Inside the Mindfulness Machine

bridget-s-bardo by james turrell (mindfulness)

Working for an organization that teaches mindfulness has been profoundly disappointing.

Before I took the job (now 4 months ago), I had an idea that just by working there and being around mindfulness, I would automatically be more mindful. I thought this would be pleasurable personal growth, a painless process. I would would be a better person almost magically, like how Super Mario grows by jumping on a mushroom, with a perky trill in the background.

This is not how it’s worked. If anything, it’s the opposite. I’ve had to face that I am still the small Mario, that there is no magic mushroom, that work is still work. It is very disappointing to still be me.

At my last job, it was very easy to lay blame for my sense of dissatisfaction. Other people were the problem: the organizational culture was bad, I had a boss who gave no feedback, and my coworkers were checked out. I hoped that a new job would fix these problems. And what better place to test this theory than with an organization that teaches mindfulness — surely they would get this right.

Not exactly.

Working in the mindfulness field is a funny thing. It is very normal to start a meeting with a suggestion of “let’s sit for a minute”; it’s acceptable to close your eyes during a meeting because you’re concentrating; a lunch discussion might turn into a philosophical discussion about death (with no irony).

At my first staff meeting, I kept waiting for the “real work” to start. We did a partner exercise about teamwork, then convened in the whole group to share how we were doing. (People shared honestly, even one woman who spoke about how emotional she was because her neighbor was dying.) Then the meeting ended. I looked around. Had anyone else noticed that no work had been discussed?

They didn’t. They went along with their day. It took time for me to realize that this was the work. We were trying to practice what we teach, and my driving need for productivity, efficiency and focus were only one way of working – expectations that I’d dutifully toted around from job to job, expecting and wanting other people to match it. Here, people are interested in relating and connecting. That seems to be their metric of success, much more than other forms of accomplishment.

Being part of a culture that truly emphasizes being yourself, self-care, and emotional intelligence has shed a harsh light on the way I have always shown up to work  – and rarely really thought about – before this point.  In the first month on the job, I didn’t have enough to do. I saw myself scavenging for work, inventing things to do and trying to be useful and feel productive.  My ego needed it. That poor little thing (sometimes big thing) that wanted so much to feel important, to pour itself into work and feel validated. It is probably not an accident that this mindfulness organization will not do that for me. My ego certainly still finds places to live. For a while, it even tried to pour itself into mindfulness. I felt ashamed of not being *more* mindful.

For me to really bring myself to work has meant coming to terms with all of my natural inclinations, even (especially) the ones I tried to leave at my last job. I walk too fast around the office, while others walk with mindful purpose. I voice my opinions readily and sometimes harshly, only worrying afterward about the impact it might have had on the others around me. I’ve gotten more used to being one of the people in the office most concerned with processes, efficiency and getting enough done, while others are full of heart.

Their heart has rubbed off on me, too. Trying to let all of myself come to work forced me to really see the attitudes and assumptions I bring to the office. I can no longer blame my workplace for every dissatisfaction I experience. Instead, I have started to try to balance out some of these tendencies (connecting with people before talking about work), and simply own others (we do need more process).

I am learning to let everybody else show up as they are, too. Disappointed as I am that I didn’t step on the magic mushroom, I am equally disappointed to find out that everyone else is just a person too. They may have deep meditation practices, but they too are imperfect. As an organization we have all of the mundane issues that plague workplaces everywhere: poor communication, too much work, management issues. Which is to say that this is an office like any other. Only we try to bring more mindfulness and attention to it. We talk about issues more openly. We do really connect as people, and this makes work so much more pleasurable.

This would be a better story if it were about how catty we are despite hours of meditation, or if we had actually achieved some sort of organizational enlightenment.  Sadly, no. Mindfulness does not map to perfection. Inside the mindfulness company looks quite like the rest of the world, only with more hugs and a pair of Tibetan bells at our weekly staff meetings.


Image: “Bridget’s Bardo” by James Turrell (2008)

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