Mindfulness and Mindful Leaders

November 2, 2011

When I talk about my exploration on attention, leadership and sustainable business, many people think that when I say “cultivation of attention” they wonder if I’m referring to mindfulness. I wonder to. Here are some definitions of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is usually associated with Buddhism. From the Theravadin Buddhist monk Nagasena, “mindfulness means attending closely to what is occurring in the mind and body” (B. A. Wallace, 2011, p. 56). Another Theravadin Buddhist monk, Buddhaghosa, adds to this definition by referring to mindfulness as a faculty that “remembers accurately;” i.e., the capacity “to retain, recollect, and bear in mind that which has been known” (B. A. Wallace, 2011, p. 56). Buddhaghosa goes onto say that mindfulness is not confined to past events. It is the faculty that holds “everything together, not with grasping, but with presence that can be directed to immediate experience” from moment to moment and is “not floating, not forgetting, and not disengaging” (B. A. Wallace, 2011, p. 56). Also, mindfulness can be prospective in nature without forgetting the present and past (B. A. Wallace, 2011, p. 57). In these definitions of mindfulness, one can be mindful of past, present and future occurrences.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and Zen Buddhist practitioner, established the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction treatment program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. Over time, the medical community slowly recognized a relationship between mindfulness, emotional well-being and mental health. But there was a need for the Western medical community to agree on the distinguishable and empirical characteristics of mindfulness in order to conduct credible mindfulness research studies. Bishop et al (2004), psychologists and psychiatrists, have constructed a two-component model of mindfulness that moves “towards a definition that is more precise and that specifies testable theoretical predictions for the purpose of validation and refinement” (p. 231) . The hope is to have this definition adopted by the medical field “so that we can have a better understanding of mindfulness and mindfulness approaches to psychological treatment” (p. 231) According to Bishop et al, mindfulness is

a process of regulating attention in order to bring a quality of nonelaborative awareness to current experience and a quality of relating to one’s experience within an orientation of curiosity, experiential openness, and acceptance. We further see mindfulness as a process of gaining insight into the nature of one’s mind and the adoption of a de-centered perspective (Safran & Segal, 1990) on thoughts and feelings so that they can be experienced in terms of their subjectivity (versus their necessary validity) and transient nature (versus their permanence). (p. 234)

This definition of mindfulness is present-centered focus, whereas in the definition by the Theravadin Buddhist monks one can be mindful of the past, present and future.

Based on these definitions of mindfulness and attention, I see the relationship between these two terms as follows: mindfulness is a quality of awareness that can occur if attention is cultivated and deployed in a certain way. Cultivation of attention can lead to mindfulness, and maybe it is these “mindful” leaders that we need to identify the more innovative sustainable business solutions.

Much of what I have learned about attention came from mentors who were part of an awareness tradition that did not claim mindfulness as an objective. (Although, they appear to be quite “mindful” people.) For this reason, I hesitate to say that what I teach leaders is mindfulness. There is a lot involved to cultivating attention, and there is a lot involved to cultivating mindfulness. I’m more knowledgeable about the former.

Here is a blog about mindful leadership from the Take Charge leadership development and consulting group. They appear to have techniques to help leaders to be more mindful (they don’t specifically refer to “mindfulness,” just “mindful”). Their recent post dated Nov 1, 2011 is about the Occupy Wall Street movement and other recent events of unrest and protest.

I like this statement from their recent blog:

As leaders, we are often oblivious to the power we yield, the environment we create, the constraints that we place, and the ways in which we hold the passions and convictions of others in abeyance. Oblivious and mindless leaders are starting to stir; they recognize general discontent, ponder what to do about slipping engagement and trust scores, and wonder what it will take to get those people in line or on board.

And then the clincher:

The problem, though, is that they still look outside for the answers. The answers lie deep within.

I agree that deep within is a source of insight and freedom that remains untapped for the most part. What will it take for these “oblivious and mindless leaders” to seek help to touch this source of insight and freedom?

It is good to know that I’m not alone in teaching leaders about a source of internal power.

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Comments

2 Responses to “Mindfulness and Mindful Leaders”

  1. patrick t. rost on November 5th, 2011 3:54 pm

    Lisa,

    Thank you for posting this…although i had the luxury of hearing you speak about this at breakfast at IslandWood this morning, i’m excited that it’s out in the wild!

    patrick

  2. Rachel Maxwell on November 27th, 2011 8:47 pm

    Your discussion of mindfulness and its purpose in the health care field brings to mind something I read recently about gratitude being good for your health and well being: http://bodyworkeconomics.com/2011/11/28/the-physiology-of-thanks/#comment-65
    Is gratitude a form of mindfulness? I would think it might be. The TED talk by Louie Schwarzberg :http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXDMoiEkyuQ ends with a beautiful testimony to a kind of mindful gratitude.
    I worry about the Occupy movement that its focus on the 99% creates an us and them division that many don’t seem to see. After all 99% is almost everyone! We must be mindful of exclusion always. When it is as random as based on income, is that not akin to racisim where exclusion is based on other factors that are possibly random? Or, because someone is extremely wealthy, is it alright to exclude them for that reason alone? What do we know that is true for every extremely wealthy person?
    Thank you so much for your thought provoking post!

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