling. Turns out raisins have a voice, after all. It was a delightful little surprise that brought a smile to my face. Now touch. It was tough yet supple, sticky yet dry. Its nib, once connected to a small stem, was almost sharp, capable of leaving a small scratch on my skin. It weighed almost nothing, yet had a distinct volume between my index finger and thumb.
Smell. These weren’t the freshest raisins, and there wasn’t much fragrance coming from their small bodies. Nonetheless, when I brought it very close to my nose, nearly shoving it up my nostril, I caught a faint whiff of sweetness. And that little smell was enough to set my mouth salivating.
Finally: taste. I bit off a third of the raisin. Immediately my taste buds lit up, more saliva flooding around my gums. Though small, the little piece released enough flavor to dominate all my other senses. All the while, Amy asked us to also monitor what thoughts or feelings, likes and dislikes, the raisin elicited. Was I disappointed by its lack of freshness? Annoyed by the stickiness? Left salivating after smelling food? Did I notice the impulse to eat the raisin? Could I be aware of the intention to place it in my mouth before I actually made the motion to do so? Finally, when it was time to swallow the piece I’d chewed, could I feel the muscles in my throat impulsively moving before I followed through with the action?
The purpose of the exercise was twofold. Bringing our full attention to the raisin made it clear how much richer even mundane experiences can be when we are fully present. This is true of everything, from brushing our teeth to walking down the street. Every moment of our lives, there is a lot going on that we fail to notice.
The second intention was subtler. By encouraging us to examine our impulses, emotions, and desires, Amy was, with a few baby steps, helping us cultivate self-awareness. Instead of simply eating the raisin on autopilot, we were putting just a little space between our preconceptions about eating the raisin and the act itself. We were not just noticing the sensations of the experience, but also becoming aware that we were having an experience in the first place.
Though I ate that raisin a long time ago, I still remember each detail of it vividly. That’s the power of mindfulness. For those few minutes I was so engrossed in the totality of the raisin, no other thoughts were distracting me from the present moment. As a result, the shriveled grape remains among the most memorable meals of my life. And the lesson from MBSR is simple: we can bring that same clarity, purpose, and self-awareness to all our experiences.
Excerpt from MINDFUL WORK by David Gelles. Copyright © 2015 by David Gelles. Used by permission of Eamon Dolan Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.