Meetings & Your Brain

Bringing Mindfulness to Meetings

From the C-suite to the celebrity interview, mindfulness is everywhere. It’s even starting to center itself at meetings and conferences. Here’s why — and what it can do for your attendees.

Illustration by Irene Rinaldi.

Basketball legend Phil Jackson began studying Zen meditation in 1973, and went on to coach his players in the ways of mindfulness. That same year, quirky film director David Lynch took up Transcendental Meditation, and by his own accounting hasn’t missed a day of practice since. Steve Jobs came out of the closet as a meditator in 1981, just after Apple stock went public. Pop star Katy Perry, who was named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2013, told Elle magazine she caught the meditation bug from her former husband, comedian Russell Brand.

Mindfulness is fast becoming a cause célèbre at Fortune 100 companies as well: Google, Intel, and Target all have created custom, in-house meditation and wellness programs for their employees.

Listen: A Convene podcast with Janet Sperstad, CMP,  about mindfulness and meetings. 

Some forward-thinking organizations are building mindfulness into meetings and education programs — and their efforts aren’t about creating moments of Zen. Mindful awareness can improve brain function, raise emotional intelligence, and even heighten our ability to absorb and retain information. In other words, it can help your attendees help themselves.


Secular mindfulness programs like mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which was pioneered at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the early 1980s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., now an emeritus professor of medicine at UMass, have become the building blocks for mindfulness training in North America. Kabat-Zinn has described mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” He’s echoed by a 2011 article in the journal Psychotherapy, published by the American Psychological Association (APA), that defines mindfulness as “a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment.”

A molecular biologist by training, Kabat-Zinn learned meditation from Buddhist teachers but chose to root MBSR in scientific principles — and no wonder. Recent longitudinal studies show the beneficial effects of mindfulness on working memory capacity and emotional-impulse control, and innovations in neuroimaging have helped scientists study how mindfulness practice changes the very architecture of the brain.

In 2010, Emotion, another APA journal, published the results of an intriguing experiment that looked at how mindfulness can improve the working memory capacity of highly stressed individuals — in this case, U.S. Marines who were about to be deployed overseas. Subjects were tested on a number of tasks related to short-term memory both before and after participating in an eight-week mindfulness course created by Elizabeth A. Stanley, Ph.D., a former U.S. Army intelligence officer and founder and president of the Alexandria, Virginia–based Mind Fitness Training Institute. The 29 participants tracked the amount of time they spent outside of class practicing the techniques they had learned. When tested at the end of the course, the participants who logged the most meditation hours had increased their working memory capacity, whereas those who practiced less often — as well as a control group of other soon-to-be-deployed Marines — showed decreased capacity.

Likewise, in a 2011 study conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, a group of healthy adults took an eight-week MBSR course, during which time they meditated an average of 27 minutes a day outside of class. Before-and-after magnetic-resonance scans showed that, compared to a control group, the meditators had increased gray-matter density in several regions of the brain, including the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped structures in each of our temporal lobes that are associated with learning and the encoding and retrieval of long-term memory. In addition, those participants who reported that they were less stressed at the end of the eight-week program showed decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala — the two almond-shaped clusters of nuclei rooted deep within each temporal lobe that control our fight-or-flight response and play host to negative emotions like fear and anxiety.


For his 2015 book Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business From the Inside Out, New York Times business reporter and longtime meditation practitioner David Gelles traveled across the United States for more than a year interviewing business leaders. Among the people he talked to were Janice Marturano, who founded the Institute for Mindful Leadership in 2011 after serving for 15 years as vice president of public responsibility and deputy general counsel at General Mills, where she created a unique mindfulness program to benefit employees; and Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, whose mindfulness practice inspired a new ethos and bold environmental initiatives at the auto manufacturer. Gelles’ reporting road trip ended in Silicon Valley, where the concept of mindful leadership has inspired startups to start meditating.

