Mindfulness has taken a bit of bashing recently. New studies are reporting its dubious effects and the media is having a field day because of it. In typical Western style, mindfulness is becoming just another thing to shun and complain about.
I hope the irony isn’t lost here. But I’ve got a funny feeling it is.
Something has always been off in our understanding of mindfulness. When most of us think about it, we picture health care centres, people sitting in full lotus, and lycra-clad mothers with unnatural smiles. The whole thing has a New Age and phoney feel to it.
But this isn’t mindfulness. Rather, this is the ‘McMindfulness’ movement — a modern creation that has commodified the practice into just another wellness activity with bold claims and even bolder prices.
Real mindfulness, the kind that has been practised in cultures and religions for millennia, is not about finding your happy place and posting a pic of it on Instagram. Real mindfulness is simply paying attention to the present moment, with a clear intention, and without judgement. And it works.
Everyone from Google and Facebook to the NHS and Transport for London is employing mindfulness in their workplaces. Professional sports teams are picking it up, Harvard Business School includes mindfulness principles in its leadership programmes, and thousands of schools around the world are implementing into their curriculums.
The reality is, mindfulness deserves a place in everyone’s schedule. And if you’re a business, then that sentiment is compounded ten times over. Here are a few of the biggest reasons why.
Not being a slave to ancient emotions
In his book, The Mindful Geek, and also his talk at Google, Silicon Valley mindfulness teacher Michael Taft shares his ideas about how a regular meditation practice can help regulate emotions in the workplace.
Taft explains how emotions are like our internal guiding systems, based on biological responses that were designed to alert our ancestors to what may help or hinder their chances of survival.
For example, throughout much of human and prehuman history, we lived in small bands of 25-50 people and rarely saw anyone else throughout our entire lives. So meeting someone new, especially unexpectedly, was almost always a threat to our survival.
But today, in our universal communities, this response has become maladaptive and significantly outdated. We see this when we get anxious around strangers when there’s clearly no immediate threat. This is our biology unconsciously responding to situations for us and always expecting that something bad will happen.
We can’t change our biology, but we can become more aware of it. Practicing mindfulness enables us to see how our emotions arise from the unconscious mind and manifest in the body — fast heart rate, sweaty palms, tight chest. So that we can start noticing the sensations associated with our emotions and become more conscious of the responses and actions we make.
Beyond human focus and productivity
Several studies have shown that our attention is a trainable resource. And that just like maintaining your muscles by going to the gym, if you don’t train your attention regularly, you lose it.
This is important as, just like we rely on the strength of our muscles to perform in the physical world, we rely on focused attention to get anything done in the mental world. This has long been recognised by traditions like Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, which at the core of their teachings have things like Zazen, concentration practice, and Vipassana, mindfulness meditation.
When we improve the quality of our attention, we not only stamp out procrastination and reduce the ease at which we’re distracted. We also improve creativity, memory retention, and a whole host of other markers that come from being able to completely absorb yourself in a task.
What’s more, with digital distraction and information overload proving to be bad for our brains, leading tech companies are using mindfulness as not only a way to counteract their harmful effects, but create employees with unrivalled, almost superhuman powers of focus.
Better brains and much less stress
We know that being constantly switched on is a sure fire way to overload the system and become stressed out. And that, therefore, stepping back every so often and practising mindfulness can help you relax and chill out.
But just like stress and anxiety builds and builds until it causes lasting physiological changes in the body — high blood pressure, depression, ageing. So too practising mindfulness creates very real effects on how our bodies and brains operate over the long term.
In one meta-study of papers that report how mindfulness affects the brain, it was shown that people who meditate regularly show significantly more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) than non-meditators.
The ACC is the area of the brain associated with self-regulation, meaning the ability to purposefully direct attention and behaviour, resist distractions, suppress knee-jerk responses, and, most importantly here, regulate physiological responses to things that can cause stress.
Meditators were also shown to have increased amounts of grey matter in the hippocampus — a region of the brain that has shown to be diminished in size in people with stress-related disorders like depression and PTSD.
When it comes to practising mindfulness, these few benefits are only the tip of the iceberg. But even those won’t be realised unless you can ignore the media hype, go beyond the phoney ideas of McMindfulness, and start to see the practice for what it really is. Get started today by checking out the talk ‘Mindful Work’, presented at Google by New York Times reporter David Gelles.
Joseph Pennington is a freelance technology and health writer from the UK. You can find him blogging over at Officebuddha.com, where he shares no-nonsense, practical spiritual wisdom fit for the digital age.