At a recent company meeting, my colleague started with a few minutes of mindfulness. I was speaking first so was sitting at the front. I think I snickered, the idea just surprised me. When the video started and voiceover began, I think I snickered again. Until I turned and saw everyone in our communications room and those on screen from our Cork and Galway offices, all sitting still, eyes mostly closed and breathing deep steady breaths. Everyone, bar the 51-year-old schoolboy at the front of the class.
With its roots in Taoist and Buddhist meditation, Mindfulness is now a common leadership practice. We all face unprecedented external challenges and most of us are stuck in a reactive groove. Mindfulness is being practiced by many executives as a means of reducing stress and adopting a more considered approach to decision making. If you are not familiar with the concept, Mindfulness means having an “in the now” sense and awareness of thoughts, feelings, body and environment. Thoughts and feelings are held impartially and without judgement and there is, at that moment, no right or wrong to them. The value of Mindfulness is that it offers a process to measure and manage life as it is being lived rather than stress too much about the future or worry too much about the past.
Bill George, Professor of Management Practice at Harvard and former Chair and CEO at Medtronic, recognises how challenging it is for managers to develop Mindfulness as a practice and to even have the ability to “quiet your mind” to enable it. While he acknowledges meditation is not for everyone, he believes Mindfulness helps leaders to create clarity about what is important and enables a deeper understanding of the world around us.
Ellen Langer, a pioneer of Mindfulness and a psychology Professor at Harvard, sees Mindfulness as the process of actively noticing new things, putting a person in the present to become more sensitive to context. She believes this to be important in creating better performance in leaders who complete regular tasks and might otherwise become stale, reducing their creativity and effectiveness.
Research in the US published by Scientific American, suggests that MRI scans provide medical illustration of how Mindfulness works. They show how after 8 weeks of practicing Mindfulness the brains fight or flight centre, the amygdala (mental home to our fear, emotion and stress) appears to shrink.
It is easy to be cynical about meditation in the work place. Its personal nature means it must be a self chosen path. Demanding it be practiced by all will not work in firms. Based on my own experience, it appears demand is not necessary amongst the 50 or so of my colleagues, other than I be a little more open minded in future.