Mindful celebrates mindfulness, awareness, and compassion in all aspects of life through Mindful magazine, Mindful.org, events, and collaborations. Our mission is to share the benefits of mindfulness with the largest possible audience; to report on applications of mindfulness, awareness, and compassion in all walks of life; and to build community around the virtues and values of its attention.
Leading people is one of the most challenging roles we can take on in life. It requires a dizzying array of skills, a strong education, and passion. Most often, when we take on a leadership role, we do so because we want to make a difference. As leaders, we take for granted that we will work long hours, make great sacrifices, and ride the roller coaster of success and failure.
However, the busyness that accompanies being a leader in today’s 24/7/365 interconnected world often distracts us from what’s important and limits our ability to lead with excellence. When we are really honest with ourselves, we may have to admit that there are far too many times when we feel as though we’re spending the day putting out fires and wasting time rather than doing our best work.
Does it need to be this way? Happily, the answer is no.
When you are able to do so, you are much more likely to make the conscious choices we need our leaders to make. These choices often lead to a win-win-win scenario: good for the organization, good for the employees, and good for the community.
When you are mindful of this moment, you are present for your life and your experience just as it is—not as you hoped it would be, not as you expected it to be, not seeing more or less than what is here, not with judgments that can lead you to a conditioned reaction, but for exactly what is here, as it unfolds, meeting each moment with equanimity.
As we consider the challenges leaders face today, it’s relatively easy to see how much we need to cultivate mindful leadership. The environment we live and work in is constantly evolving. Time is now often measured in internet microseconds. There are new and complex economic and resource constraints on our organizations. We are attached 24/7 to an array of technological devices that regularly generate anxiety-producing information overload and a sense of disconnection that can overwhelm and isolate us. The world is changing so rapidly that people training for a career today may find their career path radically altered by the time they are ready to enter it. One paradigm after another is shifting. The volume of information at our disposal is, in fact, leading to less rather than more certainty. The number of voices and opinions we can hear on any given issue is so dauntingly large that we often don’t know who or what to believe or follow.
It is also true, though, that these tumultuous times can offer great opportunity and ample possibilities for innovation, as the world becomes smaller and we begin to see the potential to meet the complexities of the day in ways that are truly creative, productive, and compassionate. It’s a time to take leadership, and to redefine what it means to lead with excellence.
In my own experiences, first as a Wall Street associate, a community volunteer, an employee in three large organizations, and an officer of a Fortune 200 company for fifteen years, and then in the work I have done in offering mindful leadership training to leaders from around the world, I’ve consistently found that the best leaders’ qualities go far beyond “getting the job done.” The best leaders are women and men who have first-class training, bright minds, warm hearts, a passionate embrace of their mission, a strong connection to their colleagues and communities, and the courage to be open to what is here. They’re driven to excellence, innovation, and making a difference.
Yet time and again, they feel as though their capabilities and their leadership training are inadequate. They tell me that even as they execute well and meet the quarterly goals, they simply do not feel they are living their best lives—at work or at home. They feel something is missing. But what?
The most frequent answer is: Space
We often simply do not have the space, the breathing room, necessary to be clear and focused, and to listen deeply to ourselves and to others. How can we expect to generate the connections with our colleagues and communities that we need when we are so busy that all we can really do is check off boxes, squeeze in a perfunctory hello to our coworkers, and get through the day’s meetings and calls? Can we realistically expect leadership excellence when we spend whole days on autopilot—looking at our watches and wondering where the day went, looking at the calendar and wondering how it could be spring when just yesterday it was Thanksgiving?
Whether our leadership affects millions, hundreds, or a handful, we can no longer afford to be on autopilot in our lives, with our families, or in our organizations.
Whether our leadership affects millions, hundreds, or a handful, we can no longer afford to be on autopilot in our lives, with our families, or in our organizations.
We can no longer afford to miss the connections with those we work with, those we love, and those we serve. We can no longer make decisions with distracted minds, reacting instead of responding or initiating. We can no longer lose touch with what motivated us to lead in the first place. We need mindful leadership to lead with excellence.
So far we have been exploring the need to be present for leadership roles in the workplace. There is an equally, or perhaps more, important need to be present for your leadership roles in your personal life. Excellence involves making conscious choices about not just how you work but how you live your life and how you connect with your family, friends, and community. We need mindful leadership to live with excellence.
What Exactly Is a Mindful Leader?
A mindful leader embodies leadership presence by cultivating focus, clarity, creativity, and compassion in the services of others.
Leadership presence is a tangible quality. It requires full and complete nonjudgmental attention in the present moment. Those around a mindful leader see and feel that presence.
Once, a friend of mine decided to attend a local rally to see if he could get an important healthcare question answered by then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton. Of course, when he arrived, he faced a teeming, screaming crowd, but he maneuvered his way to the police barricade and waited. Clinton soon arrived and began walking along the barricade shaking hands. As my friend stretched out his hand and Clinton took it, he yelled out his question. In that moment, the candidate stopped, faced him, and responded to the question. Later my friend told me, “In those few moments when we spoke together, it seemed as though Clinton had nothing else on his mind. It was as if there was no other person there.” He felt heard and respected. That’s leadership presence: you give your full attention to what you’re doing, and others know it.
Leadership presence is powerful. In your own life, you can probably recall times when you experienced leadership presence, either in yourself or someone else. It might have been in a one-on-one conversation, or it might have been in an audience filled with people. Presence can be felt even from far away.
You can undoubtedly recall the much more common experiences when you feel only partially in the room, or you feel the person you’re speaking with is not really there. Like all of us, even when you have every intention to be focused, your mind becomes easily distracted—thinking about the past or the future, and only partially in the present if at all. In those moments, you are not embodying the innate capacity everyone possesses to be present.
Why is that? What do we know about being present?
As a beginning, you might recall a moment when you experienced full awareness in a situation. When there seemed to be nothing else but whatever you were noticing. This might have been a momentous moment like the birth of your child. In that moment, time seemed to stand still, and nothing else existed but the warmth of that miraculous being softly sleeping in your arms. You were not distracted by the to-do list or the noises in the hall. Your full attention—mind, body, and heart—was completely absorbed in that moment.
