Mindfulness is a simple, evidence-based practice, backed by science, that improves performance in leadership, sales, and other roles, and can significantly impact the profitability of an organization as well as the well-being of the people in the organization.
Below is a “quick start” guide to mindfulness training, excerpted from my book, Serve to Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom.
To summarize mindfulness training very briefly, there are essentially two aspects:
- We train our awareness so that we become less distracted by our own thinking, which allows us to enjoy our lives more, to be more present with people, and to see our world, both inner and outer, with greater clarity.
- We apply that clearer awareness to investigate reality and develop the wisdom that frees us from attachment to the ego, which increases both our happiness and our ability serve others more effectively.
Awareness Training in Activity
The easiest way to begin is to transform activities that we already do each day into opportunities to be happier while simultaneously training ourselves to become more effective at serving others. Let’s use drinking water or coffee at work as an example. Before beginning the act of drinking, we simply note mentally the word drinking, and then give our full attention to the act of drinking, exploring what the experience is like.
We make the effort to let go of trying to think about things, and simply explore the experience of drinking—the sensation of the cup in our hands; the sight of what’s in view; the sensations of the liquid first touching the lips, entering the mouth, and going down the throat; and the sound of swallowing. It’s perfectly okay if thoughts come up. We just recognize them, allow them to come and go, and keep our awareness alive to what’s coming in through our senses.
I recommend making a list of all the things you have to do each day both at work and at home that don’t require you to think actively, like drinking, washing your hands, brushing your teeth, walking to the bathroom on breaks, eating, walking to your car, and so on. Then pick one activity and make a commitment to be mindful and aware during that activity each time you engage in it for one week.
At the end of the week, it should be almost second nature to be mindful during the activity you chose. For week two, continue with the first activity and commit to a second one. Each week, you continue with the activities you are already practicing with and add another.
After a few months, you may find that you are practicing awareness training during all of the times that don’t require you to intentionally analyze, plan, or otherwise think (you might be surprised at how much of your life doesn’t require thinking, and how much of it you’ve been missing because you’re caught up in your thinking). During the times that don’t require thinking, you might find that your default has switched from almost constantly thinking (the default for most of us) to being much more aware of what’s coming in through your senses, which is a simple side effect of not intentionally thinking and not being distracted by the thoughts that automatically arise in the mind.
Awareness Training in Stillness
We can also train our awareness while sitting still. This is a very important aspect of the training, because wisdom is much more likely to develop while we are still than when we are in motion.
To practice awareness training while sitting still, apply the same effort you do during activity. Simply explore what it is like to be alive and breathing while sitting still. Although you may choose to have a training session while sitting still for one minute, or five minutes, or 25 minutes, don’t worry about maintaining awareness without distraction for the entire training session. The only goal is to be aware of what is coming in through your senses for the duration of one in-breath, and then again for one out-breath. It’s just one breath at a time.
With each breath, simply keep the attitude of What’s happening now? There may be a lot of thinking, or the mind may be clear. You may be happy, or you may be angry. It doesn’t matter what is happening. Your only goal is to explore, nonjudgmentally, what is coming in through your senses. If you find yourself distracted by thinking, you can simply recognize that and allow yourself to reestablish your attitude of What’s happening now? with the next breath.
I recommend committing to at least one minute of sitting still practice each morning and evening. You will likely find the practice relaxing and want to add more. You can gradually add more time based on what’s realistic for you. The ideal time for a session is at least 10 minutes each morning and evening.
When you train while sitting still for about 10 minutes, you’ll find that you gradually start to see your thoughts and emotions more clearly. You may find that you can welcome a thought, look right at it, and see it fade away. This will allow you to see very clearly the impermanence of your thoughts and emotions. This gives rise to the wisdom that you are not your thoughts and emotions—they are simply impermanent conditions that arise and pass away.
Intellectually, we all know this is true. But just knowing something intellectually does not affect how we actually behave. Only direct experience, or wisdom, can change how we operate in the world.
This is why it is so important to practice awareness training consistently and take time to train while sitting still. With training, we become less distracted and our awareness becomes more focused. Gradually, instead of being like a dull light, awareness becomes like a laser beam that cuts away at our attachment to our own thinking. The freer we are from attachment to our thinking, the happier we are, the more effective our minds are, and the more we let go of our self-centered tendencies.
All of this serves to help us be much more effective at serving others.