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// The Cultivation of Attention and the Process of Leadership Development

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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Global Presencing Forum

October 29, 2011

Last week I asked you to consider an evolved form of attention metaphorically as a sunbeam on water. It is flexible – it can bend and even break up but still retain its light. It is fluid – the light appears to move in a fluid, flowing manner when water becomes its medium. Fluid and flexible attention – flowing into the moment, bending here and there to discover what is possible.

I repeat this again here because this week I attended the first Global Presencing Forum in Boston hosted by Otto Scharmer (from MIT) and the Presencing Institute. Attention plays a significant role in Scharmer’s social presencing technology called the U process (see figure below). And the more evolved the attention, the better.

The U Process

The U Process

In Scharmer’s opening speech, he said this work begins with attention. It is about paying attention to the moment, wondering what is really happening, sensing and discovering what wants to emerge. Cultivating one’s attention to a more evolved capacity will allow one to powerfully co-sense, co-presence, and co-create sustainability initiatives.

At the conference, global practitioners of the U process and Senge’s 5th Discipline shared their co-sensing, co-presencing and co-creating sustainability stories from the field. This included Eileen Fisher who founded Eileen Fisher, Inc. 25 years ago in New York City; Alexander Schwedeler, Managing Director of Triodos Bank in Frankfurt, Germany; Marcelo Cardoso, Senior VP of Organizational Development & Sustainability of Natura Cosmeticos; and Michelle Long, Executive Director of Business Alliance for Local Living Economics.

I feel honored to be part of the presencing community, and to be adding my work on attention to the efforts of those leaders who seek more creative and innovative business solutions and practices.

(To comment on my post: on the right hand side, under “recent posts,” click on the specific post. Then the comment box will appear under that post. Or just click on the title of this post. The comment box will appear underneath.)

Attention, Leadership and Sustainable Business

October 22, 2011

I find that a way to explain something complex is to use a metaphor. In this video, I use a photo by Woody Woodworth of a sunbeam-lit wave in Mexico to describe the relationship between attention, leadership and sustainable business practices. View it now.

The reason for using a sunbeam on water to describe attention is because I experience a more evolved attention is one that is fluid and flexible, much like a sunbeam on water. Before I explain what I mean by this, let’s look at various definitions of “attention” by scholars and practitioners.

William James (2007), often referred to as the founding father of American psychology, defines “attention” as “the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought” (pp. 404–3). Similarly, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2008), considered one of the world’s leading researchers in positive psychology, defines “attention” as “a [complex mental] process that selects the relevant bits of information from the potential millions of bits available” (p. 31). He also refers to it as “psychic energy” because “attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work it is dissipated” (p. 33).

From a different view, B. Allan Wallace (2011), Buddhist practitioner and scholar, views attention as the “common denominator of all practices of shamathas [meditative quiescence] as well as the cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion” (p. 137). Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs (2007), leadership researchers and practitioners, define “attention” as “the direct, nonconceptual awareness of physical, mental, and emotional experience in the present moment” (p. 221).

Relating attention to experience, Peter Nelson (1997), social scientist and leadership coach, considers “the deployment of attention (and attentional resources) as the sine qua non [essential ingredient] of experience” (p. 6). William James agrees when he writes that “experience is what I agree to attend to” (2007, p. 402).

When present in a challenging experience, there are “millions of bits” of things to pay attention to. This makes the already difficult experience more difficult. This pressure can cue me to pay attention in a limiting habitual way. I find that if my attention deploys habitually I may choose to focus on something that represents only a narrow perspective of what is really happening. As I focus on this narrow perspective, I’m not taking advantage of the wider range of possibilities that may represent better ways to navigate the challenging experience. In effect, my experience of the experience is limited.

For example, under pressure I can deploy my attention in such a way so as to avoid looking stupid. (This is one of my limiting attention habits.) As a result, my behavior could be that I say something inauthentic (because I think it will make me not look stupid) or I will get angry (getting angry is better than looking stupid, at least that’s what I’m thinking at that moment).

Instead, with a more fluid and flexible attention, an attention that is not trapped, I don’t react based on limiting habits. Under pressure, I quickly notice I’m paying attention in such a way to avoid looking stupid (this may feel like a knot in my stomach or thoughts in my head). For a moment I’m paying attention to my attention. I then can shift to being more present to the experience, opening up to a broader “physical, mental and emotional experience in the present moment.” I now have more room to navigate the situation.