Leadership presence is not only critical for us as individuals but also has a ripple effect on those around us: the community we live in, and potentially the world.
Or it might have been an ordinary moment, the kind often overlooked and not particularly celebrated. You may have lingered to notice a sunset. Perhaps you recall that it stopped you dead in your tracks and held you in its beauty, all of you, for what seemed like forever but in clock time might have been just a couple of seconds. In those seconds, you became aware of the shades of pink and orange, the intricate play of light and shadow, your body’s absorption of the waning energy of nature, and the feeling of belonging to something bigger than yourself.
Maybe you were at the coffee shop in the morning, your mind racing through the details of the upcoming day, and you looked up from your coffee and actually noticed a piece of art on the wall or the warm, comforting aroma of the shop. Whatever it was, it interrupted the busy mind, and you were living that moment of your life more fully.
Such moments—when we fully inhabit our bodies and our senses are at work on more than an internal storyline, checklist, or rehearsed conversation—are what give life true meaning. Beyond that, for those of us who hold positions of influence, the ability to be present, to embody leadership presence, is not only critical for us as individuals, but it also has a ripple effect on those around us: our families and friends, the organization we work within, the community we live in, and potentially the world at large. Just as a pebble thrown into a still pond can create ripples spreading throughout the whole of the pond, so too can the cultivation of leadership presence go far beyond the effect it has on us alone.
Transforming Leaders into Mindful Leaders
When the Institute for Mindful Leadership works with an organization to bring mindful leadership training to its employees, we witness an example of the ripple effect. We often start with retreats or courses for the more senior leaders, and as the training begins to change how they lead, those around them notice the change and soon ask to enroll in the training as well. It’s not unusual to hear people tell stories of the transformation they noticed in their manager. As leaders we know that we often underestimate the impact, for better or worse, that we have on those around us. When we are present and engaged, the effect is very different from when we are distracted and on autopilot. But it isn’t enough to want to be more present, to want to have a positive ripple effect. We need to train the mind.
If you’re like most of us, you probably take pride in your ability to multitask, to be incredibly efficient by simultaneously listening to a conference call, writing a few emails, and eating your salad at your desk.
Sound familiar to you? And yet, when you were listening in on the call, did you actually hear anything? Did you share your best thinking in the emails? Did you enjoy your lunch, or even notice you ate it?
Perhaps one of my most memorable lessons about the cost of multitasking came early one morning as I sat at my desk, getting things ready for a day filled with meetings and reviewing the latest emails. One of the messages that morning came from my husband, who was forwarding a message from my daughter’s teacher. It was asking us to choose one of the available parent-teacher conference slots on her calendar, and my husband wanted to know which one I wanted before he replied. I wrote to my husband, “Thursday at 10 would be great. Love you forever, thanks for last night.” Fine. Except that in my haste and partial attention, I wrote those words to my daughter’s teacher. Needless to say, when I finally realized what happened, it became a moment to remember.
A few moments of people-watching in the hallways at work or on the sidewalk in front of your building can also give you a taste of the disconnection that results from multitasking. You’ll notice people texting and checking email as they walk, barely avoiding walking into walls and each other. It has even become acceptable to do this while walking—and supposedly having a conversation— with someone else. Once upon a time, this would have been considered rude. Putting manners aside,though, continuous partial attention can also be exhausting and inefficient. Neuroscience is now showing us that the mind’s capacity for multitasking is extremely limited. We’re really built for doing one thing at a time.
The hallways of offices used to be places for informal greetings and impromptu conversations. Valuable connections could be made in the hallways. Physiologically, a walk down the hallway used to allow a few moments of space when you could leave behind the thoughts of the last meeting and arrive at the next with a bit of openness. Today, few if any connections are made, as everyone rushes down the hall with thumbs blazing on smartphones. As a result, everyone arrives at the next meeting still attached to the last one.
The work of developing leadership presence through mindfulness begins by recognizing how much time we spend in a mental state that has come to be called continuous partial attention.
We lead hurried, fractured, complex lives, and we seem to be more easily losing the richness and engagement that come from being in the present moment.
With all the many ways we are enticed to get distracted, to drown out our intuition, and to fragment our attention, we can easily go through our entire lives without ever bringing all of our capabilities and attention to any given moment.
What do we do about that? Is leadership presence a natural gift possessed by a special few, or can it be cultivated? Can we train our minds to support our intention to live life with focus, clarity, creativity, and compassion even when our lives are hurried, fractured, and complex?
Thankfully, we can.
Leading with excellence, being fully present for what we do, and connecting with others—these are innate abilities we all possess. In my experience, those who are good leaders, and those who aspire to be good leaders, are eager to cultivate these abilities. Mindful leadership training can do just that. By following simple practices that hone your attention and your ability to be aware of what’s going on in your body and mind at any given moment, you can utilize all of your capabilities—clear minds and warm hearts and wise choices—and begin to see the results of leading from an authentic place.
A Mindful Leadership Meditation
Taking note of the qualities exhibited by leaders we admire can help all of us pinpoint how to become better leaders ourselves.
1) Begin by sitting comfortably and closing your eyes. Notice the sensations of your breath. Allow your mind to let go of distractions.
2) When you’re ready, bring to mind a person you believe embodies leadership excellence. This could be someone you know personally or a leader you have read about.
3) Ask yourself the following questions, allowing yourself some time to let the answers arise:
Why did this person come to mind?
What is it about this person’s leadership that made you think of him or her when asked about leadership excellence?
4) Be patient; hold the questions in your mind with a sense of openness and curiosity. You don’t need to overthink the question. Set aside the first answer or two to see if more qualities emerge. As you open your eyes, you may find it helpful to write your answers on a piece of paper before reading further.
5) Observe what actually came up. When you listened for your responses to the reflection questions, you might have noticed that they did not include too many of the typical measures of organizational leadership. For example, you probably did not put consistently makes his quarterly numbers as the reason you admire the person as someone who leads with excellence. Rather, your list might have included some of the qualities named by other leaders who have explored this reflection with me:
Able to inspire
The Two Qualities of a Great Leader:
It’s not that hitting the quarterly numbers isn’t important; it is. What sets people apart as leaders, however, is something much bigger than quantitative metrics. The people we call to mind in this reflection have touched us, inspired us, and made us feel their leadership. The qualities can be rolled up into just two capacities of leadership excellence, and these two capacities are embodied by those we identify as leading with excellence.
