“Let’s begin with a few mindful breaths.”
At 8:30 a.m., and it’s the first thing you hear from the workshop facilitator at the front of the room. You’re asked to sit comfortably and focus on your breathing: slowly in … slowly out. If other thoughts intrude, says the facilitator, don’t try to push them aside; instead, notice them, and then bring your attention gently back to your breath. In a minute or two, the exercise complete, you and your fellow participants – now presumably more calm, present and ready to pay attention – will move on to the first speaker or discussion of the morning.
Mindfulness is one of the hottest trends in training – indeed, in the business world. Professionals and organizations seeking ways to cope with the hairball project, the deadly meeting, the stressed-out colleagues, the kid at home with a fever, and the thousand-and-one other trials and distractions of the workplace are attending mindfulness workshops, purchasing mindfulness books and apps, and hiring mindfulness trainers.
Mixed in with all this enthusiasm, however, are many misconceptions about what mindfulness is and what it’s supposed to do for us. The standard view of mindfulness is that it’s about relaxing, unplugging or (as one director of a Zen center put it) “taking a step back from conventional life.” Many people think mindfulness is “something spiritual,” but most consultants, wary of being seen as “woo-woo,” are quick to deny that. “It’s about focus,” they say, “and productivity.”
Training professionals know our work has to drive business results, but in our zeal to present mindfulness as practical and business-oriented, we risk dumbing it down to no more than a few minutes of deep breathing at the start of a session: pleasant enough, but not likely to bring about real change in an organization.
Here are three ways we can make sure mindfulness training is both relatable and substantive, both practical and transformative – whether we’re offering it ourselves or evaluating a vendor.
1. Know the origins of the theory (and just how original it is).
Mindfulness is one of the core concepts of Buddhism. Gautama Buddha lived roughly 1,500 years ago in India; in the centuries after his death, his disciples recorded his teachings in the form of hundreds of discourses, or conversational essays, which were eventually compiled and distributed as the Pali Canon. “The Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness” is sometimes described as the Buddha’s instructions for meditation, which sounds fairly pedestrian. However, says author and scholar Krishnan Venkatesh in his recent book “Do You Know Who You Are? Reading the Buddha’s Discourses,” “It is important to understand just how original, how truly radical, this practice was when it first appeared.”
Venkatesh goes on to quote the Buddha’s words from another discourse: “[The arousing of mindfulness] is the only way … for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief.” The Buddha has often been compared to a physician diagnosing and treating disease. The disease he’s concerned with – sorrow and suffering – is one that afflicts all humanity, and he presents mindfulness not just as a treatment but as a cure. Radical, indeed.
That’s not to say that trainers should be promising participants an end to all their problems. We can, however, study the Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness – via books, classes, gurus or all of the above – and appreciate their breadth, depth and power so that, when appropriate, we can bring that wisdom to our work. Plenty of our learners are already studying Buddhist practices. We’ll want to keep up.
2. Make the aim clear.
Although relaxation may be one result of mindfulness meditation, it is not the primary aim. (In fact, sitting and telling yourself to “relax” is a recipe for more angst, not less.) The primary aim of mindfulness meditation is, rather, to cultivate an observer’s perspective on your own mental phenomena.
Why would you want to become an observer of your own mind? As consultants Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter say in their book “The Mind of the Leader,” “You start to observe your thoughts as fleeting events that have no real substance or importance. They’re just like the clouds in the sky: they come and go.”
But mindfulness is more than the realization that thoughts are fleeting; as I write in “The Art of Quiet Influence,” “it is also the realization that you can detach from your thoughts and emotions, watching them as you might watch a movie.”
When you learn to be the movie watcher, as opposed to a character in the movie, something interesting happens: Even if it’s a horror movie, you no longer feel compelled to run screaming from the monsters. Instead, you can sit back and think, “Wow … those are scary monsters. Great makeup. I can see the zipper up the back of that costume, though!” Freed from the grip of the situation, you can choose how you’ll react to it.
Buddhists talk about the “monkey mind”: the thoughts and emotions that bounce through our heads all day. When we can mindfully observe them, rather than being swept along by them, the byproducts are greater focus, calm and productivity. It’s important, however, to start with a correct understanding of the goal: not “to focus” or “to be calm,” but to free ourselves from the clutches of the monkey mind.
3. Show how mindfulness spreads.
One of the early Buddhist discourses says, “A bhikkhu [Buddhist monk or practitioner] sits down cross-legged, makes his body erect, and with resolve he establishes mindfulness all around him.”
Most Western business leaders see mindfulness meditation as personal, not organizational. The Buddha, however, clearly saw mindfulness as spreadable. He tells the story of a society that is lifted into health and prosperity by one king’s mindful leadership but, later, thrown into a downward spiral of disease, poverty and violence by another king’s lack of mindfulness. In the end, the situation is turned around – but not by a king. A handful of ordinary people observe the chaos; consider their own attitude and its consequences; and decide to change, thereby initiating a virtuous cycle that lifts the society up.
There are many ways an individual’s mindfulness can spread to others. One way is through the simple power of example. In “The Art of Quiet Influence,” I quote business executive Tracy Hulett: “People respond in kind to what they see and encounter. If I’m willing to take a step back and say, ‘Let’s reflect on this,’ others will go along.”
Court Chilton, a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan Leadership Center, says, “You have to influence yourself. If you can hang in while the storms rage, that is a form of influence. They’ll say, ‘That person has an even keel … I want to be like that.’”
Mindful people may indeed have taken a step back from the turmoil of the workplace, but that doesn’t mean they’re sitting on the proverbial mountaintop, removed and without influence. In fact, mindful people are the most powerful influencers, knowing as they do how to wield strength without force and leadership without authority.
Deep breathing can’t hurt. But if we want to help learners take mindfulness out of the gym and onto the playing field, we need to do more than tell them to breathe. Knowing the original theory, making the aim clear and showing how mindfulness spreads are three ways to ensure mindfulness training will have a real, sustained impact on an organization and its results.