Top government ethics chief Walter Shaub and staff used Headspace meditation app to deal with stress of working under Trump

Key Points
  • Then-Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub and his staff used the Headspace meditation app during the first six months of the administration of President Donald Trump.
  • Shaub said meditation help him and staffers deal with stresses from the Trump administration.
  • He had butted head with the administration over issues that included Trump's refusal to sell his businesses, and a White House advisor touting Ivanka Trump's clothing line.
Walter M. Shaub Jr., director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, arrives for a scheduled meeting with the leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
J. Scott Applewhite | AP

When President Donald Trump and his new administration got to be too stressful for the head of the government ethics office and his staff last year, they got some "Headspace."


Walter Shaub told CNBC that before resigning as director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics last July he made it a daily practice to take time out each day with anywhere between six to a dozen or so staffers to meditate using the popular Headspace app.

"It kind of made us strong in weathering a very tumultuous storm at the time," Shaub said. "Of the ones who came regularly, they loved it, and we all seemed to hunger for it."

Shaub, 47, said he raised the idea of meditating with staff — which is definitely not the norm in government offices in Washington, DC — soon after Trump was elected in November 2016.

It quickly became clear then that his presidential transition — and his administration — was going to be significantly more challenging for the ethics office than it was used to.

"We were prepared for the intensity" that happens when a new president prepares to take office, Shaub said.

"We weren't prepared for the chaos in this administration.

"We weren't prepared for the assault on us," said Shaub, who was appointed OGE director in 2013 after joining the office in 2006. "The world, it was just crazy in 2017."

Shaub, whose independent executive-branch office helps officials avoid conflicts of interest, repeatedly butted heads with Trump officials over ethics choices and recommendations, often in a very public way that made him a hero to Trump opponents.

Shaub in a January 2017 speech said that Trump's plan to avoid conflicts by having his sons run his companies "doesn't meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every president in the past four decades has met."

Shaub said Trump should sell his varied business interests. The president ignored that advice. Shaub also criticized the White House for not disciplining senior Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway for encouraging people to buy clothes sold by Ivanka Trump's fashion line.

President Donald Trump
Leah Millis | Reuters

Shaub says now that if the administration "had taken our advice, they wouldn't have half the problems they have now."

"It just felt like a brush with something very dark and very sinister," Shaub said. "The tone from the top set everything, but they brought in people that thought like him."

The White House had no immediate comment on Shaub's remarks.

Shaub said that in addition to dealing with that level of friction with the new administration, his staff was inundated with a huge influx of Freedom of Information Act requests and other work.

"The staff looked just really fried," Shaub recalled.

"The problem is the direct assault on the ethics program which is the thing that every person in that room had committed their lives to, he said.

"We were all deeply committed to this ethics program and we're watching its virtual destruction. We were trying to hold on to what pieces of the program could survive this assault."

"It just occurred to me that maybe if the boss said 'we're going to take a 10 break ... and it would be completely voluntary, that would be a relief," Shaub said.

"You have to have more peace," he said. "Both from the perspective of productivity and harmony in the office."

He said "I'd always been interested in meditation, and I'd listened to various tapes" to do that.

And he already had the Headspace app on his phone when he broached the idea of using it with his staff.

"I just kind of casually introduced it at a staff meeting, and said, 'Some of us are going to start doing this, and you are free to join or not to join,' " Shaub recalled.

Shaub said that out of an office of about 70 staffers, there were six core people who always showed up for the daily Headspace meditation session, which began at 3:10 p.m.

On any given day, up to another seven or so people would join them.

During the 10 minutes the group was together, they would sit silently in a conference room with dimmed lights, their eyes closed and meditate, aided intermittently by the voice of Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe as the app played.

An Englishman who spent a decade as a Buddhist monk, Puddicombe's words would guide the ethics staffers through a series of meditative exercises, such as focusing on their breath's inhalation and exhalation, or on imagining the image of liquid sunlight passing through their bodies.

Puddicombe also at times would tell listeners not to resist any ideas they had — be they of Trump or of anything else — but to let them come and go in their heads, and to recognize them as being just thoughts.

"The people in the room thought he was the best thing," Shaub said of Puddicombe's soothing, sometimes wry voice.

Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of HEADspace.
Jarrett Bellini | CNBC

Shaub said the sessions made a difference for the people who participated in them.

"That 10 minutes just forcing yourself to stop is powerful, particularly with having other people in the room doing the same thing," he said.

The meditation was not a cure-all, however.

"Our stress was so intense in that period of time, there wasn't anybody after that felt like they weren't stressed anymore," Shaub said.

But, "uniformly, everybody seemed to think they were more refreshed than they would have been," he noted. "People were constantly commenting that it seemed like more than 10 minutes we were in there."

"Afterward, people felt like, 'OK, this is still miserable in what we're going through, but we can get back into the ring for another round now," Shaub said. "It was something that we all commented on about this experience."

Shaub's staff weren't the only ones turning to Headspace to get some relief. Puddicombe told CNBC that the app saw a major increase in usage after Trump's election.

"In the two months after the election, we saw a staggering uptick in usage of the app, in fact there was a 44% spike in that post-election week," he said.

Shaub's own experience at OGE ended in July, when he resigned from his post.

"It's clear that there isn't more I could accomplish," he told the Washington Post at the time.

He immediately took a new job with a non-partisan, good-government watchdog group called The Campaign Legal Center.

But he also quickly fell out of the habit of doing Headspace every day.

"I have used it since but not with any kind of regularity," Shaub said. "Man, that's something I feel like I'm the worst for."

Shaub said that when he ran into a former colleague from OGE, he asked if they had maintained the daily Headspace session

"They gave me a sheepish look, and said, 'No, we've fallen off since you left. We need to start doing this.' "

During his interview with CNBC, Shaub admitted he had no excuse to not meditate every day. Several days afterward, he called a reporter to happily say that he had started again.

"When I did it, everything works better, again, in my body and in my life," Shaub noted. "Since I've left government I keep telling myself I need to institute more of the grounding things in my life."

He said that doing Headspace every day with his staff is "probably my best memory of 2017, at least in the work world ... which was just a very hard year."

"I'll probably remember that more than the individual trials and tribulations in that year."

When asked about Shaub's experience with Headspace, Puddicombe told CNBC that "everyone faces periods of struggle and challenge, and that's especially true during times of transition and change."

"Headspace is a tool to help people cope with these challenges, so we're not surprised but we are gratified to hear that the ethics team turned to our app for help," Puddicombe said.