I recently met up for a drink with some old school friends. I’d just come back from a Mindfulness retreat in the West Country and was talking about my experiences. One of my friends who is a partner in a large law firm listened with interest before telling me that they had a mindfulness practitioner delivering a program at her organisation. When I asked what she thought, she paused for a moment and responded “too be honest Sarah the guy is a smug **** – so I’m really not a fan of all that stuff…”. I chuckled at her frankness and it got me thinking about mindfulness and it’s journey into the mainstream and business – open the Sunday papers and most weeks you’ll find something on mindfulness or the benefits of meditation – and whether it’s in danger of being classed as a fashionable fad, much loved of the media one minute and then gone the way of step aerobics the next…
So what is mindfulness, how does it relate to meditation and why has it become so popular?
My definition of mindfulness is that it’s about being in the here and now – not thinking about the past or constantly planning for the future (all of us have a tendency to do one or the other); it is about being fully present, moment to moment, bringing our full attention to what is happening around us right now (it’s not, as some people may think, about thinking really, really hard about something…)
Official definition of mindfulness include:
“Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.” University of California Berkley
“Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present.” Psychology Today
The terms mindfulness and meditation are often used interchangeably. In simple terms meditation is one of the practices of mindfulness, a way of cultivating the ability to be in the present moment by bringing our attention to the body and giving the mind a gentle focus of attention by focussing in on the breath. It’s a common myth that Meditation is about shutting the mind off – it’s actually about witnessing the flow of thoughts without attaching to them.
So what’s the point of it?
Research shows mindfulness and meditation have many benefits – it improves cognition and the brains ability to focus, reduces stress, improves mood and alleviates the symptoms anxiety* all of which are very compelling reasons to explore it.
For me mindfulness is one of the cornerstones of self awareness and self management – the ability to have the headspace and presence of mind to both be aware of my emotions and to notice my reactions – giving me that vital split second to choose a constructive response rather than a possibly less helpful instinctive one. So as a practice, mindfulness helps to improve Emotional Intelligence – both in terms of increasing self awareness and building an awareness of one’s impact on others.
Mindfulness is also key to being able to achieve a flow state (see previous blog article) – that ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all other things, total delicious absorption in a task – the practice of meditation helps cultivate this ability to focus.
One of the other gifts of mindfulness is being fully present to others. How often have you been having a conversation with a colleague – they really need to chat but you have a pressing deadline – all the time you are “listening” you are either second guessing what they need or formulating how you are going to respond (you may even be half wondering what you are going to have for lunch…). In short without realising you aren’t fully there – and that means you aren’t fully available to support them or bring the best of what you have to offer to the interaction.
There is a lot of talk about mindfulness as a helpful antidote to stress and building resilience. I’ll add my voice to that. For me regular meditation and mindful practice is one of the things that keeps me resourceful – when life get’s a little crazy – it means “taking 5” – a quiet moment to stop, take a few breaths, notice what’s going on before moving forward.
So what does all this mean for business, for leadership and life?
We live busy, demanding lives. Perpetual connectivity with the constant ping of email notifications, WhatsApp messages, LinkedIn reminders and text messages mean that our attention is pulled this way like a flag being buffeted by the wind. Sometimes this means it can be hard to remain focussed on the bigger picture of what is really important.
This is where mindfulness comes in. It’s a tool available to all of us to help bring us to the present moment – not ruminating on the past or planning for the future; it’s about focussing on what is real and true right now and cultivating the ability to focus* – and being able to apply the best of ourselves to our leadership, our challenges, our compelling goals and relationships.
Oh and it’s about more ease. As a mindfulness teacher at the marvellous @SharphamTrust once said: “let your breath bring you back home to yourself”. So for me Mindfulness is a friend who is here to stay.
How do you stay resourceful? I’d love to hear – please Tweet me @sarahBoldlyGo
Are you facing a work or life challenge or would like some help changing the status quo? Email me firstname.lastname@example.org
*Harvard University Research shows that mindfulness and meditation help the brain reduce distractions, improves cognition, reduces stress, improves mood and alleviates the symptoms anxiety*
If you are curious about mindfulness and meditation, commit to a daily practice. Start by committing to a timeframe that you can easily achieve (for example, 2-10 minutes per day). After practicing for a week, re-evaluate and see if you’d like to meditate longer (or perhaps shorter).
The most powerful proof of whether these practices will “work” for you is direct experience. So, give it a try and see for yourself.