Mindfulness and Business Building

omMindfulness: What on earth does mindfulness have to do with business building?

Being fully present with your business.

Being completely intentional about everything you do.

You may consider it sounds just like the language of people who meditate. You’d be right. It is. You need to know that mindfulness is being applied to many working situations nowadays–for good reasons.

Here are some of them:

  • You will be awake to the real intention of what the business is about;
  • chances will be higher that your business will arrive at the place you intend;
  • relationships at work will grow to be more productive;
  • there will be less conflict among the people with whom you work;
  • being awake to opportunity, creativity and innovation will be fostered;
  • you’ll have fewer surprises to confront, saving you energy and time;
  • feeling more alive, you will notice clues in the environment and increase effectiveness.

What is Mindfulness?

It is being aware of exactly what is happening NOW. It means fully observing, not only the things you can see or experience with all your senses–the five we normally talk about, plus the mind. Being an observer of what is going on in your mind and body sensations, feelings and emotions.

As business people, we have a tendency to crash through the undergrowth, without noticing what’s really happening around us and inside of us. Mindfulness is a calm awareness of one’s body functions, feelings, content of consciousness, or consciousness itself–the vivid awareness of the physical setting through the senses. So focused are we on outcomes, that we often remain oblivious of these things.

Without needing to immerse yourself in a meditative practice, there are some simple actions you can take to heighten your mindfulness:

  1. as you work focus on your breathing momentarily, being aware of your body sensations;
  2. pause periodically to make internal observations of your feelings and emotions;
  3. consciously look at people and things around you–noting colors, shapes, form.

“Mindfulness promotes the integrative function of the prefrontal cortex,” Dan Siegel, author of The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, says. “It allows brain circuits to fire that have perhaps never fired before, giving people a sensation of inner awareness that they may never have had before.”

Spend three minutes looking at this short video by Ellen Langer, pioneer in mindfulness research. It will help you appreciate what mindfulness is, and can do for you.

What’s the Importance for Entrepreneurs?

cubicles“No matter how hard we try to keep our jobs and careers on track, they just don’t seem to cooperate—they constantly misbehave. One minute we are on our way to a promotion, and the next we are being transferred to Antarctica. Or maybe our boss has closed the largest sale in the history of the company and, as she basks in the glory, asks us to manage the account. We’re enthused and ready for the challenge, but we find that she failed to bid it properly, and now we’re accountable for a project that will be lucky to break even.”

“Such mishaps occur frequently, and we all know the score. And with today’s job losses and business failures, the list of unruly possibilities seems endless,” points out my friend, Michael Carroll, writing in the magazine, Tricycle. But if we can stay awake, then we can cope so much more effectively with such vicissitudes. Michael’s book, The Mindful Leader: Awakening Your Natural Management Skills Through Mindfulness Meditationis a must have for successful and happy entrepreneurs.

buddhas-brainYou can focus your mind and enhance you working life and relationships. The discoveries of modern neuroscience confirm that our mind is capable of making changes in our brain, which then enable us to learn and work better. Another friend, Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist has written what is, in my view, another must have book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. He says, “you can do small things inside your mind that will lead to big changes in your brain and your experience of living.”

Rick defines being mindful as, “having good control over your attention: you can place your attention wherever you want and it stays there; when you want to shift it to something else, you can.” Is that not great? He offers deceptively simple advice:

  1. Establish a deliberate intention at the beginning of any activity that requires focus.
  2. Get a bodily sense of being someone you know who is extremely focused.
  3. Keep reestablishing your intentions (in a meeting, keep reiterating your resolve).
  4. Make the intention to be attentive the default setting of your life by developing the habit of everyday mindfulness.

Rick points out that, “since attention is largely under volitional control–you can usually direct it with conscious effort–you have an extraordinary tool at your disposal throughout your day to nudge your moment-to-moment experience in a positive direction, and thereby gradually sculpt your brain in positive ways. Which will of course lead to increasingly positive experiences and actions for you, which will in turn sculpt your brain further, in a wonderfully positive cycle.”

