This is the last post in the multi-installment series on mindfulness. Other posts are An Introduction to Mindfulness, Mindfulness & Leadership Development, The Neuroscience of Mindfulness, and How to Practice Mindfulness.
“Mindfulness” is frequently used as a synonym for “awareness.” But as I mentioned in the first post, awareness is only one component of mindfulness – the other aspect is acceptance. But while this aspect is often skipped over or misunderstood, acceptance is a powerful part of the practice of mindfulness.
“Acceptance” is usually used to mean “approval.” But in the context of a mindfulness practice, acceptance does not mean approval, resignation, or even comfort with the present moment. It does mean that you approach what is unfolding now without judgment or intervention. Instead, you simply observe with curiosity and interest. In other words, “acceptance” means that you are open to what is happening in the present moment. I liken it to facing the current experience with arms wide open instead of sticking your head in the sand.
Imagine you are outside on a beautiful day in May, walking through a park. You take your shoes off and feel the grass, warm and soft, beneath your feet. You take a deep breath and smell the blooming flowers and honeysuckle, and you look up and see a vivid blue sky filled with billowy white clouds. When our environment is pleasant, it’s easy to be mindful – to be aware of what is going on as well as accepting, open to the experience. Now imagine you are in a stressful work situation – you learned earlier in the day that one of your key projects is behind schedule, and on top of that another project has a major deadline today. And you were late because your car broke down unexpectedly. The day is chaotic, your team is scrambling, and you feel overwhelmed and stressed. You think, “Who in their right minds wants to be ‘accepting’ and open to this experience?” If anything, our common response is to try to avoid or ignore stressful situations, or push our uncomfortable feelings out of our minds. Or we want to “fix” or change the current situation to lessen our discomfort. But a lot of our experience is outside of our control and influence.
Here’s the interesting thing: when we are willing to stay open to the present situation exactly as it is, even if it is uncomfortable or stressful, we actually increase our ability to handle discomfort. We become more able to skillfully navigate stressful situations, a critical talent in high-performance work environments. When we experience a stressful or chaotic situation, it can be analogous to being caught in a wild river. We have no control – we are simply carried along in the tumult, and the waters toss us around. When we practice mindfulness, we are training ourselves to observe the turbulent water, in essence, stand on the banks of the river instead. And if we are standing on the riverbanks, we are no longer caught in the flow of the water. We can’t control challenging emotions and situations, but we can control how we relate to them. And in doing so, we lessen the impact of these events on us.
Acceptance is so powerful that a 2011 study at the University of Montreal showed that experienced mindfulness practitioners were able to handle higher degrees of pain (via applied thermal heat) than non-practitioners. Researchers observing the brain activity of the participants were able to tell that during the experience, the mindfulness practitioners actually had more activity in the mindful parts of their brains and less activity in the narrative parts of their brains. In other words, the mindfulness practitioners were giving greater attention to the pain sensations. A quieted narrative mind means less internal commentary, such as, “This is awful! That heat is unbearable!” Acceptance means remaining open to and fully aware of the experience, not turning away from it, and simply observing the sensations without judgment.
And Daniel Siegal, M.D., co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, reports in his book Mindsight that “people with mindful awareness training have a shift in their brains toward an ‘approach state’ that allows them to move toward rather than away from challenging situations. This is the brain signature of resilience.” I would also say that moving toward rather than away from challenging situations is also the signature of a strong and effective leader.
I hope that this primer has given you a good introduction to the practice of mindfulness and how it can support and benefit you as you continue to develop your leadership capabilities. Please contact me with any questions you may have, or to continue the conversation. And look for future posts from me on other topics related to leadership development and effectiveness!
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