Now six months into a daily practice of meditation, I wish I had started a mindfulness practice a decade earlier for the benefits that it brings to both the professional and personal aspects of my life. I have two pieces of advice: 1) Just get started and reserve judgment for 60 to 90 days of a relatively consistent practice of 20 minutes a day, 2) Don’t try to figure out “how to meditate” on your own. It’s not easy to sit still and understand what you are supposed to be doing or avoiding. We are hard-wired to itch and twitch, and find discomfort in stillness and the deafening silence in the absence of being constantly inundated with a stream of distractions and information.
What is the Experience of Being Mindful?
Mindfulness can be learned, but it requires nurturing and practice. Mindfulness requires intentionally directing our attention without judgment. By observing and aknowledging our thoughts as neither good or bad, we can more freely experience the moment we live in, manage the obstacles we will face, and be present for those around us. Being mindful, therefore, has both a personal and social context. We feel better about ourselves and we interact with those about us with greater empathy, compassion, and ethical decision-making.
For me, venturing down this path wasn’t an intuitive or easy choice. It’s hard to finding the perspective of being present and taking a break from judging and being distracted, when you are accustomed to a very different relationship with daily life.
My oldest daughter is now nine years old, which means I’ve owned or partnered in business for nearly a decade. With a new baby and @tferriss new book, The Four Hour Workweek in hand, I resigned my post from my last corporation and ventured out into the uncertain territory of entrepreneurship. That’s quite a reflection, considering that 8 1/2 of previous years were somewhat stressful, fraught with the anxieties of money and leadership, and the ups and downs of starting, and restarting, while at the same time, getting a crash course in my most important job, parenting.
Parenting can be stressful, but one of the most powerful lessons learned about mindfulness is the practice can help anchor your awareness in whatever activity you’re involved in. Mindfulness helps change your relationship with your experiences. It doesn’t provide you a mechanism to avoid them or to check out of life or to deny you either joyful or painful feelings. A mindful perspective is just that. A perspective. There’s nothing more nurturing for your child than for him or her to perceive your full attention and appreciation, and attunement to her experiences. This forms deeper attachments and nurtures a greater sense of trust. Just think how easy and beneficial it might be to apply many of these same foundational experiences to your professional life.
As a consultant of one sort or another, a risk manager, I prided myself on an ability to recommend not only what my clients should do, but what they should not do. That’s par for the course for being paid for your advice – you don’t get to make recommendations without being able to identify some pain. It’s always easier to see into these alternative universes and advise someone else, without the weight of owning their choices, than it is to take your own advice. By the way, a great article (Hindsight is Twenty20) from @miccohen at Twenty20 on the consequences of the wrong approach.
The Seductive Lure of Being Productive
Progress is a messy process that invites a persistent focus on being productive. That was me – long hours and an endless investment in time management methodologies, my personal favorite being Getting Things Done (GTD), and the various tools and systems needed to prioritize all the stuff that needs to get done.
Although it’s impossible to do two things at once, it’s not uncommon to believe that we can work on multiple challenging tasks at the same time. Neuroscientists have identified that people are more productive who take at least 15-minute breaks every hour and avoid the switching costs of checking email and social networks. Distractions end up costing 23 minutes of productivity to re-engage our previous tasks and tend to build up stress that leads to neurotic thought processes, overeating, and caffeine consumption. Worse, we live in a world with nearly infinite access to information that we believe will self-soothe and give us the tools to help us achieve more and become the most successful versions of ourselves.
There are noble intentions behind the way that we approach work, but the costs of not-being-present affect our productivity, our physical and mental well-being, and our personal and professional relationships.
What Mindfulness Can Do for Your Business Self
The basic requirement of practice requires a routine, and meditation is a vehicle which can help us observe our thought processes without judging or needing to distance ourselves or seek comfort from them. Mindfulness is the benefit that you experience every day from this process. It’s experienced as being less reactive to stress, and living with more clarity and empathy to others, for starters. Though no expert in advising you “how” to meditate, I highly recommend investing 20-minutes a day and using the Headspace App and learn more from @andypuddicombe to guide you through the building blocks of the daily practice. It’s not easy to sit still for 20 minutes. Don’t underestimate that it takes a little discipline. After three months, you’ll never want to miss it again.
Changes in the brain
Studies have observed (NY Times) that people who practice 30-minutes of meditation for 8-weeks have measurable differences in brain density, shown on an MRI, in areas associated with memory, empathy, and stress.
This is the process of thinking about our thoughts and reacting to your environment on autopilot. You can make more informed decisions by observing your thoughts, feelings and sensing your experiences. Improved metacognition can help you be less impulsive and susceptible to cognitive dissonance.
Central to the concept of meditation is the practice of focus. The benefit of mindfulness is that heightened attention helps you avoid the obvious distractions and counterproductive tasks. You can approach your work and your day with greater clarity. Mindfulness helps you stay focused on the present, instead of dwelling on past frustrations or traumas.
When we increase awareness of our experiences, we become better listeners and observers. We invite deeper insights about the present circumstances without opening ourselves to self-judgment or solutions that merely validate our preconceived opinions. Curiosity without judgment helps us create a healthy distance with asking, why?
Empathy and Relationships
When we improve our awareness and our interest, we deepen our empathy for others. Meditation provides us the opportunity to reflect on our circumstances and improve our emotional resilience and compassion, for others and ourselves. We are more accepting and able to step into the shoes of our customers or employees and see things from their vantage points.
Adaptive to Change
As headstrong and determined as many business leaders are, it is necessary to be able to optimize and redirect and adapt to changing circumstances. A more mindful and present perspective helps us reduce our fear and our judgments about the way things should be, and allows us to embrace the way things are.
If you are following a mindfulness journey, please share your experiences here or reach out to me @peterwyro.