Our voracious economic system
Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh), who warns that civilisation is at risk of collapse from the environmental and social damage caused by the voraciousness of our economic system, offers an alternative vision that focuses on true happiness, which he believes we have sacrificed on the altar of materialism.
His teaching is based on transforming our suffering by letting go of the scars of the past as well as worries about the future, via meditation and mindful living.
Pointing to our addiction to consumption as a clear sign we are trying to paper over our suffering, Thay suggests we should go in the opposite direction, to the very heart of our pain, in order to transcend it.
He believes that for business to play a role in slowing the runaway train of capitalism, corporate leaders need to recognise they have made a fundamental error in their narrow-minded belief that profit on its own equates to success.
Business needs a fundamental shift in consciousness
For that to happen, the corporate world needs to undergo a fundamental shift in consciousness by recognising the importance of integrating spiritual principles into its daily life.
In an interview with the Guardian at the end of his retreat last week in the Catskill Mountains on the art of suffering, Thay said: “You have to consider your idea of happiness. You think it is possible only if you win, if you are on the top.
“But it is not necessarily like that, because even if you are successful in making more money, you still suffer. You compete because you’re not happy and meditation can help you to suffer less.
“Many of us think you can only be happy when you leave other people behind; you are number one. You do not need to be number one to be happy.
“There must be a spiritual dimension in your life and in your business, otherwise you cannot deal with the suffering caused by your work or your daily life…”
Mindfulness and meditation in the workplace
Thay believes that bringing mindfulness and meditation into corporations will help them to turn away from their destructive ways and recognise the inter-dependence of all life.
“Meditation practice can help business to suffer less,” he says. “That
is good already because if your employees are happy, your business can improve.
“If your business is causing environmental problems, then because you have practiced meditation you may have an idea of how to conduct your business in such a way that you will harm nature less.
“Meditation can calm your suffering and give you more insight and more right view on yourself and on the world and if you have a collective wisdom, then naturally you will want to handle and conduct your business in such a way that will make the world suffer less.”
Bringing mindfulness into the workplace can also help prevent employees from becoming overwhelmed by their work, according to Thay, but business leaders need to lead by example.
Business leaders need to take care of themselves
While many senior executives are starting to speak out about the importance of sustainability, Thay says few connect this to the internal culture of the organisations they run.
“If he [business leader] spends all the time taking care of the corporation, he does not have time for himself or his family, but it is important to recognise that the business will profit if he is more calm, more loving, more compassionate and understanding,” he says.
Partly to blame is the increasing speed and reach of computers, which makes it increasingly hard to find time to reflect and be inspired.
The power of aimlessness
Thay talks of the importance of developing the art of aimlessness, rather than the non-stop creation of more projects.
“People believe that happiness is in the future and the point of aimlessness is to stop running and find happiness in the here and the now,” he says.
“True happiness cannot be without peace. If you continue to run, how can you have peace and you run in your dreams also. That is our civilisation.
“We have to reverse this trend. We have to go back to ourselves, to our beloved ones, to nature, because electronic devices help us to run away from ourselves. We lose ourselves in the internet, business, projects and we have no time to be with ourselves. We do not have the time to take care of our beloved ones and do not allow Mother Earth to heal us. We are running away from self, family and nature.”
While most business leaders find it difficult to talk openly about the pressures they face, there are high profile examples of executives who share Thay’s concerns.
Erin Callan, the former chief financial officer of Lehman Brothers, who resigned months before the bank’s bankruptcy, put her head above the parapet earlier this year to write about how work had completely consumed her.
“When I left my job, it devastated me,” she wrote in the New York Times. “I couldn’t just rally and move on. I did not know how to value who I was versus what I did.
“When I wasn’t catching up on work, I spent my weekends recharging my batteries for the coming week. Work always came first, before my family, friends and marriage — which ended just a few years later.”