Mindfulness and what it means for you

Sickness absence now costs UK businesses £26bn per year. Mental illness is the biggest determinant of misery and the main reason for absenteeism. Anxiety and depression are the most common mental illnesses, and they are on the increase – for example, prescriptions for anti-depressants in the UK rose from 33.8m in 2007 to 50.2m in 2012.

This article focuses on mindfulness as a form of meditation that helps deal with stress, improve happiness and boost productivity. Practicing mindfulness will help you deal with the complexities and pace of life today – many senior executives use meditation to take care of their mind and enable a state of wellbeing, so you’ll be in familiar company!

Defining mindfulness

“What day is it?” asked Pooh.
“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
“My favourite day,” said Pooh.
AA Milne

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that has been advocated by Buddhism for over 2,500 years.

Matthieu Ricard, a renowned Buddhist monk and humanitarian who is deeply engaged in the neuroscience of happiness, emphasises that “achieving durable happiness as a way of being is a skill. It requires sustained effort in training the mind and developing a set of human qualities, such as inner peace, mindfulness, and altruistic love.” Happiness, noted Ricard, is “a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.”

I believe this is significant and encourage you to re-read his quote above. We can’t change everything that happens to us in life, but we can change how we respond to it. I often work with leaders who are focused on the future, some who are mainly focused on the past, but very few who are ‘present in the moment’ (unless they are focused on a task, and that doesn’t count in this context!).

Practitioners argue that the brain’s habit of reliving past stresses and worrying about potential future problems can be an obstacle to mental health. Mindfulness encourages people to get those critical thoughts into perspective so they no longer dominate. It’s about relaxing in the moment, without necessarily directing your attention to anything, and helps you become more anchored in the present.

“Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose, moment by moment, without judging.”
Medical Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindfulness is gaining momentum

FrogIn a corporate setting, people often feel unable to express their true views and feelings, which is a major cause of stress. Absenteeism and reduced productivity through mental illness directly hits the bottom line and companies are providing meditation classes as a way to address this.

As mentioned in my introduction, many senior leaders incorporate relaxation techniques such as mindfulness in their life – there’s more on this in my articles on Leadership Agility and the Leadership Agility Compass. It doesn’t have to be new-age; at its most fundamental it is being still, closing your eyes and paying attention to your breath. Doing this helps you feel calmer by connecting with yourself and gaining perspective.

Mindfulness Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has been approved in the UK as a way to treat stress and depression, and more and more research is being done to show the impact of regular mindfulness practice on the brain and in relation to topics such as concentration, creativity and resilience.

The John Hopkins School of Medicine found that meditation is as effective at relieving anxiety as anti-depressants, with mindfulness being the most effective form.

Alongside other meditation techniques, mindfulness is being introduced in UK schools to help students cope with the pressure of exams and hormonal changes. They are being taught that they have a choice about how they feel and respond – this enables them to feel in control of an often overwhelming world.

More and more world leaders are talking about the importance of measuring happiness as a way to improve wellbeing:

  • OECD guidelines set the international standard for the measurement of wellbeing (2012)
  • For the first time, the UN General Assembly invited member countries to measure the happiness of their people and use the results to guide public policies (2011)
  • The second world happiness report ranks Denmark, Norway and Switzerland as the happiest countries, with the US at 17th, UK 22nd, and China 93rd (2013)

Take a look at this 9-minute TED video by former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe:

Benefits of mindfulness

Professor Mark Williams, Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow at Oxford University, says:

“When people train in mindfulness, what we see is the brain patterns changing. If people are not mindful, the part of the brain that underlies fight and flight tends to be chronically overactive. During mindfulness practice, it tends to dampen that down. People are less likely to be constantly stressed or rushed off their feet, but also they are less likely to respond to their own negative thinking.”

As well as being a relaxation technique, mindfulness guides you in a practical way. It helps you:

  • Improve your wellbeing – a sense of serenity and fulfilment in life
  • Be more resilient and able to deal with day-to-day pressures
  • Reduce your heart rate and blood pressure
  • Become more self-aware and from that place of self-awareness become more likely to empathise and to understand others – which are among the building blocks of being a better leader
  • Increase the activities within the left prefrontal cortex of your brain, which is associated with happiness
  • Reduce the reactivity of the amygdala, that part of your brain associated with fear and anxiety.

“You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.”
Old Zen adage

How to practice mindfulness

As little as 10 minutes of meditative breathing exercises every day for 10 days can bring benefits.

Be aware of your breathing and physical state. Be curious about any thoughts that come into your mind. Don’t analyse them. Just let them float away.

For a guided meditation, play this three-minute video until you become practiced. After that, try and avoid using external stimuli – rely on yourself (it’s not a test of how good you are at mindfulness). Practicing daily is the best way to gain the benefits:

Guided Meditation by Professor Mark Williams

“The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven out of hell and a hell out of heaven.”
John Milton

For additional practical tips, please see my previous articles on positive psychology and developing resilience and coping with stress.

I hope you have found this month’s article interesting.  I’ve not tried mindfulness before (I’ve been more into exercise and chocolate!) but I am going to give it a go – I hope you do too, and please let me know how you get on!

Further reading

Mindfulness: An eight-week plan for finding peace in a frantic world by Professor Mark Williams

Happiness: A guide to developing life’s most important skill by Matthieu Ricard

The Focused Leader Harvard Business Review article by Daniel Goleman

Sane New World by Ruby Wax

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

Please share this article with anyone you know who might find it interesting, and let me know if you’d like more information.

Next month we look at how to develop executive presence.