by Cindy Stocken
So is mindfulness at work really about always being happy and cheerful? Never complaining and forging forward without ever being tired, stressed, frustrated or generally jaded? Do HR departments run wellness sessions to create a better work/life balance or just create the appearance of effort while the pressure to compete demands more and more from us? Is it just another distraction from what really matters? What really matters anyway?
No wonder so many people view mindfulness at work with a cynical eye. Either they are being promised happiness or a “cure-all” for stress but then discover that it isn’t what mindfulness is about at all. The trite idea of happiness feels forced and inauthentic – and mindfulness as a word is being overused to the point that it feels like that team member who always uses the word “collaborate” but loves only the sound of their own voice. Too many trainings out there make people feel inadequate, negative or in need of fixing – and equate mindfulness with positive thinking. It’s not.
Mindfulness is not about being happy (although once you connect with true awareness you can find great joy in the full range of experiences – not just the pleasurable ones). Mindfulness is not about being positive and mindfulness is not about changing who you are. So what is it then and why are the benefits of it cited as invaluable by so many business leaders? How does it increase productivity by a reported 10 – 12%, decrease perceived stress in the workplace by 28% and make leaders feel 80% more effective? By understanding what mindfulness is we can dispel what it is not as well as identify some of the foundations underpinning its real benefits.
Above all mindfulness is awareness. It is what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls being “awake”. If you have ever had those low vibe days at work where you feel like all you achieved was your physical body being in the appropriate chair in front of your computer but know that you made no real impact; you will know what disconnection is, what mindlessness feels like. If you have ever struck flow, when the channel of your skills, purpose and vision feels like a running river and you work with high energy, connecting with others and inspiring your team – you will know what it feels like to be awake.
Mindfulness is being awake, but it is also being aware of the present moment, on purpose. It is choosing to notice that you have drifted off in a day dream or into the rabbit hole of distraction (whether its procrastination or an overly snug comfort zone) and then choosing to come back to what is happening now.
Lastly it is witnessing and living in the present moment without judgement – as James Baraz says “without wishing it were different”. This is what opens us up beyond what we normally allow ourselves to experience, overcome anxiety and soften the feelings of pressure and stress. It doesn’t change our environment but brings our awareness to our experience of them – without trying to fight our response by judging it. It’s hearing that voice in your head and noticing it – rather than believing it. It is being awake as a conscious experience of being alive. This commitment to the present moment is what lengthens the space, as Viktor Frankl identifies, between stimulus and response. If we aren’t so busy being somewhere else we can use that bandwidth to be here instead and it gives us a lot of extra room to play with. So what happens in this space that we have now created?
This awareness and presence and lack of attachment to a specific outcome opens up the next level of mindful work – which is an ability to hear your intuition and use it. This ability to tap into our flow, which so often before seemed mood or subject-dependant is actually a way of applying our wisdom to our purpose. It is the intuition that Malcolm Gladwell describes in Blink, the sense of leadership that Simon Sinek highlights as effective and authentic, and it is the intrinsic motivation that Dan Pink fires up in Drive. These make sense as we read them because we know them to be true – we have experienced flow before and know that our intuition is lit up when we do.
When we practice mindfulness and being consciously present in the moment we have a shortcut to this feeling. It isn’t fleeting anymore – it’s how we live. This is partly because mindfulness isn’t only about a formal meditation or practice away from our everyday routine – it is about being conscious in the daily action itself. It is why we speak about mindful living, not only mindful practice. When people report a 12% increase in focus, or a 17% improvement in work/life balance – it is because they are learning how to be present – not to be blown about in the wind of our thinking minds but be anchored in the now.
With this awake awareness comes curiosity. In lieu of judgement we begin to wonder. Instead of handing out “positive” and “negative” labels we ask questions. This is the curiosity that sparks creativity and innovation. It’s the curiosity that enables leaders to coach rather than tell. It’s the curiosity that seeks to understand and then gives us the empathy and wisdom to be able to act as required. It’s the willingness and ability to learn and even apply what we now understand.
So now we are here in the present moment, with full consciousness and the space for curiosity. Our senses and minds are fully open to a heightened awareness and because of this we can be more effective and resilient because we are able to consciously see/hear/understand what really IS happening around us – not what we wish was happening or wish wasn’t happening. This seems far from the ideal of perfect happiness because what might really be happening right now might not be good – but the readiness to accept it for what it is stops us from wasting energy and concern on the issue itself and gives us the focus to assess it, understand the root cause of it, make a decision about it, or creatively shift our actions as required.
You may have experienced working with leaders who have the clarity of mind to do this. They inspire us because they are accessible; we feel comfortable taking problems to them because we know that they aren’t going to get stuck on judging the problem but rather work with the reality as it is. They are honest and authentic as they work and are often the leaders who aren’t afraid to truly collaborate by making the meeting table a place to air what is actually going on and not just a ritualistic gathering of no purpose. Grounded, and dare I say mindful, leaders are exceptional in their ability to link their vision with a firmly rooted awareness of reality. They are able to tap into their intuition and connect with those around them by choosing to be completely present – meaning that they can listen, empathise and act in flow.
This is why mindfulness at work is about so much more than “happiness and positivity”. Wellbeing isn’t the exclusion of challenging experiences – it’s the compassionate attention of a deliberate way of living and leading. This is what softens the anxiety and stress and gives us the space to be authentic instead.