Monday, June 22, 2009

What has mindfulness got to do with business?

In a society where doing is the mantra, stillness of the mind is a concept that still means to many anything from waste of time to a new age ideology. However, there is a growing body of research in business and scientific disciplines that is revealing the benefits of stilling the mind through practices like mindfulness. In this posting, I will be discussing how mindfulness can help you in your business and then open it to discussion about what you do to be mindful and how that is helping you in your business.

As a multidimensional construct, mindfulness has been studied as including observing, describing, acting with awareness, and accepting without judgment (Baer et al 2004). Let us see how each of these qualities can be useful in a business context.

Observing: This refers to being aware of what’s happening inside us and in our external environment. In the absence of stillness, our minds are racing. It is like looking out of a car window – do you notice the scenery better out of a still car or out of car driving at high speed? When the mind is still, you can be more cognizant of what is happening inside of you and make a note of the changes in your environment. As a businessperson, you have many responsibilities to get stuff done. But it is equally important to stop and look – really look at your customers, look at your competition, look at the changes in technology, your environment. In the second step of mindful marketing, I talked about learning from your environment. But to really learn from the environment, you have to first stop, and observe.

Acting with awareness: This refers to taking action with hundred percent attention and focus. It is the nature of the mind to be in the past or the future. Very rarely are we right here, right now. Are you fully here as you read this, or are you also thinking of what you need to do next along with any number of other thoughts? If our mind is oscillating between the past and the future, what we are doing right now does not have our full attention. This has many ramifications on our work and well-being. Most people go about their days and lives doing jobs with their minds busy doing its own thing. This reflects in the quality of job done but is also a cause of disillusionment, detachment, and stress related with our work. If we could do what ever it is we are doing right now with hundred percent attention and love, our work becomes worship, a joy. This mental state of operating where the person is fully immersed in the task at hand, has also been discussed as flow, a concept made popular by Csíkszentmihályi.

Accepting without judgment: This refers to a non-judgmental evaluation of the present situation. This is a very important aspect of mindfulness that allows us to be open to what is. The nature of the mind is to judge. Even before we have fully experienced the situation we are judging because our past experiences have shaped our perceptions of how we view the world. This means we are not seeing what is as is, but based on our perception of what is. Many of our struggles stem from our judgment of a situation as negative, which causes resistance in our mind. As business people, we resist competition, we resist changes in customers’ preferences, we resist resistance in our employees, we resist new technologies, and we resist anything perceived as a threat to our comfort zone. For a minute can you drop this resistance and just accept what is – move the energy from the mind to the heart. How do you feel? From this place of acceptance and openness, approaching any situation, however challenging it may be, becomes an interesting and enjoyable activity.

Describing: This refers to the ability to articulate precisely what one is feeling or observing. This is an important trait for managers or leaders in dealing with diverse groups of people and difficult situations. Finding the right words to communicate in a challenging situation can be difficult, especially if the mind has its own dialog going on. A still mind is in touch with what is happening and can find the right words to communicate effectively in any situation.

How mindfulness has helped me in my work
Does it not seem most natural for business leaders to possess the above qualities of keen observation, acting with awareness, non-judgmental acceptance, and ability for accurate description? And the good news is that these qualities can be nurtured through mindfulness practices like meditation, breath work, tai-chi, and yoga. There is a lot of research on the benefits of mindfulness (and you can find some of it on my website). In this posting I am interested in sharing my personal experience and listen to your experience with mindfulness as a practice and its benefits to your work.

I have been practicing the Sudarshan Kriya, a special yogic breathing technique (Pranayama) developed by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a world-renowned humanitarian and spiritual teacher. This 25 minutes of rhythmic breathing stills the mind and allows me to go deeper into my meditation practice. Over a period of time I have found that my mind has slowed down so I don’t react to situations immediately based on old patterns but can pause, assess the situation, and choose my response to the situation. The space created through breathing allows new ideas to emerge. It has certainly increased my creativity and response-ability.