1. Ability of a leader to connect—to self, to others, and to the larger community. Connecting to self is how we stay connected to our values and our ethics. It’s the rudder we steer within the midst of the chaos. How deeply we are able to connect authentically with others is the difference between an organizational environment that values inclusion and one that is insular and divided into silos that rarely communicate with each other. Connecting to the community comes from being able to see the bigger picture and not get caught up in the minutiae of a single objective. That wider connection is how great organizations give meaning to their existence and inspire their employees.
2. Ability of a leader to skillfully initiate or guide change. The important word is skillfully—leading not by command and control but by collaborating and listening with open curiosity and a willingness, at times, to live within ambiguity until a decision becomes clear. It’s also this capacity that fuels a leader’s willingness to take a courageous stand, lead the organization or industry into new arenas, and accept failures as experiments from which to learn.
In recent years, a number of wilderness therapy programs have cropped up to help people who suffer from mental health challenges. These trips often involve physically and emotionally engaging experiences—like backpacking or rock-climbing in remote areas—combined with therapeutic work from caring professionals. Something about being engaged in nature seems to help hard-to-treat patients open up, find new confidence, and focus their lives in more positive directions.
Psychologists who conduct these programsbelieve there is healing power in nature, bolstered by research that suggests green spaces are good for our health, our well-being, and even our relationships. But what is the secret ingredient in nature that brings about these benefits?
A recent study, led by researcher Craig Anderson and his colleagues (including the Greater Good Science Center’s faculty director, Dacher Keltner), suggests it could be awe—that sense of being in the presence of something greater than ourselves that fills us with wonder.
Participants in the first phase of the study were military veterans and underserved youth who went on either a one-day or four-day river rafting trip. Rafters traveled through the forested canyons of the American River in California or the dramatic rock formations of Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, encountering up to intermediate-level rapids. While participants sometimes paddled through the rapids themselves, other times they rode while guides paddled. On the longer trips, they camped out in remote, unpopulated areas.
Before and after the trip, the participants reported on their well-being, including their stress levels, mood, and satisfaction with life. During the trip, they kept diaries at the end of each day about their feelings, including whether they’d felt awe, amusement, peace, gratitude, joy, or pride that day.
At the end of the trip, participants’ well-being had increased dramatically, with youth particularly helped by the experience. Analyzing the diary entries, the researchers discovered that awe—above and beyond any of the other positive emotions—seemed to explain these improvements.
“Experiencing awe in nature is a powerful way to impact people’s psychology, even as they’re doing something they really like to do,” says Anderson.
Next, Anderson and his colleagues decided to study whether awe played a role in more ordinary, everyday nature experiences. After all, rafting experiences have many components that could be beneficial, and the participants had not been randomly assigned to go on the trip; they had volunteered.
In this second study phase, undergraduate students kept daily diaries for two weeks, recounting positive experiences they’d had during the day (which might or might not include awe or nature), as well as their feelings and overall satisfaction with life. They also filled out well-being surveys before and after the two weeks.
Analyses of the diaries showed that students who spent time in nature on a given day felt more satisfied with life that evening than those who didn’t.
Analyses of the diaries showed that students who spent time in nature on a given day felt more satisfied with life that evening than those who didn’t, and that experiences of awe predicted that boost more than any other positive emotion. Thanks to this pattern, students who spent more days in nature over the two weeks saw greater improvements in well-being during that time.
This is good news, says Anderson, because sometimes it’s not that easy for people to invest in long, expensive wilderness trips in order to heal.
“Our findings suggest that you don’t have to do extravagant, extraordinary experiences in nature to feel awe or to get benefits,” says Anderson. “By taking a few minutes to enjoy flowers that are blooming or a sunset in your day-to-day life, you also improve your well-being.”
Why would experiencing awe have these effects? Anderson doesn’t know for sure, but he speculates that awe may benefit well-being by inducing a “small self”—the sense that you are in the presence of something bigger than yourself—which may make past worries or present cares feel less significant by comparison.
But he also concedes that there could be other ways that nature experiences improve our well-being, besides inducing awe. In the river rafting trip, for example, the physical exercise or camaraderie could have made a difference to participants, since both are tied to well-being. And some students also experienced gratitude on days they were in nature—and this, too, led them to be more satisfied with life.
More research needs to be done to tease out awe’s specific role in nature’s healing power, Anderson says. But, whatever the case, he believes there’s enough evidence to encourage us to add more nature to our daily life and to protect our national parks—which, he says, are an important part of our public health system.
“Our study illustrates the importance of trying to find moments to enjoy nature and feel in awe of it,” Anderson says. “People need to learn to slow down and make space for that in their lives.”
We all make mistakes. When it comes to our closest relationships, this can lead to hurt, anger, disappointment and even resentment. Forgiveness, or the ability to let go of hard feelings toward another person, is key to sustaining healthy relationships. To forgive we need to pause and see the situation from the other person’s point of view. This may be easier said than done when we feel slighted. Can mindfulness help?
What the Research Says About Mindfulness and Forgiveness
Scientists at Radboud University Nijmegan and their colleagues in the Netherlands conducted several studies to see if mindfulness, paying attention, on purpose with an open and accepting attitude, is related to forgiveness.
In the first study, 160 men and women, 72 of whom reported having a regular meditation practice, completed an online survey about their meditation practice, mindfulness, and their tendency to forgive. 36.1% of respondents had 1 to 5 years of meditation experience, 12.5% had between 6 and 10 years of practice, and the other 18.1% had been meditating for over 10 years.
As anticipated, people who meditated reported being more mindful, but contrary to expectation meditators weren’t necessarily more forgiving than non-meditators. It was a person’s mindful disposition, or tendency to be inherently mindful, that was most strongly linked to a forgiving attitude.
To understand why, the same researchers dug deeper into the links between meditation, mindfulness and forgiveness. They asked a different group of 87 college-aged students to answer questions about perspective taking and rumination in addition to those about mindfulness and forgiveness.
