For many years I practiced and taught meditation and Mindfulness as a part of a wider program of Buddhism and Buddhist psychology. Some years ago I began to distance myself from a system that I was starting to feel was too narrowly sectarian to be widely beneficial. It was not that there was anything fundamentally wrong with this amazing body of thinking and practice that had evolved over twenty-five hundred years. But I increasingly felt that it was being introduced into western culture in a way that missed or obscured many of its most valuable benefits.
So I began to develop a non-sectarian approach to training entrepreneurs, coaches, psychotherapist, and artists in a way that was free from the religious tone, and the philosophical and cultural presuppositions of Buddhism. People now work with us individually, or attend our programs, not because they have any interest in adopting a new set of beliefs, or a Buddhist ‘lifestyle’, but because they recognise their own rich capacity to develop their creative and entrepreneurial mind set. As a team, we draw on our range of backgrounds as artists, hypnotherapists, neuroscientists, and NLP trainers, to develop an evolving curriculum to meet the needs of those we serve. Buddhism is seldom mentioned.
After distancing myself from my own background as a Buddhist teacher I had to ask myself what were the most valuable lessons that we can learn from Buddhist practice? What are the skills that are most widely applicable in society, and in the worldwide business environment, especially at a time of so much uncertainty and change? The answer, without any doubt, is mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is awareness and focus. It is a basic human skill that we all possess. It is also a skill that we can learn to develop and refine on an ongoing basis. Research shows that the benefits of mindfulness include a greater capacity for sustained attention, greater emotional stability, and an increased level of energy. The experience of the hundreds of thousands of people who have undertaken even small amounts of mindfulness and meditation training confirms that this is generally true.
Leadership and Presence
An effective leader leads by their presence. They infuse their organization, and the space around them, not with the bluster of authority, but with the quiet confidence of their focus and presence. Presence is another word for awareness. It entails a sensitivity to the needs of others, and to the situation at hand, as well as to all the various options for finding a way forward through creative problem-solving. By its very nature, this kind of leadership is contagious. It is free from anxiety. And it is unhurried, even when speed is called for.
A good leader leads by the example of their presence. Mindfulness is the foundation for developing this kind of presence. Think of examples of great leadership in business, or politics, or history. Consider the contagious quality of presence that great leaders embody, and which has inspired the people around them. Think of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi. If you read the biographies of any great leader you will learn that they all practiced some form of mindfulness, some kind of discipline to cultivate and sustain focus and presence. As an entrepreneur you may not see yourself as a world leader, but the principle is the same. Mindfulness helps you to develop presence and to embody your capacity as a leader.
Productivity, Time, and Energy
Time moves at its usual rate of minutes and hours. But the act of mindful attention, of being fully present here and now, helps to dispel distractions, and allows for greater productivity. Mindfulness clears away much of the inner chatter that clutters up the hours of our life.
We have all experienced a shift in our experience of time when doing something that gives us pleasure. An hour can seem to pass in a matter of minutes, and a minute can feel like an hour. When you are focused and mindful, time flows in an entirely counter-intuitive way. As you begin a task, mindfulness allows you to sustain your focus until the task is completed, or until you choose to move your focus elsewhere. Mindfulness allows for greater deliberation in your use of time, and saves you from exhaustion and distraction by helping you to become attuned to your capacity.
Communication and Rapport
Just as mindfulness allows for greater productivity because it seems to slow down the passage of time, it also gives you the ability to listen to other people in a deeper way. It’s as if you learn to hear between the words.
We often miss what others are telling us because we are anticipating what we think they are about to say. Or our attention wanders, so that we can rehearse our response. Or we project meanings that were never intended. Or we respond to what we thought we heard rather than to what was actually said. This may sound like a dire scenario, but without mindfulness, this is how a lot of communication plays out.
In any conversation or meeting, when you are mindful both of what is said and of your own reaction to it, you are more likely to speak from a place of empathy and understanding. If there was something you didn’t understand, you are more likely to ask for clarification, rather than jumping to hasty conclusions. This is another contagious aspect of mindfulness and leadership. The more you listen before reacting, the more others will follow your example, and learn to be more fully present and mindful in their communications with each other.
Distinguishing the Inner from the Outer. Emotional I.Q.
As humans we are equipped with a brain and nervous system that has a capacity to continually learn and adapt. We learn from our external environment, by the habits it instils in us, and by our own internal process. Sometimes those disparate elements are in direct opposition to each other. We get overwhelmed by circumstance, or by our own habits and emotions. We become confused by the tension between our aspirations and our disappointment.
As an entrepreneur you may have a compelling vision. But the shadow of old anxieties and negative expectations can creep in when you most need to hold onto your vision. Mindfulness is an essential tool to help you navigate that tension between your compelling vision and the old shadows. Mindfulness teaches you to distinguish present realities that may require your attention, from purely imaginary fears that do not. It teaches you to respond to what is in front of you, rather than to react to what is merely imagined.
