NY Times DealBook – Amid the Chattering of the Global Elite, a Silent Interlude
By David Gelles for NY Times DealBook, January 21, 2015
DAVOS, Switzerland – For 10 minutes at the World Economic Forum here on Wednesday afternoon, a conference room jammed with more than 100 high-powered delegates was entirely silent.
The rare interlude of equanimity came during a panel called Leading Mindfully, a discussion of how meditation was impacting the workplace.
And with a mix of breathing instructions, management theory and personal reflection, the session provided a stark counterpoint to the frenzied discussions about geopolitical instability, currency fluctuations and climate change in nearby rooms.
“This is a very unusual event at the World Economic Forum, and it’s diagnostic of something much larger that is happening,” said Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist who helped popularize mindfulness meditation in recent decades. “What was once considered a radical, lunatic, fringe thing has been incorporated into medicine, science, academics and more.”
In recent years, meditation has grown more prominent in the business world. Companies including General Mills, Aetna and BlackRock are teaching meditation to their employees, and students at Harvard Business School can take classes on mindful leadership.
“Even Goldman Sachs is doing it,” said William George, a member of the Goldman Sachs board who was on the panel and says hundreds of the investment banks employees regularly meditate.
At the same time, hospitals, schools, sports teams and the military are promoting incorporating mindfulness in to their training.
“Teachers are desperate to teach kids how to pay attention, rather than screaming at them,” said Mr. Kabat-Zinn.
In Davos, meditation has been on the agenda for each of the last few years. But this year, there was more interest than ever, according to Mr. Kabat-Zinn. An upcoming panel at the event will explore how meditation changes the brain, and this year, Mr. Kabat-Zinn is leading popular meditation sessions each day at 8 a.m.
“A few years ago no one showed up,” he said.
The panelists, who also included Arianna Huffington, spent time discussing how meditation can benefit workers, but the highlight of the event was the meditation session.
Led by Mr. Kabat-Zinn, the stretch of silence was intended to get delegates out of their heads, and instead notice what was happening around them.
“The first thing we notice when we practice mindfulness is how mindless we are,” said Mr. Kabat-Zinn, defining mindfulness as “paying attention, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
The serenity was occasionally broken by the voices of other delegates in the halls, buzzing about contemporaneous panels including “The Geo-Economics of Energy” or “China’s Impact as a Global Investor.”
And the silence was too awkward for restless participants. Several people left during the meditation session, while others checked their phones.
When it was finished, Mr. Kabat-Zinn asked participants to raise their hand if their minds had wandered. Everyone in the audience raised their hands, including Matthieu Ricard, a Frenchman who has ordained as a Tibetan monk and been called “the happiest man in the world.”
Much of the discussion centered on how meditation might help executives perform better. “The main business case for mindfulness is that if you’re more focused on the job, you’ll become a better leader,” Mr. George said.
Mr. George said that Wall Street firms, in particular, could benefit from the virtues of meditation.
“It causes us to behave less aggressively,” he said. “Certainly, the financial community could use some of that.”
Meditation, the panelists said, also can reduce stress, improve well-being and promote calmness, clarity and creativity.
The room, with views of the Alps, was packed to capacity, with many attendees sitting on the floor. At two whiteboards around the room, artists drew interpretive illustrations of the themes being discussed.
“Here we are in this beautiful country, and has anyone bothered to look up at the mountains?” Mr. George asked. “Or are we just looking around for the next person to meet?”
It was perhaps an unusual theme for the power brokers at the event. But many on the panel and in the audience professed that meditation gave them a competitive advantage. And the burgeoning interest in meditation at the event mirrors a broader societal shift, in which yoga, mindfulness and meditation are becoming part of the mainstream.
“Modern science is validating ancient wisdom,” Ms. Huffington said. “We are living through a major tipping point.”
Attendees in the audience chimed in with their own stories. A professor from India described bringing meditation to her university with good results. An executive from an American company said mindfulness had improved relations in the C-Suite.
Another theme espoused by the panelists was the virtues of putting down smartphones and getting away from computer screens. Mr. Kabat-Zinn opened the session with a request for attendees to put away their devices and focus on being present for the duration of the unusually long, two-hour session. Not everyone complied.
“The truth is, we show much more compassion to our smartphones than ourselves,” Ms. Huffington said. “If we treated each other as kindly as we treated our smartphones, it would be a major revolution.”
Attendees at the session included executives, academics and politicians from around the globe.
“There is a hunger for this type of approach, especially at the World Economic Forum,” said Dean Ornish, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “We focus so much on success and power, but people are beginning to realize that the more at peace we are, the more we can spread peace in the world.”
And at least one financier was taking the message to heart. Paul Meehan, who manages Europe, the Middle East and Africa for Bain & Company, the management consulting firm, has been practicing yoga for five years and attended the session.
“This is one of the most impactful sessions I’ve been to,” he said.