As an executive coach, one of my passions is helping leaders understand the benefits of practicing mindfulness. It’s easy to convince people that mindfulness is worth embracing – the biggest question I get is about how to develop the ability to be more mindful.

The short answer is that if you want to be more mindful, you need to practice being mindful. This is no different than any other ability you want to develop. If you are trying to learn a new language, to play an instrument, or to run a marathon, you know that you can’t get there instantly. You need to devote a certain amount of time to it, and set aside time every day. At the Mindful Leadership Summit outside of Washington, DC, last November, Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, said, “In 20 to 30 years, mental exercise will be talked about in the same way as physical exercise is today.” He said research showing the impact of mindfulness on the brain supports this movement.

When I speak about mindfulness, I refer to exercises that are specific to developing mindfulness as “mindfulness practice.” Many exercises that are devoted to mindfulness, such as a sitting exercise focused on the breath, are also frequently referred to as “mindfulness meditations.” There are other kinds of exercises that you may engage in as well to practice and develop mindfulness, such as mindful eating. So in this context, a mindfulness meditation is a form of a mindfulness exercise. Where I frequently see confusion is when the term “meditation” is automatically assumed to be synonymous with “mindfulness meditation.” However, there are different traditions of meditation that produce different outcomes.

Mindfulness meditation is a form of “open awareness” meditation. Other traditions of meditation include “focused attention” (transcendental meditation is from this tradition), where the attention is directed to one focus point such as a repeated phrase, and loving-kindness meditation, where the focus point is compassionate thoughts and intentions. “Meditation” is also frequently used as a synonym for other activities, such as contemplation, reflection, positive thinking, relaxation, or prayer. The point is not that these types of meditation don’t have value; they do. But if you want to develop mindfulness, you want to be sure that the kind of practice or meditation you are engaging in is a mindfulness practice.

Dr. Davidson has verified this through his own research. As he said at the Mindful Leadership Summit, “Different types of meditation practice are not the same and have different effects.” This is not simply hypothesized or based on self-reporting of study participants. The specific impacts of a meditation practice have been demonstrated with clear physical evidence. For example, one study of mindfulness meditation showed that after just eight weeks of mindfulness training, gray matter increased in the parts of the brain associated with self-awareness, perspective-taking, and emotional regulation. And a separate study showed that mindfulness meditation increases alpha brain waves, which are associated with more relaxed mental states.

Meditations that are specific to mindfulness are exercises that:

  • Develop concentration capabilities by focusing attention on the present moment.
  • Repeatedly bring attention to an object, such as the breath, then broaden attention to other events.
  • Encourage an open, objective attitude to internal and external experiences.

This can take a number of different forms, such as sitting, walking, or listening. If you are new to mindfulness, it’s a good idea to start with guided meditations so that you understand what sort of exercises and attention mindfulness entails. Mindful magazine has posted a collection of mindfulness meditations that are available online for free.

Mindfulness is a fantastic practice and way of being that comes with a host of benefits that are relevant to all of us, both inside and outside of work. If your goal is to develop your ability to be more mindful, make sure that you choose a practice that supports that development.

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