I have recently completed an eight-week course on mindfulness, and I learnt a lot that I believe will benefit leaders – for yourself personally and professionally.
This article is to share my personal reflections, experiences, and some of the key things I was taught that might be useful to you. Much of the content is based on course materials prepared by the teacher, Claire Garthwaite.
Let’s start by defining mindfulness:
Mindfulness is a quality of awareness that comes from paying attention to ourselves, others and the world around us in a certain way: with focused attention, in the present and without judgement.
Paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.
(The latter definition is by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed an 8-week course that’s followed by many mindfulness teachers, including mine.)
Benefits of mindfulness
So much of our life is spent on auto-pilot and we are often lost in our thoughts (and any negative loops we re-play in our mind), rather than living in the moment.
Mindfulness allows us to think, sense, and live life with renewed clarity. This helps us decide how to respond to challenges rather than just react to them based on old patterns or habits.
A lot of research has been conducted on the benefits of mindfulness, which include:
- Calming of the mind
- Improved concentration and performance
- A sense of well-being and happiness
- Better quality sleep
- Reduction in anxiety, stress and depression
- Improved health
I don’t know if it’s because I am more conscious now, but every time I pick up a newspaper, there’s an article sharing another piece of research highlighting the health benefits of mindfulness! It’s compelling stuff.
I certainly feel that I’m sleeping better. If I wake during the night, I can play a mindfulness recording and often drift back to sleep afterwards.
I am also more relaxed when I’m stuck in traffic or waiting at an airport. Where I used to get annoyed, I am now more accepting because I recognise that I can’t do anything about it.
I’m still in my head a lot, but I am also much more in the present and enjoying the satisfaction and enjoyment that brings.
Key points based on my learning
Mindfulness is not a skill you have to achieve or be good at. The only discipline is regular and frequent practice – this is made easier by listening to a recording that guides you through paying attention to your body, such as doing a body scan or stretching. Focusing on breathing is a useful anchor, as it happens whether we focus on it or not and it can bring our mind back to the present (rather than ruminating on the past or worrying about the future i.e. being in our body, not our head).
Although my course is finished, it is important that I continue to practice mindfulness, on a daily basis, even if only for a short period. I have recordings that last from 3 minutes to 30 minutes – I can do it first thing in the morning; during a flight; before an important meeting; before my daughter comes home to help me switch from work to Mum mode; and before bed to help me sleep. I have no excuse!
While you are meditating, it is normal for your mind to wander – and that’s OK. The point about being non-judgemental is so important – my teacher also reminded us to be kind and compassionate to ourselves. When your mind wanders, just notice it and bring your thoughts back to whatever you are sensing in the present moment. The more often you do this, the more practised you become, and the faster you will be able to bring your mind back to the present.
At the beginning, my mind wandered constantly. I felt I was no good at it and would never be able to stop it happening. However, the more often I do it, I’m finding it easier and easier.
Another key learning is that thoughts are not facts. A single thought can trigger a whole journey of thoughts that are not fact, and you end up in an irrelevant daydream. Our teacher used to repeat this at every lesson – thoughts are not facts. So, the next time you have a thought that triggers a whole story in your head, stop and step back. Then decide what is relevant and what you can let go of.
Things to do
Here are four tip tips to help you be more mindful:
1. To bring yourself out of auto-pilot, we were taught a mini-meditation to use at work or in a stressful situation. The objective is to make you more mindful of how you want to be. It follows the handy mnemonic of SOBER.
STOP what you are doing and move your body into an upright position – this helps bring you into the present moment
OBSERVE the sensations, thoughts and feelings you are experiencing right now
BREATHE consciously, tuning into your breath
EXPAND your awareness to notice any tension or discomfort in your body, and relax those areas with each breath
RESPOND to whatever happens next, with awareness, openness and kindness
“You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf.”
2. You might like to try one of the many mindfulness apps that are available. I use the one given to me on the course, but a popular one available on all the app stores is HeadSpace.
3. Live in the moment.
Research conducted in 2010 by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University showed that people spend 46.9% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy.
They found that people were happiest when making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation. They were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.
“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged. Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and to ‘be here now. These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
4. Make a list of every daily activity you undertake, from the moment you get up to when you go to bed. Then ask yourself whether these tasks are nourishing or depleting to you. This will (hopefully!) force you to spend enough time on the things you love.
Nourishing activities: Nourish you, give you energy, make you feel peaceful and calm, increase your sense of being alive and present
Depleting activities: Leave you feeling depleted, drain your energy, make you feel tense or negative, decrease your sense of being alive and present, make you feel you are merely existing
When I did this, I found that far too many of my activities were depleting! One lady on the course loves Pilates and tennis, but drops them every time there is pressure on her diary. As you may know, I love horse-riding. Although I often have a valid justification to drop it due to domestic demands, I always prioritise my riding, and keep it up every week.
What are YOU going to do to make sure you fill your life with nourishing things?
Some books you might like to try are:
Wherever you go, there you are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness in Eight Weeks by Michael Chaskalson
Mindfulness Meditation for everyday life by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness – 23 ways to live in the Moment Through Art by Christophe Andre (A friend bought me this as we both love art – it’s a gorgeous book)
Sane New World by Ruby Wax
At the end of the course we were given these six points to remember:
- Live with awareness and conscious choice instead of being on auto-pilot
- Know experience through your senses not through thinking
- Be ‘in the moment’ instead of the past or future
- Allow things to be as they are instead of wanting them to be different
- Know that thoughts are not facts – they are mental events; a seed of reality surrounded by our own interpretation
- Take care of yourself with kindness and compassion
For more on mindfulness, you may like to read (or re-read) my previous article which has a different angle on the same topic:
There will be no article in August as it’s holiday season – this allows a break for you to be mindful! We will return in September, focusing on the topic of fear of rejection.