I am in an interesting position professionally, I am not in the corporate world, but all of my clients are. Every week they confide in me how overwhelming their day-to-day lives are becoming. Pressure is mounting, with shorter deadlines at work, while trying to commit to family time, when everyone seems far too distracted on their individual devices (including my clients themselves) to really connect. At the same time, my clients realize that slowing down isn’t an option, but unless they do something about it, they will likely burn out.
Naturally my clients are looking for an inner edge. If they can’t slow down, how are they going to manage their stress and anxiety levels? Increasingly there is a global movement towards inner practices that promise to ease some of this frenzy. One of the big names on the block is mindfulness. In late 2014, author, Polly Vernon, in an article she wrote for the Telegraph suggested that she would put big money on “mindfulness” becoming the Oxford English Dictionaries word of the year. Fast forward to 2016, and it seems that her prediction isn’t slowing down. Hot on the mindful stage are Mindful Gyms (yup you read right), where you can for as little as $10 book your meditation cushion.
What is becoming increasingly evident is that inner capital is fast becoming as important as ones education, work experience and social media presence. In fact, I would make a prediction myself, that in the future there will be a section reserved on everyones C.V. where they will have to highlight what they have personally done to increase their mastery in inner capital. Mindfulness training will likely be apart of this.
Yet, while Polly Vernon seemingly advocates mindfulness, and the positive effect it has had on her life, she also highlights a concern if she is indeed loosing her edge. As she notes,
Of course, the concern is that I’ll become a boring a— (indeed, that I may have already become a boring a—) what with all the mindfulness. Being a little messy, a little edgy, a thrill-seeking, tricksy, contradictory, unpredictable sort of an article — isn’t that what makes people appealing? Particularly creative people (which I flatter myself I am)? A bit charming, exciting, sexy? Where’s the fun in being moderate? In being judicious and sensible? I hear other people talk about mindfulness, and about how meditation has changed their lives, and I think, “Oh, do f— off!” I hear myself talk about it and I’m not altogether thrilled.
This statement highlights a misconception that seems to underly not only the articles written about mindfulness in the mainstream media, but equally those who advocate it. For many people, practicing mindful meditation is a way of unhooking from the frenzied world they live in, and a way to relax. But this is not what mindfulness is really about.
I may be unique among the contemporary teachers of mindfulness, as my practice never came from sitting on a zafu and chanting ommmmmm! My practice happened on the mat as a martial artist. In this sense, my understanding of mindfulness is closer to what Tony Schwartz has noted as mindfulness-in-action. As Tony notes in his New York Times article, entitled More Mindfulness, Less Meditation, “The real challenge isn’t what we’re able to do with our eyes closed. It’s to be more self-aware in the crucible of our everyday lives, and to behave better as a result. That’s mindfulness in action.”
From this perspective then, there is a very big difference between meditation as a way to practice mindfulness, and the actual application of mindfulness in ‘real’ life. Meditation can be seen as a formal practice, where you intentionally set aside time as Goldstein in The Now Effect suggests, “to do something good for yourself.” But sitting on a zafu and meditating to practice the skill of being mindful, is not the same as being mindful in the crucible of work as Schwartz notes. Coming back then to Polly Vernon’s concern about ‘loosing her edge’ — it suggests, like many people who have been bitten by the mindful bug — she doesn’t fully understand what mindfulness actually is. What she has done, as so many people have, is to confuse sitting on a zafu to everyday life. In other words, there is an expectation that the characteristics of meditation practice one encounters in a quite room, with the waft of Tibetan incense, should be what it feels like at work. Here’s the clincher, while a side effect of mindful meditation may make you feel more relaxed and less stressed out, that is not was ‘mindfulness’ is designed for or really about. It has got nothing to do with being relaxed.
Langer one of the leading experts in mindfulness suggest that mindfulness is “a heightened state of involvement and wakefulness” which one activates in the present moment. In this sense, Langer’s conception of mindfulness, is the opposite of mindlessness which is characterised by automatic, habitual and superficial cognitive processes. In other words mindfulness is a quality of consciousness, and at its heart is an active psychological state.
As mindfulness researchers Brown and Ryan note mindfulness does not require meditation in order to be cultivated. Being mindful in the moment then doesn’t take away your edge, but enhances it, by giving you the tools to engage with moments of your experience, (ones that you choose) with full clarity. Crucial to the success of this, is ones ability to view both your reaction to inner and outer experiences non-judgementally. It is the very nature of judgement or to fixate and ruminate on thoughts, emotions, feelings, sensations etc — where often a second layer is added to experience such as a story. It is that rumination on ones story, by losing oneself in the past or future, that invokes a state of mindlessness, which is often said to cause our suffering (stress, anxiety etc).
So in a very real sense, being mindful doesn’t take away ones stress, or anxiety, but rather teaches you how to manage it in a different way. It is quit possible then to feel sensations and emotions arise as one typically does in a highly charged experience at work, but then choosing to be mindful at that very moment, will allow you to continue to do your best work — simply because unlike before you don’t fall victim to judging those sensations and emotions as good or bad — rather you simply accept them as is. This approach then allows you to see your emotional response not as negative or positive per-say, but rather it is your interpretation of those feelings (the story you give it) that decides how you will define it. For example, as a martial artist, I have had to spar some pretty bad ass opponents. Prior to the bell going off, I feel the sensations in my body, the clamminess of my hands, butterflies in my stomach and my mouth drying up. But until I interpret those feelings with a narrative, like, “I feel this way because I am afraid” they were only sensations, feelings, and movements in my body. Therefore how you are feeling or thinking doesn’t need to define the outcome of an experience, if you are able to accept them as they are without judgement. This is what mindfulness allows you to do, its an active process, not passive.
Inner capital then has a long way to go. Part of this will be decided on how to achieve that inner capital in the midst of the chaos of life and work. There still seems to be a lot of confusion going on between taking time out at your local Mindful Gym, and transferring that back in the chaos of work, meetings and a screaming boss an hour later. As we have all likely experienced going on holiday, you feel relaxed, but all of that is forgotten the very first week back at work. The end result, one then craves another holiday.
In the same way, people are not going to be able to pop out to a Mindful Gym every second hour of the day. Honing your inner capital then has to find its way into your life. As Schwartz noted, “It’s to be more self-aware in the crucible of our everyday lives, and to behave better as a result.” Thats not helpful if you can only achieve a sense of clarity, focus, and centeredness when you meditating with your eyes closed. For inner capital to be more meaningful both in business, and in ones life, we need more options that will allow a person to actually practice those skills in environments that closely resemble their real life. As the story goes, it’s easy to be all Zen in a cave.
Brown, K.W. and Ryan, R.M., 2003. The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), pp. 822–848.
Langer, E.J., & Moldoveanu, M. (2000). The construct of mindfulness. Journal of Social
Issues, 56(1), 1–9.