Given the sheer number of tech companies that have created custom mindfulness initiatives, it’s no wonder that cloud-computing giant built a half-day of mindfulness programming into Dreamforce, its innovative, see-and-be-seen megaconference. Nearly 170,000 people flocked to San Francisco —’s hometown — last September for Dreamforce ’15. Held at the Moscone Center, the four-day conference included more than 600 sessions organized across 28 themes. Most sessions were built around technology, but Dreamforce struck a meditative note with four hours of mindfulness programming on the final day of the conference.

Tara Brach opened the mindfulness programming at Dreamforce '15 with a guided meditation.
Tara Brach opened the mindfulness programming at Dreamforce ’15 with a guided meditation.

“Dreamforce started off as a small, 1,000-person gathering in San Francisco of our most avid Salesforce customers learning how to be more successful,” Julie Liegl,’s senior vice president of strategic events, said in an interview. “But as we’ve evolved, we’ve also made inspiration a key part of what we do, and to that end, we bring in world leaders, industry disruptors, inspirational speakers, philanthropists, and even some movie stars to talk about topics and trends impacting the industry at large.”

At Dreamforce ’14, media mogul Arianna Huffington spoke about mindfulness during a keynote address, then led attendees through a short meditation. The buzz generated by the session inspired Liegl’s team to carve out more space for mindfulness programming at Dreamforce ’15. “We wanted to have a strong theme to tie the day together. We had a short list of ideas, but mindfulness was the one that excited us the most,” Liegl said. “Our main goal was to deliver an experience on the last morning of Dreamforce where our attendees could do something different, and leave inspired and personally transformed.”

Psychologist and meditation instructor Tara Brach kicked off the mindfulness programming with a guided meditation, while Google’s Chade-Meng Tan — who at the time ran the tech behemoth’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute — spoke on the many benefits of mindfulness. Author, activist, and meditation teacher Jack Kornfield entered into a dialogue on the intersection of creativity and mindfulness with fashion icon Donna Karan, whose Urban Zen Foundation’s most recent project was bringing yoga therapy to hospitals. Padmasree Warrior, CEO of NextEV USA, and Larry Brilliant, M.D., founding president of the Skoll Global Threats Fund and former executive director of, Google’s philanthropic division, discussed the business applications of mindfulness. And actress Goldie Hawn spoke about the work her Hawn Foundation has done to bring mindfulness training to more than 1,000 schools as well as counseling and youth centers around the world. “We were fortunate to get the right lineup of speakers,” Liegl said, “who were each fascinating as a standalone and also worked together in a broader theme.”

Wisdom 2.0 speaker Yingzhao Liu is a resident and board member at the Jikoji Zen Center in Los Gatos, California. Photo by Sergey Berezin.


As conferences like Dreamforce have begun to build in programming on mindfulness, the last decade has also seen the launch of a number of conferences devoted specifically to wellness and mindfulness. The nine-year-old Global Wellness Summit, which took place most recently at the St. Regis Mexico City on Nov. 13–15, explored how the wellness sector increasingly influences our personal and professional lives. At the beginning of the 2015 conference, Deepak Chopra led a meditation for more than 470 delegates. The agenda featured daily workshops conducted by actress-turned-author Agapi Stassinopoulos and mindfulness teacher Felix Lopez.

gellesA week earlier, the Mindful Leadership Summit, held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Washington DC–Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia, brought together more than 750 leaders from corporations, nonprofits, government, and education to learn strategies for incorporating mindful practice into their work. “We look almost exclusively for people who have some type of mindfulness or contemplative practice themselves,” said Eric Forbis, who co-founded the conference in 2014. “We look for a mix of people who can speak on mindfulness and compassion, share real-life stories of leading mindfully, give practical advice on how to be a mindful leader, and provide guidance on how to bring mindfulness and compassion into organizations.”

