It was in 1979 when the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts presented the ‘Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction’ programme (MBSR), which brought the Buddhist practice of meditation into the formal scientific and clinical setting. MBSR, in its use of the term ‘mindfulness’, acknowledged its practice within Buddhism. The practice of mindfulness is the seventh factor of the eightfold path, one of Buddhism’s ‘Four Noble Truths’.
Through mindful meditation for transcendence, Buddhists attained:
- ‘… a state of peace and bliss’
- ‘… contemplation of one’s own experience, subsumed under the four objective domains of the body, feelings, states of mind, and experiential phenomena’
- ‘… greater compassion’.
As such, the meditation practised within MBSR was also focused on those three elements:
- a peaceful emotional state
- awareness and balance of the body and mind
- compassion (for the self and other).
The course, still popular today, comprises a mix of meditation retreats where participants focus on yoga-breathing and broadening awareness of their bodies. When it first appeared on the scene, this unification of ‘East meets West’ as a form of treatment generated interest, but, as the term ‘mindfulness’ grew in popularity, so did the need to formally evaluate the science behind it. Buddhism would be accepting of practice enabling self-reported transcendence; science needed more to be convinced.
Physiologically, our levels of anxiety are regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). As we breathe in, blood is drawn to the lungs and the heart responds to this deficit (using the SNS) by pumping more around the body. As we exhale, the PNS slows the heart down because the deficit is reduced. The body is efficient at maintaining the balance in a healthy heart. However, under stress, breathing becomes shallow and erratic, which means that both systems are trying to work but find it harder to reach equilibrium. However, the act of slow, relaxed, deep breathing has the added effect of activating the ‘slow adapting pulmonary stretch receptors’ (SARs), which inhibit the working of the SNS so it does not increase the pumping of the heart muscle (MacKinnon, 2016). Therefore, slow, deep breathing is effective in inducing calm.
One of the disadvantages of the frantic multi-tasking world in which we live – and which leaders are often trained to improve their skills within – is not being ‘fully present’ within everything that needs to be done. How many times have you been talking to a friend, a spouse, your child and found yourself distracted by your phone, tablet or laptop? The balance that leaders need to strike is between quality and quantity – in life and in work.
Rather than approaching mindfulness as a buzzword, it is most effective when incorporated into daily life. It is not essential to introduce ‘meditation lunch hours’ but encouraging your teams to do some deep breathing (or any ‘mind’ cleanse activity) before they enter a meeting can cleanse the mind and raise their performance and credibility (Mudd, 2015). This concept can be seen in practice within the McLaren Honda Technology Centre where all staff have to pass through a completely white corridor before entering the workplace (MAHLE Powertrain Ltd, 2017). The relative openness of the concept means it is possible for the leader to be creative in applying mindful practice, and this book will offer suggestions as to how this may be done.
Therefore, one of the most effective ways in which a leader can apply mindfulness is through its use in common parlance – ‘Just be mindful’ – be more aware.
Whether this is helped by mindful meditation, deep breathing, yoga or any of the exercises and techniques in this book – including merely being told to ‘be more aware’ – if an exercise is effective, or if you tweak it and it is effective, then utilise it.
With multi-tasking a necessary part of leadership, and invaluable to keeping up with the fast-paced world, leadership development focuses on being able to attend to numerous demands and display a range of skills simultaneously (Williams, 2016). Mindfulness seeks to improve not the number of skills a leader has but the depth and quality of those skills in performance.