Harvard Business School and INSEAD have highlighted mindfulness meditation as one of the two most effective business tools for twenty-first century executives (1 & 2). Recent studies have identified that meditation and mindfulness practices support leaders in “making better business decisions” (3, 4 & 5), improving strategy (6 & 7), conflict resolution8 and communication (1, 9 & 10). It has been proven that a regular meditation practice can strengthen the immune system (11), reduce stress (11 & 14) and combat mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression with more long-term effectiveness than antidepressants (15). So, we know we should be doing it but what is Mindfulness and how do we start doing it?
Mindfulness and meditation are most often associated with Buddhism or Hinduism but while it was popularized by the Eastern traditions it was also a cornerstone of many other religions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam (16). However, research over the past 50 years drawing on neuroscience, social sciences, medicine, and education, have evolved ‘Mindfulness’ into the multidisciplinary practice it is today, free of spiritual or religious connotations. It is for this reason that it has been so widely adopted by such a wide variety of individuals and institutions from businesses to schools, hospitals and even the military.
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
In its simplest form ‘Mindfulness’ is simply ‘awareness’. As Jon Kabat-Zinn explained “it means knowing what you are doing”. Now that may sound simple but how many times are you fully present with what you are doing? Fully present and not distracted by thoughts of all the other things that need to be done, by thoughts of someone you need to call, or worrying about a conversation you had this morning? How many times do you open your emails only to forget what you needed to send or lie in bed worrying about the fact that you can’t sleep? It is in all these moments that cultivating mindfulness will help you to reduce stress, enhance focus and improve both your wellbeing and your productivity.
FOCUS, WORKING MEMORY & DECISION MAKING
Countless studies since the 1970’s have shown a correlation between a regular mindfulness practice and improved attention enabling individuals to suppress distractions and enhancing their performance on a multitude of tasks from decision making to cognitive, communication and motor skills. Perhaps what is more interesting is the recent neuroscientific research using functional MRI (fMRI) scans of the brain showing an increase in white matter integrity and a thickening of gray matter in participants who regularly practice mindfulness meditation. This is essentially ‘strengthening’ the brain which also leads to the brain functioning more effectively (17).
Studies with the US military showed that after just a few weeks of mindfulness training participants exhibit an increase in working memory and in information processing speed (18), enhancing the ability to learn and utilize new information, to manage complex situations and make effective decisions under pressure.
In addition to this, meditation has been shown to prevent and slow the onset of Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
PROBLEM SOLVING & CREATIVE THINKING
These brain scans have also shown increased activity in the parts of the brain that regulate and enable creative thinking and problem solving, known as cognitive flexibility. For you that means having more adaptive responses to stressful or negative situations (19), enhanced resilience and a greater ability to break habitual responses. This is just one more reason that mindfulness is such a powerful tool in enabling individuals to quit smoking, lose weight and escape addictive habits.
REDUCED STRESS, COMMUNICATION SKILLS & OPTIMAL FUNCTIONING
As Jon Kabat-Zinn famously said “You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf” and for me this is what mindfulness is all about. Life is stressful, we all have challenges but a regular meditation practice can decrease the stress response in the physical body as well as reducing neural reactivity in the brain. This means that we can learn to function effectively through periods of stress, supporting more effective communication and strategic thinking. Meditators also show a faster recovery from stressful situations (20, 21 & 22), making us more resilient to the challenges of life and more able to enjoy life.
IMMUNITY, PHYSICAL HEALTH & MOOD
From increased immune functioning to reduced sensitivity to pain (23) and even a longer life span, the evidence shows that our physical body also becomes healthier when we commit to this simple mental practice. In addition to this, meditators consistently report improved sleep patterns, better moods and studies have even shown that practising mindfulness can improve your sex life (24 & 25). So, it seems like we all have something to gain from mediation and if it comes with a little more laughter, pleasure and optimism, then all the better!
HOW DO WE DO IT?
The foundations of mindfulness are short daily meditation practices that can be practiced anywhere, any time by anyone. They require no special posture, no equipment and can be as short as 3 minutes long. These guided meditations invite us to focus on one thing (often this is the breath, the body or movement) with our full attention.
The challenge is that the human mind is designed to think so you will soon notice that the mind wanders to think of other things. In Mindfulness, we simply notice this distraction before bringing our attention back to our point of focus. The goal in these practices is not to ‘clear the mind’ but to be aware of the thoughts that are occurring and redirect our focus back to a point of meditation, over, and over again.
It is in these repeated ‘mindful moments’ that we alter the neural pathways in the brain, “strengthening” the muscle of the mind. The brain becomes quicker and more effective at processing information, we reduce the stress response in the body and create a naturally calmer, more focused and efficient state of being. We change our default state from one of stress, where we feel perpetually exhausted and like we are constantly chasing our tail, to one of mindfulness, where we feel calm, focused and in control.
HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?
While the greatest benefits will be gained from a 15-20 minute, daily practice (or longer) it has been shown that even 5-10 minutes a day will have a noticeable positive impact within a few weeks. The key is consistency of practice. These formal Mindfulness practices require patience and perseverance but you will soon discover that you have more time as you are more efficient, focused, motivated and productive.
As Idowu Koyenikan, author of “Wealth for All: Living a life of success at the edge of your ability” says, “The mind is just like a muscle - the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets” so, as long as you can commit, the rewards are waiting for you to enjoy. It is for this reason that there is no success or failure in Mindfulness; in fact it is when meditation feels most difficult that you are possibly getting the greatest benefits.
WHERE DO I START?
There are a variety of books, apps and on line recordings to get you started on these practices but if you are new to the practice I highly recommend finding a local course where a certified teacher will lead you through them. This will not only encourage your commitment but will offer you a structured process which will support life-long benefits.
Once you have started to practice these exercises on a regular basis you will soon find that you naturally integrate mindfulness into your everyday activities supporting better mental well-being and building concentration, clarity and calmness26. Mindfulness is not complicated but it does take patience and perseverance; however, if you can commit to just 15 minutes a day you will soon notice feeling calmer, more focused, happier and healthier so if you make one New Years’ resolution this year, make Mindfulness the one!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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