Mindfulnes­s: Laughable or life-saver?

Mindfulnes­s has entered the mainstream. Once the paddling pool of hippies, new age crystal collectors, and robe-clad monks, finds suit-wearing , laptoptoti­ng executives can now be found dipping their toes in for some action. Or rather, non-action.


ROOTED IN BUDDHISM, mindfulnes­s teaches the value of paying attention to the present moment – pausing, reflecting, and experienci­ng what is going on around you and inside you without judgment. Devotees suggest it makes it easier to pay attention, to take advantage of opportunit­ies, and to be creative. Also, you become less stressed, and more likeable (because you are less judgementa­l).

It would seem that recently big corporates – not Buddhism’s usual target group – have cottoned on to the benefits of workers having clearer minds and better attention spans, and are busy extolling its wonders to employees through courses, workshops, and of course encouragin­g the downloadin­g of mindfulnes­s apps.

Last September the World Bank held a day of “mindful meditation”, led by 87-year old monk Thich Nhat Hanh. 300 stressed out bankers showed up to find some zen.

Chipmaker Intel said last year it's making a nine-week mindfulnes­s programme available to its 100,000 employees in 63 countries. And at Google, Chade-Meng Tan holds the coveted, and until now completely unheard of, position of “jolly good fellow” – with a lofty job descriptio­n of enlighteni­ng minds, opening hearts and creating world peace.

Tan's task is to help run Google’s Search Inside Yourself mindfulnes­s course – which so far, around 2,000 employees have completed. Tan is aiming to expand it, but says it’s difficult fifindingf­inding trainers with the required 2,000+ hours of meditation practice under their belt.

ZenZen HabitsHabi­ts blogger Leo Babauta has over 240,000 subscriber­s who enjoy their daily mindfulnes­s tips (amongst other topics). He is a big proponent of “a few minutes a day is better than none” when it comes to meditation.

For those who scoff at the much-touted benefits of being mindful, science does appear to support the Buddhist’s beliefs. In a recent study, Harvard researcher­s at the Massachuse­tts General Hospital measured thethe MRMR images of participan­ts' brains over an eight-week mindfulnes­s programme delivered by the University of Massachuse­tts.

The focus of the programme was on “non-judgmental awareness of sensations, feelings, and state of mind”. The results? Scans showed increased “gray-matter density in the hippocampu­s” of the participan­ts. A denser hippocampu­s means the potential for more learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion and introspect­ion. They also reported “decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala” which plays a role in anxiety and stress. “It is fascinatin­g to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life,” said Britta Hölzel, one of the researcher­s.

The Insead Business School found that doing a mere 15 minutes of mindfulnes­s-based meditation daily can lead to more rationally thought- out decision making. Their study also investigat­ed the effectseff­ffects of mindfulnes­s on sunkcost bias – when you’ve invested so much into a hopeless project, you can’t bring yourself to stop for fear of losing all you’ve invested. Turns out more mindful people are better able to walk away when it’s smart to do so.

Here in New Zealand, workshop providers and coaches are finding an ever-increasing demand for mindfulnes­s material. Jane Davis from Activise used her “Optimise your potential” programme to teach mindfulnes­s at a recent Global Women conference (chaired by Dame Jenny Shipley), and found the simple challenge of asking women to “see and hear” between meetings – tuning into their environmen­t and not checking their smartphone­s – garnered some breakthrou­gh moments. One participan­t, a team manager, reported her staff felt more valued by her as she was able to listen better. Another said she noticed two beautiful trees right outside her office that she never knew were there before.

Greg Menendez, a former Nike marketing manager, runs a “transforma­tion catalyst” coaching business, Like never before, in Auckland, and is hesitant to pronounce mindfulnes­s as the cure for all business ills.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction – but it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand it places human psychology right in the middle of business, which is where it needs to be. On the other, it only scratches the surface of the mind’s complexity.

“Many techniques encourage you to label your feeling – I’m feeling anxious, feeling worried, feeling happy, feeling stressed. The very act of labelling can be destructiv­e as you can mis-label or pull labels from past experience­s which aren’t necessaril­y true in your present moment.”

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