Informal Mindfulness: The benefits of an ancient practice in a modern world
Updated: Jul 25
Whenever I ask my students the question of what mindfulness means, around 50% of them will invariably say “meditation”, “breathing” and “awareness” – sometimes they also add “yoga”. The other 50% will call it “hokey” and not wish to hear anymore.
Yet, the concept has been embraced within the contemporary business environment, even universities are adding a “Mindfulness in Business” course to their programmes, and there are constant articles citing big names like Google, Apple and intel celebrating the organisational gains “mindfulness” brings – whether individuals like it or not.
Indeed, the benefits are often espoused in blogs, news articles and research papers, and to date, including mindfulness in day-to-day working results in stress levels dropping, sleep quality improving, pain dropping, and an estimated “…$3000 per-employee increase in productivity for the company each year.” (Gelles, 2015). Research findings also showed improved creativity, wellbeing and focus along with stronger enthusiasm in projects and meetings.” (Intel Press, 2013) Gelles (2012) also found improved decision making with teams becoming better listeners; and better focus and open mindedness, better collaboration plus a climate of “…openness, acceptance and empowerment”…Emotionally and intellectually available leaders, and a switch from “hurried multitasking and its psychological blind spots, to one of curiosity, flexibility and opportunity.” (Williams, 2016)
Where does Mindfulness Originate?
Its roots in Buddhist meditative practice, “Mindfulnesss” was brought into mainstream usage in 1979 when the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusettes presented the “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” programme (MBSR) which brought the Buddhist practice of meditation into the formal scientific and clinical setting.
MBSR, in its use of the term “mindfulness” acknowledged the practices within Buddhism. The practice of “mindfulness” is the seventh factor of the eightfold path, one of Buddhism’s “Four Noble Truths” Through mindful meditation for transcendence Buddhists attained “…a state of peace and bliss…contemplation of one’s own experience, subsumed under the four objective domains of the body, feelings, states of mind, and experiential phenomena…greater compassion.” (Bodhi, 2015)
As such, the meditation practised with MBSR was also focused on those three elements: (1) A peaceful emotional state; (2) Awareness and balance of the body and mind; (3) Compassion (for the self and other).
The course, still popular today, comprises a mix of meditation retreats where participants focus on yoga-breathing and broadening awareness of their bodies.
But you don’t have to take a course to enjoy a clear and aware mind
One of the disadvantages of the frantic multi-tasking world in which we live – and which leaders are often trained to improve their skills within, is not being “fully present” within everything that needs to be done. How many times have you been talking to a friend, a spouse, your child and found yourself distracted by your phone, tablet or laptop?
Imagine you have to send a series of emails, then go to a meeting, then go to another meeting.
1. After you have completed your emails, splash some water on your face, or take a couple of deep breaths, or do some star jumps to clear your mind prior to your next engagement.
2. After the meeting, do the same.
You will find that you will be re-energised for the start of that next task.
(Exercise adapted from “High Performance Habits” Burchard, 2017)
At the very least, doing this means that you are still completing all your tasks – but are giving each a higher quality of attention.
Why is focused attention important to manage?
Not only is the 21st century world set up for distraction (perhaps you call it "multitasking"...but true multitasking is doing a task which requires different parts of the brain ie. running (Physical) while listening to music (Mental)...doing 3 cognitive things at once (writing an email, listening to your children, and planning dinner) is attention splitting...meaning while all of the tasks get done, no single one gets your full attention.), but we've never been taught to focus it.
Think about it - how often were you told to "concentrate" - and how often do you tell others to...and yet, it's something we never learned to do.
As per my "attention splitting" example, if we are trying to do too much, no singular pursuit gets as much attention as it may require - which is certainly a shame if this includes our relationships with loved ones, but our whole lives are simply made up of the things we choose to focus our attention on.
HAVE we really not been capable of achieving that particular goal...or did we spend more time on facebook than we did working at it?!
WAS it honestly that we don't have the energy to change a job that makes us unhappy - or is it that our energy is directed onto things such as other people's psychodramas!?
DO you actually not have time to look for a healthy relationship, or is it that you have allowed others to demand of you because your need to please others and seek validation from them is still stronger than your desire to please yourself...and realisation that it is only you that can do it?!
Here's a quick way to learn concentration
Rather than thinking this is something "extra" you need to add to an already packed schedule - think about the things you are going to do through the day anyway - such as speak to your loved ones, or eat a meal. When you do those things, really work on giving them your full attention - you might surprise yourself with how much those relationships improve, and simply by focusing on eating, you may find yourself able to stick at that healthy diet you promised yourself.
These techniques would not be classified under traditional mindfulness yet they are simple ways to improve our “embodied awareness”. So, rather than approaching “Mindfulness” as a buzzword, it is most effective when incorporated it into daily life.
