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How The Pope Does Mindfulness

Can a 500-year-old, 5-minute technique help you manage your day (Catholicism not required)?

Are tweets, statuses, pins, pokes, and pixels dominating your life? This week, as part of our #unplug series, we're re-posting some of our favorite stories from the archives, with a special focus on the beauty of a tech break, the power of analog, and how a little quiet can kickstart creativity.


While we can't quite peer into the papal enclave, we can infer a little bit about Pope Francis's management style by looking into his spiritual tradition. The new head of the Catholic Church is a Jesuit, a sect that emphasizes education and awareness. Their 16th century founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, had a twice-daily mindfulness practice called the examen, which is, as the name suggests, a quick examination of your state of mind.

Chris Lowney, who went from being a Jesuit seminarian to a managing director at JP Morgan, writes about the practice for HBR. It's simple enough: You just make five minutes in the middle of your day and again at the end for a quick check-in with yourself. Lowney describes the practice in three steps:

  • First, remind yourself why you are grateful as a human being.
  • Second, lift your horizon for a moment. Call to mind some crucial personal objective, or your deepest sense of purpose, or the values you stand for.
  • Third, mentally review the last few hours and extract some insight that might help in the next few hours. If you were agitated, what was going on inside you? If you were distracted and unproductive, why?
The practice has a genius to it, Lowney says, because it counterbalances our humdrum hyperactivity: between emails, texts, and meetings, we rarely find the time to step back. Though it does help when you have company-wide yoga or hourly exercise breaks, the person responsible for your state of mind is you.

For Lowney, not taking a break from all the stimulation has telling consequences:

I'm stressed about a bad meeting an hour ago and end up lashing out at a subordinate who had nothing to do with it; I finish the work day without attacking my number one priority, because I was swept along by lesser day-to-day concerns; I never focus my best thinking in a concentrated fashion on any one issue, because three or four issues are always rambling around my head; or, we slowly drift into an ethical mess of a transaction because I never stopped along the way to ask myself, "Hang on, is this the kind of thing we really should be doing?"

If you recognize any of those exhaustion points in yourself—like this writer does—two daily doses of this practice is like giving acupuncture to your schedule. Be grateful, zoom out, and get your sense of context—it will help you reach your potential.

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Bryan Frank]

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  • Christophe Franco

    What you're describing here reminds me strongly of Peter Bregman's "18 Minutes" method (and book of the same name). Which is especially intriguing knowing that he has a religious background himself : at a time in his life, he considered becoming a Rabbi.

  • Pete Walsh

    Thanks Drake! I believe the practice of mindfulness is critical to success in today's busy, 24/7 information coming at you from all directions world. The brain scientists have shown us how taking a breath restores access to the creative regions of our brain - enabling us to be more thoughtful and less emotionally reactive. This should be a daily ritual for every business leader. 

  • Leagil

    As a spiritual guide steeped in the Ignatian spirituality it has been my experience to encourage others as well as myself in approaching the examen (of consciousness) more as an exercise of thanksgiving. In doing so one is entering into those short daily pauses by taking into account  from the time that one has arisen in the morning to this time to become more aware of events and encounters with other persons. The next step would be, to ask oneself; how have these good ideas, intentions, words spoken and heard positively touched my life? I can than move on to praise and thank God for all those opportunities and ask God to help me to recognize more and more such opportunities as the presence of the Divine so that I can grow to be more grateful.

  • Andrew Stergiou

    Actually with all respect to the scholastic abilities of Jesuits I wouldn't care much in reading matters as this article suggests, for
    the bible states verbatim: 
    Job 9:24  "The earth is given into the hand of the wicked: he covereth the faces of the judges thereof; if not, where, and who is he?"1 John 5:19 19[And] we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.As I have come to know the hands of man distinguished from the hands of god, for the many shams of religion should shame the holy as it has has been Satan's tool as well as god's, so I really don't think much for ex-Jesuits who become bankers in what should be addresses better than what the standards of the elites and status-quo has become for the question has become what is what it is.rather than what do for the response would be different considering the two. 

  • Fr. Jim, SJ

    I am a Jesuit priest myself, and with all due respect to Mr. Lowney, that's not at all the spiritual technique of St. Ignatius.  'The Examen' that Mr. Lowney talks about involves 1) Relaxing, letting yourself be aware that you are in the presence of God; 2) Asking God to help you see what's been going on in your life right now -- the invitations, the temptations; and 3) Making a resolution to action based on what comes to mind. 

    It's not about me reminding myself of some goal, like a self-help plan. It's about allowing God in to help me see what's really been going on in my life.

    I only write with the hope the actual technique might be helpful.  It certainly has been in my life.