Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation have hit the mainstream. Mindfulness is the capacity to purposefully, objectively observe whatever is occurring within and around you, and mindfulness meditation is the means for cultivating that ability.

The U.S. Army, Google and many other organizations have incorporated courses and ongoing mindfulness practice support into their core learning programs. School districts across the country are even including mindfulness practices as part of their curricula. As awareness of the power of mindfulness spreads, it’s likely to become a standard part of any learning program, where it can provide a performance edge for trainers, training developers and course participants alike.

Optimal Performance and Flow

Optimal performance is the ability to maximize individual and team potential to achieve consistently high-quality results. It means sustainably meeting multiple, changing and often conflicting success criteria along with the ability to adapt to changing conditions. It involves balancing thoroughness, efficiency, resources and demands.

Optimal performance occurs when the performer experiences flow. In his book “Good Business,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the term “flow” for the state of consciousness experienced by people when they are deeply engaged and genuinely enjoying the moment. Flow occurs when there are clear goals, immediate feedback, the capacity to perform and concentrated focus on the present. There is a sense of timelessness and the feeling that the activity is “just happening.”

Have you experienced flow in the classroom? You have fully absorbed the material, it is flowing through you, and you are energized, completely aware of the verbal and nonverbal responses of participants. Every move you make has a positive impact. You immediately become aware of any distracting thought or feeling and let it go to remain in the “zone.” You feel any frustration, anxiety, disappointment or other negative emotion that may arise, but you are not controlled by it.

This is the experience of enhanced mindfulness and concentration. This is being in flow.

Benefits of Mindfulness

Would it benefit you to have more moments of flow, to be more present and less distracted, to be less reactive and more responsive? Mindfulness meditation has been used for thousands of years, but scientists have only recently studied its benefits, which, according to LivingMindfully.org, include:

  • Self-awareness, -trust and -acceptance
  • Calm even when faced with difficulties
  • Acceptance of life and its challenges
  • The ability to adapt to and cope with change
  • A decrease in the physical symptoms of stress
  • Decreased anxiety and depression
  • Better concentration and creativity
  • An improved immune system

Managing Your Thoughts: Get Real

Your mind is probably filled with a never-ending waterfall of thoughts. Your thoughts are sometimes so engaging that you are drawn into a mental journey; others bring up strong emotions or link you to a memory that distorts your perception of what is happening in the present.

Mindfulness meditation helps the mind settle into a calm state. Thoughts and feelings still come up, but you are able to see each one more clearly. You can choose the ones you want to follow and let the others pass by.

Managing your thoughts allows you to get REAL:

  • Relaxed: Calm, cool and collected
  • Energized: Ready to act
  • Accepting: Knowing what you can and cannot change
  • Listening: Caringly and carefully attentive to what is happening in and around you

There are three components to getting REAL:

Effort: just the right amount to keep things moving. The most important part is to be relaxed. Yet, as with anything, it takes time and effort to break old habits and cultivate new ones. It takes effort to give up control and let go of enticing thoughts.

Just notice and allow everything to unfold on its own. You will notice your reactions when things are not as you think they should be. For example, you may find that you are thinking more than you should be; sounds may be annoying, or you may have an itch. Just let it be. Watch it all, as if it were a movie.

Concentration: the ability to choose what to focus on, even in the face of distraction, leading to peaceful feelings and enabling optimal effort. Concentration is a prerequisite for mindfulness. It is what allows you to focus and relax in the face of distractions.

You choose what you will think about or notice. As distractions come, you note them but then bring your attention back to your chosen object. That object might be your breath, a feeling, a sound or image, or your current activity.

Learning to concentrate is like exercising a muscle. Your mind becomes increasingly able to concentrate, and you become increasingly relaxed. Concentration results in a calm, quiet state of mind and the ability to choose.

Mindfulness: seeing things objectively as they occur, leading to the ability to accept, listen and be responsive rather than reactive. Mindfulness is purposefully paying attention to everything – thoughts, feelings and physical sensations – from moment to moment. Being mindful means maintaining an open mind while observing each moment. That observation does not get in the way of flow; it enables flow. Mindfulness helps to maintain the dynamic balance needed to navigate the complexities of any activity.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a method for cultivating mindfulness and concentration. You can practice it formally and informally anytime during the day.

Formal Practice

The basic technique for formal mindfulness meditation is simple. When you have enough concentration to be relatively calm and quiet, replace the concentration on your breath with awareness of each thought, feeling or sensation that you experience.

Maintain open awareness of everything that comes, seeing it all as existing for a moment and passing away. Accept everything, whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral: Just notice it and let it be. If you become lost, return to the breath and begin again.

Your formal practice should take place in a quiet room where you are unlikely to be interrupted or distracted. Set a duration (use a timer for best results). Sit on a chair or a cushion. Your eyes may be open or closed. You might start with five minutes and gradually increase the time to 20 or 30 minutes or more.

Try to practice every day. If you miss a day, just start again and continue as best as you can. Make the process a gift to yourself rather than a chore.

Informal Practice

Practice mindfulness meditation in daily life. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, notice whether you are present and mindfully aware or distracted, lost in thought, reactive, or asleep to what is going on.

For example, if you are teaching, every once in a while, get in touch with the sensations of your body and your breath, and take a brief moment to be present.

Integrating Mindfulness into Your Training

Mindfulness is a powerful adjunct to any training activity. As a trainer, you want the participants in your courses to be attentive, engaged and ready to learn. You can begin your class or course with a brief exercise in mindful awareness.

Introduce the exercise by telling the participants that it will help them learn more effectively and easily. Ask them to sit comfortably erect for fifteen seconds, sense their body and breath, notice their thoughts, and then engage in the learning process.

Tell them that every so often (once every 30 minutes or hour), you will remind them to come back to check their posture, sense their body and breath, and return to the activity at hand. It’s like taking a mini-break. Thirty seconds or less will do.

Simply reading and thinking about mindfulness is a first step, but it’s like thinking about exercising or dieting: It has no real effect. To achieve the full benefits of mindfulness, turn your thinking into action.

Relax, concentrate and be mindfully aware.