At last year’s Mindful Leadership Summit, Mindful Work author Gelles moderated a conversation on leadership between author, corporate executive, and Harvard Business School professor Bill George and his wife, Penny George, a psychologist who has focused her work on integrative health and healing. “I’m always happy to give a solo presentation, but really love moderating and having conversations,” Gelles said in an interview with Convene. “I hear from people all the time — including after talks — about how mindfulness has impacted their lives, and it’s always amazing to learn how varied the experiences are.”

Gelles is quick to note that mindfulness isn’t a panacea, and that conference attendees shouldn’t expect to come back to their desks and be instantly more peaceful and more productive. “It takes time, effort, and isn’t always easy or even enjoyable,” he said. “It’s like going to the gym, but for your mind.”

forbisBut it does get results. Although the Mindful Leadership Summit is only two years old, Forbis says it has already demonstrated value for attendees. “We have heard from people who are using what they learned at the Summit to begin integrating mindfulness into their organizations,” he said, “and from attendees who feel like they are now part of a community of people who believe in the importance of mindfulness and mindful leadership.”

liuYingzhao Liu, director of user experience design for LinkedIn and a resident and board member at the Jikoji Zen Center in Los Gatos, California, will speak about integration and balance at the seven-year-old Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco this month. “Balance is not what we typically think of; it’s not more of one thing and less of something else, not a zero-sum game,” she said. “I found that meditation brought much more richness and basically a sense of quality and depth to everything that I did. I do have less free time than I did before, but everything is more nourishing.”

Liu has found that opening up to audiences about her spiritual connection to mindfulness encourages a deeper dialogue. “I now bring in more of what may, in everyday conversations, seem ‘out there’ into my speaking more, but certainly I have to lead into it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s telling a story or relating someone else’s story, and I gauge the audience’s reaction, of course, but I bring in more of what people may be talking about in spiritual contexts more regularly than I did two years ago. I see that conviction on people’s faces, I see a lot of heads nodding, and people open up, so it’s clearly working, and I will continue to do that.”


The meetings and events industry itself is only beginning to embrace mindfulness. Associations: 2020 and Beyond, a one-day conference organized by the association-services company Kellen, brought around 100 senior association leaders to New York City last June. In the closing session, Arianna Huffington spoke about why she has broadened her definition of success to allow for wellbeing, wisdom, wonder, and giving. Huffington also stressed how, at a purely neurological level, we need to be well rested and energized in order to be effective decision-makers, underscoring the strong connection between mindfulness and leadership.

Mindfulness and wellness initiatives are also debuting at large-scale industry meetings. PCMA Convening Leaders 2016, held in Vancouver last month, featured a “Being Your Best” track that included sessions on mindful eating, stress management, and productivity. Drop-in demonstrations of simple exercise, meditation, and relaxation techniques in the PCMA Learning Lounge provided a low-key counterpoint to the formal mindfulness sessions. Attendees could also sign up for early-morning yoga classes and private wellness-coaching appointments.

sperstadIMEX America, held last October in Las Vegas, offered yoga and meditation classes. Attendees could also take a break from the trade-show floor in a self-contained meditation room. “Immediately you knew you were in a different space,” said Janet Sperstad, CMP, program director for the Meeting and Event Management Degree Program at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wisconsin, “and your shoulders come down from your ears, a smile breaks out, and dopamine levels naturally increase, just by walking into that room.”

Sperstad would know. She became so interested in the connection between how immersive experiences like face-to-face events transform behavior that she earned an executive master’s degree in neuroleadership from the NeuroLeadership Institute. She has since become an advocate for building more mindfulness elements into meetings.

“People often correlate event design to cool furniture and interesting seating styles, because it’s a very physical thing we know and can all talk about,” Sperstad said. “They’re not wrong about these elements, yet event design goes beyond that, integrating our senses and our brain’s networking systems, like attention and novelty detection, as well as including the whole spiritual and wellbeing side of it.”

Kate Mulcrone

Kate Mulcrone is digital editor of Convene.