Now there is scientific evidence as to the effectiveness of mindfulness practices. The current literature based on neurosciences suggests that constant practice of mindfulness or bringing the mind back to the present moment is similar to training a muscle by repeating the same movement to strengthen it. So constant practice improves the ability to stay in focus, which indeed is a critical skill of today
The words mindfulness and meditation are becoming extremely popular even in the world of business. Though I am not a so-called guru, as a person who has been experimenting and practicing mindfulness over several decades, I wish to share my understanding of the subject with you.
I would attribute my practice as the single most influential reason for my career success where I started my career as a sales clerk at Moosajee Sons and ended up as the MD of AVIVA NDB Insurance. I was fortunate enough to get introduced to the practice of mindfulness very early, almost around the time I got my first job. I continued my practice of mindfulness ever since.
Looking back I can say that it helped me to be more aware about myself, my strengths and weaknesses, I could relate better with my superiors, co-workers and customers. I found it easy to build relationships, and all my stakeholders trusted me. In most challenging moments and in moments of ambiguity I could approach those situations with a space so my views were more objective than otherwise. I increasingly became a good observer. This practice helped me to be in command over myself most of the time.
Come to think of it, it was sheer luck and coincidence. It was the age in life you explore new things. Even in Sri Lanka at that time it was not common for persons in the business world to explore things like meditation. It was only for those who were highly spiritual or old. I was fortunate to get an opportunity to join a retreat on mindfulness mediation and somehow got attracted to it – firstly, obviously for the serenity that you gain but later I found that it gave me much clarity about what I think and what I do. I realised that I can learn so much about myself by being aware.
At the retreats, the teachers emphasised the importance of keeping the practice going even after the retreat, which I tried and found that it helped. The first discovery was that I was able to manage my anger better. And that indeed was one of the first benefits since I was a bit of a hot-tempered person.
As I kept practicing mindfulness in my daily life as well as whenever I got opportunities to do some formal practice, I found it is becoming my new way of being. I think those who interacted noticed it and they commented. Then I kept learning more about mindfulness which, in fact, was discovering myself deeper. I found that to be a skill like any other and diligently worked on it. I am glad I did.
Even in my personal life I benefited from this practice. I became more sensitive and responded to life rather than reacting mechanically through habit. It certainly helped me in balancing the demands from work as well as from my family.
One of the easiest ways to understand mindfulness is realising what it is not. We are very familiar with mind wandering. In this age, which is dominated by digital devices it is very easy to allow the mind to wander. While reading this perhaps you may have already checked your phone a few times for messages. Even when we sit together for a meal how many times do we allow our attention to drift away to get connected with everybody else in the world, apart from the persons we are with, here and now?
If you have had any accidents or near accidents while driving, the chances are that most of the time your mind would not have been fully on driving. In fact, research done on accidents where drivers had been responsible there had been a direct link between mind-wandering and accidents. If that happens in driving how much would it happen in work situations? These are examples for moments of not being mindful.
Mindfulness is not the ability to keep the mind on a single object for a very long period of time, which is concentration. With regular practice of mindfulness this ability too improves. Mindfulness is also not about repeating or reflecting on a certain word, or a concept or an ideal, though they too have the element of bringing the mind back to the objective.
The first aspect of mindfulness is keeping the mind on the task at hand and the other aspect is watching the functioning of your own mind in a calm and detached manner That’s what we call “wordless bare attention” so you can gain insights into your own behaviour. The goal is establishing awareness. For example, while speaking if I stop ……suddenly….. and …..be silent what happens to your mind? You develop an eager attention to know what would be my next word. That is awareness! At that moment your mind was totally silent.
When we can observe ourselves with such a space within, we become fully aware of our true motives of our actions and we begin to function using a kind of new operating system which is different from the traditional mode of habitual reaction.
While practicing mindfulness improves our ability to focus and gain some serenity in mind, the true benefit is the ability learn from our own lives, learning how to let go off those thoughts that drag us down and enjoy the freedom.
