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

Mountains and Water: Source of Meditation

I took the photo above when returning at dusk from a boat trip on Lake Como as the mist descended on the mountains and water.

When viewing this scene as it appears,  you could focus on what you can see.  You could look at the shapes, the trees, the contrast of light and dark, the colours and the sun reflecting on the rippling water.  Alternatively, you could focus on any one of the other four senses – taste, touch, hearing or smell.

We are reminded by Buddhism that there is also a sixth sense, the mind.  It influences our perceptions through our thoughts, emotions and mental images. (China Buddhism Encyclopedia)  So when actually experiencing this scene, you could experience peace, tranquility or even anxiety.

As we have mentioned previously, what you see is not what I see because of our different experiences and our interpretation of those experiences. Our minds, like our other senses, are continuously free roaming – they are not in our direct control unless we reign them in as we grow in mindfulness.

It is interesting that mountains and water featured very prominently in Chinese landscape painting over the centuries and in different traditions.  Mountains and water had different meanings within the various traditions of Chinese landscape art. For some, it evoked a sense of freedom, for others, the perfect balance between Yin and Yang energy. (Karen Albert, Mountains and Water in Chinese Art).

Shan shui (literally, “mountain-water”) landscape painting, for instance, sought to give expression to the artist’s inner landscape – thoughts and feelings generated by nature – rather than provide an accurate representation of reality. (“Shan shui”, Wikipedia.org)

As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of nature and to use mountains and water as a source of meditation – opening up the possibility of exploring our own internal landscape.

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

Mindfulness – Control, Health and Happiness

One of the benefits of mindfulness is that it develops our sense of control. To use an analogy, we begin to realise that we are the one pushing the buttons – our buttons are not being pushed by others, events or the environment.

As we grow in mindfulness, we begin to experience control over our emotions and our responses. We are less at the mercy of our triggers, panic attacks and other sources of stress.  We develop a growing sense of control over ourselves and our environment.

Mindful breathing, for example, is just one practice that enables us to gain control – control over our breathing which is essential to life.

In her 2017 book, The Influential Mind, neuroscientist Tali Sharot argues that:

The brain has evolved to control our bodies so that our bodies can manipulate our environments…Our biology is set up so that we are driven to be causal agents; we are internally rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction when we are in control, and internally punished with anxiety when we are not. (p.102)

Tali Sharot demonstrates through research findings that we have a very high need for control.  She maintains, for example, that aerophobia – the fear of flying – is essentially about the loss of control, we are in the “hands” of the pilot and the plane.  She suggests that suicide is an extreme response to the sense of being out of control, unable to control anything in one’s internal or external environment.

Tali Sharot draws on further research to argue that “people who feel in control are happier and healthier” (p. 95).  As you practice mindfulness, you increase your sense of control over your internal and external environments and enhance your health and happiness.

The more you practice mindfulness, the more you experience the sense of being in control and realise the positive benefits of mindful practice.

 

Image Source: Courtesy of Lazare on Pixabay

Do You See What I See?

It is highly unlikely that you see what I see or what other people might see.

So much of what we see is filtered by our past experience and our thoughts and emotions generated by those experiences. So, what each of us see when experiencing a scene like the picture in this post of the Manly foreshore at sunrise, might be very different.

If you are a runner you might focus on the runner in the foreground, the idyllic environment for their run and their running style. If you have recently visited Stradbroke Island, you could be looking at the island in the background and searching for the tell tale sandhills while remembering an enjoyable aspect of your visit there.

If you have experienced a tsunami, the water and its calmness might remind you of your horrifying experience that followed in the wake of a calm sea. Instead of calming you, the scene might generate fear in you.

If you love trees you might focus on the different varieties of trees along the shorefront or notice the bright aura of the fir tree in the foreground.  If you have an interest in photography, you might critique the photo itself and its technical aspects of shade and light, contrast, background and foreground, positioning of key elements or the impact of the rising sun illuminating the image.  A landscape artist could be deciding whether to paint the scene in its totality or to focus on the trees.

If you are inwardly focused and preoccupied with worry or concerns about the day ahead, you might be unaware of what is actually in front of you.

What we attend to influences what we see or don’t see.  Our attention, in turn, is influenced very much by what has happened previously in our life and/or what is happening now for us.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has this to say about our limited perception and the influence of our thoughts and emotions on what we actually see:

Instead of experiencing the bare actuality of our senses, we are more experiencing our life through our thoughts about our experience – our preferences, likes, dislikes, our worries, concerns or addictions, and in a sense not fully inhabiting the full spectrum of our innate capability.

This is one reason why open awareness is a very important mindful practice if we want to grow in mindfulness and reach our full potential. Otherwise we can be lost in our thoughts and miss the world around us, its richness and beauty.

Image source: Copyright R. Passfield