By Shivi Verma
Mindfulness practises have gripped the interest of individuals, organisations and corporate firms looking for a tool to stay calm, centred, and stress-free, says Shivi Verma
A practitioner of mindfulness, Neha Lehl was working as a consultant in a corporate firm. She recalls a particularly trying time she encountered while on the job. She was having a meeting with two leaders of the same organisation who had a major conflict with each other. The idea of the workshop was to get them to talk and resolve the issue. Sadly, the discussion escalated into a big quarrel and everybody including her went into a tailspin. She says, "At that moment I took a deep breath and began to ground myself. Then I mentally zoomed out of the heat of the situation and saw from an impartial space, the holistic picture of the company. I thought about what the organisation needed from me at that moment. At that point, when I felt detached from the scene before me, a sense of absolute clarity and confidence came to me. I felt I was being governed by some higher forces. "Neha was then able to disengage the warring duo without making light of their issue. She acknowledged the seriousness of the conflict and got those who had left, back into the room. She spoke about what the company needed the most. Gradually, both the leaders were able to co-create an acceptable solution. The conflict ended up resolving a real problem that plagued the company. "I owe it to my consistent practise of mindfulness. I practise it most of the time, whether I am communing with nature, listening to music, watering the plants, or writing a journal, "she adds. Nothing frees you more from the agony of living than mindfulness. It is an activity that makes you step away from the dramas going on in your head and see life as it is. The idea of seeing life as it is often baffles people. Because most of us feel that our perspective on life is the clearest and most authentic one. That we are living on auto-pilot and not using our innate powers to harness the horses of life becomes apparent when we start cracking under the weight of our hasty decisions and actions. The process of being mindful, of being aware, of checking our options, of being objective and coming from a space of equanimity, starts to take hold of us when we begin our inward journey as seekers. It happens when all our previous knowledge and belief systems refuse to come to our aid in our dire straits. As a person progresses he realises that there exists a realm within himself that is capable of impartially witnessing the events of his life, without getting drawn into the dramas. And that this place is the seat of power, wisdom, bliss and joy. We begin to step out from our blinding egos that interpret life on the basis of the fulfilment of our dreams, needs, hopes, and fantasies. As long as we are the centre of our world, we cannot see the objective reality. Instead of appreciating and acknowledging what is, we lend our own understanding to things, people and situations and complicate matters. Mindfulness is about stepping out from our emotions and ideas and confronting life in the most pragmatic, rational way. It is about giving the benefit of the doubt to people and situations, instead of jumping to conclusions and then reacting. It is about being neither positive nor negative but being aware of both sides of the picture, and then taking the most rational and objective route. Mindfulness is about being watchful of yourself. It is about witnessing your own thoughts, feelings, sensations, and actions. It is about taking responsibility for your life and surroundings. It is about humility, and admitting that there is only so much you can do as a doer. Being mindful is equivalent to being awake. It involves stepping out from a clouded mindset, which revolves around I, me, myself and being aware of others, their needs and wants. Says Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, part of Oxford University's department of psychiatry, “Mindfulness is direct knowing of what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment.” While mindfulness would seem synonymous with other spiritual terms such as awareness or increased consciousness, there is something about the term which seems to have really hit the spot with the corporate world, psychologists and therapists.
Its Buddhist origin is partly responsible. Still chary of anything that seems remotely religious or God-oriented, the intellectuals and the corporate world find mindfulness to be a mercifully secular term dealing directly with the individual and his experience of reality, with no reference to mysticism or God. Therefore, they have embraced the term and the practice with open arms. Says Sandy Dias Andrade, Director of Just being, a Pune-based centre for mindfulness, “Mindfulness has become mainstream in the West because of the enormous research that backs up the practice. In the cultural context, mindfulness is taught as a secular practice and there might not be references to Buddhism though the way it is practised is in line with the Buddhist philosophy.” Mindfulness as a meditative practise is being hugely adopted in the corporate world to resolve health, leadership and performance issues of the employees as well as leaders.
