Last week I attended Google's 2-day 'Search Inside Yourself (SIY)' mindfulness training program hosted by the Wake Up Project. Mindfulness can be defined as 'the awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally' (Jon Kabat-Zinn). In other words, 'being fully where you are'; relaxed and alert at the same time. There is research to support the notion that it is an important and powerful skill to master with countless personal and professional benefits including increased wellbeing (e.g. reduced stress and increased resilience) and improved performance (e.g. enhanced leadership, creativity and innovation).
Google's program creatively combined the ancient meditative practice of mindfulness with the contemporary fields of emotional intelligence and neuroscience. It was originally developed by Chade-Meng Tan, a former Google engineer, and when it became the most sought-after personal growth program at Google it was spun off into the world for broader consumption. Last week's program brought together mindfulness experts such as Smiling Mind, health professionals, educators, and organisational leaders seeking to integrate mindfulness practices and improve the effectiveness of their operations.
The program opened by describing the world within which we live; one full of disruptions, an epidemic of distractions, hyper-productivity, and all at an accelerated pace. We were encouraged to consider: to what extent do we control the focus of our attention? Or alternatively, to what extent is our attention directed by external stimuli? (e.g. texts, emails, alerts, phone calls, social media, and advertisements). Rest assured, the irony wasn't lost on me, if not, the biggest, most powerful organisation in the world, one arguably responsible for some of the challenges we face in our ever-reduced attention spans and unhealthy addictive behaviours were themselves practicing (and somewhat leading the charge) on mindfulness. The paradox had piqued my interest.
Although the program could only scratch the surface of this ancient practice and its modern science, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about and practicing the multitude of mindfulness practices over the two days (focussed awareness meditation, body scan, and 'just like me' to name a few). From my learnings, I wanted to remind you of some of the ways you can bring more mindfulness to your everyday.
1.Train your attention. One Harvard study demonstrated that the average person's mind wanders 47% of the time and only 2% of people have a strategy to refocus. Research suggests by training your attention, you can better regulate your emotions, sharpen your concentration, and boost creativity, productivity, and resilience. Strategies to create more 'space' in our busy minds is something I explore with almost every executive I work with. One way to achieve this is through mindfulness meditation; essentially switching from 'doing' to just 'being' in the present moment. You can click here to access free exercises - give it a go! If you, like me, find it difficult to ignore distractions, show yourself some kindness, as our facilitators reiterated throughout the two-days; 'the training is in the return' (to the present moment). If you don't think meditation is for you, consider taking a moment to mindfully arrive at your next meeting.
2. Know (and manage) yourself. Another foundational component of mindfulness is self-awareness. This involves awareness of our 'emotions, abilities and limitations, when we need to seek feedback, where we need to improve, and when we need to work with others with complementary strengths'. It is a sticking point for many executives and journalling can be a highly effective tool for self-reflection. Emotional awareness is particularly important. Emotions carry useful information and are essential for decision-making. However it is important to notice emotions without being them. We can integrate wisdom by creating spaciousness and choice in our responses (engaging the regulatory pre-frontal cortex) rather than reacting purely compulsively (triggered in the emotional brain, or the amygdala). Naming emotions gives them space! This can be especially useful when we feel 'triggered'. When it happens, try this: 'Stop, breath, notice, reflect, then respond'. With practice this can occur in an instant.
3. Show kindness. Finally, once we're self-aware, we have a greater capacity to demonstrate empathy; 'the ability to understand and share the feelings of others' (without necessarily assuming these feelings ourselves). Sometimes considered a vulnerable choice, it helps build trust and is often used to unlock human centred design as it describes one's ability to experience and understand others' feelings (whilst withholding judgment). It is somewhat hard-wired but can be improved with practice. Sharpening and deepening emotional competencies and relatedness provides an extra edge and creates highly effective leaders. Foundational empathy practices (used in stealth) include finding similarities in connections with others (reminding yourself that the person you are interacting with is 'just like me') and offering kindness. In a nutshell, approach every interaction you have with mindfulness, kindness and curiosity, remembering the connection is more important than your response.
For more insights you might wish to read Chade-Meng Tan's book Search Inside Yourself.