The Application of Mindfulness

This is a very popular topic at the moment however there is also a lot of confusion for three reasons:

  • Most people know there is some sort of ‘spiritual‘ link
  • But much of the recent attention is from scientific circles
  • Common usage of the word just means pay attention/don’t forget

So I thought I would help to summarise its usefulness and application without getting too caught up in the spiritual/scientific debate.

What is it?

Essentially mindfulness is the awareness of what you are doing or what is going on, either in thought or action. So far, so simple right? Well let me give you a few examples of mindlessness (the polar opposite of mindfulness) and let’s see how many you are guilty of:

  • Driving somewhere familiar and forgetting how you got there
  • Going into a room and forgetting why you are there
  • Re-reading the same sentence (or chapter!) in a book over and over
  • Losing track of your train of thought
  • Missing what someone has said to you because you ‘zoned out’

Why do these constitute mindlessness? Because you have lost track of the process as you are performing it. Being fully mindful means being simultaneously aware of the process and its context – holding both in a delicate balance. As you read this consider how much of your day you are either on autopilot or caught up in the detail – you will start to realise what an immense achievement staying mindful is, even for a moment.

Zen (Chan in Chinese traditions) Buddhism uses the idea of Koans – stories/poems that enable someone to become enlightened by pondering them. One such story told of a meditation student too ‘stupid’ (sic) to understand the instructions and aims of meditation. So his master gave him a very simple instruction – to sweep the yard.  As he swept he was to pay attention to what he was doing. To hold a ‘gentle concentration’ of every part of the act of the sweeping, the sound the feel, the interaction of the brush and the ground the movement of his body … you get the picture. Holding all of this in his attention, without wavering but without become over-focussed, the student, as the story goes, achieved enlightenment this way.

The Applications

Creating Habits: Leo Babauta (amongst others) of Zen Habits  talks about the transformational nature of habit creation (as opposed to willpower, for instance). How is this best done? By noticing which mindless acts lead to actions you would rather not take. Think about how many times you grab the high sugar/fat/carb snack either because you haven’t thought to prepare or you somehow always get stuck somewhere with out food or maybe just because its there (why is it there?). Another example would be expenditures – advertisers know that we tend to be easily convinced by clever sounding advertisements (“inspired by the science of genes” – so is spiderman but I won’t go to marvel comics for haircare advice) or by needs we are told we have got (anyone own a pair of expensive running shoes – go here) but not if we are aware of what we are doing whilst we hand over the peice of plastic that actually represents many hours of hard work to earn the money.

Continuous Improvement: Much like Leo’s approach above but on an organisational scale. There are a number of instances of big mistakes in organisation because small ones were made along the way. The Deepwater Horizon, has a lot to teach us there, both in noticing issues and doing something as a result. But even more insidious is the spiralling costs that companies experience as they grow, in certain aspects of their production (dis-economies of scale). These tend to be things like error rates, quality issues and lack of individual ownership. Imagine a workforce of mindful employees whose every tooling or keystroke was exactly the right level of quality (because they balanced the quality of the task with the need for efficiency). Far fetched? Difficult certainly. What about a work-forced that never made an unnoticed mistake. I will paraphrase an issue I have heard many times before:
‘I was looking for the letter X in some numbers because I was told it might happen and that this was bad.’
‘So why didn’t you say something when the number stopped?’
‘Because I didn’t see an ‘x”
Perhaps, in carrying out their tasks employees could simultaneously consider the action they were performing and the purpose it served. This would hand problem solving back to the people who carry it out and probably banish ‘motivational’ initiatives for ever (mindful problems solvers don’t have a chance to get bored).