History of mindfulness
The roots of mindfulness date back to ancient spiritual practises observed in Hinduism, and to a larger extent, Buddhism. Says Joaquín, in his blog, Positive Psychology Programme, “From the Bhagavad Gita’s discussions of yoga to Vedic meditation, the history of Hinduism reads in part like a history of mindfulness. Of course, it is only a partial history, and another crucial player in the history of mindfulness is Buddhism.” Compared to Hinduism, Buddhism’s history is much better defined. Buddhism was founded around 400-500 BC, by Siddhartha Gautama, who was referred to as the Buddha (the awakened) from then on. Based on where and when Gautama was raised, it is safe to say that many Hindu teachings informed his upbringing. In general, Buddhism is a spiritual path that aims to show its followers the path to enlightenment.Mindfulness is regarded as the first step towards enlightenment in Buddhism. One of the reasons mindfulness seems inseparable from Buddhism is because many Western mindfulness proponents studied under Buddhist teachers. Yoga too, which is an ancient Indian discipline that uses breathing techniques, asanas and meditation for spiritual upliftment, incorporates mindfulness. A study in the West found that people heavily involved with yoga practices had higher levels of mindfulness than people who were only slightly involved or not involved. Interestingly enough, the recent rise of yoga’s popularity in the West coincides with the rise of mindfulness. But how exactly did all of these ideas, particularly mindfulness, start gaining so much popularity in the West? Perhaps the person most responsible for bringing mindfulness from the East to the West, was Jon Kabat-Zinn. A professor of Medicine and a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, Kabat-Zinn founded the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Oasis Institute for mindfulness- based professional education and training. This is also where Kabat-Zinn developed his Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme, an eight-week programme aimed at reducing stress levels in people after combining mindfulness practice with Western psychological sciences. This integration with Western science was a crucial aspect in helping mindfulness gain widespread popularity in the West.
What is mindfulness practice?
Unlike meditation, which involves concentrating on a particular chakra or on breathing, or mantra chanting that requires you to focus on a word or a sound, mindfulness helps you get into a relaxed, non-judgmental awareness of your thoughts, feelings and sensations. It is about bringing our attention to our experience as it unfolds, rather than “living in our heads.” The theory is that by connecting with the present moment, calmly observing our thoughts, feelings and sensations and becoming more aware of them, we are better able to manage them. And this is so true! We live in our heads so much that we rarely relate to events and people from their present context. We operate from our stored beliefs, and fears, often destroying relationships and situations. As an adolescent I was the epitome of absentmindedness. Perennially daydreaming, I would often not notice what was happening right under my nose. Once my mother left me in charge of our house with the instruction to supervise the maid when she came. I nodded and then picked up a book to read. After two hours, when she returned, she asked me if the maid had come. I said no. But as soon as my mother entered the kitchen she found all the dishes washed and stacked neatly on the shelf. The platform and floor looked swabbed, and freshly washed dusters hung from the line. She called me and showed me the evidence of the maid's work and wondered how it was possible for me to not have noticed her presence, her work, and later, her departure. Even I was dumbfounded at my unconsciousness. After that, I began making efforts to be more mindful. Initially, it was difficult, but I would often stop and step out from the realm of my thoughts. I would begin noticing everything around with greater penetration, unclouded by thoughts, just to be more alert and agile. Though I wasn’t confident about the outcome, I persisted nonetheless. I entered the path of spirituality much later in life but I guess my practise had begun from that moment itself. So how does one become more mindful? Says Benaiza Shroff, a counsellor at Just Being, a centre of mindfulness training and counselling in Pune, “Begin by simply noticing and watching your thoughts, feelings and sensations and accepting them without judgement. Slowly you start being in this zone more and more. Gradually we train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over, and realise that thoughts are simply 'mental events' that do not have to control us. Constant practise of this method reduces our habit of rumination or incessant worry and anxiety of the future and increases our ability to pay attention to what is present in the here and now.” “Hence, we learn to respond to situations more productively. It is a kind of slowing down and stepping back and observing what is going on, internally and externally,” she adds.
A mindfulness practise
• Sit on a straight-backed chair or cross-legged on the floor.
• Focus on an aspect of your breathing, such as the sensation of air flowing into your nostrils and out of your mouth, or your belly rising and falling as you inhale and exhale.
• Once you’ve narrowed your concentration in this way, begin to widen your focus. Become aware of sounds, sensations, and your ideas.
• Embrace and consider each thought or sensation without judging it good or bad. If your mind starts to race, return your focus to your breathing. Then expand your awareness again. The effects of mindfulness meditation tend to be dose-related — the more you do, the more effective it usually is. Most people find that it
takes at least 20 minutes for the mind to begin to settle, so this is a reasonable way to start. If you’re ready for a more serious commitment, Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends 45 minutes of meditation at least six days a week. But you can get started by practising the techniques described here for shorter periods.
