The global pandemic crisis is stretching each of us in many unique ways.
Just yesterday, I was having a video call with a CEO. He looked tired, with bags under his eyes. I asked what it’s like for him. He talked about some of the challenges of leading in this new environment. We discussed how you make decisions when you don’t have the answers. Yet, as the CEO, every hour or call is a new decision of consequence. He’s needing to pivot quickly from discussions on scenario planning to supply chain issues to new government lock-down guidelines to taking care of employees.
It’s clear that our leadership context has changed. We need to develop new capacities to lead in this environment. I sat down with neuroscientist Rick Hanson, author of the upcoming book Neurodharma to talk about how mindfulness can help us develop new capacity and be more resilient.
Henna Inam: What are the benefits of mindfulness in general?
Rick Hanson: Mindfulness is very simple. It’s just sustained present moment awareness. There’s research now on the benefits of mindfulness as a strength that we can develop that helps us develop other strengths.
As people develop a mindfulness practice, they become more aware of their own interior. They deepen in their self-knowledge. Parts of the brain that are involved with self-awareness such as the insula get measurably thicker. It’s like lifting weights to grow muscle. You now have greater capacity to be present to what’s happening in you and around you. It helps you respond more effectively to what life throws at you. Mindfulness enables you to sustain an experience of grit inside yourself to hardwire grit into your being.
Inam: We are in the middle of the pandemic crisis trying our best to manage it. We are working pandemic business plans, dealing with home schooling kids, and worried about the economy. In this context why is this book useful?
Hanson: A metaphor for this time is that a storm has come and we’re being battered from the outside with events around us. Internally storm surges are arising inside our own minds based on our reactions to things. When everything’s calm and peaceful, you can be sloppy. You don’t need a very deep keel in your inner sailboat. But when the storms come you really need to draw upon what you’ve got inside.
When the storm comes, often all you’ve got is what you’ve developed inside yourself already. It’s the emotional capital you’ve developed inside yourself as well as the interpersonal capital you’ve developed with other people. That’s all you’ve got. When the world starts to break down around you, it’s a wake-up call for a lot of people that actually all along they were really running on empty.
Inam: Can you share more about your new book Neurodharma?
Hanson: The book covers seven major qualities that we can develop through practice. It brings together the most cutting-edge brain science with the most profound wisdom of the ages. Neuro is about our nervous system. The term Dharma means the truth of things. For me, what the book is about is these two ways of knowing ourselves. We can know ourselves from the inside out experientially. We can also know ourselves objectively from the outside in, biologically, physically, neurologically. That’s the neuro part. And NeuroDharma is where these two ways of knowing ourselves come together. They’re evidence-based in terms of the body of science. And they’re also evidence-based because they’re tried and true now over thousands of years. And people can test them out in the laboratory of their own life and get the evidence directly there as well.
The first three practices is what I want to focus on: Steadying The Mind, Warming The Heart, Resting in Fullness. Steadying The Mind is about focusing attention. Can you be focused enough in the face of distractions coming at you from the outside or bubbling up from the inside? Warming The Heart is about being able to hold others in your heart recognizing that they’re stressed and scared. Resting in Fullness is practicing feeling content with what you have already. I think about kindergarten teachers who have signs on their wall: Pay attention, Be nice, Share your toys. That’s where it starts.
There are four others that move us deeper into the pool, but the first three are strong foundations. These are inner resources that are very helpful to draw upon when times are good and especially useful to draw upon when times are hard.
Inam: What is a simple practice that you feel would be really beneficial for people who want to try mindfulness?
Hanson: The simplest thing is to take three breaths in a row with full awareness. That’s less than a minute, but that alone is enough of a challenge that it will start building the muscle of mindfulness.
Can you establish a stability of present moment awareness in the face of distractions coming at you from the outside or bubbling up from the inside? That’s the case. I would suggest that we set aside a minute or more a day and then find what works for you. There are plenty of free meditations to listen to online. I have a ton of freely offered material, short and sweet on my website.
The best meditation for mindfulness practice is the one you’ll keep on doing. I think about kindergarten teachers who have signs on their wall: Pay attention, Be nice, Share your toys. Pay attention. That’s where it starts.
Inam: Right now many people are experiencing a lot stress related to health or the economy. How does mindfulness help to relieve stress?
Hanson: So much of the time we’re glued to the screen of the movie of our lives. When you’re worried or angry and you’re glued to the screen.
When we move into mindfulness, we step out of the screen. The movie is still running, but we’re watching it from 20 rows back, hopefully with a little bit of comfort in our chair. We’re not fighting the movie in the moment. We bring acceptance, curiosity and compassion for what’s happening up on the screen to those people. With that distance perhaps we can see the hurt that underlies the anger or the fear underlying someone’s behavior.
Inam: Many people are worrying about what will happen in the future. How can mindfulness help?
Hanson: Mindfulness can help us let go of the negative emotions we are feeling. You ask yourself, is this thought helping me or hurting me? Is this a good movie for me right now?
Two things really work and they’re based on how the brain operates. One strategy is to bring attention into the interior of your body like your chest rising and falling as you breathe. As you do that, it quiets verbal activity, which tends to be a driver of a lot of the movies in our heads that drive us crazy. It short-circuits a part of the brain called the default mode network, which is very involved with negative rumination.
The second strategy is to get a sense of things as a whole: the room is a whole or your body as a whole. As soon as you get a sense of things as a whole, it lowers activity in parts of the brain that are involved in stressful doing.
Inam: Right now we need to reinvent the way we do things quickly. How can mindfulness help us actually be more creative during times of disruption?
Hanson: John Piaget was a Swiss pediatrician psychiatrist who studied how children learn and he pointed out that we learn in one of two ways. One way is a simulation where new things happen, and we incorporate it into an existing framework that’s important. The second form of learning he called accommodation in which we have to change our framework. People don’t like to accommodate. They hold onto their familiar frameworks and they reject information that doesn’t fit those familiar frameworks and worldviews. You can also see this in different businesses. Some businesses are more agile and able to accommodate.
We’re being called today by the pandemic to accommodate, to shift our frameworks. That’s challenging for a lot of people and yet we have to do it. Mindfulness is really helpful for accommodation because it pulls us out of the familiar framework. We’re no longer glued to that familiar movie. We’re able to observe those old assumptions or ways of seeing things, those old paradigms. We can’t see them when we’re glued to them because we’re too close. But if we step back from them with mindfulness, we can be aware of how we’ve gotten stuck or we’ve gotten caught up in our position about something, or our need to be right.
Research actually shows that being able to be mindful expands creativity. It opens up new possibilities that we hadn’t imagined before. And it also gives us an ongoing sense of security and well-being. When you pull out of the movie you move into a kind of centered well-being. You can feel it in yourself. It is reassuring and calming and you’re more willing to try on new ideas to be flexible and thus accommodate to the new news.
For example, we’re arguing with a colleague about the next course of action in a complex situation. When we get mindful, we can step back from the movie screen and look at the system. We look at how we’re both stuck. We can ask, “Am I getting triggered?”
With mindful awareness, you can feel it in your body. You start to feel tense. A light starts flashing on your inner dashboard and you can choose to lighten up and ask yourself, “What’s the real prize here? Is it proving my point? Is it grinding this person into submission?”
Rick Hanson’s new book Neurodharma is a well-researched, neuroscience-packed resource that can indeed help us develop new capacities for us to face chaos with calm and creativity.
A version of this post first appeared in my Forbes leadership blog.