Mindfulness has developed through thousands of years of cultural evolution as an antidote to the natural habits of our hearts and minds that make life difficult. Mindfulness holds the promise of reducing stress and enhancing well-being in personal lives and improving productivity and relationships in the workplace.
In the East, mindfulness developed in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and other traditions as a component of yoga and meditation practice, designed to free the mind of unwholesome habits. In the West mindfulness is an element of many Jewish, Christian, Muslim and North American aboriginal practices designed for spiritual growth.
So what exactly is mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” Other definitions are: “bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis,”and “it includes a quality of compassion, acceptance and loving-kindness.”
Over the past decade, researchers and mental health professionals have been discovering that both ancient and modern mindfulness practices hold great promise for ameliorating virtually every kind of psychological suffering–from everyday worry, dissatisfaction and neurotic habits to more serious problems with anxiety, depression, substance abuse and related conditions.
From a Western scientific perspective, neuroscience gives us another perspective. When we are mindful, the sympathetic nervous system (stress response) is kept in check and dampened, and the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, which helps us keep calm.
Mindful awareness can be enhanced through various means, such as the traditional practices of mindfulness meditation, yoga, tai chi, qigong, and centering prayer. These practices create a state in which the individual experiences a widening of awareness that encompasses a sense of attention to one’s own intention, an immersion in the rich sensations of the body and the breath, and an awareness of the mind itself — an awareness of awareness. This self-observation comes with the capacity to experience the mind’s activities with objectivity. In this way, a thought or feeling becomes sensed as just that, a thought or feeling, rather than the totality of the person’s identity in the moment.
Mindfulness meditation comes in 2 distinct forms:
- Formal meditation: This is a meditation when you intentionally take time out of your day to embark on a meditative practice.
- Informal practices: This is where you go into a focused and meditative state of mind as you go about your daily activities. You train your mind to stay in the present moment rather than habitually straying into the past or future. And you train your mind to notice in detail what’s going on about you.
The National Institute of Health is currently financing more than 50 studies testing the potential health benefits of mindfulness techniques. A University of Pennsylvania study in which mindfulness meditation training was provided to a high stress U.S. military group preparing for deployment to Iraq has demonstrated a positive link between mindfulness training and improvements in mood and working memory.
The key research finding of a number of recent significant studies have shown that regular meditation physically alters the brains of participants, and the effect lasts long after meditation periods.
What Research says about the personal benefits of mindfulness
1. Mindfulness helps with depression
Research suggests that 30 minutes of meditation improves depression symptoms (along with anxiety and pain). In fact, the practice could possibly prevent depression and pain altogether — scientists discoveredthat people who meditate may have more control over how their brains process and pay attention to negative sensations (like pain) and negative thoughts (like depression triggers). B. L. Fredrickson and her colleagues have shown in their researchthat mindfulness meditation reduced the level of depression in individuals that were suffering from it. R. Wiveka et al. have demonstrated in their research that mindfulness meditation significantly reduced ruminative thinking.
2. Mindfulness reduces the impact of stress.
When you meditate, you’re able to override a part of the brain responsible for the fear mechanism. One study suggests that meditation can cut back on anxiety by almost 40 percent. Another study by John J. Miller and colleagues showed that mindfulness meditation can have long-term beneficial effects in the treatment of people diagnosed with anxiety disorders. When you’re on the grind 40+ hours per week, it’s all too easy to feel overworked. Enter, meditation. Research suggests that taking time to quiet your mind leads to fewer feelings of work-related exhaustion. It’s even been part of medical students’ training at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center with this particular aim in mind.
3. Mindfulness decreases pain.
Zeidan and his colleagues published a research study that showed that mindfulness mediation training reduced pain-unpleasantness by 57% and pain-intensity ratings by 40% compared to rest.
4. Mindfulness reduces inflammation.
5. Mindfulness improves memory, focus and creativity
A research studyby Fadel Zeidan and colleagues has shown that mindfulness meditation significantly improved memory and executive functioning and a study by Jason Krompinger and Michael Baime showed that mindfulness meditation improve the skills of attention and focus. A research study by C.M. Zedellus and J.W. Schooler has shown that mindfulness meditation training and practice increased subjects’ capacity for creative thinking.
