Do Nothing At Work

Stephen Sokoler is bringing meditation into the workplace, once and for all. 

It’s hard to overstate the positive effects of meditation. Scientific studies have proven that it sharpens focus, decreases fear, and eases anxiety. Famous meditators from Oprah to David Lynch have written extensively about its impacts on productivity. At least fourteen major CEOs do it, and one wrongfully accused death row inmate even said it got him through years of solitary confinement. For something that takes as little as twenty minutes to do properly, meditation is a powerful tool.

Yet the business world has been slow to catch on. Even in the era of workplace innovations like nap pods, living walls, and lunchtime yoga practices, meditation is still far from becoming a mainstay of the high-anxiety American workplace. And that’s a shame, because it could be the place where meditation is needed most.

Enter Stephen Sokoler. His latest project, Journey, is bringing meditation into the office once and for all. Sokoler is a workplace sector veteran, and has launched several successful companies in that vein. He discovered meditation during a time when he was questioning his material success, and it introduced him to the importance of mindfulness in finding meaning and purpose in life. He decided to dedicate the rest of his career toward helping people live with greater clarity.

It’s working. Journey conducted its first weekly meditation classes at Warby Parker’s headquarters in Manhattan just last year, and has since built an all-star list of clients including Nike, Morgan Stanley, Time Warner, Sephora, WeWork, Conde Nast, and NASDAQ.

Here, Stephen tells a little bit about his journey, and his Journey:

If I were to see you before you started meditating and then after, what would the difference be?

 You can clearly tell from the outside by my level of balance and equanimity; by the way I spend my time, who I spend my time with, the priorities that I have—they’re much different. Meditation practice has taught me to understand myself better and to be much more thoughtful in choosing how I respond to things, as opposed to simply reacting.  This has been extremely helpful in my relationships - friends, family, work, and romantic partners.  One of the biggest changes was learning to enjoy the journey—no pun intended—as opposed to just the destination.

Well that explains the name! What was your vision for Journey?

The vision was to help people live happier, healthier, less stressed lives. I truly, deeply know how meditation has transformed my life, and I wanted to make that accessible to everyone.

How does it work inside the client companies?

We host live and virtual meditation classes.  They are 30-minutes and take place at the same time and place every week.  They’re totally optional for employees and each one is a stand-alone class, so it’s a place where you can drop in, have a great experience, and then go on your way.

How did you get such great clients right off the bat? 

I think it was right time, right place. I think people realize that stress levels are currently unsustainable—people are working a lot more, they’re connected all the time—and I think that most individuals in companies are asking, “How can we combat this? What tools do we have?” Meditation is a beautiful tool to help better manage your stress. So that was part of it, but a lot of companies really care about culture and want to make the workplace a better place. Google and all those start-ups don’t want to just take care of their employees professionally, but also personally.

How specifically though? Did you get in a room with them, send an email?

I reached out to my friends and business network, and said “hey, I just started this company, I’d like to speak to someone in your firm about how we might be able to help you.” The CEO of Warby Parker was at my apartment during an afternoon party. I asked him if he’d connect me to his “head of people,” and he did.

Is this a field in which those types of prices are set or is it a whole new world where you can decide anything?

It is definitely open. One of the things we try to do is to deliver an amazing value. In addition to the meditation class, we provide our clients with a whole host of other materials – guided meditation recordings, tools, and resources to support meditation in their work and lives.

How do you find the best room to do it in?

Companies will usually have one room that they prefer. We usually get the biggest conference rooms because there’s such a high demand for it.

Cool. What kind of feedback are you getting on the ground? Has there ever been a hostile reaction?

Every client has enjoyed their subscription so far. We’ve never had a cancellation, and almost every client ends up renewing their membership multiple times.

So, you’ve never had some douche business guy be like “this is a bunch of bullshit”

No, and that’s because you’re only there if you want to be there.

What do you say to people who may criticize what you’re doing by saying “oh it’s just a white guy taking some Eastern thing and commodifying it for himself?”

We haven’t had anyone be really critical yet, but I’m sure that time will come. This is why we strive to do things in a respectful, authentic way.  

Can you remember any specific stories of people who felt changed?

I had a woman come up to me after a class and told me that her father was older and forgetting, angry, et cetera. But she found that through the classes she was able to deal with his anger and frustration and they rekindled the relationship. There was a woman who had a pretty cranky 4-year old until she taught him how to meditate; the next thing I heard was that her 2-year old was doing what the 4-year old was doing meditation-wise!

There’re a lot of testimonials from HR people, saying it helped their organizations, and we’ve heard things like, “This has made me be a better husband.” It’s always so much more than just “it helped me manage my stress in the workplace.”

You mentioned that we are in sort of dire straits when it comes to anxiety in the workplace. There’s a cult of “busy,” which can be toxic. Do you think meditation treats the symptom or the cause?

That’s a tough question. It’s a practice that can lead to great calm, balance, and peace of mind, but I don’t think it’s a cure to other problems that exist in any environment, whether it be personal or professional.  Meditation in the workplace can start to change company culture to be more collaborative, communicative, and ultimately, more productive.  Clients consistently tell us about the benefits that Journey classes had on their group dynamic. 

Any other insight into what might be causing all this mental turmoil people are having?

I think we all know the challenges of the workplace, programming us to hit numbers, reach margins, and otherwise. There’s definitely a high level of stress and anxiety over never being able to just detach from everything. The pace of the world is challenging. 

By Isaac Simpson

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