Students with higher mindfulness scores were more willing to take another person’s perspective, which was associated with a greater likelihood to forgive
Here they found that students with higher mindfulness scores were more willing to take another person’s perspective, which was associated with a greater likelihood to forgive. Rumination did not play a factor.
Would these results hold in a real-life experience? To answer this question a new group of 124 university students were asked to recall a time when they’d been offended and write down their experience. They then rated how close they were to the person who harmed them, and how hurt they felt, and filled out questionnaires about perspective taking, rumination and mindfulness.
Similar to the first 2 studies, mindfulness was linked to forgiveness, this time of an actual past offense. Much of this effect could be explained by the respondent’s ability to take another’s perspective, and rumination didn’t play a role. What’s more, this tendency to forgive was stronger with closer others, but less likely if the harm was felt to be severe.
Can Mindfulness Cause a Person to Forgive?
Although these studies looked at correlations between mindfulness and forgiveness at one point in time, they couldn’t tell whether mindfulness caused a person to forgive. To figure that out, researchers explored whether brief mindfulness training might increase a person’s willingness to forgive.
They asked 98 adults, mostly college students, to recall a past event where they’d been slighted, then assigned each to either a mindful attention group or a control condition. Both groups received roughly 7 minutes of audio instruction.
Those in the mindful attention group were told that thoughts and emotions are temporary, and asked to picture their mind as a blank movie screen. A description of their past harmful event was then displayed in front of them. They were asked to imagine the situation in detail, observe their thoughts and emotions, and allow their feelings appear and disappear on and off their “mental” screen.
In the control condition people were asked to recall their hurtful situation in detail, then focus on their thoughts of the event. Both groups then completed questionnaires about their level of forgiveness, mindfulness and negative emotions. About 2 weeks later they were sent an email asking them to recall they event they’d written down, and fill out another questionnaire.
The result – those who were asked to mindfully attend to their thoughts and feelings when thinking about a past hurtful event reported less negative emotion and a greater tendency to forgive immediately after mindfulness instruction, but only if they were dispositionally mindful. In other words, being prompted to respond mindfully did not have an effect on forgiveness if a person was not inherently mindful to being with. Mindful individuals also reported less negativity and a greater likelihood to forgive 2 weeks later.
These studies consistently point to a mindful disposition as being strongly related to a forgiving nature regardless of whether or not someone meditates.
These studies consistently point to a mindful disposition as being strongly related to a forgiving nature regardless of whether or not someone meditates. What we don’t know is whether practices that foster compassion and loving-kindness might enhance the ability to forgive.
Like mindfulness, forgiveness is an evolving process that can be similar to loving-kindness says renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. “Forgiveness demands presence, reminding us that we are not the same as the feelings we possess in a given situation, nor is the person who we’ve harmed or who has harmed us.”
We’ve all heard the saying that in life there are ups and down and there is the classic eastern saying that life is filled with 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. With this there’s the wisdom that all things come and go, but the brain has a funny way of amplifying the sorrows and minimizing the joys for good evolutionary reasons. Whenever the brain perceived something as “bad” it starts to worry about it. But often times there is no real utility to the worry, it only serves to dig us into a deeper hole and blinds us to the joys that might be waiting around the corner.
Here is one of the best cartoons I’ve found that says it like it is:
Illustration by Charles Schulz
5 Steps to Worrying Less
There really is no way to cure worrying, but we can learn to get better and better at recognizing it and gently guiding ourselves back to a sense of perspective and what matters.
1. Soften your understanding of worry
The utility of worry is to try and anticipate and avoid any potential dangers and to keep us safe. It’s the brain trying to protect us and so worrying certainly has its place and time. But often times worrying only serves to ramp up our nervous system and kick us into an imbalanced place that only leads to more worrying. The brain has good intentions, but it leads us down a destructive vicious cycle.
2. Allow and accept the feeling
Worrying usually arouses the feeling of fear or anxiety. In this mindful step, we’re simply acknowledging that this feeling is here. Calling it out. We want to do the opposite of resist it, because what we resists persists. So instead we practice allowing it to be as it is. Here you are just saying to yourself, “allowing, allowing, allowing.”
3. Feel into it with kindness
Now we have the opportunity to deepen our awareness and investigate the feeling. Here you may choose to put your hand on your heart or wherever you feel the sensation in your body. This is one way of signalling to the brain a sense of love or kindness to the feeling, which may shift it all by itself. The brain also has to map the sensation of the touch with is inversely correlated with mental rumination, turning the volume down on negative thinking. Try this simple practice:
As you feel into it you might ask, “What does this feeling believe?” Does it believe you are unlovable, unworthy, or perhaps that if you allow it to be, it will consume you?
Ask the question, what does this feeling need right now? Does it need to feel cared for, to feel secure, to feel a sense of belonging?
Whatever the answer, see if you can plant these as seeds in yourself. For example you can plant the seeds of intention saying, “May I feel safe and secure, may I be free from this fear, may I feel a sense of belonging.”Make this personal to whatever your needs are.
4. Expand awareness and wishes to all people
Whatever the worrying is about, it’s important you know you’re not alone. Feeling vulnerable is part of the human condition and millions of people struggle with the same source of vulnerability that you experience. But when we’re feeling vulnerable with anxiety it often times is all about us, we need to also impersonalize the experience and get outside of ourselves.
You can do this by imagining all the other people who struggle worrying and wish them all the same intentions that you just wished yourself.
For example, May we all feel a sense of safety and security, May we all be free from the fear that keeps us stick in a perpetual cycle of worry, May we all feel that sense of belonging, etc…
5. Repeat steps one through four as often as necessary
If you notice, steps one through four spell the acronym SAFE so you can easily remember what it is and what it’s for. As you intentionally practice this over and again, in time you will notice that you start to become less reactive to the worried mind, more compassionate with yourself as it arises, and even have perspective that this worrying is part of the human condition and you are not alone.
We we were able to turn the volume down on worrying in our lives, what would be there instead? For many people, it’s a sense of spaciousness, ease and joy.
