Because my boss told me to?
The pandemic has brought mental health to the forefront of public consciousness on multiple levels. For many who suffer chronic stress as a result of their job, the conversation is long overdue—and completely welcome. While we may not have previously given as much credence or concern to the effects of trauma and life disruption on our psyches, we now recognize that we can't simply brush them aside. Likewise, it's a relief that we can now acknowledge that many pre-pandemic work cultures were, for lack of a better word, toxic. Along with this new awareness, we are also seeing an increase in self-help trends and personal care tips, such as a more mainstream endorsement of meditation as a way to cope with stress and anxiety.
"No amount of anxiety makes any difference to anything that is going to happen."— Zen Proverbs (@ZenProverbs) September 9, 2020
— Alan Watts
Although the popularization of the practice perhaps should not come as much of a surprise, it can seem incongruous when a commercial figure, such as a Channel 4 newscaster, prescribes an activity that is just so, well, not. Corporate cultures are also building mindfulness moments into their employees' days, not only in response to increased stress levels, but also for the benefits of boosting teamwork and productivity.
On the one hand, it's positive when huge workplaces demonstrate greater recognition of their employees' needs as humans. On the other hand, it's hard not to detect a more insidious, sinister agenda when various corporate consultant articles insinuate that implementing these practices is even partially profit-motivated. Not to mention, what if the workplace culture truly is soul-crushing? A few moments of deep breathing won't fix that, and suggesting that they would is frankly invalidating.
"It is when your practice is rather greedy that you become discouraged with it."— Zen Proverbs (@ZenProverbs) September 11, 2020
— Shunryu Suzuki
"Any effort that has self-glorification as its final endpoint is bound to end in disaster."— Zen Proverbs (@ZenProverbs) September 17, 2020
— Robert M. Pirsig
When you consider that meditation began as an Eastern practice ultimately intended to unite humans with the absolute, the idea that you should use it to be better at your job seems laughable, and like an utter perversion of the practice. First, the concept of meditating is extremely old. Historians point to its origin between 5,000 and 3,500 BCE in the Indian subcontinent, based on the presence of artistic depictions from that time, with written descriptions appearing around 1500 BCE. It was originally a Hindu practice that eventually spread into Taoism and Buddhism, and its purpose was to remove ignorance and reach enlightenment.
There are different kinds, but whatever the variety, most practices share the commonality of prolonged contemplative concentration while focusing on breathing and monitoring thoughts, sometimes while also repeating a holy word or phrase known as a mantra.
"Zen is a path of liberation. It liberates you. It is freedom from the first step to the last. You are not required to follow any rules; you are required to find out your own rules and your own life in the light of awareness."— Zen Proverbs (@ZenProverbs) September 10, 2020
"When we focus our attention in the here and now and live simply, we have more time to do the things we think are important."— Zen Proverbs (@ZenProverbs) September 15, 2020
— Thich Nhat Hanh
Meditation was slow to gain popularity in the West, where cultural values tend to focus far more heavily on results, data, and linear self-improvement processes, rather than methods that are completed for their own sake and may appear circuitous and vague on their surface.
A lot of spiritual advice, which usually emphasizes silence, humility, and the acceptance of ignorance, can sound like frustrating gobbledygook to people who want immediate results. Transcendentalists in the United States from 1840 to 1880 expressed interest, but Eastern practices didn't gain real traction until the 1960s with the rise of counter-culture. The practices were largely secularized, though, rather than hearkening back to their religious roots.
"When we discover that the truth is already in us, we are all at once our original selves."— Zen Proverbs (@ZenProverbs) September 17, 2020
— Dōgen Zenji
Now, meditation is often practiced in conjunction with other activities, such as yoga, and is categorized as a wellness practice that relieves stress and anxiety. However, if you look into the message of any expert practitioner or teacher, you will find that they consider these secondary benefits to be entirely beside the point.
The real purpose of meditation?
Essentially, to accept life in all its transience and imperfection, and to release your ego. Teachers encourage us to confront topics that may make us uncomfortable, like death and anger, and to make peace with them.
To know that you do not know is the best.— Zen Proverbs (@ZenProverbs) September 12, 2020
To pretend to know when you do not know is a disease.
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
"The only suffering is the mind's addiction to identity."— Zen Proverbs (@ZenProverbs) September 8, 2020
— Byron Katie #ego
So, is there an actual problem with the growing popularity of meditative practices? Yes and no. Being okay with sitting with yourself and your mortality, though it sounds depressing and potentially boring, is certainly not a bad thing. However, when corporate leaders start prescribing meditation as a way to increase the productivity of already put-upon employees, we are witnessing the hijacking and contamination of a practice intended to help us reach wisdom. Many yogis and spiritual guides begin their sessions by setting an intention. Let us, too, carefully consider our intentions as we explore our spiritual wellness.
"Death is not an error. It is not a failure. It is taking off a tight shoe."— Zen Proverbs (@ZenProverbs) September 11, 2020
— Ram Dass
If you wonder what Buddhism has to offer you, the answer is: nothing.— Zen Proverbs (@ZenProverbs) September 12, 2020
— Trinlay Tulku Rinpoche
Have you tried meditating? What do you believe are the benefits? Let us know in the comments!