6. Mindfulness changes (increases) brain grey matter
A research study by Eileen Luders and colleagues has shown that mindfulness meditators had significantly larger gray matter volumes in meditators in the right orbito-frontal cortex (as well as in the right thalamus and left inferior temporal gyrus when co-varying for age and/or lowering applied statistical thresholds). In addition, meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the right hippocampus. Both orbito-frontal and hippocampal regions have been implicated in emotional regulation and response control. A study by Sara W. Lazar and colleagues has shown that brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing were thicker in meditation participants than matched controls and that meditation experience may offset age-related cortical thinning.
7. Mindfulness boosts self-control and ability to regulate emotions
Jazaieri and colleagues conducteda research study which showed that a 9 week mindfulness training which resulted in increased compassion, and decreased worry and emotional suppression. Ruth Baer completed a research studywhich showed the practice of mindfulness developed subjects’ ability to describe present-moment experience nonjudgmentally and non-reactively increased subjects’ capacity for self-reflection; and reduced rumination and emotional avoidance.
8. Mindfulness improves cognitive functioning
A study by P. Amishi and colleagues showed that subjects’ cognitive functions improved on tasks.
9. Mindfulness improves emotional intelligence
A study by Li-Chuan Chu showed that subjects improved their level of emotional intelligence. A research study by S. L Shapiro and colleagues showed that an 8 week mindfulness training program increased empathy levels. Several previous studies have supported the hypothesis that meditation training improves practitioners’ emotional regulation. While neuroimaging studies have found that meditation training appeared to decrease activation of the amygdala — a structure at the base of the brain that is known to have a role in processing memory and emotion.
10. Mindfulness boosts social life and improves relationships
B.L. Fredrickson and her colleagues have conducted research which shows that mindfulness enhances positive emotions, and improved life satisfaction. C.A. Hutcherson, and colleagues conducted research that showed that mindfulness mediation increases social interconnectedness, and decreases social isolation.
11. Mindfulness practices can help with sleep problems
In a world where we take our phones and tablets to bed, shuteye has become a pretty precious thing. The problem? Quieting the mind enough to actually be able to fall asleep. That’s where meditation comes in. Not only does science suggest it may help treat insomnia, but experts believe that meditating can help keep your mind in check throughout the day and reduce stress, thus leading to a better, more restful night’s sleep.
12. Mindfulness can enhance one’s capacity for compassion.
A study by Northeastern University’s David DeSteno, published in Psychological Science,takes a look at what impacts meditation has on interpersonal harmony and compassion. In this study, a team of researchers from Northeastern University and Harvard University examined the effects meditation would have on compassion and virtuous behavior, and the results were fascinating. Participants in the study who practiced mindfulness meditation subsequently exhibited more features of compassion. These results appear to prove what the Buddhist theologians have long believed — that meditation is supposed to lead you to experience more compassion and love for all sentient beings. But even for non-Buddhists, the findings offer scientific proof for meditation techniques to alter the calculus of the moral mind.
13. Mindfulness can slow down age-related brain atrophy and enhance the immune system
“Meditation, however, might not only cause changes in brain anatomy by inducing growth but also by preventing reduction,” UCLA researcher Eileen Luders concluded in her research. “That is, if practiced regularly and over years, meditation may slow down aging-related brain atrophy.” According to a study published in the journal, Psychoneuroendocrinology, the positive effects of mindfulness begin at the cellular level, altering levels of telomerase immune cells.
14. Experienced mindfulness meditators can clear their minds of distractions more quickly than novices
After being interrupted by a word-recognition task, experienced meditators’ brains returned faster to their pre-interruption condition, researchers at Emory University School of Medicine found.
15. Mindfulness practitioners can have a stronger mind-body connection
A study from the University of California Berkeley, published in the journal Emotion,studied the mind-body connection of professional dancers in comparison with accomplished mindfulness meditators, and found that the latter were more in sync with their bodies.
