by Patrick B. Williams, Ph.D.
Mindfulness and its training has caught the attention of researchers in the psychological and health sciences, and a growing understanding of the power of mindfulness in the workplace is well underway. Organizations such as Google are creating and using mindfulness programs to spread its benefits to their own employees and beyond. While mindfulness is implemented in business largely for health benefits, changes that occur from regular mindfulness practice go deeper, to changes in compassion and attention (3) that can lead to overall improvements in attitude and cognition.
A single breath could be the start of a practice in mindfulness-for-breathing, a mindfulness practice that is straight forward and free. To start, simply take a breath in and out, paying attention to its sound and feeling as it enters and leaves your body. When you feel comfortable that you can attend to this single breath without distraction, try counting to ten, counting one number for each breath in and each breath out. As a practice, mindfulness is easy to learn but hard to master. Even with minimal effort, due to its purported effect of balancing the autonomic nervous system (4), one may quickly see the benefits of mindfulness practice.
A recent study conducted by psychologist Ruth Wolever of Duke University showed that mindfulness can increase well-being in the workplace. Participants took part in a 12-week mindfulness intervention, or an equal length yoga intervention. Compared to a control group, employees who participated in the mindfulness intervention showed an overall heightened balance of the body’s autonomic system, as well to increased sleep and decreased perceived stress. These changes were equivalent to that of changes seen in the yoga group, suggesting that some of the psychological benefits of yoga may be achieved by a simple mindfulness practice.
By being mindful, one attends fully to the present moment without succumbing to outside distractions or thoughts unrelated to the task at hand. This is particularly important in workplaces where overstimulation is on the rise. When distractions do occur, attention is gently brought back to the present moment, without judgment or rumination. While often practiced during meditation, one may be mindful—maintaining a state of open and attentive awareness to the present moment (2)—across most any personal or workplace situation. We all operate with a base level of mindfulness and research has shown that this base can be increased with sustained practice.
Researchers in psychology have defined mindfulness as mental training that reduces vulnerability to negative states of mind, which leads to reductions in negative thoughts and behaviors. Mindfulness is not simply a strategy of relaxation or mood management, but instead acts to develop emotional and behavioral awareness through cognitive skills training. Mindfulness has an effect on cognition and emotion by:
Increasing awareness of and labeling ones’ own and others’ mental states, mindfulness practice leads to the creation of a mental space for reflection of self and other.
Allowing one to note and name internal thoughts and emotions prior to action, mindfulness can increase ones’ ability to regulate physiological responses to both good and bad everyday experiences.
Practicing compassion-based mindfulness can lead to happier and stronger relationships with friends, family, and coworkers.
Mindfulness practice fosters the development of awareness, regulation, reflection, and change by training two aspects of cognition1:
Self-regulation of attention – Mindfulness can be described as a singular but flexible awareness of the present-moment. One may practice regulating attention by focusing on the breath. By simply noticing the feeling of your breath in your body and redirecting attention there when distractions occur, attention may be anchored in the present moment. In anchoring attention, thoughts, feelings, and sensations can be treated as objects of observation, rather than as distractions to be suppressed or elaborated upon. The breath is just one convenient focus of attention, which may be focused on other sensations and even on feelings like love and compassion. The important point is that attention is fully committed to the present moment.
Orientation to experience – The self-regulation of attention is tied to a process of intensive but nonjudgmental evaluation of internal and external sensations. To regulate, practice attending to the present moment and being aware of where your mind wanders. Also, try noticing the objects your mind attends to when you are distracted. Focus on your thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and leave behind any personal agenda. This approach leads to increased well being by shifting away from cognitive strategies that serve to distract and distance the self from negative emotions and moving to those that help you examine negative feelings directly.
One may approach mindfulness directly, through a sitting practice, or more informally, by being purposefully mindful during everyday activities. One easy way to practice mindfulness is by mindful commuting. During your commute, draw attention to your routine commuting behaviors and reactions to the commuting environment, and to other commuters. Instead of responding with anger or frustration to bad driving, for example—throwing your nervous system into a negative state, and decreasing higher-level cognitive processes—take a few deep breaths, centering your attention only on your breathing and anchoring to the present moment. In this way, you can take active control of your own nervous system, and with practice, commuting can become more of a mundane activity, and even a time for quite reflection. The benefits gained from mindful commuting may just carry over into other everyday activities and contribute to a healthier and less stressful life.
1 Bishop, S. R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N. D., Carmody, J., Segal, Z. V., Abbey, S., Speca, M., Velting, D., Devins, G. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 230-241.
2 Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your mind to face stress, pain and illness. New York: Dell.
3 Lippelt, D. P., Hommel, B., & Colzato, L. S. (2014). Focused attention, open monitoring and loving kindness meditation: Effects on attention, conflict monitoring, and creativity – A Review. Frontiers in Psychology, 5:1083.
4 Wolever, R. Q., Bobinet, K. J., McCabe, K., Mackenzie, E. R., Fekete, E., & Kusnick, C. A. Effective and Viable Mind-Body Stress Reduction in the Workplace: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 2, 246-258.