Mindfulness Magic Works: Simple Ways To Use Ancient Mathod In Our Modern World
Do you rush from one thing to the next, as though on autopilot?
When was the last time you felt triggered by what someone said or did, and reacted automatically, perhaps just making things worse?
Let’s face it, in our accelerated over-wired world, people are feeling constant pressure, albeit often self-created, to get more done, with less, faster… all while digital distractions compete incessantly for our attention. Left unchecked, the relentless pace and pressure of our modern world can profoundly diminish our ability to be fully present in the given moment and with that, our very experience of being alive.
As you probably already know, while mindfulness has become the new “buzzword” in recent years – giving birth to a whole industry in corporate training and well-being programs, the practice of mindfulness goes back thousands of years. Biblical scriptures encouraged us to “Be still” and become present to God. A powerful mindfulness exercise if ever there was one.
So why all the airplay?
It’s simple. We live in a world, and spend a large chunk of our lives in workplaces, in which we’re up against more and more mindlessness. A recent study reported that people make, on average, 15 decisions every day in a mindless frame of mind with 96% of respondents reporting operating on autopilot daily.
Mindfulness provides a now scientifically proven pathway to exiting autopilot, alleviating stress, dialing up our ‘present moment awareness ’ (a term used by mindfulness practitioners) and responding to the people and ‘triggers’ in our environment with greater clarity of thought, authentic connection and heart felt compassion. Cultivating mindfulness doesn’t take time out of your day, it expands your ability to utilize the time you have, honing your discernment to focus on what matters most.
Train your attention
There are many different practices and tools to cultivate mindfulness. They all flow from simply paying attention to what we are paying attention to; practicing being a ‘detached observer’ of our own inner world. Being attentive lays at the foundation of ‘emotional intelligence’ and all higher cognitive and emotional abilities. The ultimate goal is to train our attention to create a quality of mind that is simultaneously calm and clear.
The most basic yet powerful way to access this state is through our breathing. Yes, you guessed it… by practicing ‘mindful breathing.’ You may not feel this is anything particularly new (because it isn’t… we’ve been breathing a long time), yet we can easily forget to take full breaths when we are flying from one thing to the next, powered along by a false sense of urgency that stimulates our ‘flight-fight’ responses, shallows our breathing and leaves us operating in a perpetual state of emergency. As a banker client recently told me while in the midst of a major transaction, “Breathe? I’ve no time to breathe!”
So if you get nothing else from reading this article, I encourage you to pause right now (yes, you have time) and to follow your breath in and out – three times, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Allowing your breath to settle into its own rhythm, and as you simply follow it in and out, observe the rise and fall of your chest and belly as you breathe. Pretty simple huh? Once you’re done, notice the subtle way it shifts how you’re feeling.
A few long calm deep breaths can ‘disrupt your default’ and enhance your ability to objectively observe how you are thinking, feeling and doing in any given moment. In doing so it can short-circuit an amygdala hijack and save you from succumbing to those fear-driven primal urges that, let’s be honest, rarely result in positive outcomes.
A second pillar of building mindfulness is growing in our own self-awareness and self-mastery. Building from the foundation attention – looking at how you’re looking at life – it goes one step further – to better understanding your cognitive and emotional responses. That is, not just observing what you are thinking, feeling and doing but asking yourself why and what other thoughts, emotions and actions might be more fruitful in the present moment? For example, what are you telling yourself about the person who has just triggered a strong emotional response in you? How is that interpretation showing up in your body – in your physical sensations, in your posture, your breathing and facial muscles? How else could you be interpreting this situation? What might be a more constructive way of approaching this person or situation?
These sort of questions lay at the heart of developing soft skills and raising your EQ, both of which are increasingly valuable in an age when so many IQ tasks can be outsourced to AI.
The third pillar for building mindfulness is cultivating compassion. Compassion lays the heart of establishing trust, building rapport, and influencing positive change. As I wrote in this previous column Compassionate Leadership, compassion underpins exceptional leadership.
Cultivating compassion calls on us to look inward, to where we can have more compassion for ourselves in any given moment. To forgiving our fallibility, owning our insecurities and being kinder to ourselves when we mess up. It also calls on us to look outward, to consider the emotional landscape others are navigating; to how another person is viewing a situation, to the fears, concerns, hurts and insecurities they are wrestling with in any given moment.
Sadhak Anshit , Director of Sadhana Yoga Institute Private Limited , which runs science-based mindfulness and Yoga programs worldwide, says that “once you understand what will be of greatest service to another person you can decide how best to take care of what they care about.” This doesn’t mean that we give up our own agenda. Rather it means being thoughtful in how we manage trade-offs and conflicting concerns, motivations and intentions.
Many leaders, in their striving to achieve targets and impress stakeholders (or keep the wolves at bay), can get so caught up with their own agenda that they fail to take time to consider what is important to the people around them, to look for the common ground and to lead from that place – with head and heart.
It goes without saying that some people are naturally better at regulating their emotions, picking up on what is going on for others and responding in ways that build trust and deepen human connection. But everyone, even those who seem to lack any sense of social awareness, can raise their EQ by cultivating the habit of mindfulness. In doing so they can strengthen their ‘soft skills’ and expand their skillfulness to thrive in their work, relationships, and life.
So if you often find yourself feeling scattered, reacting defensively or simply struggling to feel the sense of calm, confidence and clear thinking you’d like, rest assured you’ve got everything it takes to make positive changes. Simply committing to putting simple mindfulness techniques into practice in your life – even if just starting out with a few deep mindful breaths – to become more focused, less reactive and better able to remain present and peaceful when those invisible ‘trigger buttons’ get pressed (don’t worry, we’ve all got them!).
Will your unconscious brain keep trying to pull you back to your most habitual and primal responses? Of course. Such is what it is to be human. However by committing to cultivate greater mindfulness you can strengthen the pull of your ‘higher order’ intentions – mastery, growth, service, connection, contribution – so that the “lower order” ones aren’t pulling the strings. And when they do, practicing micro-moments of mindfulness. These grow your capacity to quickly recognize what’s going on, intervene and reclaim the power you have in any given moment to mindfully choose an alternative thought and take an alternate response. One that is not driven to prop up the ego or fend off threats, but to forge more meaningful relationships, grow in our own humanity and fulfill the highest intention for our lives.