What is mindfulness?
According to neuroscientist Richard Davidson, one of the pioneering researchers of mindfulness and meditation, “mindfulness can help us to cleanse the interior lenses of perception so that we can see our own minds with greater clarity. It also can be used to cultivate attention and emotion regulation”.
“Mindfulness” is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of techniques and practices that develop familiarity with and understanding of the mind and its activity. Most of these techniques have their origins in Asian meditation traditions but have been adapted to a secular context and are used successfully in stress-reduction programs, in education and in the corporate world.
Some mindfulness practices involve focusing one’s attention on breathing and returning it there each time a person notices that his/her mind has wandered. Other practices help us to become more aware of our physical bodies, emotions and thoughts and as a result to gain more freedom in making conscious decisions, rather than being driven by emotional triggers or mental stereotypes.
Third, practices train us to be very relaxed yet very vigilant in different life situations — during hard negotiations, while working on an important project, when driving or walking in a park. It helps us not to waste inner resources for unconscious defenses and tensions — physical and emotional — and to develop an ability to react faster and more flexibly.
Fourth, practices help us to develop empathy and intuition, to trust our inner voice and to be able to hear it even in crises.
Our life consists of many present moments, and the way we live these moments — if we are full of energy and relaxed, happy and trust in ourselves and our future, if we are alive right here and now — ultimately determines our life experience as a whole.
Attention is the most precious resource a modern person possesses. As the Nobel laureate economist Herbert Simon noted in 1977, “what information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently”.
Today the wealth of information in our everyday lives is so huge that we are facing another challenge — how to develop attention control and to defy numerous distractions.
We also live our lives in autopilot mode, and this is another problem. We are rarely connected to what is happening here and now and this mindlessness of the current moment costs us and our business a lot. We would like to be creative and to think out of the box, to find paradoxical decisions and embrace novelty, but our default brain wiring doesn’t further this.
The human brain is the most energy-consuming organ and the autopilot mode of living is a natural energy-saving mechanism developed in the evolutionary process.
Mindfulness helps us to change this default autopilot mode to the direct experience mode and to be more agile, vigilant and sensitive to the life we are living right now.
Daniel Goleman distinguishes three types of focus essential to every leader: inner (on ourselves), outer (on other people) and other (on larger systems). Goleman writes: “A leader tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless; one blind to the world of others will be clueless; those indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided”.
This third focus – on larger systems – is not innate and must be developed intentionally. Mindfulness can become one of the main instruments to develop such a focus.
- Kathy Caprino, executive coach, leadership trainer
- Todd Pierce Executive Vice President Operations & Mobility, Salesforce
- Biz Stone Co-Founder of Twitter
- Joe Ens Vice President, General Mill
- Alan Watts British-born philosopher, writer, and speaker
- Chip Roe Vice President, Potter Financial Group
- Janice Marturano Founder and Executive Director, Institute for Mindful Leadership
- William George a current Goldman Sachs board member, a former chief executive of Medtronic
- Dr. Jeremy Hunter Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management
- Marc Benioff Salesforce CEO
- Chade-Meng Tan Founder of Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute
The science of mindfulness
From a neurobiological point of view, we are our attention. How we deploy our attention determines the way we feel, make decisions, communicate with others, and interact with the larger systems around us. For centuries, wisdom traditions have developed different skillful techniques to master attention and to cultivate well-being.
Today, modern science is confirming many of the benefits mindfulness promises to bring into our life. The basic mechanism underlying these changes is neuroplasticity — the ability of our brain to change in response to experience. There are many different mechanisms of neuroplasticity, ranging from the growth of new connections between neurons to the creation of new neurons.
When we intentionally shape our internal focus of attention in mindfulness practice we induce a new state of brain activation, which with repetition can become an enduring trait of the individual as reflected in long-term changes in brain function and structure. MRI scans of the brain show that the grey matter of the hippocampus, the area associated with learning, memory and self-awareness, increases in participants of mindfulness practice. Conversely, the grey matter of the amygdala — which is a part of a limbic system and associated with fight-or-flight response — has been shown to decrease.
Modern scientific findings invite the view that many qualities that previously were regarded as relatively fixed — our level of happiness and well-being, the way our nervous system works, our cognitive potential — should be regarded as the product of skills that can be enhanced through special mental training. Our attention is similar to a muscle — when we don’t use it, it withers; when we work it, it grows.
Through mindfulness practice we also gain an ability to change our responses to stress and everyday challenges. Recent scientific studies prove that it is not stress that kills us, but rather our reaction to it. Changing these reactions by becoming aware of them at the level of our bodies, emotions and thoughts, we approach stress with a completely different bias.
Another study was done by Norman Farb at the University of Toronto. Along with six other scientists, he discovered that there are two neural circuits in our brains which are inversely correlated: the narrative network and the direct experience network. The narrative one is the default one — it is active for most of our waking moments and doesn’t take much effort to operate. It is responsible for the continuous dialog inside our head.
When the direct experience network is activated, we experience information coming into our senses in real time: our bodily sensations, our breath, the freshness of the present moment around us.
Normally the narrative network tries to get back to operational mode as soon as possible and to build meaning on these direct experiences — that’s why the minutes of presence and inner silence are so rare. But meditation practitioners are able to control these circuits and to dive into inner stillness for longer periods of time — which is often the source of great insights.
There is experimental evidence that 30 minutes of practice every day for eight weeks can substantially reduce cortisol level (one of the main hormones associated with stress), make us more empathetic, and increase emotional control and the executive functions of the brain.
What is really great is that you don’t need any special environment or outfit to become more mindful — all you need is to bring your attention back to the current moment wherever you are: during a meeting, while driving your car, or while flying on a plane. And this fresh and living presence changes the way our brain works and the quality of our life as a whole.