True story. It was 6AM. There were about 12 of us who had been meditating for an hour when I had an epiphany. It’s really hard to empty your mind when your stomach is completely empty and loudly declaring its discontent! This was about five years ago when, burned out and on a dare by my best friend, I decided to go to India to spend ten days at an ashram to learn how to meditate.
The actual course was 21 days but as a self-proclaimed over-achiever I figured I could nail it in ten. Like anything else up to this point in my highly productive, efficient, and fast-paced life, I had specific goals in mind for the ten days at the ashram. First, learn how to empty my mind. Second, attain a permanent stress-free state. Third (and this was my Big Hairy Audacious Goal) was to achieve enlightenment. So, you can imagine my frustration on Day Nine as my stomach was growling with hunger and I had still not learned how to empty my mind.
Fast forward five years, and I find myself fascinated by what neuroscience is discovering about the benefits of meditation… something discovered thousands of years ago by the Buddhists. My goal here is to share the benefits of mindfulness I have personally experienced – more as a student and practitioner of the topic, rather than an expert. Here are ten ways mindfulness can help us be better leaders of ourselves and others.
First, a brief definition of mindfulness. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is simple awareness of the present moment. The Chinese calligraphy character for mindfulness (the graphic in this article) is literally translated as “present heart.” It is the practice of paying careful attention to what is happening in the now, whether it be a sight, a sound, a taste, a smell, a sensation in the body, a thought, or an emotion. It is observation without attachment or judgment.
Here are ten ways a leadership practice in mindfulness has helped me and can help you too.
1. Stress Reduction – I meditate 20 minutes in the morning each day. The deep breaths and getting away from the hustle and bustle of life to just sit helps me be calm and intentional about my day. The mind and body are deeply connected and stillness of the body aids in stillness of the mind. Researchers report in a study that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. According to this NY Times article, meditation has also been shown to reduce gray matter in the amygdala, which is a part of the brain commonly associated with stress, anxiety, and emotional processing.
2. Self-Awareness – The act of slowing down and observing my breath, observing my thoughts, and observing my feelings is a huge factor in increasing self-awareness. It has allowed me to be an objective observer to what is happening inside of me rather than an unwitting participant in the drama that can sweep me. Just the other day, as I observed myself giving my 13-year old instructions to be productive and stop watching TV, I had an epiphany. I am a bit of a control freak! It made me laugh out loud, because I would never think of myself as a control freak. Upon gleefully sharing this new epiphany with my daughter, she turned around, rolled her eyes and said, “A bit of a control freak?” It’s funny how others know many things about us that we hide from ourselves. Nothing like feedback from a 13-year old to shatter illusions of your own grandeur!
3. Greater Empathy for Self – My mindfulness practice has allowed me to have greater compassion and empathy for myself most days (well, the days I don’t try on swimsuits anyway!). There would be days I would have a wonderfully deep and relaxing meditation and other days my mind would be full of chatter and I would be kicking and blaming myself. Then I had a flash of insight. Kicking, blaming, and judging myself was not leading to a greater state of calmness. Acceptance of “what is” helps us to develop a genuine curiosity to know ourselves without judging ourselves. We allow ourselves to see some of the things we would normally dislike about ourselves more readily. And it is often those things that are hidden from our view that derail us. Ironically, that acceptance is the first real step to choosing to make any change.
4. Manage Our Energy – Greater self-awareness of our own thoughts, emotions, and feelings allows us to manage our energy as leaders. As leaders, we have our own Energy Footprint and our energy is highly contagious. Neuroscience research has shown us that emotional contagion and limbic resonance are real biological processes that happen where we impact others around us through our own energy and attitude in any given situation. So, as a leader, what is the attitude we want in our people? We need to manage our own “Energy Footprint” first.
5. Become A Better Listener – Observing my breath and my thoughts has made me a better listener. I am more aware of how I am listening to others. I find myself listening to “How I am Listening” to a person I don’t particularly like. It is quite comical observing the thought balloons and judgments that arise. Who needs HBO when you can watch all the drama in your head? As we become aware of the judgmental thoughts and commentary that is in our heads as we listen to others, the filters through which we experience others hold less sway. We are able to better understand others from where they are coming from rather than through the interpretations and stories we have about them. Truly understanding ourselves and others are the key tenets to emotional intelligence, shown to be a key driver of success and well-being in life.
