Is the practice of mindfulness and meditation ultimately compatible with the cutthroat ethos of capitalism?
This is the question at the heart of David Gelles' intriguing, timely and enjoyable new book, "Mindful Work, How Meditation Is Changing Business From the Inside Out."
Published by Eamon Dolan Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the forthcoming book is a fascinating account of the increasing adoption of these ancient disciplines by Western businesses as means of improving corporate efficiency, reducing employee stress and, directly or indirectly, boosting the bottom line.
Gelles is a reporter for the New York Times and former Financial Times journalist who is also a longtime practitioner of mindfulness meditation — "the ability to see what is going on in our heads, without getting carried away with it."
It is a useful combination: He has both an initiate's appreciation of how meditation works and a journalist's objectivity and ability to tell a story.
In a brief history of mindfulness in the U.S., Henry David Thoreau gets Gelles' vote as the earliest New World proponent and an inspiration for the Beat generation Dharma bums Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
More recently, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist who pioneered mindfulness-based stress reduction at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, takes center stage. His willingness to downplay the spiritual side of meditation, Gelles argues, helped make mindfulness acceptable to mainstream science and medicine.
The core of the book concerns the adoption of mindfulness by corporate America. Using expertly crafted anecdotes and case studies, Gelles illustrates the benefits of meditation that companies such as General Mills and Aetna are seeking to harness.
Arianna Huffington sums up the rationale for all this corporate interest: "Stress reduction and mindfulness don't just make us happier and healthier, they're a proven competitive advantage for any business that wants one."
The data seem to bear this out. Aetna employees who took a "Mindfulness at Work" course saw their healthcare costs fall $2,000 a year compared with a control group. On an Orwellian note, it also improved their productivity, "resulting in more than an hour's gain in work time per employee per week."
But is it not the case that the more one practices mindfulness, the less interest one has in competition, profit and all the other commercial imperatives that underpin capitalism?
Is mindfulness really a neutral instrument that can be used for any end — or is it inextricably bound up with the elimination of selfishness, the cultivation of compassion and the rejection of materialism?
And might not promoting mindfulness among one's employees be a bit risky as a result — because if one succeeds, they might stop bothering with anything so trivial as profits?
Gelles certainly does not dodge this central question — indeed he devotes a whole chapter to it — but he does not really resolve it either.
The most revealing answer comes from the chief executive of Prana, one of the "mindful" businesses he visits. Carlsbad-based Prana in San Diego County is an online apparel retailer with stores in five cities nationwide. It is opening a flagship store this spring in Encinitas.
Challenged by Gelles on his claim to combine compassion with capitalism, Prana CEO Scott Kerslake responds: "We're still crappy at this. But we're less crappy than a lot of people."
Felix Martin is an economist, London-based bond fund manager and author of "Money — the Unauthorized Biography," published by Alfred A. Knopf. This review first appeared in the Financial Times of London.