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Martin Boroson

One-Moment Meditation for Managers

How an MBA turned to meditation and in the process managed to turn meditation upside down.

While a student at the Yale School of Management, I decided to invite all the students, staff, and faculty to an informal discussion that I titled “Spirituality and Management?” This was in 1987, when the idea that spirituality and management could have something in common was very strange indeed. It was before yoga mats had become fashionable urban accessories, back when meditation was still seen as esoteric and foreign, back when the memory of the 1960s had been overshadowed by Reaganomics.

I decided to host this conversation because although I was enjoying my studies, there was some part of me languishing beneath the spreadsheets. I had already had some Zen-like realizations, some mystical openings, and had become an avid student of my dreams. From these experiences, I knew there was something more to life—something intangible, immaterial, uncountable—that could not be included in decision analysis and strategic plans. I sensed that a fundamental part of management education was missing.

A Brief History of Management Education

The practice of providing formal education to aspiring business managers—the typical MBA curriculum—began in the late nineteenth century, before the service economy and the information age, when the concerns of business were primarily industrial production. Although the goal was to bring a scientific approach to management, the scientific understanding of reality at that time was fundamentally different than it is now. It was before quantum physics, when matter was still solid and certainty was within our grasp. It was before theories of complexity and chaos revealed that we are embedded in systems far too complex for easy prediction. In other words, the first century of management education focused on things—things that could be counted and measured, things that behaved predictably. Good management was essentially a mechanical problem, a Newtonian endeavor. (And humans were just “resources.”)

This history of management influenced even the Yale School of Management, a relatively young and innovative business school, where many of the students came from a background in social activism and not-for-profit management. Thus, our core curriculum in the 1980s was still heavily dominated by accounting, data analysis, economic theory, and quantitative tools for decision making. It was still based on a linear, mechanical model of reality: if you do x, then you should get y.

Why Why I Fled the Head

To my surprise and delight, about thirty students (and one adjunct faculty member) took my bait and turned up to discuss the possible intersections of spirituality and management. We had an interesting conversation and even met a second time. But inevitably, we were drawn back into the practical demands of our course work, as well as that pervasive “extra” course in business school: crafting the perfect résumé, securing the perfect job, planning the perfect life. Sadly, I came to the conclusion that spirituality and management were just plain incompatible.

The way I saw it, management is primarily concerned with the material and measurable, whereas spirituality is all about the immaterial and immeasurable. More to the point, a “good” manager has to be in control. She does not want to be surprised, astonished, or humbled. A “good” manager is not expected to show vulnerability, make mistakes, or admit that she does not know. She wants life to go according to plan; she needs to deliver expected results. But a spiritual seeker is just the opposite: she lives to be humbled, astonished, amazed, and to discover that her view of reality is limited. She likes the fact that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in her philosophy.

And so on graduation, the only clear path for me was the unclear one. Instead of looking for a management job, I moved to Ireland, where, at that time, there was still ample time in the day for wondering. I studied and practiced experiential psychotherapy, learning how the body contains wisdom of which the head is unaware. I studied breathwork with Dr. Stanislav Grof, the dean of non-ordinary states of consciousness, and in my breathwork experiences, I had my assumptions about reality shattered repeatedly. I wrote plays, collaborated with artists from other cultures, and studied the symbolism of dreams. I began to practice Zen where, sitting for long periods of time, I learned again and again how little I knew. In this period of my life, the very idea of goal setting became almost sinful to me. I was generally not interested