the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something
Mindfulness practice has been around for thousands of years, and even for quite some time in the business world. In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn envisioned bringing mindfulness from its roots in Eastern religion to mainstream America. Some 40 years later, it’s safe to say he has largely succeeded.
From Jeff Weiner (CEO of LinkedIn) and William Clay Ford, Jr. (Ford Motor Company) to Oprah Winfrey and Marc Benioff (CEO of SalesForce), mindfulness practice has found a home in Western business culture.
An internet search on mindfulness techniques will bring a host of practices from the simple to complex visualizations, chants, and all sorts of in-betweens. It’s fine to experiment and find what works for you. What I’m going to present here is a tried-and-true, simple yet profound practice that will absolutely give you the single most important ability a leader can have: choice.
The ability to consciously choose what we enact at any moment is profoundly powerful. Think about it for a minute. The ability to consciously choose your actions is at the heart of the following:
- What task to focus on right now
- What phone calls or emails to answer
- How to spend your marketing dollars
- How to respond in a potentially heated conversation
- And so many more
How many times have you carried out any of these tasks without really thinking about them?
From relieving stress and anxiety to developing compassion and empathy, the benefits of mindfulness practice are seemingly endless. What’s behind this choice-benefit is actually a pause. Mindfulness practice creates a very brief gap between a stimulus and a response. When you get cut off in traffic, you’ll have the ability to interrupt that impulse to raise a particular finger and will be able to decide what to do next.
With practice, you’ll learn to control impulses and instincts, and instead choose an action that brings you closer to your vision, not further.
I recommend starting with 15 minutes once per day. When you want to add more, add a second 15-minute session. You’ll soon be able to do a few seconds of this before a meeting, and ultimately will only need a short breath to compose yourself before responding or taking action. The key is consistency and simplicity.
Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.
Sit cross-legged if you can, or in an upright chair. I highly recommend a meditation cushion, but a chair works just as well and allows you to practice in an office environment. If you are in a chair, keep your feet flat on the floor, with your shins perpendicular to the ground.
Your arms should be placed lightly on your thighs. For proper placement, allow your arms to hang loosely at your side. Then bend them at the elbows, and without moving your upper arms forward or backward, place your hands on your thighs.
Your back should be straight, upright and strong without being forced or held ramrod straight. A meditation cushion will help raise your butt above your legs, which will make this posture easier. In a chair, sit upright without leaning back. Make minute side-to-side and back-to-front adjustments until you find the sweet spot.
Your head should be straight, with your gaze slightly down, about three feet in front of you. The eyes are held softly open, with a soft gaze. Your jaw should be relaxed, with the tongue resting on the roof of your mouth, right behind your front teeth. Lips are slightly parted. When positioned correctly, you’ll find your breath is about 75% through the nose, with a little air moving through the mouth.
Once you’ve found your posture, take a moment to feel your breath. This is where we’ll be focusing our attention. Feel the cool air come in through the nostrils on the inhale, and the warm air on the exhale. Take a few breaths and notice the quality. Maybe you just came up a flight of stairs, or maybe you’ve been sitting at your desk for a few hours. Just notice.
Now, gently focus just on the out-breath. Feel the exhalation through your nose, and let your attention dissipate in front of you, just like the breath. Let your focus drop during the inhale, then focus again on the exhale.
You’re probably noticing some thoughts. That’s fine, just recognize them. When you find yourself lost in thought, simply say “thinking” to yourself, let the thought go, and return your focus to the out-breath. This will happen over and over again. The goal is not to eliminate thoughts, but to simply let them go and return to the breath.
Try to avoid judging yourself. There is no “progress” here in the normal sense. You may have a session where you feel like you did very well, then the next day you’ll find yourself distracted. Don’t judge, just accept where you are and return to the practice.
These are the very basics of mindfulness meditation. 15 minutes, once a day will be enough to bring great benefit, sometimes in just a couple of weeks. Try not to hold this as a goal though. Just do the practice without trying for results. They’ll come faster that way!
If you’d like help, I’m a meditation instructor and would be happy to give you further instruction.
Matt McLaughlin helps conscious companies build transformational leaders and teams. He has over 20 years of experience building high-performance teams and has practiced and taught meditation for 30 years. He brings a deep passion for companies that foster social and environmental sustainability and views business as a crucial component of societal change.