It’s not just high powered meetings, networking and speeches at the World Economic Forum, some attendees are also taking part in meditation sessions. “There’s always a quiet place in your mind,” says Rick Goings, the boss of Tupperware Brands. Despite being at the helm of a company valued at a whopping $3bn – yes plastic box sales really are worth that much – he religiously spends 20 minutes twice a day meditating. Sometimes he does it in bed, other times in the car on the way back from a meeting or on an aeroplane, as well as in the office. The one crucial thing is that he has to be upright, he says. After all, he chides, it’s meditating not sleeping.
Until recently, many people may well not have known the difference. While meditation has been around a long time, it’s been seen as a religious practice rather than an activity in its own right. But increasingly it’s becoming part of everyday life. Sports centres, schools and now workplaces are beginning to offer meditation or something they call “mindfulness”.According to a recent study by Pew some 40% of Americans say they meditate regularly. Meditation sessionOne clear demonstration of its mainstream popularity is its presence at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Each morning there’s a half-hour session that anyone can attend. In the frenzied, noisy, non-stop meetings of this speed networking event it seems an anomaly. It’s far from the macho world of power typically on show here.
On the morning I attend, there are about 40 people in the room. We all sit together in complete silence, eyes open, hands on our knees. It feels a slightly uncomfortable thing to be doing with a roomful of strangers and it’s hard not to keep looking around to see what everyone else is doing. Jayanti Kirpalani, European director of Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, is leading the session. She talks throughout, telling us to focus on the idea of a light bulb in our minds and let everything else fade away. For me it doesn’t work at all. My mind is jumping and I’m worrying about whether I’ll make it to my next meeting on time.
Other attendees say the same. “I feel uncomfortable keeping my eyes open,” says one. Another says her mind “just wouldn’t stop racing”. Silent chantingMs Kirpalani says that it can take a while. Like most things the more you do it, the easier it gets, she says. She suggests trying it out later in the day, silently chanting a single word 100 times in your head. “It will set your compass” for the day, making you calmer, nicer and more open to others, she claims. While the benefits sound tempting, it’s simply something I won’t remember to do or have time for, I think. Yet 73-year-old Mr Goings – who has been practising transcendental meditation for over 40 years – says he doesn’t have time not to do it. “It helps me focus and work out what matters. It’s like making some kind of thing on your computer clear out the trash,” he says.
There’s plenty of research which suggests he’s right. Studies have claimed meditation can help protect the brain from ageing, relieve anxiety and depression as well as help improve concentration. Its these kind of benefits which are leading to the increasing popularity of meditation or similar types of practices.Pointless meetingsJohn Goodwin, the chief executive of charitable arm, The Lego Foundation, follows something called the “corporate athlete” programme. Part of this involves what he calls a “time of reflection” which he does for 45 minutes to an hour thing most mornings to get his brain to focus. He points out that it’s pointless filling your day up with endless meetings, if you’re only mentally present half of the time.
By his reckoning his reflection time extends his attention span by two-and-a-half hours each day, and he says it’s enabled him to take on additional responsibilities. “It’s a better trade off than going flat out,” he says. Davos regulars Marc Benioff, the chairman and chief executive of cloud computing firm Salesforce and Ray Dalio, the founder of hedge fund giant Bridgewater Associates, also regularly meditate.Both have said it has helped drive their success.In fact, Mr Benioff is so convinced of meditation’s effectiveness that he’s installed so called “mindfulness zones” at all the firm’s offices. Switching offThe company describes them as places where “employees can take a mental rest, meditate and pause to invite calmness and balance”.The zones each have a basket where employees drop their phones or laptops before going in. Jacob Botha, sales manger of training services at Salesforce, said he encourages his team to do a weekly guided meditation session. He said despite some scepticism on the team, it helped them feel more focused and calmer. “I want to challenge all managers to use their intuition, and be brave in terms of suggesting ideas like this. Team-building doesn’t just have to be happy hour at the bar,” he wrote on the company’s blog. But of course it doesn’t suit everyone. Elinor Steele, vice president of global communications & women’s Initiatives, at Tupperware, has worked closely with Mr Goings for over 20 years, but says she hasn’t been persuaded to meditate yet. “I can see the benefits, but I just haven’t managed to do it,” she laughs.