What can the ancient wisdom of yoga teach us about doing business in the high-tech 21st century?
Words Shaun Bowler. Artwork Lisa Lodge
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the global, social and environmental issues we face as we grapple with deadlines and the demands of technology in our daily working lives.
Yoga, a 3000-year-old tradition of mindfulness and sustainability, may hold the key to thriving in modern times. In particular, the concepts of advaita and ekagrata, both Sanskrit words, show the ancients had some tools that we may find useful today.
Advaita meaning: not two
A goal of yoga is to bring us into our bodies. We tend to see the mind and body as two separate entities, with TED Talk speaker Sir Ken Robinson talking about viewing our bodies as simply a way of getting our heads from meeting to meeting. But when we do yoga, it’s about bringing mind and body together: mindful embodiment. We become aware of our muscles, our joints, and the flow of breath in and out of our lungs. Yoga breaks down the illusion that the mind is separate from the body. Advaita invites us to become one with our bodies. In doing so we come home. We are no longer disembodied minds rushing from meeting to meeting. We are mindful. Many people come to the yoga mat
to stop being caught up in what we call the ‘monkey-mind’ and to become more present in the moment.
In yoga, we escape the monkey-mind by focusing in on our bodily experience. The shapes we make do not matter. Our aim is to leave the mat with greater concentration, relaxed, with a greater capacity for effective action. More choices then become available to us in each moment as a result of this. We become integrated and whole again.
Advaita also applies to sustainable business. In the same way that bringing awareness to our bodies opens up our personal effectiveness, businesses that understand they are not separate from the wider environment make more effective choices for their shareholders, staff and customers. A mindful business is aware of its impacts and wider environment, and engages with its stakeholders.
In the West, we’ve seen the economy, society and the environment as separate things. But we’re now going through a massive paradigm shift toward Eastern and indigenous world views. In the same way the mind and the breath cannot be separated from the physical body, we’re starting to realise that our economy must rely on physical flows and stocks of matter and energy to exist. You cannot have a disembodied economy sitting off in space somewhere without a planet to live on any more than our minds can exist outside our bodies. Advaita invites us to unite the environment, society, business and our suppliers in one harmonious whole.
Bringing an inner lightness to our work
Perhaps this is the true meaning of mindful business. Our challenge is to bring our own personal wellbeing to work. This means being in our own breath and bodies as we go about our work. Building a sustainable future demands nothing less than our fullest presence.
A co-worker once shared ‘The Breath of Life’ with me. When things in her work team got overwhelming, they would all stand up as a group and inhale as they raised their arms, then fold forward and exhale deeply. This simple practice grounded everyone and reminded them to breathe consciously and deeply, busting them out of the cycle of stress and enriching their cells with life-giving oxygen. Our challenge, as individuals and organisations, is to become whole again. This is the essence of sustainability.
Ekagrata meaning: one-pointedness
Ekagrata is our ability to focus our minds on a single object (one-pointedness). In ekagrata there is clarity and direction. We have intent and action. If ekagrata is lost, the full power of intent to achieve our goals is lost. But there are many tasks in business that constantly divide our focus.
Technology and modern offices don’t help. One study showed that office workers are interrupted, or self-interrupt, every three minutes during the day, with distractions coming from both digital and human sources. It’s amazing that those of us in modern offices achieve anything.
The whole concept of multi-tasking is actually very doubtful. In another study, the IQ of people fell 10 points when they constantly attended to incoming emails and phone calls – more than twice the effect of smoking marijuana. This is because multi-tasking and interruptions divide our finite capacity for attention. “The human brain doesn’t multi-task like an expert juggler; it switches frantically between tasks like a bad amateur plate-spinner,” says psychiatrist and former researcher at the University of London, Glenn Wilson.
In the United States, employees visit Facebook 21 times a day on average and check their email 74 times. This is the exact opposite of conscious, mindful behaviour. When we divide our attention, our ability to retain information and reason with it is decreased. In turn, our capacity for effective action is reduced. Our goals suffer. The news behind multi-tasking is actually far worse than the effect it has on our productivity. Constant attention-switching robs us of that which make us uniquely human, such as compassion, self-awareness and creativity.
How can we show these things when we feel permanently overloaded?
Our challenge here is to achieve our goals and to be more fully human. To do so we need to practice ekagrata and bring our undivided attention to the tasks that really matter. Meditation can help, along with turning off email notifications and text alerts and having quiet places for important work.
In sustainability, there’s a similar challenge. When you’re trying to save the planet and all the people on it while at the same time sustaining the economy, it can feel like there are a million different goals. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are increasingly seen as relevant to business. But there are 17 of them, ranging from ending poverty to climate action. Having this many different goals can divide the focus of even the largest, most well-resourced organisations. In attending to all 17 goals we risk simply giving lip service to some and becoming amateur sustainability plate-spinners.
Ekagrata in sustainability means focusing on what is material to your business. A materiality assessment will prioritise your resources for the sustainability issues that matter most.
Fonterra has identified that their biggest contribution toward sustainability can be in the areas of health and nutrition, water quality and climate action. It’s easy to be cynical about this given the impact of dairying on New Zealand, but at least Fonterra has declared a focus for their sustainability efforts and we can now hold them accountable.
What does your sustainability strategy focus on and why does it matter to your stakeholders and the wider world?’
At Enviro-Mark Solutions we’re working on a new programme based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. One offer in the programme will be how businesses have brought ekagrata to their sustainability efforts through a robust materiality assessment.
Shaun Bowler has a BSc in human physiology and an MSc (Hons) in cognitive neuroscience – the study of mind and brain. He maintains a daily personal meditation practice, teaches yoga and is currently Principal Sustainability Advisor with Enviro-Mark Solutions, helping businesses manage their carbon and environmental impacts.