Every workplace needs people who are present, attentive, motivated and engaged. This is the promise of mindfulness. Based on simple practices that help to focus and expand mental and emotional capacity, mindfulness can strengthen resilience, reduce stress and improve decision making in the workplace and in life.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is an inherent human ability that can be strengthened through practice. Based on ancient methods for “calming the mind” it has gained credibility and popularity in the past 40 years. Traditional teachers from Japan and Tibet came to the West in the ‘60s and ‘70s and began to present these methods. One of the first introductions of mindfulness in the West was by Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, Tibetan meditation master and founder of Naropa University in Boulder. In addition, western students who studied meditation in India and South Asia also brought mindfulness methods to the West and began to offer them in secular settings.
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JonKabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist at MIT and a meditation practitioner for many years, introduced these methods at the University of Massachusetts to patients suffering
from chronic pain. He found that by giving them simple methods of focusing and being present, even if they were experiencing discomfort, they were better able to shift their minds from obsessive thinking and worrying to relaxed appreciation of their present moment experience. He defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Since mindfulness was introduced in clinical settings more than 30 years ago, many research studies have shown its usefulness for treating depression, anxiety and stress as well as improving attention, focus and emotional resilience at work. Some studies have even shown that it enhances brain functioning in general and, in particular, strengthens the “executive” decision making functions of the brain.
How can it help?
Mindfulness can be a helpful addition to any workplace wellness program and can be beneficial to employees at any level of the organization. However, many organizations are finding that the best use of mindfulness is in their leadership development programs. In today’s turbulent social and economic environment, leaders are faced with enormous pressure to see the big picture and respond skillfully to specific situations with understanding, clarity, authenticity and decisiveness. Not only do they need to respond rather than react to difficult situations, they need to encourage and motivate their employees to do the same. Mindfulness can help leaders access their own clarity and creativity in the midst of challenging situations.
According to Jeremy Hunter, Ph.D., who teaches mindfulness to executives at the Drucker School of Business at the University of Claremont, the value of mindfulness has been known to business people and academics for many years, although they may have used different terms to describe it. For example, Hunter says, Peter Drucker, renowned management scholar, believed that “People who are able to see clearly gain an advantage over those unable to step out of outworn, habitual ways of perceiving—especially when faced with chaos.”
However improved concentration and clarity is not all that mindfulness has to offer. By focusing on the present moment, leaders have choices they would otherwise not have. Instead of being distracted by fleeting thoughts and emotional ups and downs, they can develop the capacity to sustain focus and connection and therefore engage in more effective interactions with co-workers. This has a positive effect in the workplace. As leaders become more familiar with their own inner landscape, they develop empathy and compassion for others and become more skilled at recognizing conflicts and responding to the emotional needs of the people around them.
Mindfulness can help leaders build the capacity to respond to these situations with creativity and even a sense of humor. It can even help them to become more resilient in the face of constant change, which gives work a new meaning and purpose.
Susan Skjei, Ph.D., is the director of the Authentic Leadership Center at Naropa University and author of the online course Mindful at Work. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org