In a recent article in the New York Times, Mark Bertolini, the chief
executive of Aetna, was interviewed for his unconventional decision to offer
yoga and meditation classes to the 50,000 employees at the Aetna home
office in Hartford Connecticut. So, what happened?
More than one-quarter of the company’s work force has participated in at
least one class, and those who have report, on average, a 28 percent
reduction in their stress levels, a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality
and a 19 percent reduction in pain. They also have become more effective on
the job, gaining an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity each,
which Aetna estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year. Demand for
the programs continues to rise; every class is overbooked.” (Read the full
article here: http://nyti.ms/18uXD0W)
Pretty impressive for corporate America. According to the article,
Bertolini’s change of heart in how to run his Fortune 100 company came after
a near death experience changed the way he looked at his own life, and the
lives of his employees. While it is often a crisis that brings us to the mat or
the cushion, it doesn’t have to be anything quite that dramatic. Mindfulness
is everywhere – in fact one writer coined the term “McMindfulness”, warning
that the word is often overused and misinterpreted.
So why Mindfulness? Why is it so popular? What exactly is Mindfulness and
what isn’t it?
In the same article, Bertolini said, . “Meditation is not about thinking about
nothing,” he said. “It’s about accepting what you think, giving reverence to it
and letting it go. It’s losing the attachment to it. Same thing with pain.”
That’s a very true and pretty big statement. Meditation isn’t emptying the
mind. It doesn’t make you into a zombie, or even make you more chill,
relaxed, or blissed out. It might, but that’s a side effect, not a goal. In
fact there are no goals in Mindfulness. That’s the point. As soon as you’re
trying to feel some thing, pleasant or unpleasant, you just missed the point
and jumped from being to doing.
Mindfulness is not an escape from the pain in your body, or your life. It’s
not even necessarily relaxing. Sometimes being mindful is very
uncomfortable, because what’s going on in your life (or in your body) may not
be very pleasant – and it might just be down right horrible. Mindfulness is
leaning into that discomfort, getting to know it, and instead of beating your
head against the wall wishing it were different, you accept it, take a long
look at it, and just maybe see another way to deal with it without becoming a
victim, being mad, or reaching for a nice big shot of Jack Daniels.
Mindfulness does have its roots in Buddhist Practice, but it isn’t religious. A
true Mindfulness Practice is secular. It doesn’t have any dogma, rules, or
belief systems you need to buy in to. Any one can practice it – even an
atheist. It won’t get you into heaven, but it may get you out of your own hell.
One of the big buzz words in neuro-science these days is neuroplasticity, or
the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections
throughout life. At the ripe age of 57, I find this to be very good news.
However, the fact is that many of our brains are programmed with a
negative bias – meaning that we spend far more time thinking negative
thoughts than positive ones. We are stuck in loops that are based on limiting
beliefs like “I’m not good enough, (thin enough, smart enough...) Everybody’s
out to get me, I’ll never feel any better.... .” These sticky thoughts are
simply not true, but our mind is so used to them, and the pathway is so well
worn, that we don’t even recognize them any more....... until we sit mindfully
and are brave enough to listen to the unkind things we say to ourselves, that
we would never say out loud, to any one else. Period.
That’s why being mindful is so radical. It’s the ultimate rebellion. It’s
revolutionary. And the biggest evolutionary challenge of modern man. We
do have a choice. We can continue to run the same old dialog, over and over
again. Eventually things will change, and life will go on, and we’ll probably
make the same mistake all over again. Or..... we can step up to the plate and
say “Hello Thought. Good bye Thought.” We can take the time to notice
what we think and how we think – about ourselves and about the world – and
CHOOSE which thoughts stick around and which ones we are ready to let go
of. We can choose which neural pathways we’d like to develop, nurture, and
cultivate and which pathways we are ready to abandon to the weed garden of
Mindfulness is not for the faint of heart. It’s not easy and it does take
practice. Daily Practice with a well-trained teacher. Neural pathways don’t
grow over night. They need attention, care, and repetition. And if you’re
into beating yourself up about your old worn out thoughts, forget about it,
because the Mindful Path is all about kindness, compassion, and an abundance
of patience – and all of that happens much more easily when you sit in a
And although its called MINDfulness, its not only about the mind. It’s about
the body and creating a relationship with it. Most of us walk around without
giving our body much thought. It’s not really our fault. When scientists
started dissecting bodies during the Renaissance to figure out how they
worked, they divided the body and the mind into separate territories. The
mind was relegated to the spiritual world of the soul, and the body was
dedicated to science. The mind could think ABOUT the body, but was
definitely a separate entity.
That’s why embodiment is one of the first practices in Mindfulness.
Reuniting the body and the mind. The mind and the heart. Remembering
how it feels to be sensual – which means smelling, tasting, seeing, feeling,
and hearing - those 5 skills that our bodies have always known how to do -
even though we’ve allowed our 6th sense, thinking, to take over. When we
get back into sensing mode, we realize how much we miss when we spend all
of our time in the mind. We miss the smell of toothpaste, the feeling of the
brush on our teeth, the sight of sparkly clean enamel, the great taste in our
mouth when its clean and minty fresh............ Choosing to act mindfully brings
us back into the world, eyes wide open, with child like wonder and presence.
In addition to offering yoga and meditation classes at Aetna, Mr. Bertolini
has also given his lowest-paid employees a 33 percent raise. “Mindfulness
has made me question what I do and how I look at the world.” He is positive
that the credit for his compassionate business decisions came from
meditation – not because he’s trying to be a nicer guy, but because his brain
has changed and he “knows” that it’s the right thing to do.
Right here in Wisconsin, The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the
UW-Wisconsin has been studying the effect of meditation on compassion.
Founder, Dr. Richard Davidson, found heightened electrical activity in brain
areas associated with attention and emotion in his study group meditators.
He also noted a spike in activity in the left prefrontal cortex—a brain region
associated with emotions like altruism and compassion. The study also
supported the idea that activities such as meditation might help to
essentially “re-wire” a brain over time to elicit positive feelings more often
than negative ones.
Reflective practice allows us to see around the corners of our minds, where
its often a little murky and smelly and raw. Mindfulness takes time,
repetition, patience and compassion. So “Why Mindfulness?” Why not? You
certainly have nothing to lose, except your negative bias on life.