16. Mindfulness practitioners have greater cognitive and control over what they say or do
A study by Kirk Brown at the University of Rochester found that people high on a mindfulness scale were more aware of their unconscious processes and had more cognitive control and greater ability to shape what they do and what they say, than people lower on the mindfulness scale.
Here are the key elements to mindfulness:
· Paying attention: Focusing 100% of your attention on whatever you are doing.
· Non-judging: taking the role of an impartial observer to whatever your current experience is, and not judging whether things are good or bad.
· Patience:cultivating the understanding that things must develop in their own time.
· Being in the present moment.Being aware of how things are right now in the present moment, not as they were in the past, or how they might be in the future.
· Non-reactivity.Our brains are built to have you react automatically, without thinking. Mindfulness encourages you to respond to your experience rather than react to your thoughts. Mindfulness is a deliberate and intentional choice.
· Beginner’s mind:having the willingness to observe the world as if it was your first time doing so. This creates an openness that is essential to being mindful.
· Non-striving:the state of not doing anything, just simply accepting that things are happening in the moment just as they are supposed to. For people from the Western countries like the United States, this seems to be one of the more difficult components. (This does not mean passivity).
· Acceptance: completely accepting the thoughts, feelings, sensations, and beliefs that you have, and understanding that they are simply those things only.
· Openmindedness-and-open-heartedness.Mindfulness is not just about the head or brain, it’s about the heart and spirit as well. To be open-hearted is to bring a quality of kindness, compassion, warmth and friendliness to our experience.
· Non-attachment:avoidance of attaching meaning to thoughts and feelings, or connecting a given thought to a feeling. Instead, let a thought or feeling come in and pass without connecting it to anything, observing them exactly as they are.
Mindfulness in the Workplace
Mindfulness research activity is surging within organizational science. Emerging evidence across multiple fields suggests that mindfulness is fundamentally connected to many aspects of workplace functioning and leadership behavior.
Initiatives to introduce mindfulness into the workplace, holds a promise for a cost effective way to improve employee productivity and well-being, while reducing health care costs, most of which are stress related. In my work with CEOs, senior executives, business owners and professionals, mindfulness is a key part of their leadership training and coaching experience. And the results have been significant.
Many companies such as Raytheon, Proctor and Gamble, Google, eBay, Apple, General Mills, the U.S. Military and scores of others have implemented mindfulness meditation programs for employees and the participants have reported a positive change in work capacity, stress management, relationships, reduced absenteeism and reduced health costs.
What about mindfulness training’s application to leadership?
Most leadership books and training programs focus on how leaders can achieve more, do more, better, faster, with spectacular results. Most leadership development programs focus on how to become better at time management, goal setting, performance measures, team schedules and complex systems. All these efforts have been shown to result in incremental success at best. That’s because they are all external strategies to address the issues that are essentially internal.
The demands of leadership can produce what is known as “power stress,” which often leaves even the best leaders physically and emotionally drained. Leaders can easily find themselves moving from an “approach” orientation, where they are emotionally open, engaged and innovative, to one of “avoidance” characterized by aversion, irritability, aggression, fear and close-mindedness.
The point here is simple. Work and personal lives that build greater, resilience, well-being, success, fulfillment and happiness are not constructed from grandiose theories or plans, but through mastering internal capacity — self-awareness, self-management, constructing meaning and becoming more mindful.
Daniel Goleman, author of Primal Leadership, and Richard Boyatzis and Ann McKee, authors of Resonant Leadership,argue that the first tasks of management have nothing to do with leading others, but in knowing deeply and managing oneself, which requires time for quiet reflection. Michael Carroll, author of The Mindful Leader, contends that being more mindful will help leaders heal toxic workplaces and reduce stress; be more resilient through difficult times and lead with wisdom and gentleness, rather than through ego and aggression.
There is no question that current times call for a new kind of leader, one who is a master of self rather than a controller of others; and it calls for a workplace where employees mindfully go about their work under less stress with greater productivity. Mindfulness can be a powerful force to accomplish both these ends.
Most contemporary management and leadership literature is a predictive recasting of 19th and 20th century institutional thinking-multitasking, bigger, better, faster; planning, analysis and problem solving. Work on steroids.