It’s easy to feel separate from other people and forms of life.When experiencing the world dualistically, there’s a pervasive sense of “us” and “them,” or “self” and “other.” But no matter our belief system, actions, or status, we are all joined together in this world through strands of relationship and interconnection.
You can open up to the possibility of caring for others not just because you like them, admire them, or are indebted to them, but because your lives are inextricably linked.
By practicing loving-kindness meditation, you can learn to see the lives of others as related to your own. This doesn’t mean you must like everybody, or agree with everything they do. It means you can open up to the possibility of caring for others not just because you like them, admire them, or are indebted to them, but because your lives are inextricably linked.
A Loving-Kindness Practice to Connect with Others
Use this practice to recover your innermost knowledge of that linkage, dissolve barriers you have been upholding, and genuinely awaken to how connected we all are.
Begin with someone who has helped you; maybe they’ve been directly generous or kind, or have inspired you though you’ve never met them. When you think of them, they make you smile. Bring an image of the person to mind, or feel their presence as if they’re right in front of you. Say their name to yourself, and silently offer these phrases to them, focusing on one phrase at a time:May you live in safety. May you have mental happiness (peace, joy). May you have physical happiness (health, freedom from pain). May you live with ease.Don’t struggle to fabricate a feeling or sentiment. If your mind wanders, simply begin again.
After a few minutes, move on to a friend. Start with a friend who’s doing well right now, then switch to someone who is experiencing difficulty, loss, pain, or unhappiness.
Offer loving-kindness to a neutral person, who you don’t feel a strong liking or disliking for: a cashier at the supermarket, a bank teller, a dry cleaner. When you offer loving-kindness to a neutral person, you are offering it to them simply because they exist—you are not indebted to or challenged by them.
Offer loving-kindness toward a person with whom you have difficulty. Start with someone mildly difficult, and slowly work toward someone who has hurt you more grievously. It’s common to feel resentment and anger, and it’s important not to judge yourself for that. Rather, recognize that anger burns within your heart and causes suffering, so out of the greatest respect and compassion for yourself, practice letting go and offering loving-kindness.
Finish by offering loving-kindness to anyone who comes to mind—people, animals, those whom you like, those whom you don’t, in an adventurous expanse of your own power of kindness.
Our framing of a situation can either open up or shut down our ability to meet it effectively.
Let’s try an experiment. Ask yourself the following questions:
“How can I prove I’m right?”
“How did I get stuck with these idiots?”
“Who’s to blame here?”
“How can I lose?” (…and what can I do to protect myself?)
What do you experience when you read these questions? What does your body feel like? Light? Heavy? Open? Constricted?
What if you were on the receiving end of them? How might they affect your motivation level? Your emotional state? What actions are likely to result from these questions and what outcomes do you think they’d produce?
Now try asking yourself these questions:
“How do we move this forward?”
“What can we learn from this?”
“How might we support one another for success?”
How do you experience these questions? Is there a difference when compared with the first set? Most people experience the first set as tight, defensive and demotivating. Furthermore, the first questions seem to be focused on one’s own needs and provoking an attack or at least actively disengaging. The likely outcome may be a stagnant or regressive one. In any case, they lead down a path of lost opportunity.
By contrast, the second set seems more open, relaxed and engaging. Instead of ego-defense, they’re more focused on the situation at hand. Instead of provoking, they read as more likely to be productive and growth-oriented. Leaning in, they ask us to consider other possibilities. Instead of “I,” they are focused on “We.”
Is Your Mindset Fixed?
The questions express underlying mindsets, our implicit, and often non-conscious views we hold about the world. The first set of questions express a view of fixed mindset and easily downshifts to a judgmental, critical, self-oriented view of the world. According to the fixed mindset, talent, intelligence, wealth, power or love are in-born and predetermined. You have it or you don’t. If you win, I lose.
So if you have it, then you must constantly defend it because it is under threat from others who might take it or be better than you. Failure is to be avoided, so risk-taking becomes verboten, which leads to a dearth of learning. In time, comes stagnation.
A fixed-mindset boss has conditioned his people to not challenge his delicate ego. They expend enormous energy avoiding the minefield of his reactive emotions. In this tense environment, there’s little resource left for flourishing. People who succumb to fixed mindset spend considerable energy defending their position, image or identity. They create narcissistic environments where attention is focused on preserving their self-image rather than producing the best possible outcome. Life becomes a tense game of survival.
Effort and feedback are in a continual dialogue. From this, possibilities emerge that were unseen at the outset. A new future can be created.
The second set of questions express a view that resources can be grown. This approach is oriented toward curiosity, engagement and connection. Here, talents can be fostered, compatibility can be enhanced. Learning and effort trump innate talent and ego. Effort and feedback are in a continual dialogue. From this, possibilities emerge that were unseen at the outset. A new future can be created.
Overcoming the Feeling of Scarcity
A former student of mine was the third generation scion of a wealthy Taiwanese family. He had a sudden insight that the dominant view of his family was one of fixed mindset. His relatives were constantly protecting their position, fearful of losing face, and oriented their defenses toward real and imagined threats.
“The result,” he said, “is that we treat each other like animals and we are all miserable. Even though we have more resources than most people could ever imagine, we act like we are on the brink of disaster. We are merely trying survive. We never ask ourselves, ‘with all we have, what would it mean to thrive?’”
He learned that by changing the questions he asked himself, he could create a different set of possibilities. His pinched nervous face began to relax. He started to pay attention to what was working well, to his strengths and what brought him enjoyment. He redirected his energy away from defending and towards developing. His family was puzzled by this turn, but his sweetheart relished the change. Orienting toward growth created new possibilities for both of them. A few years later on social media he posted a glowing photo of his former-girlfriend-now-wife and their little baby. He had continued to thrive and made a good life for himself.
Shift Your Mindset By Asking Yourself These 7 Questions:
Take some time to sit with these questions. Write down your answers and see if you’re clinging to a fixed mindset.
Leslie and Josh came to therapy to talk about their son’s problems in school. But it soon became apparent that they had a different problem altogether—one common to working parents.
