- theguardian.com, Friday 25 July 2014 07.00 BST
Just a few years ago, being invited to a company-sponsored meditationsession would have raised eyebrows in most workplaces. Now, with the growth in evidence for mindfulness as a way to cultivate well-being,organisations ranging from City banks and advertising agencies, to schools, government departments and third sector agencies are offering courses for their staff.
It's long been accepted that physical exercise is good for the body; the ancient Buddhist contention that mindfulness is good for the mind, now backed with science, is also permeating the mainstream.
Criticism these days is coming from Buddhist perspectives. It's suggested that teaching mindfulness as a way of "paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally" can lead to an unfortunate uncoupling of the approach from its ethical ground, especially in workplace settings where the prevailing culture may look a lot different from the 'right livelihood' of Buddhism.
There is unease that mindfulness is being taught to US Marines pre-deployment (won't more attentive soldiers make better killers?), at big financial institutions (don't we need judgement of the greed that fuels boom and bust?) and to frazzled teachers, nurses, and other strained employees (won't mindfulness be a palliative that allows them to - just about - survive in dysfunctional systems that should really be the focus of reform?).
There's also concern about who's doing the teaching. Becoming a Buddhist meditation teacher usually takes many years of practice and study. Anyone can set themselves up as a mindfulness trainer, at liberty to work with whomever is prepared to take direction. The risks are obvious – would you trust your flesh to anyone with a knife, just because they say they're a surgeon?
These complex issues are among those being considered by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness, which is holding an inquiry into possible roles for the practice in public policy, including at work. A round table on the topic was held at the House of Commons in May, and current discussions among contributors to the field will culminate in a second Parliamentary event in the autumn, leading to recommendations for the field.
Where does the debate stand so far? It seems clear, from studies, and lots of personal testimony, that well-structured mindfulness training elicits benefits for many - cultivating attention and curiosity, enabling greater regulation of thought and emotion, and nurturing action more in tune with values and intention, rather than unconscious automatic habits.
Importantly, mindfulness trains compassion – bringing kindness to experience is what distinguishes this from the concentration and balance of the unfeeling sniper.
When we're more able to deal with stress, there's space to be creative, connect with others, make good decisions, and offer an openness of spirit to the world. In the workplace, a realm plagued by pressure, it isn't hard to see the value of practices that cultivate not just individual well-being, but an expanded awareness, relationality, and freedom and discernment of choice.
But faced with the speed of much working life, there can be a strong pull (on course commissioners, teachers and participants) to compromise corporate mindfulness training to meet the 'needs' of an organisation. Training sessions become shorter, space for stillness is lost, and the emphasis may shift (perhaps unconsciously) from mindfulness as embodied expression of awareness, presence and compassion, and towards striving for some of its possible by-products, such as tolerating heavy demands, or meeting increased productivity goals. It may be these very demands and goals, and the onus on meeting them, which fuels the stress that originally led to the call for mindfulness. The results of a course that bows to these cultural pressures are likely to be limited.
Nevertheless, even in some apparently unfavourable circumstances, mindfulness training can offer contact with life-changing approaches and attitudes. It seems strange to withhold a much-needed technology because the people it could help aren't already using it.
A key concept in Buddhism is 'upaya' – skilful means. Part of the challenge for the field, and for the Parliamentary Inquiry, is to meet the openness to workplace mindfulness in artful ways that neither collude with mindlessness in corporate cultures nor alienate those operating within them.
Ed Halliwell is co-director of The Mindfulness Initiative, which is supporting the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness. Its report on mindfulness and public policy in healthcare, criminal justice, education and the workplace, will be published next Spring.