Innovative organizations are beginning to adopt a practice once thought of by some as esoteric or inextricably bound to Eastern religion. Fortune 100 companies, Ivy League university executive education programs, and a smattering of various companies in between are exploring the practice called mindful- ness.
Mindfulness is not at all a new concept. In the late 1970s, Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the mindfulness-based stress reduction program at the University of Massachusetts to treat chronically ill patients. Of course, the medical community took note because its results proved powerful. Increasingly then, mindfulness practices were applied to both healthy and unhealthy people. Use of the ideas and techniques continued to spread globally, while psychologists created techniques to translate mindfulness practice for their patients’ benefit and a greater number of scientific studies were conducted on the impact and results of such practice. In early 2010, Harvard University psychology department professor Ellen Langer touted the value of mindfulness practice and encouraged broader use in a Harvard Business Review article, “A Call for Mindful Leadership.” Further supporting the concept’s acceptance by the mainstream, discount department store Walmart sells these book titles, among others with the keyword “mindful” in the title:
• Mindful Eating
• Mindful Movement
• Mindful Way Through Depression
• Mindful Anxiety
• Mindful Path to Self-Compassion
• Mindful Minutes.
Suggestions for, and descriptions of, mindfulness practices can be found in the teachings of Eastern religion, particularly Buddhism. At the same time, anyone of any religious belief system can both practice and benefit from mindfulness, and it takes very little training. There is no longer an inherent connection to a particular religion and you may even, at some point, find this practice offered in places like the YMCA or your community education program.
If desired, one can embark on in-depth, rigorous training programs in, for example, mindfulness-based stress reduction, but for the average person, this is not necessary. In fact, it takes absolutely no formal training to begin to learn the predecessor skills to the state of being mindful.
As our understanding of what it takes to be a great leader evolves, we are seeing that effective leadership includes IQ, EQ, and LQ—sufficient intellectual capacity, good emotional awareness and skills, and learning agility and curiosity. The best leaders have the ability to manage constant input and competing stimuli to maintain their presence of mind and their good emotional and physical health.
Why practice mindfulness?
We “practice” mindfulness because it is something no one really masters, and everyone can become better at it. The goal of mindfulness is a quiet mind. If you’ve ever tried to quiet your mind, you probably know how difficult it can be. As is also true in many forms of meditation, what we aim for in mindfulness practice is the quiet state as thoughts float through our minds. We focus on our internal state, on our thoughts, and so we note that a thought has floated into our awareness. But then, we do not interact with that thought as we typically would during the majority of our waking hours. We imagine the thought floating right back out of our minds, our ear, or whatever other visual helps to let the thought fade. If there is one minute during the workday where it is possible to do what was just described, try it.
If you can begin to form habits or rituals involving this kind of practice, repeated throughout the day and into the evening, even better. Recent studies have shown that as little as five minutes can bring a person a multitude of serious benefits. (This was previously thought to be 30, and then 10, until the latest study came out.) The benefits are truly eye-opening and might make one wonder why every person on this planet is not doing it. Greater frequency of practice may yield greater benefits, but in even a handful of minutes each day of practice, we can:
• improve mental focus and reduce mind wandering
• extend our attention span
• discourage black and white thinking
• assist in staying organized, managing time, and setting priorities
• lift us from a constant, low level of panic and guilt
• lower wear and tear on our bodies
• toughen immunity
• improve mood and emotional stability
• build self-monitoring capacity
• offer neuroprotective effects and reduce cognitive decline associated with aging.
Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, refers to mindfulness practice as “good brain hygiene” that is as important as brushing our teeth.
Note: This article is excerpted from The Brain-Friendly Workplace: 5 Big Ideas From Neuroscience That Address Organizational Challenges by Erika Garms.
© 2014 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.