Mindfulness cuts deep into our core beliefs about life and even changes our neural pathways in the brain
A friend of mine who was asked to explain mindfulness and the why of it compared it with explaining the necessity to breathe. Mindfulness to him has become a state that is not constant, but certainly seems more natural than constant thinking and worrying: returning to and acting from our center, that calm inner place that is the core of who we are.
Most people have heard about mindfulness and its supposed beneficial effects on our personal lives and at work. And the benefits are well-documented. Neuroscience, psychology, and a great number of social studies now confirm with confidence that introducing the practices of Mindfulness can measurably impact the life and results of an individual, team, or company within the first 8 weeks. But how does that work, and what is it really, anyway?
Mindfulness is the simple, but not always easy task of staying in the present moment, observing ourselves and our surroundings without judgment and without thoughts robbing our attention. It can be practiced sitting with eyes closed or practiced in action anywhere. Being mindful of who we are and what we are doing, as the word suggests. Simple, but not always easy. This is why there are so many seasoned practitioners out there describing it like riding a bike – it’s a daily practice that may never be perfected but that can be fine tuned and used to yield ever more benefits in whatever area of life you choose to apply it.
Mindfulness can impact any skill positively since it is a meta-competence, which is a skill that supports other skills. The more present you are, the wiser will be your actions; the more focused your decision-making, the less influenced by distractions and fears, and the greater your focus in what you are doing.
The fact that our thoughts and attitudes define our actions and consequently the course of our lives at work and in general is nothing new. The flurry of studies on the brain and our behavior made during the last 20 years has showed us the (possibly) surprising fact that the brain is not static and unchangeable, and perhaps an even more shocking fact – that our thoughts, attitudes, words and habitual actions have a physical effect on the brain’s structure and shape. Neuroscientists call this quality of being able to rewire our neural networks through thoughts, attitudes, words, and actions neuroplasticity.
A simplified way of describing this is that we are what we think and do. Our thoughts and behaviors create neural patterns in our brain that become the physical manifestation of our habits – things we do unconsciously, on “auto-pilot”. These automatic actions are often an unconscious reaction to previous experiences, originally used to avoid danger, hurt, the humiliation that at some point almost all of us go through to some degree. The only problem is that most of these neural, and consequently behavioral patterns, form in our first 7 years when we often indeed are helpless and might need to use certain ways of thinking, speaking and acting to avoid pain or danger that we feel are unbearable or disturbing.
As adults, we rarely need these defensive mechanisms and behaviors anymore, because as we grow up, we are actually self-sufficient and powerful enough to meet those situations, that during our childhood were too much for us to handle. But our conditioning, ie our brains’ neural pathways that make us take these attitudes and actions, are still the same and unchanged, which is why we sometimes act contrary to our own conscious will, even though we know our behavior to be useless or even destructive. “I know I shouldn’t have that second piece of cake…”
Here is where a competent coach can make a big difference both in our professional and personal life.
On average, we have around 50 000 thoughts every day, and around 95-98 % of those are the same we had yesterday. 80 % of our daily thoughts are negatively oriented. We chew over things that went wrong, or dwell on our habitual worries about having locked the door on the way out, said the wrong thing, and so on. Our brain is hard-wired for worry as a way to anticipate possible dangers, and on a day-by-day basis, we reinforce this neural programming for worry. We overgeneralize that worry is helping us, but it’s actually just based on habit and a self-reinforcing negativity.
It’s a little scary to admit that we strengthen negative thought patterns unless we learn to do something about it. We sometimes are tempted to think that if we just achieve enough outwardly, the negativity will go away or transform on its own and we will have a happier inner climate. But we now clearly understand that this is not the case.
This is where mindfulness has gained a lot of ground both for people interested in personal development, but also in psychiatry, healthcare and in many successful corporations such as Google, Apple, GE, Goldman Sachs, Facebook, Deutsche Bank, Astra Zeneca, and countless others. Mindfulness has proven not only to increase focus and efficiency but comes with a bunch of personal benefits, such as preventing and treating depression, increasing our capacity for compassion toward others and ourselves (ever struggled with that inner self-critic?).
In neuroscience terms, our amygdala (part of what is often called the lizard brain, the less evolved part of our brains) – the source of fearful, stressful, and worrisome thoughts – actually gets smaller through mindfulness. And the most evolved parts of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, gains strength (which means that it actually gets thicker) through mindfulness. In everyday words, we gain power and freedom.
For employees and managers in an increasingly fast-paced world of decision-making and change, enhancing focus and calm, as well as increasing our awareness of our own thoughts, words and actions are of utmost value.
It’s exciting to know that mindfulness provides a path by which we can change negativity and habitual patterns. Through mindfulness practice, we increase our capacity to relate to situations in ever more constructive ways.
Mindfulness has gained traction amongst individuals and companies for exactly this reason. We are all interested in accessing the deeper potential that we know is there. Sometimes we get in our own way. Mindfulness helps us change that.