A Zen master explains how the west is getting mindfulness all wrong

With mindfulness becoming an increasingly popular topic among business leaders around the world, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has hit out against executives using mindfulness practices to simply make more money.

Thay, as the Zen master is known to his thousands of follower across the world, points out that if executives are using mindfulness practices for selfish reasons, then they are experiencing a vacuous shadow of what mindfulness is really about.

“If you consider mindfulness as a means of having a lot of money, then you have not touched its true purpose,” he says. “It may look like the practice of mindfulness but inside there’s no peace, no joy, no happiness produced. It’s just an imitation. If you don’t feel the energy of brotherhood, of sisterhood, radiating from your work, that is not mindfulness.”

As he puts it: “If you’re happy, you cannot be a victim of your happiness. But if you’re successful, you can be a victim of your success.”

Mindfulness is now used more widely in business

In recent months several key business executives have spoken out about how it helps them improve the bottom line.

Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, wrote in a blog post:

“There’s nothing touchy-feely about increased profits. This is a tough economy. … Stress-reduction and mindfulness don’t just make us happier and healthier, they’re a proven competitive advantage for any business that wants one.”

But by focusing on mindfulness as a method for improving profits, are business leaders corrupting the core Buddhist practice?

According to Thay, it’s okay if for business leaders to adopt mindfulness practices for the workforce, as long as they stay true to the original intention of mindfulness.

As Thay told the Guardian:

“If you know how to practice mindfulness you can generate peace and joy right here, right now. And you’ll appreciate that and it will change you. In the beginning, you believe that if you cannot become number one, you cannot be happy, but if you practice mindfulness you will readily release that kind of idea. We need not fear that mindfulness might become only a means and not an end because in mindfulness the means and the end are the same thing. There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way.”

However, when executives shift from the true intention of mindfulness and pursue it for selfish reasons, then they have lost the way.

The intersection of mindfulness and technology

Perhaps one of the more interesting intersections of mindfulness and the business world comes from how technology companies are embracing mindfulness.

Companies like Google, Apple and Facebook are creating products that help to connect people all around the world and bring us information at the speed of light. It’s potentially very empowering, and yet at the same time is creating a lot of information overload for people.

Mindfulness practices are all about slowing down and emptying the mind, creating an effect opposite to what these companies are doing for the world.

Despite this, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs was reportedly fascinated with Zen Buddhism, and mindfulness has been linked with the Californian lifestyle, where many technology companies are located.

It therefore comes as no great surprise that Thay was invited to Silicon Valley by Google to lead a private day of mindfulness for CEOs of 15 of the world’s most influential technology companies.

Thay’s core message to the tech leaders was to use their global influence to focus on how they can help to make the world a better place, rather than creating as much wealth as possible.

Thay focused on the massive contrast between the frenetic pace required to work at these technology companies with the sense of peace that can come from sitting in silence using practices of mindfulness.

As he said:

“The atmosphere was totally different. There’s a silence, there’s a peace that comes from doing nothing. And in that space, they can realise the preciousness of time.”

Advice for the technology industry

During his visit, Thay met a number of senior Google engineers and spoke about how they can use technology to create a more compassionate world, rather than increasing people’s stress and isolation from each other from the products they create:

“When they create electronic devices, they can reflect on whether that new product will take people away from themselves, their family and nature. Instead they can create the kind of devices and software that can help them to go back to themselves, to take care of their feelings. By doing that, they will feel good because they’re doing something good for society.”

Thay had some more advice for the Google engineers: “Time is not money. Time is life, time is love.”

When he returned to his home in France, near Bordeaux, Thay said of his trip:

“In all the visits, I told them they have to conduct business in such a way that happiness should be possible for everyone in the company. What is the use of having more money if you suffer more? They also should understand that if they have a good aspiration, they become happier because helping society to change gives life a meaning.”

The trip was only the beginning. As he said:

“I think we planted a number of seeds and it will take time for the seeds to mature. If they begin to practice mindfulness, they’ll experience joy, happiness, transformation, and they can fix for themselves another kind of aspiration. Fame and power and money cannot really bring true happiness compared to when you have a way of life that can take care of your body and your feelings.”


We're tired of media that amplifies fear and negativity, without expanding your perspective.

This is why we're creating a new kind of media model. One where people come together around new ways of thinking and living.

Your voice is important in this media revolution. Your free thought is important. Make no mistake, you are the key to promoting new ways of thinking.

We need your support now more than ever. Become an Ideapod Prime member for only $4 per month, with a free 14 day trial.

When you join, you get immediate access to all of Ideapod's eBooks and webinars (worth hundreds of dollars - you get it as part of our free trial).

Learn more about our Prime membership program clicking the button below. Thank you!

Become an Ideapod Prime member