The Mindful Revolution

Finding peace in a stressed-out, digitally dependent culture may just be a matter of thinking differently

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Photograph by Peter Hapak for TIME

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One might be thought of as smart marketing. Kabat-Zinn and other proponents are careful to avoid any talk of spirituality when espousing mindfulness. Instead, they advocate a commonsense approach: think of your attention as a muscle. As with any muscle, it makes sense to exercise it (in this case, with meditation), and like any muscle, it will strengthen from that exercise.

A related and potentially more powerful factor in winning over skeptics is what science is learning about our brains' ability to adapt and rewire. This phenomenon, known as neuroplasticity, suggests there are concrete and provable benefits to exercising the brain. The science--particularly as it applies to mindfulness--is far from conclusive. But it's another reason it's difficult to dismiss mindfulness as fleeting or contrived.

Precisely because of this scientific component, mindfulness is gaining traction with people who might otherwise find mind-body philosophies a tough sell, and it is growing into a sizable industry. An NIH report found that Americans spent some $4 billion on mindfulness-related alternative medicine in 2007, including MBSR. (NIH will release an update of this figure later this year.) There's a new monthly magazine, Mindful, a stack of best-selling books and a growing number of smartphone apps devoted to the concept.

For Stuart Silverman, mindfulness has become a way to deal with the 24/7 pace of his job consulting with financial advisers. Silverman receives hundreds of emails and phone calls every day. "I'm nuts about being in touch," he says. Anxiety in the financial industry reached a high mark in the 2008 meltdown, but even after the crisis began to abate, Silverman found that the high stress level remained. So in 2011, he took a group of his clients on a mindfulness retreat. The group left their smartphones behind and spent four days at a resort in the Catskills, in upstate New York, meditating, participating in group discussions, sitting in silence, practicing yoga and eating meals quietly and mindfully. "For just about everybody there, it was a life-changing experience," says Silverman.

The Catskills program was run by Janice Marturano, a former vice president at General Mills who began a corporate mindfulness initiative there and left the company in 2011 to run an organization she started called the Institute for Mindful Leadership. (About 500 General Mills employees have participated in mindfulness classes since Marturano introduced the concept to the company's top managers in 2006, and there is a meditation room in every building on the company's Minneapolis campus.) Marturano, who ran a well-attended mindfulness training session at Davos in 2013 and wrote a book called Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership, published in January, says most leaders she encounters feel besieged by long work hours and near constant connectivity. For these people, there seems to be no time to zero in on what's important or plan ahead.

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