Mindfulness and meditation 'AmaZen' employee program not religious, Amazon says

AmaZen Photo courtesy of Amazon.

Corporate giant Amazon will offer an “AmaZen” component to employees to encourage “mindfulness practices” as part of its revamped employee health, safety, and wellness programs. Despite the Buddhist connotations, a spokesperson has said the component is not religious in nature.


At the same time, the effort appears to reflect some New Age trends critiqued by Catholic leaders, including the appropriation of Eastern religion and a questionable concept of meditation.


In a May 17 announcement, Amazon said its “AmaZen” wellness component “guides employees through mindfulness practices in individual interactive kiosks at buildings.”  


During shifts, employees can visit these kiosks to “watch short videos featuring easy-to-follow wellbeing activities, including guided meditations, positive affirmations, calming scenes with sounds, and more.”


AmaZen is an apparent portmanteau of Amazon and Zen, a concept from a school of Buddhism that focuses on meditation.


An Amazon spokesperson told CNA that the AmaZen component is not religious or philosophical in nature. According to the spokesperson, the components are based on scientifically proven activities and exercises.


Some 6,200 Amazon employees are dedicated to workplace health and safety, the company said in a May 17 workplace news story at the company’s Amazon News portal.


Leila Brown, a workplace health and safety manager at Amazon, developed approaches “to prevent and heal from injuries,” the company said. She used “her expertise as an athletic trainer and her personal passion in alternative therapies” to create AmaZen.


In a video produced by the company, Brown said Amazon has helped give her the resources to “really innovate and think big and get creative with this idea of AmaZen and bringing mindful practice out on the floor to these associates.”

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Mindfulness is typically included among the practices of Buddhism in its eightfold path to the cessation of desire and the achievement of enlightenment.


The concepts and practices of Buddhism and the Zen Buddhist approach have inspired some American spiritual, cultural, religious, and philosophical trends for decades. Elements have been absorbed into various Western movements loosely categorized as New Age.


In the 2003 document “Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life,” a self-described provisional report, the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue reflected on New Age tendencies in general, the New Age appropriation of Eastern religious concepts, and the Christian response.


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The New Age tendency “imports Eastern religious practices piecemeal and re- interprets them to suit Westerners,” the document said at one point. It added, “while it is not Christian, New Age spirituality is not Buddhist either, inasmuch as it does not involve self-denial.”


It summarized the New Age tendency as “syncretistic” and “a loose set of beliefs, therapies and practices, which are often selected and combined at will, irrespective of the incompatibilities and inconsistencies this may imply.” Some New Age adherents seek to “marry counter-cultural values with the mainstream need to succeed, inner satisfaction with outer success,” and aim for change that “transforms the experience of work while increasing productivity.”


The question of the religious or spiritual nature of meditation and other New Age-like practices is important, the Vatican document said, given the growing number of companies “whose employees are required to practice meditation and adopt mind-expanding techniques as part of their life at work.”


“All meditation techniques need to be purged of presumption and pretentiousness. Christian prayer is not an exercise in self-contemplation, stillness and self-emptying, but a dialogue of love,” it said. Christian prayer “leads to an increasingly complete surrender to God's will, whereby we are invited to a deep, genuine solidarity with our brothers and sisters”


In other places, the Vatican document questions whether meditation is prayer, properly considered, since the meditating person does not necessarily seek to put him or herself in the presence of God.


“The tendency to confuse psychology and spirituality makes it hard not to insist that many of the meditation techniques now used are not prayer,” said the Vatican document. The techniques are “often a good preparation for prayer, but no more, even if they lead to a more pleasant state of mind or bodily comfort.” Despite genuinely intense experiences in meditation, “to remain at this level is to remain alone, not yet in the presence of the other.”


“The achievement of silence can confront us with emptiness, rather than the silence of contemplating the beloved,” said the document.


The “AmaZen” component for Amazon workers is part of the company’s “WorkingWell” program. The company says this program helps its employees “focus on their physical and mental well-being.”


“WorkingWell uses scientifically proven physical and mental activities, wellness exercises, and healthy eating habits to help recharge and reenergize the body, and ultimately reduce the risk of injury for operations employees,” the company said. Parts of the program were first tested in 2019 and the program now reaches about 859,000 employees at 350 sites in North America and Europe.


An Amazon spokesperson confirmed to CNA that employees can use components of the WorkingWell program either during their shift or on break. The spokesperson said that employees have time throughout the day to use the restroom, take a break, pray, get water, or speak to a manager as needed and the company supports them doing so.


Another program component, called “Mind & Body Moments,” gives hourly prompts to employee workstations to guide them through “ a series of scientifically proven physical and mental activities to help recharge and reenergize, and ultimately reduce the risk of injury.” These activities include stretching exercises, breathing exercises and mental reflections, with the aim of reducing muscle fatigue and mental fatigue.


Amazon originally focused on selling books online, and now dominates that market. Its unannounced decision to drop Ryan T. Anderson’s criticism of transgender ideology, scientific and political claims “When Harry Became Sally” drew objections earlier this year.


In March, the company came under fire after it denied well-founded reports that its delivery drivers urinate in bottles because the burdens of their work schedule strongly discourage bathroom breaks.


A September 2020 news report from Reveal News, citing internal company records including safety reports and weekly injury numbers at its fulfillment centers, charged that company officials have misled the public and lawmakers. The report alleged significant increases in serious injury rates at company warehouses, and almost double the rate of injuries compared to industry standards.


The report faulted the intense workload burden on workers, especially during peak ordering times and at robotic facilities. It warns that the company has used robots to boost production to the point that persons can’t keep up.


About 40% of work-related injuries at Amazon are musculoskeletal disorders, like sprains or strains caused by repetitive motion, the company said. Newer employees are the most likely to suffer these injuries. Amazon has claimed that pilot programs have successfully reduced injuries.  The company has invested $300 million for safety projects in 2021.


The company plans to release a WorkingWell app for its U.S. employees to provide AmaZen and other safety, health, and wellness offerings.


In October, Amazon touted its number two ranking on Forbes magazine’s World Best Employers 2020 List.


The company continues to be criticized by labor rights advocates, though a unionization drive at an Alabama warehouse failed by a wide margin in April.

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