You’ve probably heard that meditation increases focus, memory, and compassion, according to a range of studies. Yet only 8% of us do it. This number could get a boost soon, as several companies introduce the practice into group settings in the workplace.
A survey by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health predicts that 22% of Fortune 500 companies will use mindfulness or brain training at the workplace by the end of the year, as a way to improve employee health and productivity, decrease absenteeism, and enhance quality of life. And the survey suggests that this number could double in 2017.
Anders Ferguson, founding principal and partner at the wealth management firm Veris Wealth Partners, jumped on the mindfulness-at-work bandwagon three years ago when he wanted to enhance the work habits of his employees. Partnering with three other investment firms, Ferguson implemented a variety of mindfulness practices. They let employees decide whether or not they wanted to participate, and 100% of them do.
All meetings start with a minute of silence, basic mindfulness breathing, and meditation. Employees are also encouraged to perform daily acts of compassion and appreciation with the people in their work and personal life, as well as random acts of kindness for strangers. Additionally, they’re encouraged to put down their digital devices for at least an hour each day.
Ferguson says the technique seems simple, but the results have included an increase in productivity and a decrease in stress. "The way many of us work is not working," he says. "Mental effectiveness has two fundamental rules: focus on what you choose, and choose your distractions mindfully."
While meditation is often perceived as a solitary practice, experts say there are several reasons why it’s better done as a group.
Meditation is about compassion and collective consciousness, rather than just reducing one’s own stress and anxiety, says Tara Swart, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan Executive Education. "Part of mindfulness meditation involves projecting feelings of forgiveness and compassion—both of which are, by their nature, targeted at third parties," she says.
Meditating in a group may make it easier to focus on these objectives, increasing the ability to override unconscious biases and get the most out of the exercise, she says.
Even focusing inward in total silence, there is a palpable sense of community, support, and connection that you feel when you meditate with others, says Micah Mortali, director of the Kripalu Schools of Yoga and Ayurveda at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.
Jay Vidyarthi, head of user experience design on Meditation at Muse, suggests that beginner meditation practices include discussion periods where people share their experiences, which can be powerful.
"Very often, participants discover that their own experiences, whether positive or negative, are very common," he says. "This not only validates their own feelings to help them feel at ease, but it also leads to a deep understanding of just how similar we all are."
Meditation can help you practice being neutral, having compassion, and letting go of thoughts and judgments of others, says Mortali.
"Maybe your neighbor has gas, or makes a weird sound when they breathe," he says. "You may notice yourself judging or feeling aversion. This is a positive experience as it provides an opportunity to practice how you show up off your cushion."
Meditation is more effective when it’s used on a consistent basis. Practicing as a group can make you more accountable to your commitment, says Jennice Vilhauer, director of the outpatient psychotherapy program at the Emory Clinic.
"You are more likely to show up and actually do it if others are expecting you to be there," she says.
Oxytocin, a hormone that promotes bonding, is likely to be more in abundance in a situation where people can communicate and interact freely over a shared experience, says Swart.
"This lowers our guard, makes us warmer toward others and can induce a calmer state, as well as encouraging feelings of acceptance and belonging, rather than isolation," she says.
It’s not all sunshine and yogis, say the experts. While group meditation has many benefits, there are three reasons why you need to proceed with caution.
Not every person responds well to meditation as it puts you in connection with your inner emotional space, says Vilhauer. "For many people, especially anyone who has experienced traumatic past events, what’s stored there can be quite painful and overwhelming," she says. "It can create a sudden release of emotion and it isn’t uncommon for people to start crying uncontrollably, to feel very uncomfortable physical sensations, or to develop a sense of depersonalization where they feel detached from their bodies."
This can lead to embarrassment, shame, or even re-traumatization in a group setting.
For those who are new to the practice, meditation can make you drowsy and even cause some to fall asleep," says Swart.
"Involuntary actions like this can make some people embarrassed and self-aware," she says. "If they come into a group session wary about what others will think of them, they are less likely to relax and feel the benefits of the exercise."
This can be particularly true of men, who bear the burden of more of a social stigma around mindfulness and mental health, says Swart.
It is important to be able to discover wholeness being alone, says Melissa Kauffmann, creator of the mindfulness program at Creativity Challenge Community, an elementary school in Denver.
"When you are focused, alone, and free from distraction, you can think deeply and engage in the art of meditating," she says, adding, "Meditating in a group can be a crutch from truly finding a connection."
Her advice for a balanced meditation practice: "Enjoy meditation solo and in a group setting."