Why Happiness Grows with Mindful Practice

Chade-Meng Tan gave a presentation on mindfulness and happiness at an international conference on technology.   Meng (as he is called affectionately and respectfully by friends, colleagues and associates) painted a picture, through a series of metaphors, of progression in happiness as we grow in mindfulness.

Attention training and emotional control

At the earliest stage of attention training, through mindful breathing, we gain a level of control over our emotions – instead of our emotions controlling us, we stay in control.  Meng likened this to moving from being an unskilled rider at the beck of a wild horse (emotions), to a skilled rider who has the horse (emotions) under control.  This sense of control is a basis for happiness because, among other things, we will experience fewer regrets.  We will also be less “up and down” as a result of a shift in our emotions.

Self-awareness and self-mastery

As mindfulness training progresses through mindful practice, we gain mastery in two related areas, self-awareness and self-management.  Firstly, self-awareness enables us to understand the stressors in our life – what stresses us – and also to realise the nature and strength of our responses.  We gain insight into our contribution – through prior experience, negative thinking, assumptions and perceptual distortion- to the level of stress we experience.   Our perception of stress changes and we experience less stress as a result.  This is the basis for more frequent experience of happiness.

Self-awareness is the beginning of self-mastery, because we cannot achieve self-management without this self-knowledge.  Self-mastery enables us to remain calm and think clearly in situations where others “are stressed out”.  This calmness and clarity under stress signals leadership capability and may result in greater career success.  If nothing else it enables us to have the freedom of choice – the capacity to determine our response to stressors in the gap between stimulus and response.

Meng likens this stage to the effects of physical training – we gain mental and emotional fitness as we grow in mindfulness.  As with physical training, we find we are stronger, more resilient and happier as we develop our mindful practice.  The positive effects of mindfulness training are deeper and more sustainable than those flowing from physical training.

As Meng points out, based on the results of neuroscience research,:

What you think, what you do, and more importantly, what you pay attention to, changes the function and structure of your brain.

We develop more grey matter (our neo-cortex, the command centre of our brain thickens) and the amygdala  reduces (our potential emotional saboteur – the basis of our fight/ flight responses).  So our brain physically changes with mindful practice and locks in the positive effects, including the growth in happiness, that enable us to function better in all aspects of our life – work, career, relationships and leisure.

Discernment of emotions

Meng maintains, from more than a decade of evidence-based results, that our discernment of emotions increases dramatically as we grow in mindfulness.  He argues that we achieve high resolution in our perception of our emotional processes.  So not only are we better able to detect even small changes in our emotional process, but we can do so in real time – as they are happening.  This gives us useful and timely information so that we can view our emotional response objectively.

Thus we are able to make a perceptual shift so that we no longer think and say, “I am angry”, but rather “I am experiencing anger”.  This enables us to move from a perception that there is nothing we can do about this negative emotion, to one where we recognise that our emotions are something we can control.

Meng uses the analogy of the sky and clouds – your mind is the sky and emotions are the clouds.  This leads to the life-changing acknowledgement that “I am not my thoughts; I am not my emotions and my emotions are not me”.  This statement drew spontaneous applause from the audience because it was so liberating.

Mindful practice then enables us to view emotions as a feeling/expression in  our body, just like physical pain.  We are able then to treat them as separate from ourselves and thus controllable – which increases our experience of happiness .

Kindness habits

As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to demonstrate kindness to others.  Kindness has been shown to improve mental health and well-being, even if the kindness is expressed as a thought, rather than action.   Meng explains that even asking people to think kind thoughts about two other people – wishing happiness for them – for at least ten seconds a day can have life-changing effects.  As we reported earlier, we become what we focus on – thinking kind thoughts about others on a daily basis can make us a kind person.

Kindness reinforces all the benefits of mindful practice and enhances and enriches our state of happiness.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of RobinHiggins on Pixabay

Clarity through Mindfulness

Recent neuroscience confirms that mindfulness develops clarity of mind.  This is reinforced by the experience of Chade-Meng Tan through the Search Inside Yourself mindfulness program conducted at Google over the past ten years.

We are able to see things more clearly because our mind is uncluttered by constant, random thoughts or overcome with emotions such as anxiety or fear. We are better able to understand what we see, learn from that understanding and put that learning into practice.

We often have knowledge and skills that we do not utilise in an opportune moment through lack of focus – clarity enables us to more readily access what we know and can do.

