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Sharon Salzberg: At-Peace Signs at Work

Author Sharon Salzberg opens the book on regretful emails and practicing mindfulness and meditation at work.

May 7, 2014

When Google Inc. held its annual conference in February on mindfulness and technology — an event that draws speakers like media mogul Arianna Huffington and new-age celebrity Eckhart Tolle — organizers were given an unexpected opportunity to practice what they preach. As a panel of Google executives sat serenely on stage, a small group of protesters armed with a bullhorn and a banner that read “Eviction Free San Francisco” stormed the stage.

The focus of their outcry was urban gentrification, not meditation, but the protest highlighted criticism among mindfulness practitioners who take issue with corporations using Buddhist practices as part of their business strategy. The protesters are part of an activist group that blames the rising cost of living in San Francisco on the influx of highly paid tech workers.

Some skeptics dismiss the meditation movement at work as a fad, but many companies like Google, Aetna Inc., General Mills Inc. and Target Corp. have embraced mindfulness training as a way to improve the well-being of their workers.

‘Sometimes people behave badly on purpose, but often we just lose touch with who we are.’

—Sharon Salzberg

Buddhist meditation teacher and best-selling author Sharon Salzberg seems a little perplexed by the criticism. But true to her teachings, she is at peace with it. Salzberg, who has conducted workshops at Google and other companies, recently published a book to help harried workers titled “Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.”

Salzberg, a longtime devotee of meditation, was not at the Google event, called Wisdom 2.0, but she seems to understand why a corporation embracing a practice based on a religion that considers greed to be a root of unhappiness might strike some as odd.

“Some of what people are objecting to is the use of certain mind-training techniques without creating a behavioral change that has to do with understanding interconnection and greater compassion toward others,” said Salzberg, who co-founded the Insight Meditation Society, a meditation center in Barre, Massachusetts. “The concern is that people will use these practices and continue with unethical or cruel behavior, just in a more focused fashion.”

Resilience

Salzberg sees meditation as less a religious practice and more as a mental tool, something that everyone from cashiers to CEOs can use to bring them peace at home and work. “It’s a tool of resilience and of perspective,” she said.

The term “resilience”— the ability to bounce back from adversity — seems to be everywhere these days as greater job demands and fewer rewards make it harder for workers to maintain a healthy and balanced life. So it makes sense that a growing number of companies are embracing the teachings of mindfulness, or meditation, and creating programs to help employees cope. Among them, Minneapolis-based food-maker General Mills is considered to be a pioneer in bringing meditation to the workplace, having launched a mindfulness initiative in 2006.

“Public awareness is huge,” Salzberg said. “It used to be that if I said ‘I teach meditation,’ people would sidle away. Now if I say ‘I teach meditation’ the single most common response I hear is, ‘I’m stressed out. I could use some of that.’ Corporate awareness has changed a lot, too. The notion of work-life balance is more prevalent. Even the word happiness is on a good trajectory. Happiness is also called resilience and that is important in the workplace.”

Salzberg, 62, is well-suited to the task of helping others become more resilient. A turbulent childhood presented her with many obstacles to overcome.

Her father left when she was 4 and her mother died when she was 9 years old, she said. After her mother’s death, Salzberg went to live with her father’s parents, who were strangers to her. Shortly after settling in with her grandparents, her grandfather died. And then two years later her father suddenly reappeared in her life. Building a relationship proved to be impossible — it was clear that he was mentally ill. Eventually, Salzberg’s father was institutionalized.

Learning the Buddhist Way

Through the chaos she managed to do well in school, and when she was 16 she left for college. It was there at the State University of New York at Buffalo that she took an Asian philosophy course and discovered Buddhist teachings. In 1970 she went to India to attend an independent study program and stayed for four years to travel and study Buddhism. When she returned to the States she began teaching meditation and founded the meditation center in Massachusetts. Since then, she has lectured and taught meditation for individuals and for a variety of organizations.

“The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that there is suffering in life,” she said. “That teaching was enormously important to me. No one had ever said it out loud. That had been my experience, of course, but no one had ever talked about it. I didn’t know what to do with all the fear and emotions within, and here was the Buddha saying this truth right out loud. I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t weird, and I didn’t have to feel isolated.”

Today’s workplace can be an isolating place fraught with challenges to worker well-being. Worldwide, only 13 percent of workers are “engaged” at work, according to a 2013 Gallup Inc. poll, and that affects productivity, as do mental health issues, which are becoming a growing area of concern for employers. Depression costs companies $23 billion a year in lost productivity, according to Gallup.

“Many organizations are experiencing a much faster pace of change internally and a lot more ambiguity in the global marketplace,” said executive coach Amy Fox, founder of Mobius Executive Leadership and a boutique consulting firm in Wellesley, Massachusetts, who has collaborated on several projects with Salzberg. “There is an accelerated need to metabolize and manage change. There is a significant body of research in the last decade that shows that companies are focusing on character development like courage, candor, authenticity — qualities embedded in mindfulness. Sharon has been a pioneer in this area. It’s been fascinating to watch the mainstream embrace her teaching.”

