How much time do you spend awake? In that time, how often are you really aware – alert and attentive, present in both mind and body? Ellen Langer, Harvard psychologist and “mother of mindfulness,” asserts that most of us spend the bulk of our lives in a mindless state. I don’t know about you, but I have to agree that despite my best efforts this is probably true for me. I may be standing in line at the grocery store or sitting at my desk, but my mind is miles away – or, more likely, casting into the past or future to gnaw over an imagined problem or unfurl an appealing fantasy. Mind and body: definitely not in the same room.
There’s an awful lot of chatter about “mindfulness” these days. I talk about it a lot at any rate. It’s becoming increasingly mainstream, even in the business world. Mindfulness training theoretically can salve a laundry list of organizational bellyaches, including reducing stress, absenteeism, turnover, and conflict; and increasing productivity, engagement, job satisfaction, and innovation. Sign me up for one of those magical panaceas!
Mindfulness isn’t just about improving outcomes though, as I was recently reminded. It changes our moment-to-moment lived experience. In the midst of the daily grind it’s so easy to let our inner voice get drowned out by the hustle-bustle. When we tune into it, our experience is different – richer, and realer. Because only when we observe our stream of consciousness can we create the distance from our thoughts to question them and the assorted assumptions, biases, and preconceptions they stem from. Greater moment to moment awareness makes our experiences more “real” because we perceive them more directly, with the layers of gauzy mental filters lifted, however momentarily.
Being tuned into what is actually happening around us is also what drives all of those delightful organizational perks. Imagine how much more effective we would all be if we responded to the world as it actually is, instead of how we expect it to be, fear it will be, believe it once was? In her recent podcast interview with Krista Tippet, Ellen Langer describes some of her research, which shows how deeply our beliefs about our experiences shape our outcomes. And that the more mindful we are of both our actual experiences and of the mental claptrap we bring to bear on them, the more power we have to direct and design our present and our future. In this HBR piece, Langer ties this specifically to what she calls “mindful leadership.” Mindless leaders are unaware that their perspectives aren’t “real” and so hold them firmly, then mistake that rigidity as a degree of certainty that doesn’t actually exist. Mindful leaders, on the other hand, bring an open, curious mentality to the situation and their thoughts about them, which makes them both more attentive and responsive to uncertainty.
Employee engagement is another hot topic these days. We want our employees engaged at work, for another laundry list of benefits. How can we expect people to be engaged at work if most of us have a hard time being engaged in our own lives? Being mindfully present is deceptively simple, of course. Attention needs to be trained, and we live in an era in which distractions from immediate lived experience are in our back pocket at all times. Sometimes life’s experiences are unpleasant, but we can’t avoid life’s suffering, even by distracting ourselves from them. What we can do is choose to be open and curious about what even undesirable moments can teach us, and where they can take us, one mindful step at a time.
“Mindlessness is the application of yesterday’s business solution to today’s problems; mindfulness is attunement to today’s demands to avoid tomorrow’s difficulties.” –Ellen Langer
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