Their daily routine included a dizzying array of activities and responsibilities that kept them constantly stressed. Getting their kids out the door to school was an ordeal, involving much haranguing and eating on the run. After working long hours, they arrived home to a laundry list of other duties. Constant interruptions from electronic devices made them feel on call to their workplaces and disengaged from each other. Though unhappy, they didn’t know what to do or how to make a change.
As an experienced child and family psychologist (Anthony) and a management psychologist who works with business leaders (Paul), we were struck by how common these concerns are. We hear the same thing over and over from the people who come to see us: They feel overwhelmed by life. They struggle to make choices and decisions. They often feel stuck, adrift, or thwarted.
For many of us, the pace of life has accelerated to a level where we can’t fully adapt. We exist in a buzz of worry that we’re not doing what we’re meant to do, and the anxiety we feel, in turn, makes it difficult to get things done, creating a spiral of inaction. What we need is more agency: the ability to cut through all of what pulls at us, find emotional and physical balance, think more clearly, and advocate for ourselves so we can take a course of action that makes sense. With agency, we can feel more in command of our lives.
In our new book, The Power of Agency, we outline seven steps to creating more personal agency, so that you can put yourself on a more powerful path—whether at work, in your relationships, or in life in general. Here is what we recommend.
1. Control stimuli
Agency begins with what you let into your mind—meaning what comes in from your environment. If you are lacking agency, it’s likely your attention is being hijacked and you need to figure out how to restore it.
For example, research has shown that having a phone present while you work distracts you and interferes with your capacity to think. On the other hand, taking a walk (especially outdoors) is a good way to restore depleted attention in your brain so you can concentrate better later.
To help you increase your agency, practice going to quiet and screen-free spaces to escape overstimulation. That may mean spending time in nature, turning off your phone notifications while at work, or avoiding eating in loud cafeterias.
2. Associate selectively
It’s impossible not to be affected by those around us—it’s easy to “catch”their emotions, for example, and our brains tend to synch up when we associate with other people. That means you should set boundaries with difficult people, disentangle yourself from negative online interactions, and be more conscious of how you might be vulnerable to “groupthink”—pressures to behave or think in ways that are contrary to your values.
Surround yourself with friends, family, and communities who encourage you to reach your full potential, nurture your talents, affirm your values.
Instead, surround yourself with friends, family, and communities who encourage you to reach your full potential, nurture your talents, affirm your values and difficult decisions, and give you a reality check when you’ve behaved badly or are stuck in negative thinking. You can also get involved with your community through volunteering or just chatting with local merchants or neighbors. These positive social interactions will improve your state of mind and physical health, two critical building blocks of agency.
Physical movement, along with proper rest and nutrition, puts your body and mind into balance, giving you greater motivation, strength, and stamina. Research has shown that sitting a lot is dangerous for your health, and that even short breaks from concentrated periods of inactivity—like getting up to stretch or walking around the block—are good for you. Studies also suggest that exercise can lead to greater self-control—the ability to defer gratification, which is key to agency.
If you’re in deep at work, set a timer to go off every hour and remind yourself to take a moment to assess your mood. If you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed, get up and move. And, if you’re having any issues at work, discussing them in a walking meeting (instead of a sitting meeting) may help mitigate conflicts.
4. Position yourself as a learner
People with high levels of agency are continually learning more and expanding their capacity to learn by adopting a more open, collaborative approach to everything in life. This requires nurturing your curiosity and allowing yourself to explore new ideas, skills, and people.
You can take an interesting class, explore your world kinetically (through your hands or body), or spend time playing or using your imagination. Or you can learn from other people by staying curious and asking them open-ended questions, listening to gain understanding, and avoiding any quick judgments.
This isn’t always easy. Practicing a growth mindset—where you recognize that you are a work in progress, capable of learning and changing—can help combat the fear of failure or judgment that often come with learning new things. If you have trouble letting go of perfectionism, it might help to practice mindfulness meditation, which has been shown to reduce self-judgment, or use cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques that help put mistakes in perspective.
5. Manage your emotions and beliefs
Too often, we operate from unconscious beliefs—I’m too old to learn a new job skill or No one will ever want to be in a relationship with me—without being aware of how they thwart us from even trying certain things. When we are driven by unconscious emotions like fear, sadness, or worry, it can lower our energy and make us feel doomed or overwhelmed, which also hurts our agency.
Increasing your awareness of how your emotions and beliefs drive your thinking, influence your behavior, and affect your judgment will help you navigate life with greater confidence. While uncovering these inner thoughts and emotions may take effort, being more self-reflective helps you keep grounded by slowing down your thinking process.
For example, try to catch yourself the next time you feel angry with yourself. Don’t automatically accept that harmful emotion or, worse, dwell on it. Instead, pause and question it. Why am I feeling this way? Am I pressuring myself too much? Maybe my beliefs and expectations need some adjusting. Start by slowing your thinking down. Take slow deep breaths. Take yourself to a quiet place. Consciously let go of the tension building up in your muscles. These simple techniques will relax you and keep you more self-aware. This enhances your agency by putting you more in charge of what you feel and think.
Don’t automatically accept that harmful emotion or, worse, dwell on it. Instead, pause and question it.
By learning how to recognize our inner emotions and thoughts, name them, and let them pass through us, we can practice more self-control, which also helps build greater agency.
6. Check your intuition
Think of intuition as deep inner knowledge that is comprised of millions of data points that our brains have observed over the course of our lives. When used wisely, it can be a tremendous boost to our creativity and help us make important decisions, thereby increasing our level of agency.
Many of us are familiar with visceral, gut feelings about people or things—such as when you meet a new boss and sense right away that he’s bad news. When you’re in situations involving unclear social demands with few clues to navigate them, this type of intuition can be useful to you. However, you must be careful not to confuse intuition with bias and prejudice. In situations where emotions are running high—like during a job interview or when swiping on Tinder, for example—it’s best to slow down, take a breath, check in with others, and get more information rather than relying exclusively on quick, automatic impressions.
Strategic intuition, a second type of intuition, is more intentional. For example, you decide to stop thinking about a particularly vexing problem at work and—while on a long run, in the shower, or after meditating—a solution avails itself.
Finally, “expert” intuition happens after long periods, sometimes years, of practice at a particular skill. Here, less conscious parts of your brain are able to take over, provided you stay calm. Think of a pilot handling an emergency landing who allows their mind and body to perform as needed, without consciously thinking through each and every step.