6. Strongly Engage Others – When we recognize our judgments and stories about others and develop the capacity to make a choice in those judgments, we are able to connect more meaningfully and authentically with others. We are able to be more engaging leaders, to truly understand what motivates others. We are able to influence others more powerfully because we listen and connect better.
7. Creating Distance Between Thought and Action – Mindfulness gives you the power of the “Pregnant Pause”. In our high-action culture, we often act when no action is required, or we act without reflection, just because we are on auto-pilot. The practice of mindfulness makes us aware of the state of being we are in, helps us pause to decide whether action is needed and what is the right action needed. For example, in times of stress our emotions can hijack our actions. The pause can help us choose to adjust our state of being, to calm ourselves down, so that the right action can arise from the right place. As a leader, how many times have you acted in haste to only regret it later?
8. Tap Into Intuition – To me, intuition is a sense of knowing that we all have. Many of us call it our gut. Some of us know it as our inner voice. In the biography by Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs is quoted as saying, “I began to realize that an intuitive understanding and consciousness was more significant than abstract thinking and intellectual logical analysis… intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.” Even Albert Einstein said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
Mindfulness, or paying attention to the present, allows us to listen to the small inner voice that is often drowned out by our thoughts, emotions, constant action, worries about the past or the future. For example, intuition has helped me many times in making the right decision in accepting jobs. At one point in my career, I had the opportunity to run a $500 million business vs. running a $100 million business. The obvious rational choice would have been the former, but my inner voice, the very sense of excitement I felt in my body, caused me to take the latter. That choice based on intuition led to great learning, growth and future promotions. Intuition is often felt in the body if we take the time to listen to it.
9. Embrace and Adapt to Change – Change is constant and as leaders our job is to artfully adapt to it. It’s hard to adapt because we have attachments to how things are “supposed to be.” I’m supposed to get my boss’ job. We must win that contract. Nothing wrong with having a desire for the promotion and winning contracts, and we absolutely must strive for these in our lives. However, when we strive for these without being attached to a specific outcome, we are more open to possibilities and opportunities that are in front of us, and we act with less fear and with greater presence. At one point in my career, I was asked to take an assignment in sales, moving me away from my up-to-then marketing career path. I thought I must have really offended someone high up in Management! At that point my “attachment” was to get promoted to a higher level in marketing. I took the assignment (kicking and screaming I might add) and it was one of the best career moves I have made. Mindfulness practice allows us to give up attachment to what we want something to be, while observing it as it is. From this observation we can then be much more adaptive to change.
10. Greater Clarity and Focus – Many studies have shown that meditation can improve our ability to focus and concentrate on any task at hand. A study by Harvard and MIT neuroscientists found that people trained to meditate over an eight-week period were better able to control a specific type of brain waves called alpha rhythms. “These activity patterns are thought to minimize distractions, to diminish the likelihood stimuli will grab your attention,” says Christopher Moore, MIT neuroscientist and senior author of the paper. “Our data indicate that meditation training makes you better at focusing, in part by allowing you to better regulate how things that arise will impact you.” I didn’t need the study to tell me that! After all, I was able to write this rather long discourse on the benefits of mindfulness in just two sessions!
So give mindfulness and meditation a try. Here is a link to some useful resources on how to do mindfulness meditations, and some links to guided meditations. Many others can be found on YouTube and the idea is to work with what works for you.
In closing, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is I still haven’t quite figured out how to empty my mind. The good news is I am not quite so attached to that outcome. “The real meditation practice never comes to an end, it’s your life and how you carry yourself in each moment,” as Jon Kabat Zinn says in his lecture at Google. I wish you a mindful day today and welcome connecting with you if you are interested in learning about how to use mindfulness practice to lead more effectively.
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Stress Proof Your Brain – Rick Hanson – Meditation I recommend to clients
My favorite quotes on meditation:
“We don’t sit in meditation to become good meditators. We sit in meditation so that we’ll be more awake in our lives.” – Pema Chödrön from When Things Fall Apart
“Meditation is warm-up exercise for the mind, so that you can jog through the rest of the day without getting agitated or spraining your patience.” – Eknath Easwaran from Conquest of Mind.