Mindfulness Meditation Can Change Your Brain

Not only can the cultivation of mindfulness improve well-being, it can actually change the nature of your brain to improve performance. You have known about the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism that alerts you to danger. Through meditation, you can improve that alerting ability–to achieve sustained attention and vigilance for responding to anticipated stimuli.

Beyond that alertness, you can develop your capacity for orienting–to select from options ion a process of scanning or selection. Even more important for the entrepreneur, you can enhance executive attention, for conflict resolution, planning and decision-making, error detection and overcoming habitual actions.

Brain scientists now accept the concept of the brain’s plasticity–think Play-Doh. You can read an excellent book on it: Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself. Far from being stuck with the brain you were born with, it can actually change itself and what is more exciting is that you can use your mind to change it. Research (much of it covered in Dodge’s book) shows many experimental and therapeutic examples of dramatic benefits from this mind over matter.

Executive attention, in neurological terminology, includes processes such as planning or decision making, error detection, new or not-well learned responses, regulation of thoughts or feelings, and the overcoming of habitual actions. Mindful awareness in these kinds of situation can be make or break, especially for entrepreneurs.

Change Your Brain, Change the Game

shiny_brainYou can become more than you imagine. You can rewrite the rules and play a new game. Neuroplasticity sounds a mouthful, but the word will soon be common parlance. Right now, developments in neuroscience are as rapid as those in electronic media and the global village, what is sometimes called the ‘brain outside the skin’. The new discoveries in brain science are as great, if not greater importance to business. If you aren’t following what brain scientists are doing, you should be!

Not only can can we change our physiology (develop new neurons, change their use, speed the firing of neurons…), but as a consequence we can change our mental functions and our relationships as well. Using neural integration, through mindfulness practice, you will increase flexibility and self-understanding–two characteristics of vital importance to any entrepreneur. Not only that, there is documented evidence of how mindfulness improves immune function.

We are in desperate need of innovative ways of dealing with threatening issues that society confronts. Making better use of the vast untapped resources available within each of our brains is vital. If we can apply that asset to new ways of doing business we can really change the world.

Dan Siegel charts the nine integrative functions that emerge from the profoundly interconnecting circuits of the brain, including bodily regulation, attunement, emotional balance, response flexibility, fear extinction, insight, empathy, morality, and intuition. What entrepreneurs would turn down the opportunity to improve these functions of the prefrontal cortex?

Neuroplasticity, Neurogenesis and Mental Rigidity

Phew! What terrifying sounding words they are. But no. They are vital words for entrepreneurs–at least to understand in principle.

  • neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change;
  • neurogenesis is the ability of the brain to add new neurons;
  • mental rigidity is the way the brain habituates–for good or bad.

These are my descriptions. You won’t find them in the dictionary and brain scientists may cringe.

Why are they important for people starting businesses?

Neuroplasticity is important because it means we have the ability to learn and innovate; we do not need to restict ourselves to what we think we know. If we need to develop new skills or find out things, there is nothing to stop us. It can work in two directions; it is responsible for deleting old connections as frequently as it enables the creation of new ones.

Neurogenesis, or the birth of new neuronal cells, was thought to occur only in developing organisms. However, recent research has demonstrated that neurogenesis does indeed continue into and throughout adult life. It is thought to be an important mechanism underlying neuronal plasticity, enabling organisms to adapt to environmental changes and influencing learning and memory throughout life.

Mental Rigidity happens to protect us, since the brain is so easily altered–it helps consistency. The trouble is that we can have habitual reactions like, “I can’t do…” when in fact we can, if we intend to. We can get rid of mental roadblocks and as entrepreneurs we often need to. Then maybe we need to retrain and have ourselves be comfortable with something we thought we could not do before.

