In my last post, I introduced the concept of mindfulness and the benefits of mindfulness.  In this next installment in my primer on mindfulness, I’m going to speak in more detail about mindful and “non-mindful” mind, and explain how mindfulness relates to leadership development.

When we are practicing mindfulness, we are being aware of the current experience, without intervention or interpretation.  However, much of the time, we instead are recalling what happened previously, projecting ourselves into future scenarios, and making assessments of our surroundings, such as the motives and feelings of others.  Norman Farb at the University of Toronto refers to this as a narrative mindset. Although people who practice mindfulness can realize many benefits, it’s not that narrative mind is “bad,” and mindful mind is “good.” Marcus Raichle at Washington University in St. Louis explains that narrative mind is a series of rules that each of us develops and needs to maintain continuity of our experience through time.  In fact, Raichle says such mental shortcuts are necessary because the brain cannot take in and process all of the information available to us each moment. Raichle also found that when we are not engaged in a specific task that requires focused attention, our brain actually defaults to a narrative mode.  So if you find it challenging to practice mindfulness, there is a scientific reason for it – it is not your default setting!

These mental rules also mean that each of us has a filter that influences how we see the world, others, and even ourselves, and how we behave.  And since this is our “default” mode, we may not even be aware that we are viewing the world through this filter, or responding automatically in accordance with our rules.  When we practice mindfulness, we are developing the ability to view our thoughts, feelings, and actions in a neutral way – almost as if we are able to see ourselves as a third-party would.  We begin to see our filter.  And when we start to see our filter, our mental rules and assumptions, we do not have to be blindly governed by these rules – we open ourselves to the possibilities of new viewpoints and actions.

This last point is at the heart of leadership coaching and leadership development – it’s so important that I’m going to repeat it again.  When we start to see our mental rules and assumptions, we open ourselves to the possibilities of new viewpoints and actions.  This concept is also captured in the work of many well-known and highly respected leadership and organizational behavior experts.  Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, says in the HBR article Teaching Smart People How To Learn that “we must reflect on the way that we think.”  And in their book Immunity to Change, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, professors at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, speak to the need to identify our “big assumptions.”  And when the 75 members of Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Advisory Council were asked to recommend the most important capability for leaders to develop, their answer was nearly unanimous: self-awareness. (From Discovering Your Authentic Leadership, HBR, Bill George, et al.).  So if you want to develop your leadership abilities, you need to be able to observe yourself, to be mindful.

While our default state is not mindful, we are able to develop this ability, and there is scientific evidence to support this.  In the next installment on mindfulness, I’ll share what neuroscience shows us about the impact that mindfulness has on brain structure and brain activity.

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