BRAIN GAIN: ‘Mindfulness’ is not a word that immediately catches the attention of busy executives. But increasingly it should. At the universities of Oxford, Stanford and California, Berkeley, among others, there is a great deal of interest in it. See the Science of Mindfulness at Berkeley site, for a quick update on 30 years of interest that is now beginning to get advanced executive attention.
‘Attention’ is the key word. It is a truism to say that what we ‘attend to’ we ‘value’. But it is a truism worth repeating. Energy – brain focus – follows attention. Energy means motivation and direction. They are not unimportant parts of the executive armamentarium. Anything that might help the brain get and retain its focus might be worth more than a second glance.
Mindfulness is to do with having the mental facility of maintaining attention without forgetfulness or distraction. It is a skill acquired through the practice of mindfulness training – eight weeks of which can create neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells. The practice of mindfulness if no more demanding than brushing one’s teeth and considerably less energetic. It focuses the energy of the brain.
The US military – the Marines no less – have come at mindfulness through the idea of ‘resilience’ – a concept that does get executive interest. In the middle of January the New York Times reported the work of psychologist Amishi Jha who trains Marines in mindfulness and has found that 12 minutes of practice a day creates a resilience – maintaining focus under battle conditions – that soldiers with less than twelve minutes a day, or none at all, do not have. That is useful to know.
The tradition of mindfulness is a very old one. Around 2,700 years ago in northern India, and after 49 days of continuous meditation, a prince achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha. Since that time meditation has been a route to spiritual enlightenment within Eastern religious traditions. Christianity called a similar process of achieving spiritual awareness ‘contemplation’. But modern executives do not have too much time for either.
Which is a pity. In her writings Time to Think and More Time to Think American-born but Oxfordshire-dwelling Nancy Kline describes convincingly how techniques of using small amount of time to substantially improve the quality of executive output individually and in meetings have huge benefits.
Coming at mindfulness and attention through profound experience of meditation practices but disciplined also by his high level work as a neuroscientist, Alan Wallace observes how strange it is that there is so little experimental work on how attention can be enhanced with training. ‘As long as our minds oscillate between agitation and dullness, wavering from one attentional imbalance to another, we may never discover the depths of human consciousness. … We know that the mind has powers of healing, which are sometimes attributed to the “placebo effect”, and that it has the capacity to make us ill as well. What other powers lie dormant within human consciousness, and how can they be tapped?’ (p.4).
Dan Siegel at UCLA is especially thoughtful as to how the mind works. It has three states, he suggests. One is chaos; a second is rigidity; but the third is that is can exist in a comfortable state that he describes as ‘the plane of possibility’. It is this state that mindfulness induces.
For Wallace, mindfulness is the fourth state of attention. The prior three are Directed Attention, Continuous Attention and Resurgent Attention. Mindfulness arises from the fourth state that he calls Close Attention. Six further developmental stages can lead to both settling the mind and illuminating awareness.
There have yet to be widespread HR discussions about company-wide programs to create states of illuminated awareness. But perhaps it is time that attention were paid to mindfulness. It is, after all, a state much to be preferred to mindlessness.