"The great enigma for psychologists and philosophers is the mind."
Several decades ago, the term ‘mindfulness’ used to imply Eastern mysticism related to the spiritual journey of a person, originated by Gautama Buddha. Buddhists believe that being ‘well, happy, and peaceful’ comes from practicing ‘mindful’ living.
Today, from self-help gurus to business leaders, and scientists to politicians, many talk about mindfulness. According to various prominent psychological definitions:
- Mindfulness has been described as "bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis" (Marlatt & Kristeller, 1999)
- And as "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally" (Kabat-Zinn, 1994).
The scientific community now believes that by practicing daily mindfulness we can take advantage of the neuroplasticity of our brains and thereby improve the state of our lives. William James was one of the first psychologists to address the notion of neuroplasticity back in his late 19th century text, The Principles of Psychology. The central idea behind neuroplasticity is that our brain can restructure itself based on our perception and experience.
And management gurus like Bill George say that the best way to become more resilient is to develop oneself into a calm, compassionate and adaptable, mindful leader. Given today’s global uncertainty, there has never been more need for mindful leaders. George continues:
In my experience, mindful people make much better leaders than frenetic, aggressive ones. They understand their reactions to stress and crises, and understand their impact on others. They are far better at inspiring people to take on greater responsibilities and at aligning them around common missions and values.
Along with the billions around the globe, I suffer from the daily grind of life, the challenges of leading others, and coping with a constantly changing world. My affinity with mindful living is not grounded in any kind of scientific research—rather from my roots in Eastern philosophy and constant self-analysis.
Last Saturday, I had a chance to spend a couple of hours with Bhante Wimala at a mindful meditation session. Bhante Wimala has been a Buddhist monk for 36 years, is known throughout the world as a compassionate spiritual teacher, and is the author of Lessons of the Lotus. This very fortunate session with Bhante was my reaffirmation of how to lead our minds.
Based on my session with Bhante, here are some principles that help to lead our minds:
Living in the Moment
I briefly touched upon being in the moment in one of my recent posts. Being truly in the moment allows us to escape from adversity and conserve our inner energy. Living in the moment doesn't mean we don’t care about the future. It means that when we make a choice to do something, we focus on solely doing it, rather than letting our mind wander into the future (or the past).
It’s been said that the only two jobs of a Zen monk are sitting zazen (meditation) and sweeping. Cleaning is one of the daily rituals of a Zen monk, one of their most important daily practices. They sweep or rake, and they try to do nothing else in that moment. The next time you’re doing housework, try concentrating on the housework—on the dust, on the motion, on the sensation. Cooking and cleaning are often seen as boring chores, but actually they are both great ways to practice mindfulness—something I ritualistically try to do at least once or twice a week. Sounds simple—but it’s actually pretty hard—go ahead and try it.
Fear is a protective emotion which signals danger and helps us to prepare for and cope with it. Fear perhaps is the key fundamental emotion that holds us back, makes us unhappy—fear of failure, fear of losing people, fear of success, fear of the unknown, and fear of moving forward or making a change.
Along with fear, emotional pain is another key factor that often holds us back. Although others can cause pain for us, our pain can also be caused by our own actions, including our inability to achieve a desired aspiration.
The physical reaction to fear and pain is called the "fight or flight" response. Being mindful is the exact opposite of that response. Mindful living comes from ‘letting go’. Letting go is the inner action that stops resisting fear and pain. It allows us to restore our ability to see clearly.
Buddhism asserts that attachment to negative emotions is the primary source of suffering. So then, detachment or "non-attachment" would be our ticket out of fear and pain.
Letting go comes from having a ‘nonjudgmental’ outlook towards life and people. It allows us to forgive others and ourselves equally for mistakes and incompatibility. In more secular and practical terms, we must be willing to let go of fear, pain, anger, and people. It is the ability to let go that drives a constant process of change—it is what makes us flexible and adaptable. This is hardly easy, takes a conscious effort, and is something I know I struggle with everyday.
Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves—slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment.
—Thich Nhat Hanh
For a fast paced entrepreneur like me, perhaps the most paradoxical lesson for me has been around the need to slow down to move forward. Slowing down is a deliberate choice that can lead to greater appreciation for life and a greater level of happiness, which yield’s better results in one’s endeavors.
In the context of mindful living, slowing down does not imply taking a vacation every other month. It is what we must do every day. It means taking the time to do whatever we’re doing. It means single tasking rather than switching between a multitude of tasks and focusing on none of them. ‘Slowing down’ is about deliberate actions to be ‘mindful’. American author, poet, philosopher Henry David Thoreau sumed it up well, when he said:
"I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did. They say that characters were engraved on the bathing tub of King Tching-thang to this effect: "Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again."
Neuroplasticity: Scientific Research on Mindfulness
Now, on the science of mindfulness, in the following video, Dr. Richard Davidson, speaks about his research on neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change its structure and function in response to experience:
[Image: Flickr user Phil Hilfiker]