Mindfulness has firmly entrenched itself as a mainstream, secular concept, muscling its way onto the cover of Time, into boardrooms, schools and the minds of Wall Street traders. Originating in ancient India as a spiritual practice, it’s not new, but very much a buzzword (writer Evgeny Morozov called it “the new sustainability: no one quite knows what it is, but everyone seems to be for it”). Hedge fund managers who rely on intuition, Davos attendees who make political decisions and school pupils who navigate complex social environments are learning to increase performance and reduce stress by intentionally focusing on the present, and paying attention to their breath. However, as executive coach David Brendel warns, “As with any rapidly growing movement – regardless of its potential benefits – there is good reason for caution.”
The espousal of all things mindfulness risks exposing corporations to unqualified hacks, forcing mindfulness programmes onto employees in a manner that becomes detrimental, or attempting to use it as cure-all panacea.
While the concept evades a universally accepted definition (as increasingly investigated by scientists and doctors as well as coaches and more traditional devotees) the essence of mindfulness is being fully present. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Centre for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and pioneer of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, describes it as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. Despite its Buddhist roots, the practice of mindfulness doesn’t require any particular belief system (though many major religions have contemplative traditions) but has the potential to make us more compassionate towards ourselves and others, aware of our thought patterns, emotions and what is happening around us.
Although, in its secular and contemporary sense, the practice may seem to have suddenly stumbled onto the Western stage, its popularity and increased research into its self-regulatory benefits are largely due to efforts by Kabat-Zinn and other practitioners, researchers and devotees who have championed secular use and scientific studies for decades. More recently, it has been widely popularised by a star-studded fan club – public figures such as Oprah and Deepak Chopra, CEOs like Steve Jobs and, as a poster girl, entrepreneur and author Arianna Huffington. In her book Thrive, a quest to propagate the “Third Metric” of success (consisting of wellbeing, wisdom, wonder and giving), she writes, “Through mindfulness, I found a practice that helped bring me fully present and in the moment, even in the most hectic of circumstances.” The offices of news aggregator The Huffington Post are stocked not only with nap rooms and healthy snacks, but also offer mindfulness, yoga and meditation classes. Huffington writes, “No longer is meditation seen as some sort of New Age escape from the world (but) for ... a practice that helps us be in the world in a way that is more productive, more engaged, healthier, and less stressful.”
Casper Oelofsen, co-founder of Mindful Leadership and experienced corporate coach, describes mindfulness as a tool to help clients manage complexity and build mental resilience. Especially useful in business contexts, mindfulness helps leaders respond attentively to situations rather than react quickly and habitually – the lashing out of the amygdala, also termed the “reptile brain”, which he likens to a familiar phenomenon: load shedding. “When dealing with a complex situation there are more variables than we can comfortably control, which is also a way of looking at stress,” he says. However, we can override our nervous system using breathing techniques or meditation. “The moment we have the ability to breathe, put ourselves one step back from a situation and become an observer, load shedding is cancelled.” This allows business leaders to maintain perspective and engage intentionally (Oelofsen uses the analogy of watching from a station platform, instead of automatically jumping aboard every train). After working with professionals, Oelofsen’s team tests the results by interviewing colleagues and family members (who often see the biggest result).
Nan Lutz, owner of Shenang Wellness Consulting and facilitator of Mindfulness Africa’s eight-week course, who has worked with First National Bank executives, says that mindfulness garners two types of results – self-regulation (reduced stress, better clarity, focus and so forth) – and, over a longer period of time, self-transformation. Our reactive patterns of flight-or-fight mode are a form of selfprotection, but to change from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system (in which we are relaxed, or in “feed-and-breed” mode) we need to practice mindfulness.
However, the tool is not a quick-fix, but a skill that needs to be cultivated through regular training and practice. There is a reason that many coaches compare meditation or mindfulness practice to playing tennis or lifting weights – our current paradigm commends those who look after their bodies, while mental training is largely ignored. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn commented, “No one in our time finds it surprising if a man gives careful daily attention to his body, but people would be outraged if he gave the same attention to his soul.” Thus, mindfulness is to our minds what physical exercise is to our bodies – it makes them stronger and more resilient.
In Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from the Inside Out, financial journalist David Gelles spends time exploring how companies are embracing the trend. He writes that while mindfulness was a fringe movement when Jobs meditated backstage before opening Applefest in 1981, it is “now an increasingly prominent part of the cultural landscape, turning up in business, governments, and educational institutions around the world”.
Today, mindfulness training is available at organisations such as the Bank of England, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, the US military, and Google (whose Jolly Good Fellow, Chade-Meng Tan, teaches the course “Search Inside Yourself”) – diverse organisations that share a high-stress denominator.
