Mindful leadership requires presence—being in tune with our feelings, thoughts, and experiences in the present moment.
The value of staying present can be brought home by understanding what we habitually do in its place: engage in absentmindedness.
Much of the time we are inattentive, distracted, zoned out, lost in thought, ruminating about the past or fantasising about the future.
Absentmindedness is such a deeply ingrained, subconscious habit for most of us that we usually don’t even notice when we are lost in thought. We can eat, drink, sit through meetings, pretending to listen, all the while fixated on our own distracted thoughts. We can arrive at our destination with no recall of how we drove there.
In our minds we are usually everywhere else but here, now. We are not present, we are not aware, we are not mindful. By definition, when we are absentminded, we cannot engage in mindful leadership.
It’s impossible to be self-aware and aware of others while being absentminded; awareness and absentmindedness are mutually exclusive.
Basic forms of absentmindedness include:
- Daydreaming: gentle zoning out on nothing in particular or just pleasant fantasy
- Results fixation: the thought that the grass is greener on the other side (‘Are we there yet?’)
- Planning: note there’s a difference between mindful planning and planning distractedly while doing something else, such as driving or trying to meditate
- Rehashing: running past conversations and events over and over in your mind
- Internal conversations: talking to yourself
- Preparing: obsessively readying yourself for future situations (another form of internal conversation)
- Not listening: finishing other people’s sentences, or preparing your answer in your mind while they are still speaking
- Being judgemental: silently criticising or labelling yourself or others in your mind.
There are many more forms of absentmindedness, but this list gives a sense of our most common mind traps.
The Buddha called this ‘mental proliferation’. Our mind has a habitual tendency to take the simplest thought, jump on it and run off in all directions with it. Here’s a story that illustrates this.
A woman wants some potatoes for the meal she is cooking, so she sends her husband to the market. As he walks out the door, she calls after him, ‘Be sure to get a good price.’
All the way to the market the man is thinking about the price of potatoes. He knows he’ll have to pay more for the best than if he buys lesser quality potatoes. On the other hand, the lesser quality potatoes are just that—not so good. In fact, he knows he’ll have to be very careful if buying other than top-priced potatoes because the seller might try to slip in the odd bad one.
When he thinks of someone cheating him by selling him a rotten potato, he gets really mad. ‘Why do people have to be so greedy?’
The more he reflects on it the angrier he gets as his suspicions continue to spiral out of control, so that when he finally reaches the potato seller’s stall he bursts out, ‘You can keep your rotten potatoes!’ and storms off.
Yes it’s a silly story, yet we can all relate to it. Left unexamined, the mind can run off into the strangest places.
When we become aware of this habit, our natural reaction is to want to fight the mind — to stop negative thoughts from proliferating — but this is impossible. We cannot empty our minds by trying to push thoughts out.
To illustrate this, try not to think of pink elephants. Really, whatever you do right now, just don’t think about pink elephants. No, I told you not to visualise them please. But there they are in your mind, right?
The more we try to fight the mind, the more impossible it becomes. Mindfulness is about gently coming back to the present. We are choosing to be attentive to our actual experience rather than being swept away by our thinking. There is no other way to engage in mindful leadership.
We like to think that worrying about the future can help us prepare for it in our mindful leadership efforts.
The reality is that our natural tendency to focus on the negative accumulates a burden of physiological stress in our bodies referred to as allostatic load. Allostatic load is a major cause of physical and mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and illness.
Stress, anxiety, worry and frustration are amplified by absentminded thinking. When we’re in the present, we simply deal with it without the additional burden of obsessive thoughts and the emotions and physical responses they trigger.
Mindfulness relieves the burden of absentmindedness by gently and consistently pulling us back into the present. When we are truly in the present, we are able to respond to life with clarity and wisdom. Our life improves both internally (our felt sense of life) and externally in our mindful leadership.