“What are you doing?” It is a question often posed by Thich Nhat Hanh, a venerable Buddhist monk, teacher, poet, author and peace activist. “Thay,” as he is commonly called, interjects this query when he sees students engaged in a myriad of tasks that frequently cause their minds to wander, which could be as simple as washing dishes. Thay knows full well what they are doing, but the question serves as a prompt for them to focus and appreciate the moment. It is the essence of “mindfulness,” which is a practice that is rapidly gaining acceptance in the West and in the business world.

Many believe that mindfulness traces its roots to Buddhism and, essentially, is a form of meditation. However, one does not have to be a Zen master to embrace it and the basic tenets also can be found in Taoism, yoga, the writings of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, and Native American wisdom. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an acclaimed author and teacher, described the concept as follows in Wherever You Go, There You Are:

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity and acceptance of present moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. … Mindfulness provides a simple but powerful route for getting ourselves unstuck, back into touch with our own wisdom and vitality.”

Additional benefits of mindfulness are that it makes one much more aware of others’ perspectives and open to considering new information. The latter point has proven to be quite important in business contexts. Interestingly, mindfulness can apply as easily to a business, as an entity, as it does to individuals.

With respect to business, it is not surprising that it has taken longer for mindfulness to take root. After all, its principles initially seem rather esoteric, which normally does not translate well to a world in which facts and hard data dominate. A significant number of studies relating to the effect of mindfulness have helped to turn the tide in that respect. The work that Kabat-Zinn has done, which has now been integrated into the medical faculties at Duke, Harvard and the University of Massachusetts, has been highly influential in the business world.

Companies such as PWC, Google, Deutsche Bank and AstraZeneca have introduced meditation to their staff (for free) and many others have followed suit. Studies have cited the following specific benefits of meditation and the mindfulness approach in business:

• Reduced costs associated with absenteeism caused by illness, injury and stress.

• Improved cognitive function in employees.

• Increased productivity and overall well-being.

• Reduced turnover.

• Reduced health insurance premiums for the business.

• Improved employer/employee and client relations.

As discussed more thoroughly in an incisive article written by Beth Gardiner, “Business Skills and Buddhist Mindfulness: Some Executive Education Professors Teach Ways Students Can Calm Their Minds, Increase Focus,” in The Wall Street Journal‘s April 3 edition, business schools are increasingly incorporating mindfulness into their programs. Jeremy Hunter, who teaches at the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University, is widely recognized as one of the movements leading proponents in academia. Other institutions, including the Harvard Business School, have held conferences to help businesspeople in this realm, including one such program at Harvard that was co-led by a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master.

Our “always on” business world that bombards each of us with emails, texts, voicemails and other interruptions throughout the day is particularly thirsting for heavy doses of mindfulness. Our minds are often elsewhere, as any lawyer would tell you if he or she forgets to enter a timesheet at the end of a day and tries to recapitulate what transpired even 24 hours before. On a broader note, how often have you driven home and almost cannot recall how you did it, as your car seemingly made it on autopilot? If you had been focused on the task at hand, you would have remembered all or most of the trip, but that is rarely the case.

Here are a few examples of how the opposite of mindfulness — mindlessness — often permeates the business of law. At an organizational level, some law firms often bob along by adhering to business practices that are rooted in the past and, more importantly, have collective mindsets that are not conducive to change. Much like the auto that drove itself, these firms were not focused on the environment that was shifting around them and basically operated without conscious direction. Some essentially wake up several years or even a decade later and see a landscape that has dramatically changed. Some firms that had been their peers have now separated themselves in many respects, even though the “mindless” firm is still a good one and has excellent lawyers. The world morphed, many times over, and they barely saw it happening.

Consider the associate who has doggedly been developing his skills and has indefatigably been doing all the work that has been placed in front of him by partners throughout his firm. This lawyer rarely, if ever, stopped to focus on his own situation and one day realized he was a senior associate. It was only then that he appreciated that there is a shelf life for associates in most firms and his expiration date was rapidly nearing, despite how talented he was, unless he very quickly started to bring in business. A more mindful approach to his career could have avoided this or at least better prepared him to protect himself better by focusing on his personal path earlier.

From a nuts-and-bolts perspective, surely many have observed a litigator, at trial or in a deposition, who was well prepared with a long list of questions that he almost robotically went through while questioning a witness. How many of us have then seen such a lawyer miss important answers and not pick up on nonverbal clues because he or she could not stay in the moment (and thus was not mindful) because he or she was so focused on asking the next question on his or her list?

Finally, who hasn’t been in a meeting where a colleague has reflexively checked emails or texts on his or her phone throughout the session and thus missed important points that were made throughout? Admittedly, there may be situations where a true emergency was looming and necessitated this, but, in most cases, it’s unnecessary. Those in the room who were mindful surely remember the essentials much better, and, more importantly, displayed a higher degree of respect for others by showing that they valued their time and contributions by giving them full attention.

Some of the benefits of mindfulness for businesses were recounted above. What about the impact on individuals? Some of the decided advantages of meditation and mindfulness include:

• Lower blood pressure, comparable to taking prescription drugs, for those who are normal to moderately hypertensive, according to “The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation,” Michael Murphy and Steven Donovan, The Institute of Noetic Sciences, 1997.

• In a study of health insurance data, meditators had 87 percent fewer hospitalizations for heart disease, 55 percent fewer for benign and malignant tumors and 30 percent fewer for infectious diseases, according to D. Orme-Johnson, Psychosomatic Medicine, 1987.

• Meditation has been endorsed by the National Institute of Health as effective for the relief of chronic pain. Chronic pain sufferers have experienced a reduction in symptoms of 50 percent or more, according to “Four-year follow-up of a meditation-based program for the self-regulation of chronic pain,” J. Kabat-Zinn, L. Lipworth, et al., Clinical Journal of Pain 2, 1986.

• Seventy-five percent of insomniacs who have been trained to meditate and have made simple lifestyle changes typically fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed, according to Say Goodnight to Insomnia, Gregg Jacobs, Harvard Medical School, Owl Books, 1999.

• Brain scans of meditators show increased thickness in regions of the cortex associated with higher functions, like memory and decision-making at Massachusetts General Hospital, as reported by Carey Goldberg, The Boston Globe, November 23, 2005.

• Meditation appears to slow aging. People who meditated for five or more years were 12 years younger than their chronological age, according to R.K. Wallace, M.C. Dillbeck, et al., International Journal of Neuroscience 16, 1982.

For those interested in exploring meditation, there are countless ways to do so. The rub is that there is no one-size-fits-all method for becoming a meditator, as it needs to be tailored to the way that you best learn. For those who learn best by reading, there are an almost endless array of books — two that I recommend are the aforementioned Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness. There are a plethora of DVDs and online videos that can be explored by those who learn best by watching. Local yoga studios, schools and individual teachers also provide more hands-on training for those who typically benefit from that type of instruction.

Even if you decide that meditation is not for you, occasionally stop and ask yourself, “What am I doing?” This should jolt you back to the present so that you can better appreciate the moment and at least recognize some of the benefits of mindfulness that should benefit your career and you. •

Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at fdamore@attycareers.com.