When you are present to your own subjective experience of the world, to your emotions and reactions, you become more accountable to yourself. If someone acts in a way that triggers an old negative reaction in you, you always have a choice. You can react in a way that reflects the pain or discomfort that was triggered in you. Or with mindfulness you can pause, so that when you do respond, you do so by choice rather than by habit. You can exacerbate the situation, or you can mediate it. Such choice is at the heart of what has come to be known as Emotional Intelligence, or EQ.
Ethical Business Practice
Mindfulness helps you to stay in touch with your highest values. It teaches you that you are most effective when you consistently operate by ethical principles. It helps you to stay in touch with your vision for what is possible, rather than resorting to old habits based on fear or scarcity. Because mindfulness leads you towards being more empathetic, it helps you to develop an affinity for, and appreciation of, solution-based thinking that has long-term benefit for all. It prompts you to look for solutions that benefit the greatest number of people. You no longer see your competitors as adversaries, but as catalysts, propelling you towards greater competency. You begin to see possibilities for collaboration where before you could only see rivalry. As it helps you to distinguish your vision for what is possible from your fears, mindfulness profoundly deepens your capacity for integrity and ethical practice, in business as in life.
Corners are cut, and ethical principles are breached, not because an individual or an organization have flawed principles, but because long and short-term goals and priorities get confused. Big picture thinkers are asked to attend to details, and detailed oriented people are asked to guide the bigger vision. The mindful flexibility of good leadership embraces both.
Intuition and Imagination
Just as mindfulness allows you to choose between reacting to old impulses, or responding by choice, in a similar way mindfulness allows you to explore the landscape of your own imagination and to distinguish the whimsical from the rich veins of your deepest creativity.
A friend asked Richard Branson what his favourite pastime was. “Daydreaming,” was his answer. And you know where that has led!
Daydreaming may not usually be associated with mindfulness because people sometimes assume that mindfulness takes a lot of effort. But with practice, as mindfulness becomes effortless, it is a hair’s breadth away from daydreaming.
Mindfulness and Pleasure
One of my teachers used to say that mindfulness is “just an intelligent way to enjoy your life.” We sometime suggest to our clients that the first thing they could ask themselves when they get up in the morning, or when they sit down at their desk, is “How much pleasure can I allow myself to experience today?”
Your awareness is a pleasure and a gift, for yourself, and for whoever you are with. Awareness is its own reward. Your life, and your experience at any given moment, is yours to choose. This is the gift of mindfulness. It is much bigger than a business tool for entrepreneurs, but there are few other places where it is more dramatically and immediately applicable. And there are few tools that can have as profound and positive influence on you do business .
Below I have suggested a few simple tools for developing a mindful workplace. These are tools that we REGULARLY use in our own business.
Ways to bring mindfulness into your workplace
Whether you work alone or with others, take a few minutes to start the day with a couple of minutes of simply being, rather than doing. You can sit in silence, or acknowledge the presence of each other in a way that feels appropriate. If you are alone just be still, and bring awareness to where you are, your workspace, your breath, your body.
Bring someone in to teach your team the basics of mindful meditation, or find a recording on-line. Make time once or twice during the course of each workday to meditate together for a few minutes.
Create a place of silence and meditation where people can go during the workday, even for a short few minutes. By association, the presence of that special place will have an effect on the workplace as a whole.
Take regular breaks. Perhaps, for five minutes every hour. Stop whatever you are doing. Stand if you have been sitting, walk if you have been standing. Take a short walk, make it like a meditation, focusing only on the experience of walking, step by step, breath by breath.
Take time to deliberate with others, or alone, on your intention, for the day, for the task at hand, or for the bigger vision of your business. Enjoy the process. Make no judgements. See what emerges.
Learn to meditate with your eyes open, using your peripheral vision to bring in all of your sensory experience. Practice for a few seconds whenever you remember, or whenever you feel fatigue or a need for change. If you need you can download a short recording of this particular exercise at fivechanges.com/yoursoulmasterpiece
Develop the skill of listening to others without reaction or judgment. You can practice in a public space, a coffee shop or a restaurant, discreetly listening in. Then bring that same skill to your workplace. Notice if your sensitivity to hearing what others are really saying changes.
When engaged in a meeting or a conversation develop the habit of focusing on the effects your words are having. Notice your impulse to speak in reaction to the way others’ words make you feel. See what happens if you pause for a moment before speaking. Can you notice a difference between words you feel you want to say, and words that you know will have the greatest positive effect of others? These deliberations may feel awkward and unnatural at first. Play along with it, and see what you can learn.
Develop the habit of preceding and ending any complaints, or criticism you may have of others, with words of appreciation and praise.