I went on my first 10-day silent meditation retreat 34 years ago. Back then, I didn’t dare tell anyone at work that I was meditating. Even telling friends and family was a challenge. They wondered out loud if I was going to shave my hair and head to India, or renounce my worldly possessions, or whether I could levitate (yes really).
I too was under some major misunderstandings back then. I thought that I could achieve a higher consciousness (if not enlightenment ) after those 10 days and that I would be impervious to the stressors in my child welfare job as a result. However, after the first 10-day retreat, I came back to Earth and learned that my mind was incessantly narrating my life and focusing on stupid things. I was a lot more judgmental about others than I had known or was comfortable with. And although meditating all day was painful, I became present and more fully alive through the experience.
It did not make me impervious to life’s challenges, I was just in my life in a more mindful way. I loved it and I sustained a daily practice of sitting meditations and annual retreats for many years. But then work got really demanding, children arrived, divorce happened, and there no longer seemed to be a way for me to get back to my daily practice of meditation.
Fast forward many years. I began to notice that meditation and mindfulness practices were becoming more mainstream in the Western world. Jon Kabat-Zinn brought Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) into the realm of health care and demonstrated that participants suffering from a wide array of chronic and serious medical conditions and stress-related illnesses experienced significant improvements in health and wellbeing through simple mindfulness practices over an 8-week program. Brain Imaging has enabled researchers to see the ways in which the brain works both when highly stressed and when practicing mindfulness. This has demonstrated that the parts of the brain responsible for ‘higher order thinking’ (aka executive functioning) are more active when people engage in mindfulness and meditative practices. Long-term mindfulness practice has been shown to thicken the cortical regions related to attention and sensory processing, and may offset thinning of those areas that typically comes with aging.
We are continually learning about the science of mindfulness. For example, mindfulness enhances the neural circuitry and neural integration leading to more balanced self-regulation and flexibility. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel (whom many of you will know from his work on the “developing mind” in children and youth) states that: “being mindfully aware, attending to the richness of our here and now experiences, creates scientifically recognized enhancements in our physiology, our mental functions, and our interpersonal relationships. Being fully present in our awareness opens our lives to new possibilities of well-being” (2007, p. xiii).
Research suggests that mindful leaders are able to see things more clearly, cope more effectively with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), “disentangle itself from premature conclusions” and routinized behaviours, generate creative ways to solve messy problems, make better decisions, and be more effective in their relationships at work (and elsewhere). Increasingly, we see health care providers, corporations, academic institutions, governments and schools embracing mindfulness practices to enhance wellbeing, reduce health care costs, and improve performance. Meditation and mindfulness are now mainstream in the Western context.
Although I still don’t get to the cushion and meditate for an hour a day as I used to, I have found that I can still weave mindfulness practice into my everyday life in a helpful way. In the hopes that you might be willing to explore mindfulness further—to enhance well-being, nurture relationships, develop your leadership, address stress or simply to practice the pause—I offer a few Q’s and A’s and some recommended resources below.
Q. What is the distinction between meditation and mindfulness?
A. Contemplative meditation traditions and practices have existed in all faiths and in diverse contexts and countries for thousands of years, and I can’t possibly represent all forms and intentions of meditation here. However, the tradition of insight or Vipassana meditation that I am most familiar with is the practice of training our attention to see things as they really are; to enhance awareness of both internal and external here-and-now experiences. It requires that we focus on a single object (often the breath to start), and as distractions arise we aim to let them go and re-focus on the object. This gives us a ‘centre’ to come back to when things get hairy in our minds. Meditation requires that we be still – or at least very intentional in our movements as in the case of a walking meditation – in order to bring a high quality of attention to our practice. This is where ‘time on the meditation cushion’ matters, as by being still we become aware of the incessant chattering, distractions and interpretations that our minds fix on, and gives us an opportunity to see them for what they are and let them go.
Meditation cultivates concentration, mindfulness and compassion. As Sharon Salzberg states, “Concentration steadies and focuses our attention so that we can let go of distractions. Distractions waste our energy; concentration restores it to us…Mindfulness refines our attention…” (2011, p. 11-12). As we enhance our capacity for mindfulness through some kind of meditative practice, we can then take it into every aspect of our daily lives. It enables us to become more aware of sensations, thoughts, feelings, reactions, and create a space for the “nonjudgmental acknowledgement” of experience. This gives us a bit more space to shift from habitual reactions to seeing different options.
