Know thyself and work better

Mindfulness is far beyond being the new buzzword. After decades of being something vague — put the flowers in your hair, Dharma — it’s being practitioned everywhere, from the City to primary schools and from depressed people to the ones who are in search of happiness. Mindfulness holds a beautiful thought — that by being present in the here and now, you’ll suffer less. And it always entails a paradox — strive for mindfulness without striving for the effects, although you can just accept that you strive — do you understand? But why is mindfulness popular in a work setting as well and what can you take away?

Mindfulness in the Western world was developed to help people to cope with problems that wouldn’t go away — either chronical physical problems like lower back ache or psychological issues like recurrent depression. In training, people learn to acknowledge all there is in the here and now. That means they learn to become aware of their thoughts, pains, feelings and surroundings. What they discover is that their attention is like a camera — always moving and only focusing on one aspect. And you can learn to adjust the view. They suddenly discover that there is a lot more to see than just their pain. Only when you start to worry and grudge about those pains, the view gets stuck and you’ll end up aware of the pain and nothing more. With practice, you can “let go” of these pains, not by ignoring them but just let your attention move towards something else.

Nowadays, mindfulness is also used in business. Some business use it in a very “special” way — they teach their employees mindfulness so they accept organizational change. But in general, mindfulness might prevent burn-out, stress and more — helpful indeed. But that awareness can offer so much more! We tend to use mindfulness only to handle the bad stuff, cope with worrying and move on despite pains. But that same awareness that helps you to move on, can also help you to know thyself and work better. Two very interesting initiatives stand out for me.

Ryan Niemiec, director of the VIA institute, developed a Mindfulness based strengths practice training. I’ve taught this to people, and it’s amazing to see what happens. People become more aware — more mindful — of themselves. But above the normal effects, they become aware of their strengths. What activities give you energy? When do you feel alive? What are your top strengths that you can call upon to handle obstacles? With mindfulness, you improve your strengths use. And vice versa, for with the use of your strengths you can become more mindful — e.g. use your critical thinking or your curiosity to become aware of everything that’s happening in your head; or use forgiveness or perseverance to begin again and again. So, what are your strengths and are you aware of using them?

Richard Boyatzis developed the concept of resonant leadership. Leaders, he argues, should be resonant with themselves and their team members. First of all, they should be mindfully aware of their own feelings and thoughts and they should be aware of their employees. A leader who has a bad day will do a lot better if he acknowledges the bad day and thinks about how to deal with that today. And if there is trouble in your team, you’d better be aware of that and talk openly with some of them. Being mindful as a leader helps you to notice and to handle things better, being honest to yourself and others.

All these ways of using mindfulness have one ancient thought in common: pain is unavoidable. No matter what you do, bad things happen sometimes. Ignoring them or trying to prevent or control them is never the complete answer. Being aware of bad stuff, acknowledging and accepting its existence, means that you can either accept it or start to think about what you can do to fix it. And while you’re busy being aware, be aware as well of everything that’s good: appreciate what is and build on it.

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