What is mindfulness?
You’ve probably been hearing about mindfulness more and more lately, and how the practice can reduce your stress and improve your health and happiness. But, what exactly is mindfulness?
Simply put, mindfulness is a way of deliberately focusing your attention on what’s happening in the present moment with an open, nonjudgmental attitude, so you can see more clearly and respond more effectively.
Often, we feel that events in our life are moving so quickly that we don’t have time to stop and reflect. We may be living our lives operating on autopilot: always busy and stressed, and without a strong sense of the here and now. As a result, we might experience reduced well-being, and have a reduced ability to act thoughtfully. Mindfulness helps us to pull ourselves out of autopilot and re-engage with life in a more flexible and thoughtful way. We might feel happier and less stressed, and see opportunities to make positive changes that we did not notice before.
Mindfulness is not the same thing as meditation, but mindfulness meditation is one way to become more mindful. During mindfulness meditation, you direct your mind to a point of focus (usually your breathing). When you notice that your mind has wandered off, as it will inevitably do, you simply make note of it. And then, without judging or criticizing yourself, return to your point of focus. This process of observing, noticing, and returning your attention can lead to positive structural and functional changes in areas of the brain responsible for attention and emotional regulation.[i] With consistent practice, these areas become stronger, your ability to concentrate improves and these skills can carry over into both your personal and professional life.
Modern life is full of distractions
In today’s fast-paced world, we are all constantly exposed to a steady stream of potential distractions. Some of these we create ourselves, such as rethinking a past action we can no longer change, worrying about a future event that may or may not occur, or surfing the Internet when we should be focused on a particular task. Other distractions are external, such as texts, emails, calls and alerts on our phones and computers, interruptions from colleagues dropping by the office, or meetings and appointments we have to attend.
Whether it’s a wandering mind or an important email, these distractions take our attention away from what we intended to do at the moment. Some research has found that our minds wander almost half of the time. The ability to pay attention to the present moment with a kind, curious attitude and to be less distracted is a critical skill, especially in a world where demands are increasing, and where media and technology is designed to distract you.
Distractions cause stress and other negative consequences
We all know that distracted driving is dangerous—texting, surfing or talking on the phone without a hands-free device is a leading cause of car accidents. But distractions at other times in our day can have negative consequences too. If you’re in a meeting but checking email on your phone or listening to someone talk but half thinking about the traffic you’ll face driving home, you’re sure to miss critical information, including nonverbal cues. And research shows that we don’t remember things very well when our minds are not focused.
Missing or failing to recall key information leads to bad decision-making, and not giving someone our full attention makes them feel devalued. Another big consequence of distraction is stress: all the multitasking can leave us feeling overwhelmed and out of control, and the nature of our wandering minds can compound this feeling.
Mindfulness reduces stress and improves well-being
If we can concentrate on the task at hand and limit our distractions, we reduce our feelings of stress, take in and remember important information and make better decisions. Research shows that the more present-focused people are, the better they report feeling. And these benefits don’t stop with the individual: companies that reduce employee stress have been shown to be more financially healthy,[ii] and mindful employees and leaders have been shown to be happier and more engaged at work.
The ability to focus your mind on the present moment and limit distractions can be strengthened by practicing mindfulness meditation.[iii] And even when a distraction can’t be ignored—such as a call from the boss—mindfulness can help you get back on task more quickly when the interruption is over. It also helps you develop the resilience to bounce back faster when a stressful situation is unavoidable.
Mindfulness improves interpersonal relationships
Mindfulness meditation helps to teach us not to judge ourselves and others. This occurs when we notice the thoughts that come up during our meditation practice without judging ourselves, and return our attention to our point of focus. We practice being kind to ourselves and not criticizing ourselves for allowing our minds to wander, but simply accepting that it happened and refocusing our attention. With consistent practice, being compassionate to ourselves becomes a habit that we apply to experiences at work and in our home life.
Once we learn to be self-compassionate, we are also better able to extend empathy and kindness to others. We improve our emotional intelligence, enhancing our interpersonal relationships and making us better partners, parents, friends and leaders. Business leaders are often driven, high achievers or perfectionists who are very hard on themselves when they fail at something. Mindfulness helps these people be self-compassionate and gives them the resilience to learn from their mistakes and improve. Leaders who practice mindfulness also listen better to their colleagues and employees[iv], and these improved interpersonal skills contribute to reducing stress in the workplace.[v]
Intention. Attention. Attitude.
Mindfulness has been summed up as three key interacting elements: intention, attention and attitude.[vi] Intention means what we would like to do, whether it’s give someone our full attention during a meeting or to observe the breath. Attention means being aware of where our attention is, whether it’s on our chosen point of focus, or whether we’ve wandered off into distraction. Attitude refers to how we’re relating to what’s happening, whether we’re being judgmental and critical or whether we’re being open and curious. When we pay attention to these elements in meditation or in our daily life, we improve our ability to concentrate, to stay calm in the face of stress, to communicate well with others and to be compassionate to ourselves and others. These skills enhance our interpersonal relationships, reduce our feelings of stress and benefit our health and well-being.
SIGMA Mindfulness Coaching
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[i] Goldin, P.R. & Gross, J.J. (2010) Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion Washington D.C.) 10.1, 83-91.
[ii] Cooper, C.L. & Cartwright, S. (1994) Healthy Mind; Healthy Organization—A Proactive Approach to Occupational Stress.
[iii] Tang, Y., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feng, S., Lu, Q., Yu, Q., Sui, D., Rothbart, M., Fan, M., & Posner, M. (2007) Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104, 17152-17156.
[iv] Schawbel, D., Daniel Goleman on Leadership and The Power of Emotional Intelligence, Forbes, September 15, 2011.
[vi] Shapiro, S.L., Carlson, L.E., Astin, J.A. & Freedman, B. (2006) Mechanisms of Mindfulness, Journal of Clinical Psychology 62(3), 373-386