What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness, as an approach to improving our quality and enjoyment of our lives, is enjoying a renaissance currently. I use the word “renaissance” because mindfulness as a philosophy and practice has been around for a very long time, and is derived from the Buddhist tradition.  As individuals and organisations wake up to the benefits that mindfulness can offer, the purpose of this series of posts is to begin an exploration of what mindful leadership is and how it can support you as an individual leader, in all aspects of your life, but particularly facing the unprecedented challenges and opportunities that exist in the workplace.

To understand mindful leadership, we first must gain an understanding of what mindfulness is. The best description is from John Kabatt, a renowned mindfulness researcher, practitioner and author,who describes it as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally” .Think about this for a moment, sounds simple enough at first glance, but really, take a closer look at key aspects of this definition. How present are you really on a moment by moment basis? How engaged with your current activity or task are you right now? Are you in flow, experiencing total immersion in it, or rather are you partially distracted, by other activities, emails, outside noise, and preoccupations with the past and the future? Most people find that they are in fact at least partially what I call “un-present”. What’s the matter with this, you might ask. That’s just human nature, surely?

Yes, it is to an extent, but in contemporary society, particularly in the western civilisation, we have let our minds take over to the point where we have an endless internal chatter that does interfere significantly with both our attentional control and also our enjoyment of our everyday lives.  Every 24 hours is made up of moments, some joyful, exciting, pleasurable and others dull, difficult and sometimes downright painful. A key tenet of mindfulness practice is that you learn to accept and yes, embrace every moment in our lives with a kind compassionate curiosity.  In this way we can learn to take pleasure in even the most mundane aspects of our lives.  It allows us to not miss any moment of our lives, for as Kabatt Zinn  says  “this is the only moment we have”.

“Non-judgementally”;  this is a tough nut to crack. We are making judgements instantly all the time, about likes and dislikes, preferences, which inform our choices.  Judgement in this sense refers particularly to the criticisms we make of ourselves. You know the type of thought;” How stupid that was of me”, “what I fool I have been”, “I wish Id handled that differently”, “I’ll never be able to achieve xyz”, and so on it goes. This inner critic is making judgements on our behalf about ourselves all the time, and can have a devastating impact on how we think, feel and behave.  Again the focus is on learning to view our thoughts and the inner self criticisms for what they are, just thoughts and not necessarily based in truth or fact, just skewed opinions.  By learning to become a “witness” to our thoughts, we can begin to gain a distance from them and view them again with a kind and compassionate curiosity. In this way we can learn to stop negative and unhelpful streams of thought quickly and return to the present moment and refocus on the task in hand.

By practising mindfulness on a regular basis, both in a formal practise and informally in our activities throughout the day, we can be more compassionate with ourselves, less judgemental and most importantly really be engaged in our life and really awake to all that it brings both good and not so good, but be open and wise to all our experiences.  Now that we have an understanding of what mindfulness is, in the next post, I will be setting out my take on what mindful leadership is, and how it can be incorporated into your organisational  leadership.

If any of this post has struck a chord with you, or you are interested in finding out more, please either call Elaine on 07740 188031 or email her at elaine@emintell.com.