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What is mindfulness and how does it work?

Is it more than colouring in?

What is mindfulness

Mindfulness is such a fashionable phenomenon at the moment.

Apparently everyone’s doing it – whether that’s chewing on a raisin and noticing the taste and texture of it in your mouth or being absorbed by the simple yet delightful act of colouring in.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that practising mindfulness techniques is good for you – it reduces stress and improves resilience and emotional intelligence.

Clearly, the meditative aspect of mindfulness is a welcome antidote to our hectic, running on autopilot lives, forcing us to stop, think and notice.

But what’s the science behind it? How does it work and how does it benefit us, really?

Here’s my guide to making use of mindfulness.

What is Mindfulness ?
Jon Kabat-Zinn (creator of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts) calls it “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.

Or more simply, Daniel Siegel (founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center) says “it is waking up from a life on automatic.

How it works?

Every time we have a new experience, we lay down new neural connections in our brains.

But the brain is a sucker for familiarity. It will look for patterns and similarities between experiences and the more times we have a similar experience, the stronger these connections get.

This means that over time, we can get stuck in ways of behaving and viewing the world.

But the plasticity of the brain means you can change its neural networks by ‘not using’ the networks you don’t want to use and by ‘creating’ new networks.

Mindfulness can help with this. Research suggests that when we are mindful we become aware of the flow of our thoughts. We activate the prefrontal cortex – the higher part of the brain that enables rational thought.

This gives you an opportunity to break your automatic patterns of thinking. It enables you to look at the world in a new way. And in doing so, you effectively ‘rewire’ your brain.

Mindful meditation

Meditation is about focusing on the here and now, specifically paying attention to what your body is doing, how you feel and what you’re thinking.

It’s a way of observing yourself in minute detail and brings about a deep sense of knowing yourself. This can help your mind and body become more united, more in balance, no longer fighting for your attention.

Also, meditation can help you deal with negative thoughts. By becoming more attuned to the workings of your mind you become better able to evaluate a negative experience rationally. You’re more likely to consider the facts, the evidence rather than simply think that things went wrong because you’re a bad person.

Meditation also helps you to become more attuned to other people too. Because you’re more aware of how you respond to and emit non-verbal and emotional signs, you can read them better in other people.

Flexible mindset

The other way to become more mindful is to develop a flexible state of mind. Keep your mind open to the “novelty and uncertainty inherent in all situations rather than approaching things as fixed (Ellen Langer).

Langer recommends a mindful style of thinking:

  • Focus on what is happening in the moment – to prevent you from making premature judgments
  • Focus on the new aspects of what is happening – what is new about what you are encountering?
  • Focus on the context you can change context easier than you can change personality
  • Focus on other perspectives – what other possible perspectives could you take on the same situation? Meaning you’re less likely to jump to conclusions.

This flexible state of mind means you can avoid self-defeating habits that become automatic. This will help you see new perspectives on what is happening, or to understand the context in a different way.

What is mindfulness and Using mindfulness in the workplace

For me, I believe that being mindful makes for better leaders. It enables you to keep a rational perspective when things go wrong. It helps you to be more open to learning from experience. It means you’re less afraid to take risks to push the business forward.

Plus, it helps leaders be more empathic, more able to understand how others may react to situations. Better able to sense the mood when people may not be willing to speak up. They may be able to spot people issues before they become a significant issue.

I’d be really interested to hear whether you’ve been applying a mindful practice in your life as I’d like to pull together a blog of ideas for us all to share. Do drop me an email to let me know and I’ll collate and circulate them.

For more insights into mindfulness and how to apply it to your life, check out the book Flourishing by Maureen Gaffney (2011).



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