This is the fourth post in a multi-installment series on mindfulness.  Other posts include An Introduction to Mindfulness, Mindfulness & Leadership Development, and The Neuroscience of Mindfulness.    

Everything that I am presenting in this series on mindfulness I also cover in my seminar and workshop on The Mindful Leader.  And normally by this point, the audience members are very excited about mindfulness.  After all, there are many benefits of mindfulness, it is directly tied to leadership development, and there is hard data to demonstrate the impact of mindfulness.  It’s easy to see why so many companies are offering mindfulness programs.  Then I get to the part about practicing mindfulness, and the room goes silent.  I can practically read minds.  “You want me to…meditate?  That sounds very ‘woo,’ and I’m not into that.”

But the fact is that the term traditionally used to describe a practice that is dedicated to mindfulness is “meditation.” Mindfulness is a practice with roots in 2500-year-old Buddhist traditions.  The original word for mindfulness meditation is Vipassana, which means insight into the true nature of reality.  Because of this, mindfulness meditation is also referred to as insight meditation.  Mindfulness was widely popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn beginning in the 1970s at the University of Massachusetts in his work with medical patients.  He found that mindfulness was particularly effective in treating many kinds of physical and mental health ailments.  He also realized that you do not need to study Buddhist tenets to benefit from mindfulness – you only need to cultivate the ability to be mindful.

The term “meditation” is often used as if it were a universal term when in fact it refers to a broad set of practices.  This adds to the confusion around what it means to practice mindfulness meditation and reinforces the perception that mindfulness is “woo.”  When I use the term “meditation,” I am referring specifically to a practice of mindfulness.  However, an example of another traditional school of meditation is transcendental meditation; this practice is different from mindfulness meditation.  In transcendental meditation, attention is focused on a single object until the mind enters a deep, trance-like stillness.  In mindfulness meditation, we are not trying to leave or alter our current experience – we are trying to bring attention to it exactly as it is.  In being mindful, we are trying to expand our awareness, not focus it.  “Meditation” is also used as a synonym for contemplation or deep thinking.  Mindfulness meditation is not contemplation or thinking – instead, it is bringing awareness to our thoughts.  Mindfulness meditation is simply time dedicated to the practice of mindfulness.

As an executive coach, I do not ask my clients to meditate.  I may not even mention the word in conversation, given the misunderstanding around what meditation means.  What I do, however, is give my clients exercises to help them be more mindful and aware in their work environments.  And what I tell them is that being mindful is directly relevant to being a strong leader.  I also tell them that there is research that shows that if they want to be a more mindful, self-aware leader, the more they practice, the better they will be at it.  So developing a regular practice of mindfulness is a powerful way to deepen your ability to be mindful.

Mindfulness is not something that we only do during a meditation, though.  Mindfulness is a quality that we can bring to anything throughout our day – to pausing to take in a few breaths of fresh air, to eating a meal, to walking through the grass, or even to brushing our teeth.  Anything we participate in can become a “meditation.” Mindfulness is not about a certain activity; it is about the quality of attention we bring to the activity.

One of the questions I frequently get is, “How can I be more mindful at work?” Here are some suggestions:

–       Pause several times a day and pay attention to the sensations of your breath.  I set an alarm on my phone to remind me.

–       Pick one of your senses and give complete attention to what you notice.  Focus on the details of the experience.

–       Check in with yourself to note what your thoughts and feelings are in a given moment.

–       Eat your lunch mindfully, paying attention to the sensations you see, hear, smell, and taste as you eat.

It is difficult to only read about mindfulness and fully understand what it means to be mindful.  Mindfulness is best understood by practicing it.  In the final post in this series, I will talk about the often-overlooked aspect of practicing mindfulness, acceptance.

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