In a tough economy where finding a new job is not always an option, the workplace can become a pressure cooker of pent-up frustrations, and that makes it easy to lose a connection to our authentic selves, Salzberg said. That can cause a host of problems in work relationships.

“One of the great sources of happiness at work is authenticity, that ability to be ourselves,” she said. “When our values are being threatened or diminished, it’s very difficult to do that. A former executive told me that when she would have to sit in front of people who had committed some moral grievance, they often would say, ‘I don’t know why I did it. That’s not me.’ Sometimes people behave badly on purpose, but often we just lose touch with who we are.”

While this dynamic is not new, today’s economic realities are making it worse, Salzberg said.

“It’s exacerbated now because it’s harder to find another job,” she said. “People feel that they can’t challenge the status quo because they might lose their job, even when they are doing it skillfully.”

In her book “Real Happiness at Work,” chapters are divided into what Salzberg identifies as “the eight pillars of happiness in the workplace.” They are balance, concentration, compassion, resilience, communication and connection, integrity, meaning and open awareness, which she defines as “the ability to see the big picture.”

‘There is a significant body of research in the last decade that shows that companies are focusing on character development like courage, candor, authenticity — qualities embedded in mindfulness.’

—Amy Fox, Mobius Executive Leadership

While all the elements are essential to workplace bliss, Salzberg said meaning is considered by many to be the most important factor.

“Even if there is a lot of stress at work, if someone has a sense of meaning they feel much happier,” she said. “Meaning is sometimes in the job description but an awful lot of times it’s not in the job description, it’s in what we bring to the job, whether we are driving a cab or working in a call center.”

She shared the story of a woman who worked in a call center fielding customer complaints, a job that many would describe as thankless. Yet Salzberg said the woman was radiant when she talked about her work.

“She said, ‘I love everybody. I know by the time they get to me they’ve talked to three or four people, and they are so frustrated,’ ” Salzberg said. “ ‘I listen. I’m honest. I have a lot of respect for people.’ I have to believe that her lifelong ambition was not to work in a call center, and yet she was infusing what she did with tremendous meaning.”

But what about those who work in a corporate setting where the “customer” is the boss and the only motivation is making money and not helping a frustrated caller? Salzberg has a solution for that, too.

“Even if you’re in a corporate setting, it’s the same lesson,” she said. “Are you trying to find win-win situations, or are you just trying to come out ahead personally? Are you recognizing that when someone is not coming through on the job that maybe they have other things going on and that you should work with them, not against them?”

But getting driven workers to slow down and take time for introspection can be difficult, Salzberg said.

“Sometimes the fierce effort we make in work is not the most productive way to undertake a meditation practice,” she said. “There has to be balance, and that includes relaxing. If you’re wound up, going at a monstrous pace and you stop, it’s hard. Suddenly, you feel the tension that you’ve been holding in your body. You might feel some of the regret over a bad conversation you had with a co-worker but that you were too busy to acknowledge.”

Having time to reflect can prevent communication mishaps at work, Salzberg said. Many of us have felt the regret of a hasty email that we wish we had never sent. There is even a term for it, coined by writer and consultant Linda Stone: “email apnea.”

“We’re so wound up that we lose touch with what we’re feeling and with what our intentions are, like what we want out of this communication,” Salzberg said. “We barely breathe and then we press send. We just want to bring more consciousness to what we’re doing and not go on automatic pilot.”

Salzberg shared the story of one man who sent a regrettable email to a client who then forwarded it to his boss and some co-workers. To this day, every time the man sees his colleagues he feels a deep sense of shame.

But there are workplace meditations that employees can do discreetly and that take only a few moments. Salzberg calls these “stealth meditations.”

“For example, at the beginning of a meeting, look around and remind yourself that everybody in the room wants to be happy. We may all define it differently, but we all want to be happy.”

Salzberg finds many of her stories from comments people post on her blog. In February, she launched a 28-day meditation challenge based on practices in her books and invited participants to share their thoughts. What struck her was the diversity of occupations represented in the comments section and the common themes in everyone’s story.

“To see that a minister, a call center worker, an undercover police officer, a hedge-fund manager, all had some of the same problems — burnout, unmet expectations, and so on, was fascinating.”

Meditation can go a long way in bringing peace of mind to stressed workers, according to Salzberg, and also in resolving workplace conflicts.

Just ask the Google manager who watched calmly as security people at Wisdom 2.0 and protesters tussled over a banner during a session about building corporate mindfulness “the Google way.” Amid the mayhem he directed the crowd to take a moment to “check in with your body” and “feel what it’s like to be in conflict with people with heartfelt ideas that may be different from what we’re thinking.”

If meditation can work for Googlers, it might be worth trying before you hit send.