Mindfulness is About as Religious as Red Wine

By: Joe Burton
Closeup of wine glass on wooden table with hands

The business world is rapidly embracing mindfulness as a “productivity” and “performance” tool, with the thinking that calmer, more focused peeps make better employees. At the same time, I sometimes hear the concern that mindfulness meditation and awareness training is considered too spiritual or religious for people to give it a try.

As someone who was raised Irish Catholic, I certainly wasn’t looking for a new religion (or any religion) when I found mindfulness.

Coming out of a public company background, I was looking for a way to stop stressing out about every little thing in life (and especially at each quarter end). I was looking to sleep better. I was looking to help deal with chronic back pain. I wanted to stay at the top of my game, but I’d hit a wall with my health and my decreasing patience level. I realized I needed some help. And my wife was looking for me to actually listen when she spoke to me and for me to be present when I was with the family (vs. being connected to my iPhone). In hindsight, I guess I was looking for the cure to working in corporate environments where “faster, cheaper” was the order of the day. And to calm the anxiety from feeling that the faster, cheaper mentality wasn’t likely to change.

I’ve been practicing for about two years. In that time, I’ve learned that mindfulness meditation training is about as religious as red wine. Wine has been used for some 9,000 years in a wide array of religions dating back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Apparently, wine was imbibed as a way to reach ecstatic states (along with music and dance), to be intoxicated with God. That sounds fun, and I’m wondering why we never did that at my church growing up in Pittsburgh, PA.

Wine also played an important, but a more sedate role in Judaism and Christianity, including having a starring role in the Last Supper. As a young kid, I thought the notion of receiving the body and blood of Christ was a little scary. As a teen, I thought it was cool to get the wine – kind of a reward for having to go to church. Looking back, a few hundred people drinking out of the same chalice. Yuck. Sacred Heart Church, what were you thinking?

I’ve always appreciated wine’s role in creating community and celebration.

As an adult, I was delighted to discover that red wine is also good on its own. Like, really good. Around a campfire. With colleagues over nice conversation. As a parent, it’s a great replacement for aspirin at the end of the day. Try it with a steak. It just works. And when you’re lucky, you can enjoy it with friends and family to celebrate life or take a break from the mundane to truly enjoy each other.

Just like red wine, mindfulness meditation has been around for a long time (some 5,000 years). It’s been used in just about every contemplative tradition in prayer, sitting in silence or actual meditative practices. Everyone who’s anyone has written about it. Jesus, Buddha, Marcus Aurelius, Abraham Lincoln (he’s apparently written about everything, including social media) to name a few.

These contemplative practices were largely meant to calm the mind and sometimes bring focus to a higher calling or being. But, just like wine, meditation practice is also good on its own. Like, really good. I’ve found what many people discover through mindfulness practice: more focus, and better sleep. My back pain has dropped considerably. My blood pressure is down. And my wife got what she wanted: I’m present with her and our two young boys. To be specific, I’ve learned the difference between hearing everything and being able to repeat it back verbatim, sprinkled with attitude and too much emotion (when challenged that I “don’t listen”) versus actually being kind, calm and present with the most important people in my life.

When done well, a modern mindfulness practice also encourages many of the community aspects that can be found in contemplative traditions. Beyond the selfish desire to personally have continuing success and a healthier and happier life, I’ve also experienced the unavoidable side effects of thinking about community, being a better person and focusing on the areas of “productivity” and “performance” that matter most to me … like being a better parent, partner, and person.

I also have a more healthy connection to the faster, cheaper pace of the corporate world.

I’m not particularly religious these days. But I like red wine. I like mindfulness. And mindful wine drinking ain’t bad either.

I almost said wine “tasting,” but let’s be honest.

About the Author

Headshot of Joe Burton

Retired Founder and CEO of Whil and former President of Headspace

Joe is an entrepreneur in the digital wellness space, retired Founder and CEO of Whil and former President of Headspace, and spent fifteen years as a global COO in public companies. He’s an alumnus of Harvard Business School and a regular contributor to Forbes, Business Insider and The Huffington Post. He’s worked in over 50 countries and travels the world speaking on topics including disruption, culture, resiliency and mindfulness.

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