Mindfulness is a skill
Mindfulness is definitely a skill. A skill is an ability that can be developed by practice. For instance, take singing. All those who can speak can sing. But only those who found good teachers and coaches and had an interest can develop this ability to a degree that can be called a skill. Take running. All healthy people can run, but to become an athlete one should practice and develop. Similarly, everyone has the ability to know what goes in our mind, to become aware of what we think. But by constantly practicing it in a certain way using techniques, one can master it to a very fine degree. That is why it is called a skill.
Certainly this is a skill the business executives of today must have because it helps them to be more focused, become more aware of themselves, their strengths and weakness, can become more sensitive about the others in partnerships, develop the clarity of thought to look at the world afresh, to be more creative and be able to cope with various demands on them. If you are mindful you can bounce back better, manage conflicts better, and most importantly, keep cool under stressful situations, and be one’s own coach and motivator when drifting away.
The first step of this skill development is learning to bring your mind to the present moment. A moment cannot be noticed until something happens. The easiest methods can be found in early Buddhism given for achieving the fivefold goal of purification of the mind, overcoming sorrow and lamentation, overcoming pain and grief, treading the right path leading to attainment of eternal peace, and attaining happiness.
However, now there is scientific evidence as to the effectiveness of mindfulness practices. The current literature based on neurosciences suggests that constant practice of mindfulness or bringing the mind back to the present moment is similar to training a muscle by repeating the same movement to strengthen it. So constant practice improves the ability to stay in focus, which indeed is a critical skill of today.
It is easy for the mind to get attracted to exciting objects such as an action movie. But that does not help develop mindfulness because in that situation you are not aware. In order to develop mindfulness, therefore, it is important to develop the ability to bring the mind constantly back to the present moment even if the object is not so exciting.
To develop this ability we can use any of our routine activities to bring the mind back to that activity every time the mind wanders. However, one of the most common practices is observing breath, since it is an object that is available all the time and it is one of those not-so-exciting objects.
But this is not the forceful, conscious training of breath. We simply use breath as the object to bring the mind’s attention to something that happens right now. You can neither notice a breath that was, nor the breath that is yet to come.
It helps to practice this in a formal sense initially, first a few minutes a day, and when you can find the time, by attending a retreat over a weekend or a few days. But the important thing is amalgamating the practice to the daily life.
While being seated at your office desk you will be able to notice all the sensations from top of your head to the fingertips of your hands and the tips of the toes of your feet. By doing this you can observe the actual sensations that happen at that moment. Few minutes of this on a daily basis will improve your ability to become aware.
You can use an activity like walking to come to the present moment. When you get a chance to walk a bit slowly try to observe the sensations related to walking and try to be with that.
Similarly you can use any mundane activity to bring the mind to the present moment. Visit www.mindfulexecutive.net for many interesting ways to develop this practice.
(One of the best books to read is ‘Mindfulness in plain English’ by Bhanthe Gunaratana available on line as well)
The correct path
When one starts practicing one would want to know whether he or she is on the correct path. Well the proof of the pudding is in the eating! You are the best judge to know whether you are benefiting from the practice or not.
Firstly, you may find it is not so easy to observe the breath. The mind will wander. So you will then learn best way to get the mind to focus on the present moment is by allowing it to settle down by just observing the turmoil without getting involved and interfering with what happens. It is like a glass of water contaminated with dirt and mud. If it is kept long enough undisturbed the dirt and mud will settle down and water will be clearer.
Similarly, when we learn to just observe without interfering, the mind will become quiet and then it is easy to observe the breath. But the moment you realise the mind is wandering you slowly find where you feel your breath. By repeating this you will be able to bring your mind to the present moment, to here and now very quickly.
With this ability of becoming aware of the way you operate you will realise how you are able to respond to life situations from a stable inner calm rather than routine reactions.
You will discover the incidence to increase as the time goes by. Then you will find that you seem to be moving with much ease and have a degree of calmness and clarity. You will feel happier and getting much more joy from what you do and you can get more out of your day than before.