Learning to stay in the present
A less formal approach to mindfulness can also help you to stay in the present and fully participate in your life. You can choose any task or moment to practice informal mindfulness, whether you are eating, showering, walking, touching a partner, or playing with a child or grandchild. Attending to these points will help:
• Start by bringing your attention to the sensations in your body.
• Breathe in through your nose, allowing the air downward into your lower belly. Let your abdomen expand fully.
• Now breathe out through your mouth.
• Notice the sensations of each inhalation and exhalation.
• Proceed with the task at hand slowly and with full deliberation.
• Engage your senses fully. Notice each sight, touch, and sound so that you savour every sensation. When you notice that your mind has wandered from the task at hand, gently bring your attention back to the sensations of the moment.
Benefits of mindfulness
When this becomes a habit with you, you begin to disengage with your mind and touch the space of pure consciousness within. And the more it gets entrenched the freer you become. Clinical trials and evidencebased research and studies have demonstrated multiple merits of practising mindfulness. Some of them are:
• Improved memory and increased ability to sustain attention.
• Improved focus.
• Increased information processing speed and cognitive flexibility.
Emotional and physical well-being
• Increased resilience.
• Stress reduction.
• Improved emotional regulation and less emotional reactivity.
• Reduced rumination and negative affect.
• Reduced anxiety and symptoms of depression.
• Better communication and relationships.
• Enhanced self-insight, morality and intuition.
• Enhanced functioning of the immune system of the body.
Says Benaiza, “Mindfulness shows us how to be kinder and gentler to ourselves, enabling us to be more loving to ourselves and the world around us. There is a greater self-acceptance of who we are, warts and all. This shift creates a radical change in one’s entire perspective on life, oneself, and the world around. It brings about an awareness of our habitual patterns of reacting to situations, our rigidness about certain things, our tendency to cling to the idea of 'I'. When we practice, there is a very gentle and compassionate loosening of this rigidness, these patterns and we learn how to let go.” Says Sandy, “The practice of mindfulness sharpens awareness. There is immense clarity, as one gets less identified with the experiencing self. From this place of awareness, there is a natural flow of qualities of equanimity, gratitude, kindness, compassion, love, and a quiet sense of joy. It's not that challenges cease to exist, but mindfulness provides the tools to navigate them and inquire deeply into them.” Explaining the empowering effect of mindfulness practises, she says, “You become very aware of the moment-to-moment responses and reactions building up in your body. For example, someone says something and you notice a sense of discomfort arising in your body. Perhaps earlier you would have reacted which would have further escalated the issue, but now when you are aware, you notice the sensation before moving into a full-blown reaction. Instead of reacting, you simply sense it and inquire into it, like what's going on and notice your thoughts, feelings and sensations. You begin to pause and think, “Where am I sensing this now, what’s the feeling in the body? You let it be, without trying to fix it; as a result a place of insight, deep knowing or wisdom naturally arises along with a sense of kindness towards the one undergoing the said experience. Sumita Chauhan, a practitioner of mindfulness, was sitting in a fairly large gathering of friends when one of them interrupted her while she was talking to another friend. She felt hurt but ignored it. The same thing repeated the second and third time and she started to feel resentment building inside herself. She says “I strongly felt that the interrupter had some problem with me. But instead of reacting, I paused and began focussing on the sensations building inside me. I felt my anger, reactivity, and judgment rising and began seeing the movements of these emotions within myself. After feeling and experiencing them fully, I calmed down and was able to find the opportunity to clarify the matter with him without getting retaliatory or accusatory. Although his explanation did not convince me, I felt better that I was able to communicate my displeasure without losing my temper.”
