Mind if I do?
“Busy-ness” and stress have become increasingly normalised in today’s workplaces. But many businesses overseas have implemented mindfulness initiatives. Tim Roberts and Stephen Archer explore the role of mindfulness in our organisations.
Mindfulness has been proven reliable over thousands of years of contemplative traditions and is now verified by science and psychology. The practice has been demonstrated to be effective in increasing self awareness, resilience, emotional intelligence and the capacity to manage distressing emotions. It can reduce stress, anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure and improve memory.
Neuroscience has identified that mindfulness contributes to happiness and increases empathy and compassion. In our work, we have found that mindfulness increases clarity, stability, authenticity and is highly beneficial to leadership, communicating at work and to working culture. Mindfulness also offers vitality and composure. Many troubling states of mind relax when exposed to the present moment. Mindfulness restores a sense of perspective so that instead of just reacting to situations we can make decisions from a place of clarity and calm.
Mindfulness is already established in many organisations overseas. Google, Apple, McKinsey & Company, Deutsche Bank, Procter & Gamble, the NHS, and Harvard Business School have all implemented mindfulness initiatives. Here in New Zealand, the Leadership Development Centre offers mindfulness action learning groups to the public sector and some government departments include mindfulness in their leadership development programmes.
But mindfulness isn’t just for leaders, it’s for everyone. There are no downsides to learning mindfulness, which makes it very powerful indeed.
Mindfulness is deeply centring, helping us to realise that the past is no longer with us and the future has not happened yet. In doing this, mindfulness opens up enough space around our habitual reactions so we can choose to respond from a point of balance. In simple terms, mindfulness is becoming aware of what’s happening right here, right now, without judgement. It is a way of relating to the present moment that is independent of the conditions encountered in the present.
But mindfulness is not a thing that can be added to us, because it is not external—rather it is an innate, subjective and natural tendency of human consciousness. You have already got all the potential you need to live and work mindfully. It just takes practice. This is actually radical and freeing and people often find this to be refreshing.
Many of us, especially at work, are caught up in thinking about the past or worrying about a future that does not exist yet, and we are not at peace. The content of our minds—the thoughts, our reactions to our thoughts, the internal commentary we provide and which is so normal to us that we often don’t notice it—all squeeze our awareness. Many people report that their minds feel scrambled, frazzled or distracted.
A contributing factor is the epidemic of continuous partial attention, where people pay simultaneous attention to a number of sources of incoming information—but only superficially. This practice depletes our energy, undermines efficiency and hampers relationship building and collaboration.
QUESTIONING THE VALIDITY OF WORK CULTURE
Many people are questioning the validity of organisational cultures where “busy-ness” and stress are normalised. Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, says: “We can spend so much time rushing from one task to another. We may think we’re working more efficiently, but as far as the brain is concerned, we are working against the grain. No wonder we get exhausted.”
Organisations have been reinforcing this haste-driven, production-line psyche since the industrial revolution. We are accomplished at being productive, meeting deadlines and achieving outcomes, but this has come at cost and we have lost ourselves. Many working practices actually reduce our access to our human potential and this depletes us.
Guy Claxton, professor of learning sciences, says that humans are developing an inner psychology of speed which is getting stronger by the day and which leads to tighter and tighter mind states associated with emotional discomfort, physical contraction and stress.
Psychiatrist Gerald May says many of us have become addicted to productivity, and this ingested addiction is so obvious and common it has become invisible. This means that we might feel uncomfortable with our own feelings of peace and stillness and immediately fill this spaciousness with mental agitation because we think we should be busy doing something useful.
This addiction is, literally, costing us our life energy. The paradox is that if we knew how to regain our true and relaxed nature, we would be highly effective and still deeply centred.
A question for our times is what would happen if organisations fully developed the human nature and human capacities of their people. In all our years of organisational consultancy, we don’t know of an organisation in this country to have genuinely faced up to this question. And yet the potential is huge and mindfulness is one way to open people to much more of this promise.
MAKING MINDFULNESS PART OF THE WORKPLACE
Mindfulness is increasing in popularity, but it is still considered “out there” and viewed by many people as separate to their working lives and their organisational cultures. It is often regarded as something we do for ourselves and outside work. Mindfulness offers more than this and is a way of coming into more meaningful relationship with ourselves, the people we work with and with our work itself.
