“When we started,” says Daniel Goleman, “there were two journal articles on meditation that we could cite. Today there are more than 6,000.” So, the first thing Goleman, a leading expert on emotional intelligence, and psychologist Richard J. Davidson did when they set out to write their new book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, “was go through those 6,000 and identify 60 solid enough to stand up under pressure,” Goleman recalls.
Today, mindfulness is big business. From book-length treatments and quick-tip guides to downloadable apps and virtual reality, mindfulness has moved not just into the mainstream but onto the Main Street of commercialism. And it’s gotten more than a little misconstrued in the process. As Alison Carter, a principal research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, recently put it, “Attitudes toward mindfulness in workplaces tend to be binary: it’s either considered brilliantly effective or cuddly nonsense.”
Goleman and Davidson think we need a more realistic–and scientific–framework for thinking about mindfulness. What’s more, they believe that dispelling the most pervasive “neuromythology” on the subject is the key to making mindfulness not just a private, individual practice but something that teams can practice together, and see great results.
Cutting Through The More Dubious Claims
Some of the shakier popular claims around mindfulness are that it shrinks the amygdala–when, in fact, researchers found “a longitudinal decrease in right amygdala activation”–recalibrates emotional set-points–which by-and-large are biologically determined–and can even slow aging. Despite making headlines three years ago all the way on up to CNN (another site declared, “Nobel Prize Winner Shows that Mediation Significantly Slows Aging”), the real finding was far more about the side effects of reduced stress than any direct correlation.
Goleman readily admits the actual limits of mindfulness. “What we think now is that increased neural activation may happen at first, but it doesn’t keep going the way some people, in the business world especially, have claimed. The brain only has so much give.” The substantiated benefits of mindfulness now include: reduced stress, stronger intimate and social relationships, lower blood pressure, better emotional regulation, increased gray-matter density, and some cortical thickening in areas associated with attention and sensory processing.
In other words, the brain–and, therefore, the body–can be reshaped. And mindful activities like meditation are potentially powerful tools to aid that reshaping. However, rather than thinking of meditation like a pump and your brain as an ever expanding balloon, a better metaphor would be mental fitness. “Mindfulness is like developing your biceps and doing reps,” explains Goleman. “If you want to go deeper, that’s fine. What’s important is to not overstate the initial benefits as if mindfulness’ basic practices will grow exponentially over time.”
The good news is those “basic practices” are precisely where businesses can benefit most.
Putting Mindfulness To Work In The Office
At a personal level, mindfulness revolves around three disciplines:
- Purposeful breathing
- Physical awareness
- Mental observation
Introductory guides tackling all three areas abound, but most focus on individual applications. The question is: Can you apply mindfulness collectively in a working environment? Goleman says yes and offers a few steps to get started.
First, set the stage. “Instead of starting your workday on autopilot or with a meeting, come together to breathe together. Naturally, your mind will wander,” Goleman says. “When it does, that’s a moment of mindfulness. Bring it back to your breath, and do this as a group.”
For individuals, experts recommend 10 minutes a day of mindful breathing to strengthen the brain’s executive functions. Goleman suggests the same length is effective for groups as well.
Second, watch. “Throughout the day, create a kind of balcony in your mind where you just watch your thoughts come and go. This transforms impulses into choices,” Goleman explains. “Instead of obeying them, you can observe them and then make the decision of what to do.”
Teams can practice this collectively by taking the time to intentionally slow down during difficult tasks. It’s also helpful to develop shared habits for pausing–like taking two-minute timeouts–anytime things start getting heated.
Third, cultivate compassion. “Think of people in your life who have been kind to you, and wish them well. Think of yourself, and wish that you’d be healthy and happy. Then, think of the people you work with and do the same,” Goleman advises.
Practiced regularly, these simple mental exercises can strengthen the brain’s circuitry for caring. And organizations where people care are organizations that work well together.
Learning To Not Just “Blindly Charge Ahead”
Of course, those collective benefits are all grounded in personal practice. But untethered from empathy and a purpose larger than ourselves, most people’s ambition tells them, “I want to be a success–my way, for my benefit, at whatever cost.” Needless to say, this attitude can get in the way of practicing mindfulness.
“The nervous system,” Goleman explains, “was not designed to be on high stress all the time, so if you put yourself in that mode–which, in many ways, corporate culture rewards–you’re going to burn out or you’ll burn out the people around you. Mindfulness comes to the rescue because it says, ‘Hey, why don’t you just take a pause–regularly–and not blindly charge ahead?'”
When you boil it down like that, mindfulness sounds a lot less like “cuddly nonsense” and a lot more like a strategy for better collaborative problem-solving. And indeed, larger-scale mindfulness projects are also underway.
Anthony Stephan, for instance, a principal at Deloitte, is currently leading 100 executives through a program built around core mindfulness principles like vulnerable communication, reflective listening, and gratitude. Conceived in early 2017, Anthony spent the first 100 days of the initiative meeting with leaders one-on-one and in town-hall settings, not to simply expound the virtues of mindfulness but co-create the “intentions and behaviors” the program would foster. Deloitte is still a month or more away from quantitative measurements, “but already,” Anthony told me, “we’re seeing far more collaboration and efficiency.”
The benefits of mindfulness to individuals is profound–that’s why the concept became so popular so quickly. But it doesn’t need to be a solitary affair. Instead, teams, departments, and even entire organizations that learn to apply mindfulness practices together can build more productive, empathetic relationships. You just need to cut through some of the junk science first.
Aaron Orendorff is the founder of iconiContent and a regular contributor at Mashable, Lifehacker, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, and more. Connect with him about marketing, behavioral economics, and bunnies on Twitter or LinkedIn.