Mindless behavior and “autopilot”
While it is true that the effectiveness of leaders is determined by the results they achieve, those results are an outcome of the impact the leaders have on others. Behavior is driven by thinking and emotions. Thinking and emotions can be a result of mindfulness or mindlessness.
Neuroscience research clearly established that we act, decide and choose as a result of inner forces, often unconscious, and the brain’s reactive and protective mechanisms often rule us. Research also points to the existence of emotions being contagious and viral in the workplaces, often initiated by the emotional states of leaders.
In an article in Forbes magazine, professors Cyril Bouquet and Ben Bryant, citing the disastrous collision of two Boeing 747’s in the Canary Islands in 1977, killing 583 people, was a case of poor attention management. They argue that two kinds of attention disorders exacerbate the difficulties companies face in economic downturns-fixation and relaxation. In the case of fixation, the leaders are too preoccupied with a few central signals or information; they ignore everything else. With respect to relaxation, Bouquet and Bryant contend that excessive relaxation follows sustained periods of high concentration. The authors argue that mindfulness can lessen the attention problems of fixation and relaxation.
The demands of leadership can produce what is known as “power stress,” a side effect of being in a position of power and influence that often leaves even the best leaders physically and emotionally drained. As a result, leaders can easily find themselves moving from an “approach” orientation to their work-emotionally open, engaged and innovative-to an “avoidance” orientation that is characterized by aversion, irritability, aggression, fear and close-mindedness.
If leaders believe they don’t have the time to work through all aspects of a problem they are inclined to be narrow in perspective and take cognitive shortcuts, and become more impulsive and reactive. Their actions, in effect become “mindless” and automatic.
Daniel Siegel, a neuroscientist and author of The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, contends that a corporate culture of cognitive shortcuts results in oversimplication, curtailed curiosity, reliance on ingrained beliefs and the development of perceptional blind spots. He argues that mindfulness practices enable individuals to jettison judgment and develop more flexible feelings toward what before may have been mental events they tried to avoid, or towards which they had intense adverse reactions.
Research studies on the impact and benefits of mindfulness in the workplace
Researchers Darren J. Good et al. considered 4,000 scientific papers on various aspects of mindfulness, distilling the information into an accessible guide documenting the impact mindfulness has on how people think, feel, act, relate and perform at work. Their findings, Contemplating Mindfulness at Work (An Integrative Review), are recently published in the Journal of Management. “Remarkably, scientists have found the effects of mindfulness consistently benign,” co-author Christopher Lyddy said. “Of the thousands of empirical studies we read, only two reported any downside to mindfulness.”
1. Mindfulness positively affects interpersonal behavior and quality of dyadic and workgroup. For example, both dispositional mindfulness and mindfulness training among health care practitioners relate to improved communication quality , including open listening with increased awareness and less evaluative judgment of others as well as better client-rated relationship quality.
2 . Mindfulness by employees in one research case resulted in moderated reactions to injustice, including reduced rumination, negative emotion, and relationships.
3 . Mindfulness may improve relationships via sustained attention to interaction partners, which improves communication and increases the capacity to communicate emotional information.
4 . Mindfulness also may improve relationships through greater empathy and compassion. Related research supports an association between trait mindfulness and empathy.
5 . A study implemented a mindfulness-based mentoring intervention in multidisciplinary therapeutic treatment teams. The researchers observed process improvements in team meetings, including more active listening, more patient-focused discussion and collaboration, and greater respect among team members; these effects remained one year later.
6 . In another study using student groups without formal leaders, teams benefited from randomization to a short mindfulness induction in showing increases on measures of both cohesion and collective performance.
7 . Mindfulness can reduce aggressive communication among employees. One study showed that mindfulness practices by team members resulted in with less aggressive communication.
8 . Mindfulness training has been found to bolster perspective-taking, which has been found helpful for negotiation.
It is clear that mindfulness practices have a significant benefit for individuals in their personal lives, and there is a compelling case for the implementation of mindfulness practices and training in the workplace, and for leaders.
Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and Asia.