The Biz: WriteMind Institute: a refuge for working folk

There’s work done to collect a paycheck, and there’s work done to improve as a person. For writer/entrepreneur/Zen practitioner Jonathon Flaum, those two goals intersect, one serving as the setting for the other.

Work as refuge: The WriteMind Institute for Corporate Contemplation offers leadership workshops and retreats for businesses. The Lexington Avenue location also includes a space for quiet meditation that’s open to local residents on a membership basis. Jonathon Flaum, WriteMind’s director, meditates daily. Photo by Jason Sandford

So on March 30, Flaum opened the doors of the WriteMind Institute for Corporate Contemplation to the community at large, offering a week of free meditation, unplugged work time and lunch discussions. The idea, he explains, was to showcase the institute’s goal: helping people see that they can pursue personal growth in the workplace.

“Everyone’s got personal work that intersects with the context of their job, so why not make the most of it?” asks Flaum. At WriteMind, “Our goal is to create a refuge space with an underpinning of reflection and meditation” to help folks along the way, Flaum says.

The Worldwide Insurance Network of High Point, N.C., acquired the Asheville-based WriteMind last December, and Flaum moved the business to a new location on Lexington Avenue, enabling it to continue its work with big clients while connecting with the local community via regular workshops and gatherings, says Flaum. The institute is selling memberships for $60 a month, with a six-month minimum.

The community lunches pulled in at least a dozen people daily, he reports. Each day’s discussion revolved around a specific question, such as, “What does it mean to respect the human experience in a profit-based business?” While discussing their thoughts and ideas, participants ate simple, healthy foods at the big round table in the open kitchen/dining area of the institute’s newly redecorated building.

Videographer Charles Elmer of Wu Media attended meditation sessions and luncheons at WriteMind and says he’s considering a membership.

“I think this business embodies a new paradigm for business practices,” says Elmer. “It’s a great formula for coming up with new attitudes toward old problems—such as how we deal with our business, with money, with a lot of questions we deal with.

“It’s also a great place to network with like-minded people,” he adds.

The three-story building at 84 N. Lexington Ave., built in 1915, now houses an ample meditation space downstairs, an open kitchen/dining/meeting area on the middle floor, and separate work and guest rooms up top.

“This space has created the opportunity for people from different organizations to come together and think and talk about their business practices,” says Operations Manager Erin Rafalowski, WriteMind’s only other full-time employee.

Of the “Contemplation Hall,” as he calls it, Flaum explains, “We want to bring silence to the workday. We want to interrupt the pattern of busyness, so people can focus on what’s truly important.

“People have to find pockets of steadiness in a world of anxiety. This institute serves as a place for solitude, but with others,” he observes.

Worldwide Insurance Network, a longtime client of the institute, is the parent company of the Smart Choice Agents Program, one of the country’s oldest and largest networks of independent insurance agents.

Smart Choice employees Leslie Hall (the director of customer experience) and Matt Cothran (director of agent relations) visited WriteMind during its opening week.

Reflecting on working with Flaum, Hall says: “He’s helped me become a better employee and a better person. I’ve learned that my business is part of my larger system. Business and personal life all flow together.”

Cothran adds, “A lot of times you get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of society that you don’t take the time to slow down and focus.”

Flaum, who’s written three books about leadership skills, started WriteMind in 2001. He says he’s excited about offering residents a place to reflect. “When we talk about work, it goes beyond what our job is,” says Flaum. “Maybe our work is forgiveness. Maybe our work is compassion. Maybe our work is dealing with our loss or our anger or being afraid of our own success. What I say is, do not run away from your work: Make your work your practice. Here at WriteMind, the bottom line is creating a safe place for people to do their work.”

Besides the twice-daily meditation times, the institute plans to hold lunch discussions and evening events, both twice a month. And Flaum says he’s looking forward to hearing what else members may request.

The first event, set for May 13, will feature Flaum and Todd Sattersten, co-author of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time. Sattersten plans to talk about five key elements he’s found in all those books, and Flaum will address “how those relate to key themes in mythology and religion, and how business is just another context for us to work out what’s going on in our lives,” he says.

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