For corporates, supporting their employees in ways to be more mindful is (pardon the pun) a no-brainer. Any practice that has the potential to decrease stress, ill-health and absenteeism and increase focus and productivity is worth pursuing, and the ability to think clearly in times of mounting complexity and information overload is a sought-after skill. Huffington quotes Safeway CEO Steve Burns: “Seventy percent of healthcare costs are driven by people’s behaviours.” Thus, modified employee behaviour has the potential to significantly lower costs and increase profit. Regardless of the nature of our work, the consistent practice of returning our attention to the breath every time we are distracted, time and time again, is a highly useful quality.
Chef and entrepreneur Jonno Proudfoot, co-founder of the Real Meal Revolution, says that mindfulness helps to derive maximum utility from the limited moments we have available to us. “Being mindful allows me to concentrate on fewer things more effectively, and in doing so, achieve better results more often.”
There has traditionally been a resistance in corporates to aspects of mindfulness – the conservative, patriarchal culture of many traditional organisations means the concepts of slowing down, focusing on one thing, veering away from competition and the practice’s religious roots are sticking points in its dissemination. However, its widespread use in corporate contexts is part of a greater trend towards wellbeing as a key component for success – a backlash against the preponderance of burnout and overwork with extreme, even fatal, consequences (the Japanese have a name for it: karoshi literally means “death by overwork”). Companies are increasingly following Google’s “Don’t be evil”mantra and Silicone Valley is the nucleus of a corporate mindfulness revolution, where, as Gelles puts it, people are working to “make compassion as common as coding”. Organisations haven’t gone soft on us, but rather have realised that increased compassion and employee wellbeing are highly efficacious ways to attract and retain employees in the context of global talent shortages.
The effect of mindfulness on leadership is difficult to measure, but can be transformative. Steve Jobs, a longtime Zen Buddhist disciple, was the first famous CEO who proclaimed it as a tool for enhanced leadership and creativity. Gelles writes: “Steve Jobs’s ability to be calm and concentrated in the midst of chaos was one of the things that made him such a great leader.” On his 1997 return to Apple, this focus allowed him to implement a strategy of fewer products designed and made exceptionally well.
In Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goleman says a primary requisite for leadership is “the ability to shift attention to the right place at the right time, sensing trends and emerging realities and seizing opportunities”. He makes the point that the sum of focused leaders makes up more than their parts, adding to the overall “array of attention bandwidth and dexterity” in an organisation.
Leaders with increased mindfulness, therefore, are better able to direct not only their own attention to critical tasks, but that of employees. They’re also able to lead with clarity in the face of complexity, with compassion for themselves and others.
Yet coaches and professional practitioners warn that although mindfulness is a useful, if not essential tool, it’s not a magic bullet that can be rolled out like a new computer program. In fact, employee discomfort about how it is implemented can be harmful, rather than helpful. The corporatisation of mindfulness means that in some contexts, used purely for its potential return on investment, it has lost part of its essence: compassion. Also, many religious disciples are angered by the preponderance of secular mindfulness, feeling that in its current incarnation it has deviated from its spiritual roots and is used increasingly for corporate gain. Acknowledging the potential benefits mindfulness offers has led to a Disney-esque approach that experts warily refer to as “McMindfulness”, where an ancient, sacred and life-long practice is packaged into 30-second breathing exercises. However, Lutz likens these approaches to 5km fun runs (as opposed to ultramarathons) – there’s nothing wrong with fun runs, but people should be aware that sustained daily practice reaps deeper benefits.
While there is mounting evidence showing that mindfulness affects our behaviour, neuroscience is beginning to confirm that it affects neurological structure as well. Gelles writes, “Studies show that mindfulness strengthens our immune systems, bolsters our concentrative powers, and rewires our brains.”
Karen Fitzgerald, a University of Cape Town PhD neuroscience student, investigates how attention may be affected by mindfulness practices using functional magnetic resonance brain imaging. She tells me about a study in which a team at UC Davis found that at the end of a three-month mindfulness retreat, participants in the experimental group had higher levels of the anti-ageing enzyme telomerase than the control group. This is the first study to link meditation and positive psychological change with telomerase activity, which may have implications for the way we age and recover from chronic illness. Fitzgerald says that mindfulness “helps us pay attention to the present moment and the task at hand, and notice when our minds get stuck in ruminating thoughts or destructive emotions”, but warns that corporations should be wary of who they hire to facilitate mindfulness training as there has been an increase in unqualified practitioners taking advantage of the craze. The Institute of Mindfulness SA, which partners with the University of Stellenbosch to offer Mindfulness-based Interventions, was founded in response to a need for a national structure that, as chairman Dr Simon Whitesman says, ensures that increasing interest and facilitation is “congruent with ethics and deeper traditions”.
While it is easy to get caught up in the mania for corporate mindfulness, incorporating it into our lives doesn’t have to be complicated. Ultimately, as Professor Ellen Langer (head of the eponymous mindfulness centre at Harvard and author of the seminal work Mindfulness) says, “Life consists only of moments, nothing more than that. So if you make the moment matter, it all matters.”
Business Day ePaper
2 October 2015