Here's a case study you won't find at Wharton or the Harvard Business School.
Sid, the wealthy CEO of a highly profitable multi-national corporation, notices that even his best employees have trouble focusing for extended periods of time. Needing to devise a plan to maximize productivity, he heads over to a quiet spot near his favorite river, where he can sit and think clearly without distraction. For hours, Sid watches the ebb and flow of the currents in the river and in his own stream of consciousness.
Then, recalling his childhood, he has an "aha" moment. "Dudes," he says to an imaginary audience, "I learned to sit for hours this way under a rose-apple tree years ago, perfectly calm and joyful, focused on the present moment."
Sid groks that he must leave his cushy job behind and devote himself to teaching other business leaders and their employees the benefits of what he calls "mindfulness."
The wisdom of Sid (aka Siddhartha, aka the Buddha) resonates thousands of years later as modern-day companies experiment with mindfulness programs that combine spiritual guidance, business orientation and social consciousness.
One such experiment pairs enso, an award-winning creative agency that, according to its mission statement, "amplifies businesses bettering the world" -- including Google, Khan Academy, TOMS and Omidyar Network -- with its Santa Monica, CA neighbor InsightLA, a center for mindfulness.
Twenty of enso's 26 staffers volunteered for a five-week workshop conducted by InsightLA mindfulness teacher Allen Weiss. Weiss, also a USC professor of marketing and a business owner, melds power point presentations, video clips and neuroscience with ancient Buddhist teachings to help enso's staffers reach, if not Nirvana, their creative potential.
Enso co-founder and creative lead Kirk Souder says, "One of pieces of positive feedback we consistently get from our clients is enso's ability to collaborate with them from a place of egolessness. We think mindfulness is a way to amplify this quality, while also facilitating a greater sense of happiness, centeredness and creativity in people who value these things. This is probably why the vast majority of our staffers chose to participate in the mindfulness lab."
Each Tuesday, Weiss presents a 90-minute class at the InsightLA center that aims to bring the principles of mindfulness into harmony with the realities of the marketplace. Participants are then given a "homework" assignment comprising a specific kind of daily practice, such as simple meditations grounded in the body, breath and emotions. Later in the week, at enso's offices, Weiss holds one-on-one meetings with participants to help them through the inevitable resistances they have to sitting still unplugged and, basically, doing nothing. (Disclosure: I am the board chair of InsightLA.)
Mindfulness meditation isn't necessarily meant to calm you down, though it might if that's your intention. Enso's high-achievers, it turns out, don't so much want to calm down as to work more creatively, compete more effectively and meet more ambitious and meaningful goals.
Weiss says, "When I teach mindfulness in business contexts, I focus on enhancing creativity and flow. People learn how to adapt to rapidly changing inner and outer contexts. I'm showing them how everything they do in meditation relates to what they do when not meditating."
After just three weeks, lives are already changing. People walk into class not quite sure why they are there and walk out excited about discovering at least a sliver of the wisdom of mindfulness.
Sebastian Buck, enso co-founder and strategic lead, notices "a clarity and focus in the rest of my life that makes me more efficient. As a strategist, being able to apply purposeful thinking towards potential solutions is important, and impatience or frustration can get in the way of that; I've found myself noticing impatience and frustration, and therefore being better able to move past those states. In practicing outside of class, I've begun to see a progression. When I started I was concerned with trying to 'do it well,' which actually created stress. But practicing just being with it and observing has made for a rewarding if not always pleasant experience."
Carla Fernandez, enso's brand and culture director, says, "Start-up life is prime time for an overly active mind, and even when I was 'relaxing' -- hanging out with friends, doing yoga -- I was still running through to-do lists, thinking about work. The fatigue that can come with that is hard to crawl out of. The mindfulness exercises are helping me take an actual brain break. Even if just for 15 minutes, putting a punctuation mark on the end of a long day feels healthy for me and for my work."
Professor Weiss stresses to the class that mindfulness is "democratic." Whatever negative or positive thoughts or emotions arise, mindfulness is equal opportunity awareness, able to go anywhere we do, open to whatever is happening, able to pause and respond more wisely.
There's an analogy between branding/marketing and mindfulness: with branding, the agency seeks to learn what the consumer likes and doesn't like and then helps the client shape and communicate its message accordingly; with mindfulness, you learn how to use awareness of what you like and don't like to widen perspective and shape your own mission statement; you free yourself to become, in effect, the agency, the client and the consumer.
Enso is complementing the workshop with a social campaign, including regular blog posts on its website and frequent updates on its social feeds. The classes, the follow-up sessions and interviews with Allen and InsightLA Founder and Guiding Teacher Trudy Goodman are being filmed for documentary clips that Souder plans to offer for further experimentation and future programs.
Goodman says, "Mindfulness will help you clear away the trivia and needless worries about unimportant things, nurture passion for your work and compassion for others, and develop the ability to empower the people in your organization."
Sid must be smiling, from the timeless realm.