Clarity allows our subconscious to work effectively free from the constraints of constant brain chatter and anxiety – and this frees up our capacity for creativity.  Anxiety and fear are real impediments to creative activity.

Through clarity we are better able to see and seize opportunities as they arise.  If our minds are elsewhere, the past or the future, 49% of the time, then we will miss opportunities that come our way.

Clarity helps us to keep things in perspective, so that little things or events are not “blown out of all proportion”.  We are better able to see things for what they are.

An important aspect of clarity is the capacity to better understand what is occurring in conflict situations – we gain a clearer insight into the identity issues for us and for the other person.  We can more clearly see and understand things from their perspective and adopt a more effective response.

Clarity enables us to more accurately appreciate what we access through our senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.  We are less prone to have our sensory perceptions contaminated by negative emotional memories held deeply within our limbic system.

As we grow in mindfulness, we gain clarity – we see things more clearly, understand things better, are more open to opportunities and creative endeavour and are more sensitive to the needs of others.  Clarity impacts many facets of our daily lives, not just our perceptions and mental activity, but also our interactions with others.

So it makes it well worthwhile to maintain mindful practice in pursuit of calm, clarity and happiness.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of pompi on Pixabay

Mindful Leadership: Inspiring Followers

What do you think it would be like to follow a mindful leader, someone with advanced emotional intelligence skills?  As we have discussed, mindful leadership entails self-awareness, self-management, motivation, empathy and social skills (compassion and communicating with insight).  The mindful leader attracts and inspires  followers because of these characteristics.

They have a highly developed level of self-awareness, acknowledge their limitations, admit when they make a mistake and are tolerant of others’ mistakes.  When someone else makes a mistake they do not look for an individual to blame but undertake a system-based analysis to learn from what happened.

A mindful leader inspires confidence and trust – they are in control of their emotions.  They do not lose their temper when something happens that embarrasses them or their organisation/community.  Their high level of self-management enables them to stay calm in any situation they confront, even in what appears to be a crisis. This level of self-composure reassures followers that the situation is under control and models calmness and self-control.

Mindful leaders are highly motivated – they have a clear vision that is aligned to their values. In turn, they are able to effectively communicate their vision and reinforce their values by their congruence – aligning their actions with their words.  This alignment means that their communications are believable and inspiring.

The mindful leader understands others’ pain and suffering and genuinely feels with and for them.  They are empathetic listeners, able to reflect and clarify feelings as well as content.  They are not so self-absorbed that they are oblivious to others’ feelings – they are empathetic and inspire a willingness to be open about and deal with emotions. They themselves show vulnerability by being open about their own emotions – whether that means having felt anger, disappointment, distress, pride or any other emotion.

The mindful leader is compassionate – they not only notice others’ suffering and express empathy but also act to alleviate that suffering where possible.  Their compassion is an inspiration to others and gives followers permission to be compassionate to others in the organisation or the community. They talk about the organisation/ community in terms of a family – they do not employ the aggressiveness of the sport/war metaphor.

Mindful leaders communicate with insight gained through clarity of mind and a calm demeanour.  They see beyond appearances and have a depth of understanding that encourges and inspires followers.  Their communications are clear, meaningful and accessible – they inspire engagement.

They are fundamentally happy – they are doing something meaningful, engaging their core skills and contributing wholeheartedly to a vision that extends beyond themselves.

Chade-Meng Tan, author of Search Inside Yourself, is the epitomy of mindful leadership.  His effusiveness and happiness is contagious, his vision engaging and his clarity and acuity are inspiring. Meng, in his Google Talk, explains the foundations of the Search Inside Youself program, the benefits that accrue and why he chose to embed it in a prominent, global organisation such as Google.

Meng explains that his vision is to contribute to world peace by developing, on a global scale, leaders who are compassionate.  He sees that helping leaders to grow in mindfulness will achieve this goal.  The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute is a vehicle to bring his philosophy and training to the world through conduct of workshops, seminars and intensive training on a global basis.  In pursuit of this vision, Meng and his collaborators are developing trainers who can work globally.

Meng is one example of a mindful leader and his passion, humour, insight and humility are inspiring.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of  johnhain on Pixabay

Mindful Leadership: Social Skills – Communicating with Insight

Chade-Meng Tan (affectionately known as “Meng”), is the author of the book, Search Inside Yourself, a developer of the related Google course and one of the founders of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute.