Mindfulness in leadership
Leaders, especially in the corporate sector, are finding mindfulness practises very effective in finding their balance and operating from a space of clarity and objectivity, while making decisions or handling workplace relationships. Says Marutt Bhardwaj, CEO at Mindful Leadership India, “The current corporate culture is highly stressful. People are constantly bombarded with information, data, and connections all the time, severely challenging their capacity to pay attention. But a corporate leader today needs to be able and capable in order to make complex but effective decisions at all times. Mindfulness plays a critical role in ensuring effective leadership. Also it helps bring some core qualities to the leaders, like compassion, resilience and kindness.” Plenty of organisations are taking the shift to mindful leadership very seriously. Some leading international organisations like McKinsey, SAP, Blackrock and Aetna have actually created a special post for “Chief Mindfulness Officer.” At General Mills, Janice Marturano, was so successful in mindfulness training that she founded the Institute for Mindful Leadership. A Google resident Chade Meng Tan developed Search Inside yourself (SIY), a mindfulness- based emotional intelligence training programme to help an individual reach a state of inner peace, the essential foundation of happiness, success and compassion. More than 1,000 Google employees have gone through the SIY curriculum that focuses on building up five kinds of emotional intelligences like self-awareness, selfregulation, motivation, empathy and social skills, through meditation and mindfulness training, which aims to improve one's focus and attention on the present moment. Mindfulness training deeply impacts the leaders, as humans. It helps them to introspect, look within, and bring their most authentic self to work. Also, mindfulness practice vastly improves interpersonal relationships because of increased compassion and the inherent ability to listen deeply and understand better. Says Marutt, “As leaders assume more responsibilities, the mindful leadership training helps them to stay authentic and grounded and develop the ability to face new challenges with equanimity. They are able to create a work-life balance by putting their professional success in perspective and understanding the bigger picture.” Bill George, a professor of management at Harvard Business School and former CEO of Medtronic, says, “Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, I sensed that many leaders wanted to lead in accordance with their personal values. The crisis exposed the fallacies of measuring success in monetary terms and left many leaders with a deep feeling of unease. As markets rose and bonus pools grew, it was all too easy to celebrate the rising tide of wealth without examining the process that created it. Too many leaders placed self-interest ahead of their organisations’ interests, and ended up disappointing the customers, employees, and shareholders who had trusted them.”
Sharing his own experience, he says that the same thing had happened to him in 1988, when he was the executive Vice President at Honeywell. Though externally he was highly successful, inside he was deeply unhappy. Highly focussed on impressing others and jockeying for the positioning of a CEO, he was ignoring the need to look inward to measure his success as a human being and a leader. But as financial meltdowns began to happen and he started losing grip on the company’s affairs, he began to pause and reflect. He took recourse to meditation and mindfulness practises, and came in touch with himself and his reality. Later he created a Leadership Development programme, (ALD) in 2005, which has become one of the most popular elective MBA courses in Harvard University. It enables secondyear MBAs to ground their careers in their beliefs, values, and principles. He says, “In business, it is very difficult to find the right equilibrium between achieving long-term goals and short-term financial metrics. As you take on greater leadership responsibilities, the key is to stay grounded and authentic, face new challenges with humility, and balance professional success with personal success. The practice of mindful leadership gives you tools to measure and manage your life as you’re living it. It teaches you to pay attention to the present moment, recognise your feelings and emotions and keep them under control, especially when faced with highly stressful situations.” He continues, “When you are mindful, you’re aware of your presence and the ways you impact other people. You’re able to both observe and participate in each moment, while recognising the implications of your actions for the longer term. And that prevents you from slipping into a life that pulls you away from your values.”
Says Nina Lekhi, the CEO of Baggit, “We become unmindful of our words and actions when we feel we have nothing to lose. I used to lose my temper very quickly at my subordinates. My guruji asked me to eat fasting food every time I lost my cool. Since I was very devoted to him, I vowed to obey him. As a result, every time I would find my temper shooting up, the image of fasting food would swim before my eyes. Immediately I would rein in my temper. I could see it raging up and down in my arteries, heating up my skull. And then gradually I would see it travel down and settling, and after sometime dissipating. I realised it was a habit which I was capable of breaking if I wanted to.” It is not surprising that brand Baggit is a roaring success. Nina and her colleagues base their policies on the spiritual principles of service, compassion, silence and meditation that ultimately lead to mindfulness. With more and more companies in India and abroad embracing mindfulness techniques, the day is not far when we will see a paradigm shift in the way organisations function and earn their profit. It is possible that they might consider scaling down instead of going up. That they would prioritise giving over receiving, and start measuring success in terms of inner satisfaction and contribution to other people’s growth and happiness instead of stocks in the share market. An exciting new world seems to wait in the wings. The East is slowly yet indelibly leaving its impression on the West, and we can hopefully look forward to a time when the tussle for superiority would gradually lead to a space of being in gratitude to each other, for touching and changing each other’s life.
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