Mindfulness. If you are not yet au fait with the concept, it might be a good idea to familiarise yourself with it now, because you will be hearing a lot about it — from business leaders, academics, politicians and educationalists. But don’t, whatever you do, call it a buzzword, for it is the very opposite. By definition, mindfulness aims to shut out the buzz; it is a brain-training technique based on using your breath to achieve mental clarity.
It has been discussed in Parliament as a therapy in relation to both unemployment and depression. But it isn’t about zoning out. If anything, it is about zooming in, paying attention to the present and decluttering the brain to make room for creativity — and in business that means boosting the bottom line.
To that end, mindfulness training has been embraced by organisations as diverse as Google, Transport for London, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Home Office, by way of an antidote to the relentless pressure and information overload common in many workplaces. “Uncertainty and instability are the norm in today’s work environment,” says Juliet Adams, director of A Head for Work, who specialises in mindfulness training. “We are living and working in times of constant change. Change is nothing new. What is new is that the pace of change is accelerating and mindfulness trains us to focus on the moment rather than allowing our attention to be hijacked by thoughts about the past or worries about the future.”
Many of us have so much on our minds at any given time that we function quite regularly on autopilot. It is not uncommon to set off in your car and arrive at your destination only to realise you remember nothing about the journey, or walk into a room to accomplish a task only to forget instantly what it was you wanted to do. Mindfulness teaches individuals to be present in the moment rather than being distracted about the past or projecting into the future. It doesn’t stop you feeling emotions per se, but it does allow you to deal with them more dispassionately.
The technique draws on the breathing exercises commonly used in meditation and yoga, but there the comparison ends. The aim is to become more aware of thoughts and feelings, in a nonjudgmental way, so that instead of being overwhelmed by them, we can manage them better. It may sound deceptively airy-fairy, but make no mistake, this isn’t about chanting and there is no cross-legged spirituality involved.
The United States military (hardly a bastion of hippiedom) offers marines mindfulness training before they are deployed, in recognition that it is an effective form of mental discipline. The principles and practice of “mindful leadership” are taught at Harvard, while Oxford University’s dedicated Mindfulness Centre is carrying out research into its clinical and general health benefits. “Advances in neuroscience and psychology in relation to depression over the past 15 years have coincided with the present economic situation, which has made the condition more prevalent, and mindfulness is a solution that is emerging at just the right time,” says Mark Leonard, who helped establish the Oxford centre and also runs an offshoot, the Mindfulness Exchange, which provides training. “As a culture, we are so prone to overthinking and ruminating that we need to develop a way of stilling our minds.”
The World Health Organisation recently stated that by 2030, mental health issues will form the biggest burden on health-care resources including heart conditions and cancer. “Mindfulness has been shown to help those suffering from depression to manage their emotions better and dwell less on negative memories and feelings,” Leonard says. “It’s remarkable to see someone transformed in five weeks from an unhappy, withdrawn person who feels overburdened to someone who is receptive and upbeat and can experience pleasure in the moment.” Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) for preventing relapse in patients with recurrent depression, and is successful in half of all cases. Such findings have been backed up by neuroscience.
When people feel stressed, the part of the brain associated with “fight or flight” — the amygdala — fires up, reducing the brain’s ability to cope. Modern crises such as a deluge of work-related e-mails or a clash of personalities are complex and require flexibility and emotional intelligence, but in its primitive state of high alert, the brain fixates on the immediate problem rather than thinking strategically. The practice of mindfulness has been shown to calm the body down, reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and even reduce the size of grey matter in the amygdala. By contrast, the amount of grey matter in those areas of the brain associated with attention, memory and empathy appears to have increased in those who have practised mindfulness exercises.
It is not just beneficial to adults; when applied in schools, mindfulness increases both children’s self-esteem and performance in class. “I used to teach at a highly academic independent girls’ school, and I found that by introducing mindfulness into lessons, it had a profound effect on the students’ anxiety levels, their confidence and their concentration,” says Claire Kelly, a mindfulness practitioner who is now involved with the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP), a not-for-profit body that runs an eight-week programme in schools. “Teaching mindfulness to young people gives them crucial tools to deal with the pressures of life. It’s empowering, and once they know how to do it, they can draw on it whenever they need to.”
Tonbridge School in Kent and Hampton School in Middlesex were the first British schools to include mindfulness in the curriculum for all 13- and 14-year-olds in 2010. Since then, more schools in the United Kingdom and elsewhere have become involved. “I think mindfulness training should be made available to every child,” Kelly says. “Once you’ve seen the tangible effect it has on behaviour and performance, it makes complete sense to incorporate it into school life and beyond.” So if your goal this year is an enhanced emotional equilibrium, a greater sense of perspective and a feeling that you can cope with challenges, mindfulness could well be the way forward. You have nothing to lose but your stress.
So what does mindfulness involve? I attended a taster session for staff at MPG Media Contacts, a central London media agency, to find out. First, we sat around on sofas, listening to the teacher talk us through the principles — in essence, how clearing the head boosts creativity and reduces stress.
Then came the deep belly-breathing, when we were asked to place our hands on our stomachs and feel the air being drawn right into the body. We were told to look at our hands, to examine them and admire their function and form, and to filter out any chattering going on inside our heads by immersing ourselves in the simple act of observation. Then we performed some stretches, still paying attention to our breathing, before walking very slowly around the room, feeling our body moving. It was deceptively simple, but not easy to do; it takes a lot of concentration to stop thinking and planning and projecting forward to the events of the day and focus on the present.
The hour-long session was held by The Vital Touch, a health and wellbeing business that specialises in corporate stress-busting therapies, including onsite chair massage, reflexology, yoga and Pilates. “There’s growing demand among our clients for mindfulness courses,” says Vital Touch founder Suzi Cinalli. “In creative industries, where people are a company’s biggest asset, it’s important to look after employees and invest in them.
“Mindfulness is a proven technique that will improve all areas of life by freeing you up to make the most of every moment.”
And the effect? Afterwards I felt calm and light. Despite a busy day ahead, it was as though I was in a bubble, and although aware of the various things I had to do, I didn’t feel at all anxious. Since then, I have practised the breathing, and found it a highly effective way of clearing my head. I am very keen to learn more and I don’t mind saying that I am a mindfulness convert.
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2013