Meng maintains that as we grow in mindfulness we develop calmness of mind and clarity of thought.  So whatever the stressful situation we are in, we are able to remain in control of our emotions – instead of being held captive by the primitive part of our brain, the amygdala. (Meng’s Google Talk)

We are able to notice our emotions as they occur and to choose how we respond, e.g communicate with compassion, instead of with anger.  We are no longer controlled by our emotions.

The insight we gain is not only insight into ourselves but also understanding and insight into others’ emotions, motivations and behaviour.  So we are better able to communicate from this position of increased understanding and insight, a position of increased clarity of mind not confounded by emotions.  We also gain a greater understanding and appreciation of our environment, both the natural environment and also the micro and macro work context.

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute’s two day program on mindful leadership and emotional intelligence offers a process to help leaders communicate with insight in the context of difficult conversations.  The process involves reflection on a conflicted conversation that you have been involved in with another person.  It aims to help you to gain insight into your own perceptions, emotions and motivation and those of the other person.

The two step process starts with an analysis of your involvement in the conflict.   Firstly you are asked to identify the content of the conflict (what happened from your perspective) and secondly, your feelings at the time (your emotions). The process then helps you to gain a deep insight into your own motivations.

The third step, then, is the critical one. The assumption is that both parties in the conflict are ultimately trying to deal with identity issues  – a fundamental motivation behind the conflict for each party.  These identity issues are expressed as three  questions:

  • am I competent?
  • am I a good person?
  • am I worthy of love?

Once you answer these identity issues questions for yourself, you put yourself in the position of the other person and repeat the three step process with respect to the other person in the conflict (the what, the feelings and the identity issues for them).

This then puts you in a position to communicate with renewed insight into the other person in the conflict  You should undertake the follow-up conversation only after you have first reflected on your intention on having the subsequent conversation.  You may actually decide not to pursue a further conversation at this point, but resolve to approach the next interaction with greater care and insight.

Communicating with insight comes with growth in mindfulness.  As Meng points out, if you have developed mindfulness, you are able to approach any situation, whatever it involves, with clarity of mind and  calmness (free from from the influence of uncontrolled emotions).

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Sustaining the Practice of Mindfulness: One Breath at a Time

You might have been inspired by a mindfulness workshop or the stories of other people who have experienced the benefits of mindfulness.

You could be convinced of these benefits by the neuroscience supporting mindfulness and just want to experience particular benefits yourself.

But all the knowledge, inspiration and desire alone will not help you to grow in mindfulness, if you don’t practice mindfulness.  You have to learn how to maintain the motivation for mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness is like any other skill area – you need to practice to master the process and make it an integral part of your life.

Chade-Meng Tan, one of the creators of Google’s Search Inside Yourself course in mindfulness and emotional intelligence, likens sustaining mindfulness practice to developing the habit of going to the gym:

It is the same with sustaining a mindfulness practice.  You probably need some discipline in the beginning, but after a few months, you may notice dramatic changes in quality of life.  You become happier, calmer, more emotionally resilient, more energetic, and people like you more because your positivity emanates onto them.  You feel great about yourself.  And again, once you reach that point, it is so compelling, you just cannot not practice anymore. (Search Inside Yourself: The Secret Path to Unbreakable Concentration, Complete Relaxation, Total Self-Control, p.56)

Over the last ten years, Google has trained more than 4,500 staff and managers in mindfulness and emotional intelligence through their Search Inside Yourself course.  One thing the creators and facilitators of the course have learned is how to sustain mindfulness practice and realise its benefits.

Chade-Meng Tan shares his insights about a simple three-step process to sustain the practice of mindfulness:

  1. find a buddy to check in with on a weekly basis to share your mindfulness experience and make yourself accountable
  2. do less than you can manage so that it does not become onerous
  3. take one mindful breath a day.

Chade-Meng Tan explains the last step more fully below:

I may be the laziest mindfulness instructor in the world because I tell my students all they need to commit to is one mindful breath a day.  Just one.  Breathe in and breathe out mindfully, and your commitment for the day is fulfilled; everything else is a bonus. (Search Inside Yourself, p.58)

Practice increases our consciousness of mindfulness and its benefits.  It enables us to develop momentum that will help to sustain our commitment and motivation.

The secret is to develop a habit but start small with something that is easy to achieve.  This enables us to get over the early hurdles where practice is experienced as a chore.

If you don’t persist past the early resistance stage, you won’t experience the benefits of mindfulness.  So there is a lot of wisdom in starting with just one breath a day to grow mindfulness.

Image source: johnhain on Pixabay