Mindfulness is a powerful tool that is taking the business world by storm. Psychologists have been using and promoting it for decades, but it has only been in the past 10 years or so that leading organisations such as Aetna, Intel, Target, Goldman Sachs and Google have successfully incorporated it into their workplaces to gain a competitive edge. Forbes, Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review have repeatedly endorsed it and it was such a hot topic at the 2014 World Economic Forum that the multiple sessions on it were over-subscribed.
Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine and major mindfulness proponent, has described mindfulness as: “…paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.”
Let’s unpack those concepts of purposefulness, presence and non-judgment…
Paying Attention “On Purpose”
Mindfulness involves a deliberate direction of awareness. Imagine that your attention is the beam of a flashlight. You notice and respond to the things that the beam of light is trained on. Most of us tend to point the beam around in an unconscious sort of way. For instance, we’ll automatically read and respond to email alerts as they pop onto the computer screen. Or we’ll unconsciously start thinking about all work that we have to do in the middle of a team meeting or, worse yet, when we’re trying to relax. When we’re being mindful, we CHOOSE where the beam is pointing. When it swivels off and points in an unhelpful direction, we catch ourselves and refocus the beam again. With practice, we can get better at keeping the light beam trained in the desired direction.
Paying Attention “In The Present Moment”
People typically spend a lot of time thinking about what has happened and what will happen. But the past has already occurred, and the future can only be imagined. The only moment that we actually can experience is NOW. Thinking about other moments often leads to us wasting mental energy and bringing pain into the present moment. By focusing on what is going on in the present moment, we can create a sense of space and freedom for ourselves. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad to think about the past or future.; it can be helpful to recall and to plan things. The point is that with mindfulness training we can focus our mind on the present moment when it’s most helpful to do so.
Paying Attention “Non-Judgmentally”
Our thoughts are populated with judgments, or evaluations. They’re so consistent a feature of our cognitive landscape we don’t even notice that we’re making them. Judgments tend to go like this:
Again, it can be helpful to make judgments. For instance, if you notice that you’re missing some important notes before a meeting, judging that as “bad” can lead you to rectify the error. However, if you get caught up in judgments during the meeting (e.g. “I’m not clever enough”, or “It sucks to sit by Bob”), that probably won’t work in your favour, because you’re trying to control things that can’t be controlled in that moment. You’re being distracted and distressed to no good end.
Through mindfulness practice, we can train our minds to observe experiences with a curious and accepting attitude. Of course, judgments still bubble up because the human mind is such an excellent judgment generator. The difference is that when we’re being mindful, we can notice those judgments as they arise. We can sit outside them and think “Aha! My mind is doing that judgment stuff again.” Then we can decide what we want to do about it – to take action or to practice acceptance. Being able to sit in this “meta-cognitive” state is a great way to protect oneself from knee-jerk reactions. Thoughts and are less able to pull us around when we’re observing them.
The same mindful approach can be applied to feelings as they arise. Rather than telling ourselves what we ought to feel, we can simply notice and accept what we really do feel and then allow the feelings to pass again. That means that we don’t waste energy fighting what is already happening and we don’t dwell too much on the feelings. Instead, we channel energy into deciding how we actually want to act in relation to those feelings.
Want to hear about the benefits of Mindfulness? move on to the Part Two article on our blog to find out more!