For example, if you are having difficulty with a colleague and are dreading the meeting you are about to go into, mindful awareness might allow you to see the habitual patterns that the 2 of you are locked into, or the way in which your mind creates a whole storyline of how awful your colleague will be and why you have every right to be disappointed and frustrated – before you even get into the meeting! Mindfulness helps us catch ourselves in the spiral and disentangle ourselves from the judgments and stories so that we can try something different. As Salzberg suggests, “mindfulness helps us get better at seeing the difference between what’s happening and the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening” (p. 13). I love the story she shares about a student who, after a particularly stressful day, was in the gym locker room and tore a hole in her pantyhose. She said to a stranger, ‘see, I need a new life’, to which the stranger responded, ‘no, you need a new pair of pantyhose’.
Q. How can I bring more mindfulness into my days?
A. As noted above, our capacity for mindfulness is enhanced if we do some meditative practice – even 15 minutes a day can be very beneficial. However, can also practice ‘mindful moments’ in which you are stably present and attentive to one thing for a minute or more, including:
- Sensations – such as the smell of your toothpaste or morning coffee, the sound of the rustle of leaves in the wind or a child’s giggle, the different tastes in your meal, the sensation of your back against the chair or the way in which you are holding your jaw.
- Thoughts –noticing what thoughts are arising, how they evolve in your mind and how your body responds to the thoughts.
- Feelings – noticing what different emotions (from pleasant to unpleasant) arise in particular situations, and how your thoughts and body are affected.
You may find it difficult to be aware and focused for even a minute, in which case, just notice that and be aware of the way you are distracted. It helps to bring curiosity, openness and a sense of humour into these mindful moments.
Q. How can mindfulness support my leadership?
A. Research suggests that mindfulness enables us to detach from habitual judgments and responses and see things as they are. Instead of mindless inattention to the small things that can become big things if ignored, we are more alert to early warning signs and can take appropriate action. As our capacity for concentration and awareness grows we can become more flexible, innovative, productive, and make better decisions. Further, mindfulness enhances our capacity for compassion and empathy, which helps us as leaders (see Langer, 2014).
Michael Carroll, in his book, The Mindful Leader, suggests that the primary act of mindful leadership is “to open – to fully appreciate our circumstances before we seek to influence or act upon them. When we are willing to open to our world before we act, we not only learn what we need to know, but equally important, we express a vital, innate intelligence that is sharp, flexible and unassuming…We grasp directly the full measure of our present circumstances, recognizing opportunities, appreciating other’s views, [and] acknowledging difficulties” (2007, pp. 23-24).
Carroll, Michael (2007). The Mindful Leader.
Focuses on ten key principles of mindfulness and how they apply to leading groups and organizations.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon (2012). Mindfulness for Beginners.
Kabat-Zinn brought mindfulness into Western medicine and remains one of the best teachers of mindfulness practices. This book is a series of short reflections and stories that can be used to stimulate practice. A CD of guided meditations is included.
Langer, Ellen (1989/2014). Mindfulness.
This classic written by a Harvard psychologist in 1989, concluded that ‘pervasive mindlessness’ was costing us dearly (limiting mindsets, unhealthy aging, loss of control and self-regulation, burnout, etc.) and proposed a way out through mindfulness. It is still a great read.
Salzberg, Sharon (2011). Real Happiness – The Power of Meditation.
Offers a thoughtful, balanced 28-day program that introduces the basics as well as different forms of meditation (e.g., walking, eating, hearing) and simple mindfulness practices; includes a CD with guided meditations.
Siegel, Daniel (2007). The Mindful Brain.
For those interested in the research pertaining to mindfulness and neurobiology and how they interact.
Stahl, Bob & Goldstein, Elisha (2010). A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook.
If you are interested in developing mindfulness practices to relieve stress, anxiety and health concerns, this workbook does a great job of presenting MBSR techniques and practices.
Palouse Mindfulness, MBSR Program.
Dave Potter is a certified MBSR facilitator and psychotherapist and has created a free 8-week MBSR program, modelled after the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s program (which was founded by Jon Kabatt-Zinn). A number of 2020 participants have gone through this program and found it very helpful.
Dr. Tara Brach is an author and meditation teacher (her books True Refuge and Self-Acceptance Acceptance are powerful) and she shares many guided meditations, as well as how to meditate articles on her website.