You can get better at using intuition to inform your decision-making if you learn to quiet your mind, develop a greater awareness of what you’re thinking and feeling, and listen to your body.
7. Deliberate, then act
People with low agency experience common impediments when trying to make sound decisions. They may procrastinate, obsess over details, or worry excessively during the process; they may lack confidence and be risk-averse; or their thinking may be too fast and they act on impulse.
When making an important decision, like where to move or how to advance your career, it’s helpful to stop and deliberate first. Put yourself in an environment conducive to reflection and exploration, and make sure you have time and your emotions are calm. Then, focus on the issue at hand enough to clarify your primary objective and what is at stake. Asking open-ended questions and gathering pertinent facts also helps.
It’s good to generate lots of options at first, making sure that any strong emotions or biases aren’t driving your thoughts. Then, you can draft a plan for yourself based on those options, putting your thoughts and decisions into writing. The plan should simplify your options and incorporate the most important facts. At this point, let your mind rest and allow any intuition to rise to the surface. Set your plan aside and come back a while later to reassess it, making changes as necessary.
Remember, taking action doesn’t require 100 percent certainty. Higher-agency people will start to act if they are 80 percent sure or more. So, don’t over-deliberate before acting. You can always reassess later if need be.
Having more agency means taking responsibility for your life. The next time you sense something happening around you—or within you—that doesn’t feel quite right, don’t ignore it and reflexively press on. Exercise the discipline to stop, pay attention, and work on finding a better path for yourself. By practicing more agency, you’ll have more influence over your life and greater impact on the lives of others.
You go to work, eat a bagel at your desk, and send four emails while on hold with your doctor’s office. You are a master of multitasking. You reward yourself by making a quick Facebook update, #hustle.
Sound familiar? Dan Pontefract, author and former chief executive at Telus, says being busy has become a habit many of us pride ourselves on—and that’s not a good thing.
“We are ultimately working on the next thing while we’re doing the current thing at the same time,” he says. “We think that multitasking is a badge of honor.”
In this video from BigThink, he explains how we can add some space to our fast-paced routines:
Being busy all the time is a habit you made. You can unmake it. | Dan Pontefract - YouTube
Either way, our addiction to busyness is causing us to go through our days on auto-pilot.
“We used to go out for lunch and pause, but now we go get lunch, we bring it to our desk and we stare at another device trying to catch up with everything we haven’t done between 8:00 and 12:00,” Pontefract says.
This routine isn’t just present in the workplace, but also extends to the way we handle our personal and family lives.
“Maybe we pick up the kids… to go to soccer practice, and instead of looking at the soccer practice and the kids at that soccer practice, we’re looking at our device, because there’s eight more texts and 15 more emails that have come in,” Pontefract says.
That may ring true for many of us—but so what if it does? This is the twenty-first century, we’re career-oriented, and we like to stay connected with friends on social media. Isn’t it better to be busy than just sitting around doing nothing?
“We think that being constantly busy without having the pause, the meandering of thought, the marination in the moment; we think that we’ve just got to be constantly on and that’s a good thing,” Pontefract says. “But it’s not.”
While stress is something many of us have grown used to, experiencing chronic stress can plunge our body into crisis mode, putting us at an increased risk of experiencing burnout and in extreme cases, even heart disease.
“There’s more than 50 percent of us that are ultimately just ‘doing’ all the time,” Pontefract says. “We’re addicted to the doing. But the word I think I want to reintroduce to society is reflection.”
He recommends looking at our lives as an x/y axis, where x is action and y is reflection. As long as we act without taking time to slow down and reflect on our actions, we stay fixed in a permanent state—we do not grow.
Three Ways to Unhook From Your Addiction to Doing
Being more reflective isn’t about quitting your job, throwing away your phone and deleting your social media accounts. Instead, Pontefract recommends making small changes that add more mindfulness to your life.
“What we’re doing is we’re saying, Okay, when I take that elevator ride up to the 43rd floor in a hotel in New York in Manhattan, am I not looking at a device, and am I possibly actually saying ‘Hello’ to someone in an elevator?” he explains.
He provides three simple ways to practice mindful reflection:
Take time to connect with people. This could mean listening mindfully in a conversation, or smiling at the barista who hands you your morning coffee.
Go for a walk without your phone. Try to engage all of your senses. How do your feet feel on the ground? What do you smell? What do you hear?
Consider your purpose. Question whether you’re doing something that feels meaningful to you. What are your values? What are your goals?
Pontefract says the point isn’t to stop doing, but to balance action with reflection.
“If we do insert more reflection time into our day, that action becomes that much more prosperous and profitable and positive,” he says. “But when we don’t, we just sit there, ‘doing’ all the time. Then what ultimately ends up happening is…we end up being more stressed.”
Before I taught scores of body scan meditations, I too had to learn it for the first time. And my first reaction was: no, thank you! This is what happened: The woman at the front of the room is saying that over the next eight weeks we would be “learning to reconnect to our bodies by doing a number of body scans.” Huh? Reconnect with my own body? Nuts to that, lady! Not that it’s any of your business, but my disconnected body and I like it that way. As far as I can tell, I mean, we haven’t spoken in years.
Then she tells us to lay down, saying we might want to put a pillow under our knees and maybe even cover ourselves with the nursery school blankets she handed us. The lights are dimmed and my inner child begins snoring. But the rest of me feels like a feral cat trapped in a dark alley looking for any way out.
The suspiciously calm-voiced lady relentlessly offers us something she calls, “silence” (it burns, it burns!). We are asked to notice any sensations we might be able to experience. A sensation? What the heck is a “sensation”? She says sensations are things we might notice in the body, (not liking this noticing the body, business! Please stop saying this!). She mentions a menu of sensation possibilities we might notice, like tingling, tightness, heat or coolness, buzzing or pulsing or itching, or numbness—even nausea. What the heck? No wonder I avoid connecting with my body! Need I explain the concept of numbing out? The very idea of having to notice my body enraged me. And even worse, I had no clue if I was doing it right and that enraged me even more.