5 easy informal Mindfulness practices
i) The Gratitude stretch
When you wake, stretch your arms and think of one thing you are grateful to have. Stretch your legs and think of one person you are grateful to know. Finally stretch your whole body and think of one thing you are looking forward to today.
This keeps you focused in there, here, now – and on what you have.
Extra life benefits:
a) Gratitude magnifies positive emotions which can energise us to be motivated to act: Research on emotion shows that positive emotions wear off quickly. Our emotional systems like newness – but after a while it wears off. But gratitude makes us appreciate the value of something.
b) Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret—emotions that can destroy our happiness. This makes sense: You cannot feel envious and grateful at the same time. (So if you free up some of the space that envy takes up, you have more left to do whatever it is you need to do for you!)
c) Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. Once you start to recognize the contributions that other people have made to your life and in turn realize that other people have seen the value in you to make those contributions—you can transform the way you see yourself…again your are more likely to be motivated to do something for yourself if you love yourself!
d) ...and my favourite: If you practice this exercise even just for a week, you will notice patterns of people or things appearing and some which don't. When this happens actively seek to spend time with those that bring your life joy and in turn you'll be able to say, truthfully, "Sorry I'm busy" to the others, AND the people and things which bring you joy will also energise you for the tougher things you need to do.
ii) Observe with all your senses
It’s not just your eyes that give you information, discover what you can learn about a situation or experience by also thinking about taste, touch, smell, and hearing.
Extra life benefits:
- Not only can problem solving be aided by considering something through different senses (or within on sense eg: vision for example, from different perspectives), but this also forms the basis of a very simple stress-relief exercise which you can do "in the moment" to find a sense of calm:
Identify 5 things you can see
4 things you can hear
3 things you can touch
2 things you can smell
1 thing you can taste
This ritual can help slow your breathing and give you headspace to consider your next move - in a much more palatable way compared with "calm down" or "just breathe"!
iii) Practice a more structured approach to decisions
It’s easy to find things to validate your argument – how about looking for all the reasons not to do something – and argue against them?
Extra life benefits:
-By training yourself to think more deeply this can temper impulse behaviours which only in some cases bring rewards. Being brave and running in can be very effective in some situations, but in others, a moment to think and plan can save you time and energy later on.
-Learning to think critically can also help you cut your losses when you need to. For example, when we want something emotionally, we may overlook red flags which our logical mind, had we given it some space to grow may have given us (literal) pause for thought. Exercising our ability to gather information and evaluate can help us when it comes to making decisions with larger potential consequences.
iv) Learn to say “no” (or at least “I’ll tell you later”)
Too often we say “yes” and when it comes to following through we realise we feel a twinge of regret. Allow yourself a moment to think about whether you want to do something by giving your response at a slightly later time, and then you are more likely to want to agree (if you do) – and enjoy it (when you do it).
Extra life benefits:
You cannot save people from themselves. If it is within your power, you can signpost them, and be there should they need a cheerleader, but solving their problems stops you from working on your own, and can teach them to be dependant on you.
Try practicing these statements:
- HOW can I best help you?
- What would you like me to do?
- What have you tried?
- What are you trying to achieve?
These questions offer support, because you can then more effectively target your response while also returning the power back to the person asking. …and you can channel the saved energy from not getting involved in their psychodramas, into your own goals.
v) Schedule in “development time”.
While these exercises are informal...they are things which do not need you to take "time out" to learn...you can simply try to incorporate them as you go about your day. Also remember that if informal work can bring results, formal focus is likely to offer even greater returns. So, timetable yourself in every day – and stick to it, whether you are working on your goals, undertaking formal learning, or simply having a cup of tea while it’s hot!
Extra life benefits:
- Making that commitment to yourself as important as your commitments to others will remind you that you are of value...and as much value as other to whom you also give time, energy, and attention. Not only will you feel better able to support others when you feel strong, but this can also go some way to addressing any sense of unworthiness that past experience has had you believe.
By making mindfulness part of your everyday routine, you will be boosting yourself with a little "self care" without the need to organise a retreat or a spa day. In turn this practice may help you buffer the effects of life's roller coaster by broadening your "window of tolerance for..." (or what I like to call the "WTF moments"...it simply takes more to overwhelm you and you also have coping strategies to hand when you need them; it can restore your state of equanimity (calm) effectively because some stress and adrenaline is not only certain, but sometimes an advantage (eg. if you are a competing or performing); and it can - because you are focusing your attention onto what matters to you - broaden your own capacity for joy.
While big decisions can have big consequences in the short term, it is not always the big choices in life (buying a house, changing job and so on) that have the greatest impact on shaping our life…it is the little things we choose to do every day, the little habits we create that really create who we are…so choose to do those things that benefit your health and wellbeing for the life you want to live.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt