“We spend a lot of time judging ourselves harshly for feelings that we had no role in summoning. The only thing you can control is how you handle it.” – Dan Harris
Throughout my life, I had been an anxious, impatient, and impulsive person. Very highly strung. The first time it came really to fore (i.e., I had to really acknowledge it) was when I needed counselling and medication to deal with exam related anxiety whilst studying for my MBA at Monash Business School. That was in 2002. I was okay for a few years after that until I started climbing the corporate ladder. During this time, I also followed society’s timetable, got married, bought a house and we now have two beautiful children. As far as I can remember, despite doing well, I was never happy with corporate life. I just did not know what else to do with my life and hence continued to go through the work-eat-entertainment-sleep cycle day after day.
It all started around 2015 when the pressures of doing something I did not enjoy along with the busyness of family life started to get to me. It was around the same time that I discovered mindfulness. I found that if I sat down quietly for a few minutes and observed my breath I felt a lot better. As I delved deeper into my mindfulness practice, I began noticing a pattern to my thoughts. What I noticed was an unrelenting inner dialogue which was very unforgiving of my past mistakes. I also worried a lot about the future i.e., is this all that there is to life? And am I going to be stuck doing what I am doing right now for the next 30-35 years. This thought was enough to send shivers down my spine.
During the second half of 2018, I started taking time off during my workday to formally meditate. Around lunch time, I would book a meeting room and sit there alone with my thoughts for about 20 minutes or so most days. If meeting rooms were not available, I would go to my car and meditate. Practicing mindfulness during the day was even easier if I was on the road for customer meetings. I have a habit of arriving early for my appointments. Bigger the customer, the earlier I am. My mindfulness practice placed me in a great frame of mind for the rest of the day and I was able to approach my work with a sense of calm and improved focus and concentration. At one stage I was formally meditating three times a day i.e., first thing in the morning, after lunch and before bed on most days. Over a period, my mindfulness practice has also made me a more patient person.
Mindfulness is the practice of bringing nonjudgmental awareness to the present moment. Most of the time our attention is caught up indiscriminately in the ever-changing kaleidoscope of our busy minds i.e., thoughts, emotions, memories, stories, worries, plans, and so on. By practicing mindfulness, we are developing our ability to be more present. The key qualities in mindfulness are openness and curiosity. Non-judgement refers to acknowledging our thoughts and emotions without labelling them as negative, positive, or otherwise. Paying attention to our current state and being present in the moment can be very empowering. Our awareness is focussed on the here and now. Eventually, we learn how to bring mindful awareness to every area of our lives and to both inner and outer experience.
Mindfulness in a not a recent idea. The concept of mindfulness is core to Buddhism and can be traced as far back as the fifth century BC, when it appeared in the 37 factors of Enlightenment – the Buddha’s most essential teachings. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is often credited with stimulating the west’s interest in mindfulness. A growing body of recent research points to the numerous benefits of mindfulness practice.
Benefits of Mindfulness at Work
There have been thousands of research papers written on the benefits of mindfulness and its health benefits over the last 40 years. From a business point of view, mindfulness is a single, elegant, well-researched solution that can enable employees to be more relaxed, less stressed out, happier, heathier, more creative, more focused, and productive.
Stress Reduction: Numerous studies have demonstrated effectiveness of mindfulness in stress and anxiety. Since employee stress can be one of the greatest sources of lost revenue in businesses, mindfulness can be an essential safeguard for the corporate bottom line. Brain scans of mindfulness practitioners consistently show a shift in activation and gray matter density from the areas of the brain associated with negative emotions like stress, anxiety, frustration, and dissatisfaction to the areas associated with positive emotions like happiness and contentment. Practicing mindfulness also reduces levels of the primary stress hormone, cortisol.
Improved creativity: Innovation and creative problem-solving require an ability to examine situations from multiple perspectives simultaneously. Research in the Netherlands demonstrates that mindfulness reduces the intrusion of habitual thinking and facilitates insight-based problem solving. Mindfulness reduces cognitive rigidity and opens subjects to novel and adaptive ways of responding.
Increased resilience: Resilience is the cluster of qualities that enable us to withstand stress and thrive in challenging situations and every one of these qualities is cultivated and enhanced with mindfulness practice. Furthermore, positive mental states such as compassion, contentment, and equanimity, mindfulness also improves the ability to be open to new perspectives, to think creatively, to distinguish thoughts from feelings and to respond to challenges rather than merely react.
Improved focus & concentration: As discussed earlier, mindfulness is the practice of returning attention again and again to the present moment and the task at hand. As such mindfulness activates and grows areas of the brain associated with cognitive processing, emotional regulations, and increased communication between attentional networks. Researchers have found that brief mindfulness training can lead to enhanced ability to sustain attention. There are also benefits to working memory, executive functioning, and visuo-spatial processing.
Improved Collaboration: Research has shown that happy, engaged knowledge workers tend to be more productive, creative, and lean better. Engaged happy people tend to collaborate better, thus driving productivity.
Workplace harmony: The ability to empathise with another’s experience and point of view is at the heart of a harmonious workplace relationships. Mindfulness increases empathy and altruism as it encourages feelings of interconnectedness. Mindfulness fosters the ability to empathise without taking on negative emotions.
Greater employee satisfaction and well-being: Numerous studies have demonstrated a direct correlation between the practice of mindfulness and positive mind states such as happiness, contentment, equanimity, and compassion. Regular mindfulness practice can result in reduced emotional exhaustion and more job satisfaction. Being mindful makes it easier to pay attention to the pleasures in life as they occur. As such by focusing on the here and now, it is less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past.