Teamwork: This is an interesting one. Presumably teamwork can be done in both a mindless and mindful way although it is hard to imagine the former (blindly offering to help when more subtle signal indicate it is not required?). But I can offer two potential benefits of the purposefully mindful approach: Firstly when you interact socially you have few pre-programmes responses (‘How are you?’, ‘Fine’) which serve to grease the social wheels but don’t really achieve anything and certainly don’t develop relationships. Noticing when these need a slight revision requires a greater sense of awareness. Secondly, based on a study with an orchestra, it seems that even when an outcome or achievement requires working together paying attention to what you are doing helps it achieve a greater whole. In this case case making subtle conscious changes to how each person played the piece of music led to a better overall experience for those involved and those listening.

Learning: Author Ellen Langer has written extensively on the topic of mindfulness and more specifically difference between mindful and mindless learning. It isn’t too far a stretch looking at the above examples to understand how paying attention to what you are doing helps you do learn it better. Langer has some additional points to make and my favourite is that in the west we tend to place an emphasis on ‘getting it’ i.e. getting to the point of knowing all you need to know or mastering a skill. Both for my own learning and as a learning professional I have often found this a major obstacle. How many times have you given a book or new subject a few chapters or minutes and declared ‘I’m not getting this’. Ask yourself this: is anything worthy of learning going to be that easy to grasp? If you need to ‘get it’ before you value it doesn’t that condemn you to learn from experiences and ideas that are only just a few steps ahead of what you already know. I ask my learners to try to be content with ‘grasping’ an ‘in-road’ only. I try to convince them to be safe in the the knowledge that if they continue down that road they will learn more than getting to the first junction and deciding that is there destination.

Practising Mindfulness

Mindfulness is not just something that you can decide to do and it happens completely (see Learning above). Unfortunately I would argue that much of life asks you to be mindless and so in most of us it is an underdeveloped muscle. This means that if you want to be a ‘mindful leader‘ you will probably need to start training you brain in more general mindfulness first. Below are three methods, of increasing difficulty, which are aimed at beginners but might be useful ‘bolt on’ practices to those who are already quite accomplished.

Mindful tasks: This is the absolute basics and not mindfulness in the truest sense but in terms of process or activity improvement is a good start. Simply start, on any activity, by imagining that you are explaining the process to yourself or a third party. It will force you to ask questions of yourself. For example, ‘I am starting the letter like that because…’, or ‘I am taking this approach because…’. If ever you can’t finish a similar statement in reference to what you are doing, then ask yourself why. I find this works very well for DIY and stops me make some stupid painful errors.

Mindful development: I often ask those who are trying to make a significant change in how they work to keep a journal. This journal has a focus (although the content isn’t exclusive to that focus – that wouldn’t be mindful). Whilst keeping this journal they are to notice anything that happens that is ‘interesting’ and relates vaguely to what they are trying to achieve. Once they have noted it then, or later, they can reflect on its significance. Those with a penchant for problem solving see this subsequent rumination as the source of learning, in fact it is the dedication to ‘noticing the interesting’ that improves their practice the most.

Mindful mind: To avoid writing an entire treatise on the performance/business/personal benefits of meditation I will keep this quite simple. Pick something and pay attention it. I may have got this from another Zen Koan, but I think of the mental practice like this: Hold a small object like a coin in your fist with palm face down. Now open your hand. Unless your palm is very sticky the coin will fall. So, unless you apply pressure or concentration you will lose the coin. This might already sound like a metaphor for mindfulness but this is actually ‘concentration’. Now take the coin and hold it out in front of you with palm face up. Opening will not make the object fall, your hand ‘gently holds’ the coin so long as it remains palm up. This is mindfulness. Your focus can be anything you like but the simpler the better. Most people begin training their brain by paying attention to their breath. Those same ‘most people’ will find their mind wanders quite easily, the trick here is not to get too caught up in the wandering or beat yourself up over it, but just gently come back to the focus of your attention. And repeat.

Further reading:

Mindfulness or Mindful Learning by Ellen Langer

Mindfulness and Mastery in the Workplace by Saki F Santorelli

Mindful Experiential Learning by Bauback Yeganeh

Mindfulness In Plain English by Ven. Henepola Gunaratana