Consider the above in the context of the metaphor: a sunbeam on water as an evolved form of attention. A sunbeam on water is flexible – it can bend and even break up but still retain its light. A sunbeam on water is fluid– the light appears to move in a fluid, flowing manner when water becomes its medium. When my attention is not trapped on something I usually pay attention to (like controlling a situation, sex, chocolate, not looking stupid, etc.), which can feel linear and rigid, I can deploy it in a more fluid and flexible way—flowing into the moment, bending it here and there to discover what is possible; the focus is free to move about, not caught based on habit.

Over time in this blog, this line of thinking will be expanded upon and applied to discovering the more innovative sustainable business solutions. Stay tuned…

References

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1st ed.). Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

James, W. (2007). The principles of psychology, Vol.1 (1st ed.). New York: Cosimo Classics.

Joiner, W. B., & Josephs, S. A. (2007). Leadership agility: Five levels of mastery for anticipating and initiating change (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nelson, P. L. (1997). Consciousness as reflexive shadow: An operational psychophenomenological model. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 17(3), 215-228.

Wallace, B. A. (2011). Minding closely: The four applications of mindfulness. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.

(To comment on my post: on the right hand side, under “recent posts,” click on the specific post. Then the comment box will appear under that post. Sorry for this temporary inconvenience.)

Food, Attention and Leadership

October 16, 2011

As I wrote in my last post, I will be exploring work from different disciplines (e.g., leadership, psychology, Buddhism) related to my curiosity: In the quest for sustainable business, how might the cultivation of attention contribute to the process of leadership development?

I’m going to side step this a bit today in honor of Blog Action Day. The theme for October 16, 2011 Blog Action Day is food. I will attempt to relate attention, leadership and food. Here goes…

When I think of food, I think of all the wonderful organic food that enhances my life—it allows me to have energy to think up a creative way to relate attention, leadership and food!

Since 1996, I shifted the way I ate from the more processed, nitrate rich, antibiotic enhanced foods to the more natural organic choices. I would categorize my diet now as almost like the Paleolithic diet—mostly just vegetables, some meats, legumes and tofu. That’s right – no grains or fruits! (Okay, I eat an apple or pear every once in a while. And I love coconut.)

I feel that the deployment of my attention is affected by many factors such as emotions, physical surroundings, what is going on in my mind, and what is going on in my body. Food affects my emotions, mind and body. At least that is what I discovered when I switched to more natural organic foods. My mind is not as foggy, I feel less like I’m on an emotional rollercoaster, and my body is less tired. Of course more than just food affects these things, but I can tell you for sure that if I eat a piece of wheat bread (organic or not) my mind will become foggy, I will get grouchy and I will be sleepy. This results in my ability to focus attention in a significant way.

From a leadership perspective, I want to be able to attend to a challenging situation in a focused and clear way. The effort used to overcome the fog, grouchiness and tiredness in order to assess a situation means less ability to be present to a situation and less ability to respond creatively.

There it is: attention, leadership and food–what foods I eat affect my ability to attend to the present moment in order to see how best to deal with a challenge.

Time for a coconut smoothie!

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Welcome

October 7, 2011

It has been my experience that the most significant changes have happened to me not because of what I paid attention to, but because of what has paid attention to me. For over a decade, I had the attention of four mentors. Their attention was like a sunbeam that helped to better expose what was happening for me in the moment. Prior to receiving this attention, I would often experience resistance to being present to what was happening. This exposure to the mentors’ attention allowed my resistances to come and go, and, in doing this, I was able to better navigate challenging situations. As a result, it is my belief that attention is our single most powerful tool to create change.

What I learned from these mentors was instrumental in laying the foundation of my knowledge about attention. In my position as adjunct faculty at Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI) teaching Leadership and Personal Development (LPD) in an MBA for Sustainable Business program, as well as in my attention coaching practice, I experience a relationship between attentional abilities and leadership development.

In my blog I will be exploring work from different disciplines (e.g., leadership, psychology, Buddhism) related to my curiosity: In the quest for sustainable business, how might the cultivation of attention contribute to the process of leadership development?

Join me in my journey!

(To comment on my post: on the right hand side, under “recent posts,” click on the specific post. Then the comment box will appear under that post. Sorry for this temporary inconvenience.)

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