You might wonder what a post with this name has to do with a Tech Blog. Well as it happens, there is a growing community of agile folks in our company and we are doing our very best to inspire as many people as possible through our own personal agile path. This applies to clients and co-workers alike!.
Now, we are turning to mindfulness. So what is mindfulness, and why should you mind?
Why do I care about this and how did I learn about it?
What does mindfulness even mean?
My very own journey into this topic began for entirely egoistic reasons. Being a consultant dealing with many differing and challenging customer problems, and not in a typical 9-5, 40 hours a week job – led my desire to find more personal balance.
I was doing a lot of sports at the time, a wild mixture of weightlifting and running, as well as some more off-beat stuff like Underwater Rugby and Tough Muddering. Initially meant as a way for increasing my flexibility and to provide a balance for my strength focused exercises, I ended up with: Yoga. This indeed proved to be a good compensation for my other activities and for my body in general. Nevertheless, I had a hard time with the mind-related part of it. It seemed meditation was not the easiest thing to take on for a Generation Y digital native like me, with a strong affinity for technology. But I stuck at it, and then it happened.
I visited the JAX in May last year and was surprised to see a talk about this very topic at a company you might not immediately connect it with. Google! It turned out, they have their own Guru for the topic of mindfulness. Plus, there is a program to teach these concepts to their employees: “Search inside yourself” led by Chade-Meng Tan.
Is it possible to train your mind?
So what is mindfulness? Let us start with a quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the best-known experts in this field:
Paying attention in a particular way: On purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally
This sounds easy and meaningless at the same time. Let’s take a closer look! Basically, mindfulness starts with trying to capture ones own emotions and feelings. We all do this from time to time, but usually it happens just by chance. With training though, you can intentionally observe the things happening in your mind. In addition, you will be able to sense them more clearly and in a “higher resolution” as Chade-Meng Tan calls it.
The first belief that needs developing for training a yet un-mastered skill – at least for me – is that you actually can improve with time and practice. And it turns out, you can! Thanks to the amazing science around Neuroplasticity (which would be a blogpost in it’s own right). For the moment lets boil it down to one simple finding: Previous research stated, that the human brain develops mainly in a period during childhood and stays more or less static in adult years. This is not the case. Simply spoken, you can train your mind like a muscle and get better at doing things with it. May it be a new programming language or the practice of mindfulness. Studies with London taxi drivers – who are required to know all of London’s 25 000 streets and points of interest by heart – revealed that they have a bigger and more active hippocampus than the average person. For those wondering, the hippocampus is the part of the brain associated with memory and spatial navigation.
But still, why would you care?
Why do I care about this?
Now that you know your mind can be trained, let me tell you why it is worth doing it.
Let us start with the thing that is probably of the greatest interest in a business environment: Mindfulness can boost your work performance. Studies have shown that emotional competencies are twice as important as pure intellect and expertise. Even for engineers in the tech sector the things that distinguish top performers from average ones are:
Strong achievement drive and high achievement standards
Ability to influence
Initiative in taking on challenges
If you take a closer look, only two of those are purely intellectual competencies (conceptual thinking and analytical ability) whereas all of the others are emotional ones (for more information on this see Daniel Golemans Talk on Emotional Intelligence).
The other area in which mindfulness might help is in being a better leader. Most of us know that intuitively. We acknowledge people in leadership positions as somehow better when they not only excel with their expertise but also in something often paraphrased as soft skills. The funny thing is, that also accounts for an environment in which you would not typically expect it: The military. A study by Wallace Bachmann (called “Nice guys finished first”) stated that the most effective U.S. Navy commanders are “more positive and outgoing, more emotionally expressive and dramatic, warmer and more sociable, smile more, are friendlier and more democratic, more cooperative, more likable and ‘fun to be with,’ more appreciative and trustful, and even gentler than those who were merely average.” Well that doesn’t immediately sound like something to do with a military hierarchy, but very much like something mindfulness has a positive impact on.
Last, but not least – and being honest with you: the most important one for me – mindfulness will help you live a happier life! You might have experienced for yourself, that there is a baseline for your emotional condition. Since this sounds a bit esoteric, let me give you a simple example: Try to remember your last vacation or something you’ve long waited for to purchase (like that expensive watch of yours). You were really happy when you were on holiday or when consuming, right? How long did that last? For most of us it is not very long and then we go back to our day to day thinking. All the things we have bought tend to lose their fascination. Vacation typically lasts longer because of the happy memories we connect them with. However, sooner or later, that vanishes and we go back to our standard condition – the emotional baseline I was talking about – which sadly for most people is being unhappy or phlegmatic. In case you were wondering: This is also the reason why these people keep buying new things and consuming to fill an emptiness and feel happy, at least for that moment. But, good news! You can shift your baseline! Practicing mindfulness can help you setting your default state to happy which results in:
Not tumbling into a hole after the highlights in your life wear off and you go back to daily business
Bad things happening to you will not have such a negative impact. Of course you won’t be happy in that instance, but you will cope better with it (often described as resilience)
To summarize: When you give mindfulness a try and stick to it, you can expect living a happier life and being more successful. Sounds good? Then let us take a look at what you could do to get there!
Great! How do I get started?
The good news is: It is extremely easy and straightforward. The downside is: Although it’s easy to learn, it is difficult to master and requires practice! Mindfulness is all about paying attention to the things that are going on and to realize what they are triggering within you. Borrowed from the book “Search inside yourself” about the course of the same name, there are two simple exercises. Chade-Meng Tan calls them the easy way and the easier way.
Close your eyes and bring attention to your breath. A good starting point is to even start realizing that you actually are breathing. Focus on each and every inhalation and exhalation. This way you can direct your thinking and keep your mind from wandering. As soon as you sense, you are thinking about something else, just gently bring back your attention to the breath. What helped me in the beginning to keep focus is counting the breaths from one and then starting over again when you reach ten. You might also try to support the focus on breathing by placing one hand on your stomach and feel it moving with your breathing.
The other excercise is what Chade-Meng Tan calls the “easier way” of meditation. “All you have to do is sit without agenda for two minutes. Life really cannot get much simpler than that. The idea here is to shift from “doing” to “being,” whatever that means for you, for just two minutes. Just be. The main difference is that you don’t try to mute your thoughts, which can be really challenging for beginners. Still, you try to just focus on yourself for a moment and not on all the things that are going on around you.
You might switch back and forth between these two ways of meditation. This can also happen automatically when you realize that your mind is wandering while you are trying to focus on your breath and vice versa. Try to do so one or several times a day and enjoy the relaxation that comes with it.
So what else can you do to take this further?
What I just introduced could be your beginning, as well as your end state of practicing mindfulness. You don’t necessarily need to go any further than this. However if you want to deepen your practice, taking it to the next level, and gaining the benefits described above, there are a few ways to do so. It depends on your preferences and ambitions, as there is no definitive way to follow. Still, let me quickly introduce the alternatives I know and think of:
Connect mindfulness with physical activity. Yoga is a classic here.
Get yourself a teacher or visit a course for meditation and mindfulness.
Use an app for guided meditation. There are a lots of them around.
Integrate mindfulness into your everyday life.
Observe how your mindfulness starts to help you, and further support the relationships you are in.
I will try to introduce you to these things in one or several follow-up blog posts! Until then I would be really curious to know if there is anyone out there already familiar with mindfulness with his or her own recommendations. The same applies of course for beginners, and what would be of special interest for you. I look forward to your comments and feedback!