Calm, compassionate, and creative leaders make for peaceful, productive, and purposeful organizations. Practicing mindfulness equips us to thrive in the face of change. As you become more mindful, you are more emotionally agile and able to shift your mindset.
Challenging situations are a part of being human and a seemingly never-ending part of our lives at work. Working on leaner teams, dealing with expectations of being “always-on,” and being a part of multiple teams and projects often results in employees feeling stressed, anxious, and distracted – when they need to be calm, conscious, and focused.
Many of us are used to driving ourselves hard, and might think of mental training as a way to try to force change – to push, pull, and pressure ourselves into becoming something different. Mindfulness offers a different approach.
“Mindfulness is about paying attention to what is happening in the present moment in the mind, body, and external environment, with an attitude of curiosity and kindness.” In other words, mindfulness is a way of being that is wise and purposeful with whatever you are experiencing, both inwardly and outwardly. Strengthening your innate capacity to be present in a kind, open and curious way can profoundly transform how you respond to challenging situations in life and work.
Mindfulness is a skill that allows you to deliberately direct the beam of your attention – both to what you are paying attention to and how you pay attention. Instead of being tossed around by racing thoughts and turbulent emotions, you learn to choose your mindset and to shift how you relate to your experience. The end result: you have less stress and more joy.
People often ask me about the difference between mindfulness and meditation. The two are distinct, yet tightly connected. Meditation is a body of mental training exercises — and there are many forms — designed to develop skills, strengthen your mind, and produce immediate states and long-term outcomes. Mindfulness is the outcome, the state that you can generate by meditating as well as the capacity to be mindful in the moments of your day.
Think of it this way: Meditation is to mindfulness as sports is to fitness. You can be mindful without meditating, but research shows that mindfulness meditation is the surefire way to become more mindful.
Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, which I’ve been a part of for five years, teaches that being present, focused, and compassionate is not something we are born with or without. These are skills that can be strengthened and expanded with practice. This idea, long suggested by contemplative wisdom, is verified by neuroscience today.
Research has shown that you can change your default mental patterns through repeated practice, a concept called neuroplasticity. Repeated mental training, through meditation and other mindfulness practices, rewires your brain with new neural pathways that incline you to respond to situations in more skillful ways than automatically reacting out of habit. You get to be in the driver’s seat of shaping your brain through deliberate practice, instead of unwittingly wiring your brain through the influence of cultural norms and old habits.
Practicing mindfulness equips us to thrive in the face of change. One of the key ways is by helping us better manage our emotions, which can become difficult during transitions and change. No matter what challenge you are facing, mindfulness helps you to shift how you relate and respond. Instead of becoming angry, frustrated or upset by a particular event, you learn to relax your mind and body to give yourself space to dispassionately observe your feelings. This allows you to respond with greater calm, compassion, and creativity in any situation.
More than just how we pay attention, mindfulness includes how we see the world. As you become more mindful, you are more emotionally agile and able to shift your mindset. Stanford professor Carol Dweck defines a mindset as a mental frame or lens that selectively organizes and encodes information, thereby orienting you toward a unique way of understanding an experience and guiding you toward certain actions and responses. In her best-selling book Mindset, Dweck finds that people with a “growth mindset” interpret their strengths and talents as variable (changeable with effort), while people with a “fixed mindset” see their traits as invariable and permanent.
Here are five principles and practices of mindfulness that can help you shift your mindset:
- Recognize your body’s signals: When you sense your body tightening up, heart pounding, chest feeling heavy, take a mindful pause. Just notice what you’re experiencing right then, without suppressing it or pushing it away.
- Settle your mind and body: Take three breaths and allow your mind and body to calm so the rational, thinking part of your brain can operate with clarity. In some cases, counting to 10 is what helps most.
- Accept life as it is: See situations just as they are, accepting that some things are within your ability to influence and change, whereas others we need to accept and allow to just be. Acceptance is not passive — we can take skillful action from a clearer mind.
- Take a wider perspective: Consider a stressful situation from many angles, including an empathetic view of what is at stake for others and a positive perspective of what good might come. Look at the bigger picture over a longer timeframe, widening how you see it.
- Adopt a growth mindset: View the difficult situation as impermanent and see yourself as an adaptable learner who will become more agile, wise, and resilient through every challenge.
People with a fixed mindset avoid risks, challenges and failures because it threatens their very sense of identity. A growth mindset, on the other hand, allows you to see a situation of failure or not quite getting it as a learning opportunity.
Try using mindfulness practices to shift how you interpret challenges and setbacks. As you develop a growth mindset and practice responding to challenging situations with equanimity, you will be surprised by the positive effect you have on those around you. As you develop your attention, you will find yourself better able to focus on what matters, work with strong emotions, and generate fresh ideas. In the process, you will become a better team member and leader.
Laurie J. Cameron is author of The Mindful Day: Practical Ways to Find Focus, Calm, and Joy From Morning to Evening (CLICK HERE to get your copy). Laurie is founder and CEO of PurposeBlue, an organization that brings evidence-based mindful leadership programs to companies, change makers, universities and federal agencies. For more information, visit www.PurposeBlue.com.
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