I will share some specific examples of how this way of being has influenced my work.
Open to challenges with equanimity: Starting a new business in a slow economy is challenging. I hear people tell me this all the time. But I have never looked at it this way. I am doing what I love and to achieve my goals I am open to learning from my environment. When I started out as a consultant to bring mindfulness in business, I thought I am doing something very unique but I soon discovered there are many people doing this very successfully and for much longer than I have been. Why should people consider me when there are many experts to choose from? This question can be intimidating but I chose to stay open to what the situation has to teach me, and indeed it did. It helped me to develop a more focused vision of what I want to do and what are the unique attributes I bring to my work. In addition, staying open has taught me so many different ways to move forward and build energy around my work. Approaching people, emails, Google, Blogging, and in so many other ways, I am continuing to learn and move forward, one step at a time.

Staying present to what is: As a consultant facilitating corporate workshops, I have to be present to really listen to what participants are saying and find solutions or be able to guide them how to find solutions. This requires 100% attention and non-judgment of my own abilities. It is easy for the mind to start racing in a challenging situation and trigger counter-productive thoughts such as, ‘I have no clue what is going on.” But returning to the breath brings me back to the present moment and stay with what is happening without any judgment. I stay open and I trust, and I have always found there is a solution, a very logical action that is the next step. Sometimes the answers don’t come right away and I am comfortable saying I don’t know the answer and need more time. Very often this is the case when I don’t have enough information, so I go back and dig out more information and in that the answer appears.

Creativity happens: some of my most insightful ideas come to me during my meditation, even though I am not looking for them in my meditation. But they just pop up – creativity happens – it is not my doing. I have found that when I cease to struggle with a problem, when I stop resisting the problem, it is very simple, the solution is right there. Very often in the face of a problem our old patterns kick in, but again, breathe and come back to what is happening now, and it is very obvious what the next step should be.

Clarity and end of resistance: Writing is an important part of my work as a researcher and consultant. When I joined the PhD program I came in with the assumption that I cannot write and writing was a struggle. Each sentence was constructed with so much effort, which is the opposite of how I feel today. Now, I love writing, and it just flows (most of the time). Over time I have discovered two things. One, writing is hard in the absence of clarity. If you are not clear in your head, what you write will reflect that confusion. Regular breathing and mindfulness through the day helps me stay clear and focused and writing from that clear place is easy. Second, I found that much of struggle was a result of my resistance to writing. Once I dropped the resistance and simply wrote, I found that I could write. As simple as that, stop fighting and just do what needs to be done. Moving from the mental fight to the accepting heart has made my all aspects of my job a joy.

Align with true purpose: It is said that if you work in alignment with your true purpose, you will be supported. This statement may be hard to prove scientifically but I have found in my life over and over again, that when I work in alignment with my purpose I move forward much faster – new ideas will emerge, or people will show up, or situations will open up such that I can move in the direction of my goals faster.

These are just some of the ways mindfulness is helping me in my business.

What do you do to be more mindful? How has that helped you in your business?



  1. There is so much substance in this blog that I could respond to, so much to think about! I am mindful that just in the course of reading your piece, I was distracted and it took several attempts before I read the whole thing!

    It is helpful that you ask us what we do to be more mindful so in this case, I made a commitment to reading it, much like making an intention, and then it became a breeze. Just directing my mind to a task and focusing in on it helps.

    Like you, I find that having my own contemplative practice helps me in many ways, and especially with the ability to focus. There is certaily room for more practice in my practice, so thank you for this reminder to use the tools I have. :)

    I need to get beyond some resistance I am having around marketing and just do what needs to be done for my business which is indeed a joy, so it is a matter of giving up the silly fight that you refer to, and breathing into it, reminding myself and opening to my mission and how I can get that mission across in service to others, remembering that is so connected to my soul purpose--being a catalyst for more laughter and joy in the world through Laughter Yoga!
    I like to practice what I preach a bit more each day!

  2. Indeed Mary, there is much need for laughter in this world. When I randomly look at people's faces in traffic or in a coffee shop, I find most people so serious. I am happy to see you move forward in your mission.
    Thanks for posting your comments :)

  3. Wow, I feel like a lot that I have been thinking is in your words! You are so right that it is oftentimes difficult to stay in the present moment, enjoying what we have NOW. It is so easy to slip into the past ("I wish I were here or there right now just like I was last year at this time") or worry about the future (Where will I be four months from now?) in whatever we are doing. If we are often chasing and preparing for that better tomorrow, when will we allow ourselves to stop for a moment and be happy with our progress? In this hectic world, "relax" seems to be more of a luxury than a well deserved rest.