The process of developing mindfulness through meditation opens to the pathway to all these exciting possibilities. But it’s good to know that you can positively influence your mental circuits and sharpen your thinking through exercise: take a look at John Ratey’s book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. If you’d like to connect with me about any of this, feel free.

“Come to your senses”

You have probably used the expression, probably without thinking. Coming to our senses is normally an expression of desire to get real, to wake up, or in other words, to become mindful.

The trouble is that we all too often try to do it with the brain. But the body has powerful messages that in the West, we have generally tended to ignore. Put ‘mind over matter’ is what we have been taught to do. And when we do up pop tension headaches and all the stress-related complaints with which we are so familiar.

Since your five body senses can tell you a great deal, doesn’t it make ‘sense’ to tap into them? In Buddhism we talk about the six sense ‘doors’. In other words, one ‘extra’. They are

  1. the eye and visible objects
  2. the ear and sound
  3. the nose and odor
  4. the tongue and taste
  5. the body and touch, and
  6. the mind and mental objects.

The last one, the mind, is an internal sense organ which interacts with sense objects that include sense impressions, feelings, perceptions and volition. If we can really be awake to to all six, we sometimes talk of becoming aware ‘bottom-up’, rather than the opposite way of staying in our heads and working top-down. Dissolving our preconceived ‘top-down’ ideas about reality is a challenge worth pursuing.

We can practice doing this and as we get better at it, we find that we can become much more alert to what is going on around us, with people and things–an essential skill for entrepreneurs. If we can become more grounded, then we will be more able to open our hearts to ourselves and others.

Practical and Straightforward

Remember mindfulness is not an arcane Eastern practice, it is the subtle process that you are using at this very moment, that you can always improve. Meditation techniques can be philosophical (Buddhist, for example), religious (Christian, for example), secular (yoga, for example) and many other approaches and traditions. Indeed, mindful awareness is a universal goal across human cultures.

mindful_leaderAll kinds of meditation use concentration as a medium. In most, the breath is used as an object of concentration. In many the process involves observation–of felt sensations, feelings or emotions. This gives you the opportunity to notice what is going on. Think of an elephant; then move on to thinking about thinking about an elephant. Such detachment not only gives you perspective, but works the brain.

Michael Carroll has a long experience, not only of meditation, but he was for most of his working career, a manager in business. In his book, The Mindful Leader: Awakening Your Natural Management Skills Through Mindfulness Meditation, there are some very down-to-earth, but effective practices and exercises of meditation and other contemplative activity.

In addition, I go for various simple ‘helpers’.

One technique is the body scan, much used in meditation: just sit comfortably with a stratight back, close the eyes and mentally scan the whole body in its parts. Start at the top of the head and go down, first the front and then the back of the torso, naming things as you go–not forgetting the organs inside; then go down each limb, allowing brief rests at important spots.

Another aid I use when I am at the computer is a widget. It’s called ProdMe (Mac only) that helps me stay aware of the passage of time by playing a sound at regular intervals, that I can set for the interval I want. When it chimes, I unfold my legs, conscious of their contortions and I breath three of four mindful breaths with my eyes closed, before going back to work.

Successful Companies Use Mindfulness

Don’t get the impression that this mindfulness stuff is all ‘new age psychobabble’. It’s not. You will find a growing number of traditional companies are using mindfulness, not only for the health and stress relief of staff, but also because it contributes to performance.

Among the many health and wellness programs offered at the Vermont-based Green Mountain Coffee Roasters is mindfulness meditation. Bear in mind this is a company that also has delivered double-digit net sales growth for the last 27 consecutive quarters.

Other companies in the mainstream using mindfulness meditation include Apple, AstraZeneca, Comcast, Deutsche Bank, Google, Heinz, Hughes, McKinsey, Nortel Networks, Proctor & Gamble, Raytheon, Texas Instruments, Unilever, and Yahoo. They cannot all be wrong, surely?

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