We’ve spent the last few years pioneering how to integrate mindfulness into organisational life and into leadership in particular. We have found that one of the important keys in achieving this is to shift the emphasis from teaching mindfulness to inquiring mindfully into the state of our being at work.
This is a subtle yet crucial shift. The state of our being is everything, and if this is off balance, cramped or distorted then everything we do will be compromised, including our working capacity and creativity. We always communicate the state of our being to others, even if in subtle ways.
As inspirational speaker Richard Rohr says, what we don’t transform we transmit. But, sometimes our state of being has been out of whack for so long that we assume it is normal. Mindfulness can help restore us.
Rather than keeping mindfulness and work separate, we encourage people to bring their working issues, team tensions and leadership challenges to the mindfulness sessions where we use the experience and principles of mindfulness to explore them. The results are often surprising and immediately practical.
WAYS TO LEARN MINDFULNESS
If your organisation wants to introduce mindfulness, consider the following points:
- •Mindfulness cannot be fully understood by reading books, watching You Tube or learning from others. It is a subjective inquiry into life. It is a way of being that is manifested in each moment of life. With this in mind, choose a mindfulness educator who teaches from their own personal experience, with integrity, honesty and authenticity.
- •Mindfulness teachers should also be conscious and authentically responsive to their audience, recognising the values and world views held by people from diverse cultural backgrounds.
- •Choose a provider who has an established mindfulness practice, has supervision and attends regular retreats with a qualified senior teacher (and/or participates in solo retreat work), and has been practising for a sufficient period of time, generally a number of years, before leading courses for others.
- •Offer mindfulness to those who want to learn, who volunteer to attend the sessions and who are sincere about developing mindfulness practice in their own lives. If people are press-ganged into attending mindfulness programmes they may, quite naturally, resist opening to the inquiry.
- •Do not sell mindfulness as a quick fix, a tool or a project that people should add to their CV.
There are many formats and ways to learn mindfulness. Our favourite and one of the most profound is a residential mindful retreat over at least four consecutive days and nights, ideally in a natural setting. This experience has many advantages including a sufficient period of time for the mind to settle, which allows consciousness to respond with stillness.
The intensity of the learning experience is, for many people, secondary to the intensity of the silent presence—and yet both contribute to powerful insights. However, organisations can be reluctant to choose the retreat option simply because it is an unfamiliar way to develop workers.
We have experimented with full-day and half-day workshop-style mindfulness events and these can be compelling for people and take place in a variety of settings, ideally off site. One of the most popular and potent ways to develop mindfulness in the workplace is through a year-long mindfulness action learning group, which directly encourages the insertion of mindfulness into people’s busy lives, and this is what we have been increasingly asked to provide.
A fundamental reason for this popularity is the direct applicability to work while maintaining the wellbeing dimension. The psycho-emotional context of this group work is that we all share in creating and inhabiting a space of calm, solidity, support and empathy.
We may arrange the environment to be peaceful and restful, if this is possible. We might use a retreat centre for day-long introductions to these mindfulness action learning groups. More usually, however, we go to a workplace and use a normal meeting room—the assumption being that mindfulness can occur anywhere, even in the midst of workplace noise and activity.
Using realistic environments in which people develop mindfulness can bode well for future practice because ultimately mindfulness must engage with activity.
In these groups, people are less interested in problem solving than in investigating how we can constantly return to feeling connected to the present moment—from which insight and creativity naturally flows. Many people find that the view of the issues they face feels radically different from mindful presence than from within the perspective of the problem.
Philosopher Thomas Berry says that the thinking that made the industrial revolution successful actually restricted human consciousness: “… we are just emerging from a technological entrancement. During this period the human mind has been placed within the narrowest confines it has experienced since consciousness emerged from its Palaeolithic phase.”
Mindfulness is a natural way to open to the potential of your human consciousness and your world.
TIM ROBERTS is a mindfulness and leadership educator and coach and is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Work Related Studies, University of Chester, UK: www.timroberts.org.
STEPHEN ARCHER is a mindfulness educator, trainer and the principal consultant for Mindfulness Training. He facilitates mindful leadership and workplace programmes: www.mindfulness-training.co.nz