Our honey-tongued guide seemed to be ignoring my inner pleas for her to stop, “Look lady … if I listened to my body, right now, I’d leap up and throttle you!”
Something was changing in my relationship to discomfort. I noticed that I could stay more present and tuned in, even if I didn’t like what I was feeling.
During the first few “body scans” I mostly thought about lunch and how my butt compares to other butts anywhere on the planet. Every so often I would notice a sensation in my body. When I did, I immediately became alarmed or bored or my mind just wandered off to Taco Bell.
Only after being guided through many, many body scans did I seem to have a “Hold on, call coming through!” moment. Was that me experiencing itches, twitches, cramps, and screams and just watching as they softened and settled? Was I only imagining that I was increasingly able to be irritated without needing to find someone to blame…where’s the fun in that? Something was changing in my relationship to discomfort. I noticed that I could stay more present and tuned in, even if I didn’t like what I was feeling. Interesting.
That was a few years ago. Now, I notice that I am increasingly able to stay and examine sensations that show up in my body when I feel upset on its way. I can be with my stress-clenched butt, my indignant jaw, my quaking belly. By practicing the body scan, I am learning to stay softly present to the United Colors of Stress as it tries to hole up in my body. More and more, I can notice what I feel without having to hold on to it. I can let it go and return to the present moment over and over. Damn, I’m good.
Body Scan Meditation for Beginners
30-Minute Body Scan for Beginners
It is recommended you allow about 30 or 40 minutes to let yourself really investigate this practice. But if you don’t have that much time, utilize whatever time you have. You might want to lay down, but you can also do it sitting up, especially if that makes it easier for you to stay awake.
Closing your eyes can be helpful to allow you to focus or, if you’d rather, you can always lower and half-close your eyes.
Bring awareness to the body breathing in and out, noticing touch and pressure where it makes contact with the seat or floor. Throughout this practice, allow as much time as you need or want to experience and investigate each area of the body.
When you’re ready (no rush), intentionally breathe in, and move your attention to whatever part of the body you want to investigate. You might choose to do a systematic body scan beginning at the head or feet. Or, you might choose to explore sensations randomly. Enjoy!
Sensations might include buzzing, or tingling, pressure, tightness or temperature, or anything else you notice. What if you don’t notice any strong sensations or things feel neutral? You can simply notice that, too. There are no right answers. Just tune in to what’s present, as best you can, without judgement. You’ll notice judgement puts a different spin on things.
The main point is being curious and open to what you are noticing, investigating the sensations as fully as possible, and then intentionally releasing the focus of attention before shifting to the next area to explore.
At some point, you’ll notice Elvis and your attention have left the building. Yup. Great noticing! You’ll quickly discover that you can’t stop your attention from wandering. Sorry ’bout that. But over time you can train it to stay for longer periods: train it, not force it, there’s a difference.
Each time your attention wanders, simply notice that this is happening, then gently and kindly (it’s really important that you don’t try to force anything) direct your attention back to exploring sensations in the body. Rinse and repeat until you’ve finished your entire body exploration.
At the end of this exploration of bodily sensations, spend a few moments to expand your attention to feeling your entire body breathing freely.
Open your eyes if they have been closed. Move mindfully into this moment.
Regularly practicing the body scan can help you:
Enhance your ability to bring your full attention to real-time experiences happening in the present moment—helpful when emotions or thoughts feel wild.
Train to explore and be with pleasant and unpleasant sensations, learning to notice what happens when we simply hang in there and feel what’s going on in “body-land” without trying to fix or change anything.
Research says mindfulness works for individuals. But does it work in the bottom-line-driven workplace, or is it just a frivolous feel-good program?
This is the question tackled in a growing number of studies. Here are three benefits to mindfulness on the job.
1. Mindfulness can build self-confidence in leaders
A.D. Amar and colleagues at the University of Westminster measured the self-perception of leadership skills among a sample of senior managers in the London area—and then put them through a 12-week secular meditation-training program.
Their results, published in the Academy of Management Proceedings, revealed that training significantly enhanced their overall self-confidence, as well as the individual skills like inspiring a shared vision and demonstrating moral intelligence.
“However,” conclude the authors, “meditation did not statistically significantly enhance participants’ skills as a role model and enabling others to act”—areas that will need more study in the future.
2. Mindfulness can help us withstand controlling bosses
The more mindful the supervisor, the lower their employees’ emotional exhaustion and the higher their job satisfaction, according to research published in the journal Mindfulness. But that study also revealed a caveat: When basic psychological needs like feelings of autonomy and connection with other people aren’t being met, the employee can lose the benefits of having a mindful supervisor.
A separate studybuilds those findings by specifically exploring the link between mindfulness and autonomy. The researchers recruited 259 participants, assessing them for their mindful traits—like the ability to pay attention for long periods of time—and exploring how much autonomy they felt like they had on the job (as opposed to facing a more controlling managerial style).
Echoing that previous study, the researchers found that both autonomy and mindfulness “had direct relations with employee work well-being.” Feeling less-empowered at work was associated with a lower level of health and happiness. These indirect effects, found the researchers, were moderated by mindfulness—meaning that more mindful people were less likely to feel frustration, even when supervisors squashed their independence.
More mindful people were less likely to feel frustration, even when supervisors squashed their independence.
“Mindfulness thus appears to act as a protective factor in controlling work environments,” conclude the researchers.
3. Mindfulness can enhance overall well-being
If mindfulness works in the office, then what’s the best way to deliver the training?
A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine sought to determine whether an online mindfulness program created for a specific workplace, the Dow Chemical Company, could cut stress while enhancing the resiliency and well-being of employees.
Eighty-nine participants completed scientific scales designed to measure their degree of stress, mindfulness, resiliency, and vigor. They were then divided into two groups—one to take the online class and one to sit on the wait list.
After the first group finished, the researchers came six months later to see how everyone was doing. They found that, in fact, the group that took the class was doing a lot better—they were less stressed, more resilient, and more energetic than the group that couldn’t yet take the class.
“This online mindfulness intervention seems to be both practical and effective in… enhancing overall employee well-being,” conclude the researchers.
This article has been adapted from one that originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, one of Mindful’s partners. View the original article.