Aug 08 2017

How to Practice Mindfulness Now, Part 1

If you’re bothering to read this, then chances are good that you’re more than intellectually curious about mindfulness. You may be generally uneasy, stuck in a slump, or experiencing/anticipating some personal or professional crisis (or both) that’s making it hard to see things clearly and figure out what to do.

Most people gravitate toward mindfulness when true north can’t be found, and they’re wandering in circles. That was me.

A decade ago, I was struggling to cope with my wife’s diagnosis of incurable cancer, launch a new career in a new industry, and build a house—all at the same time. So I enrolled in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts. It changed my life, and I’ve followed it up with many other mindfulness, brain science, and practical and spiritual teachings since.

While MBSR and other, similar programs have begun showing up in corporate employee wellness programs, most focus on the role of daily meditation, conscious breathing, and other practices like yoga and Tai Chi to strengthen personal growth and awareness. There’s less available to the leader who wants to integrate mindfulness into his routine work life and interactions with colleagues.

Much of my work focuses on finding ways to infiltrate (yes, mindfulness is still considered subversive) strategic and organizational disciplines with mindfulness approaches, and the following framing is where I usually start with clients.

Approach every interaction knowing that you are not your thoughts. Your mind is a powerful tool you can use to make excellent decisions, but only if you learn to distrust much of what you’re thinking at any given moment, which also consists of the often unconscious biases and preconceptions we all have that come from our experience of life. These pollute the pure thoughts that make for good decisions. Even pleasant memories or “lessons learned” bring with them a filter that can block clear thinking about what’s happening in the here and now.

This is a hard practice for deeply analytical people (scientific and business types especially) to accept. You’ve spent your life honing your critical thinking skills and have come to rely heavily on them. Plus, you’re under constant pressure to act fast so you overestimate the quality of your instinctive thinking. But if you meditate, you know that the mind is almost always awash in past regrets and future expectations that take us away from the present moment. And it’s only in the present moment—when we take a deep breath, quite literally—that creativity and wisdom can emerge.

You can distance yourself from your thoughts, create space for whatever’s happening in whatever situation you’re experiencing. In the mindfulness tradition, this is referred to as spacious or alert presence. If you think about the best decisions you’ve made, you’re likely to recall them as being “inspired” or “just coming to you” after lots of analysis and debate. This out of nowhere sense is a cue that you made the decision from a position of presence even if the choice seemed to emerge from linear thinking.

So avoid saying the first or second thing that pops into your head, bring fresh eyes and ears to the facts being presented to you, and sleep on it—no matter what the deadline you’ve been given. Very few things are as urgent as they seem.

I started with the biggest obstacle first. It’s the one that’s gotten me in the most trouble. My 360° feedback consistently pointed out that my colleagues found me intelligent and articulate but also distant and, sometimes, less authentic than I certainly intended to be. It was easy for me (and still is) to get lost in my head, admire my thoughts, and lose touch with what was happening around me. I’m not alone in this. But as the saying goes, awareness is the first step toward redemption.