Once a philosopher visited an enlightened Zen master. Eager to get to the heart of the matter, the philosopher asked, ‘What is the essential teaching of Zen?’
‘Attention,’ the teacher replied.
The scholar was taken aback by this unexpected answer. ‘I didn’t ask you about attention,’ he replied. ‘I asked you, “What is the essential teaching of Zen?” ’
‘Attention,’ the teacher said. ‘Attention!’
Attention, when practised with clear understanding, leads to profound insight and wisdom. When attention is absent, we miss out on living in the now. Furthermore, our efforts to be a mindful leader are hindered.
We can achieve success in many areas of life, but without the ability to skilfully engage our attention and stay continuously in the present, we will never find the peace, wholeness and connection we long for. Attention is vital—especially for being a mindful leader.
For thousands of years, wisdom-seekers have been fascinated by what we might call the ‘technology of attention’. What is attention? How does it work? How can we train ourselves to be attentive, and what happens when we are attentive? How does attention make us a more mindful leader?
Mindfulness is about remembering what we are doing as we are doing it. Cultivating mindfulness therefore requires us to learn, over time, how to maintain a continuity of attention and presence.
The following exercise invites you to experience mindfulness, even if briefly.
EXERCISE: Feeling hands
- Sitting quietly, hold your hands together. Then ask yourself, ‘Can I feel my hands?’ (Your answer will probably be, ‘Yes.’)
- Now ask yourself, ‘Am I making any particular effort to feel my hands?’ (Your answer very probably be, ‘No. It’s simply obvious.’) Here you are directing your awareness and attention towards the feel of your hands. Now let’s add continuity of attention — that is, mindfulness.
EXERCISE: Mindfulness and feeling hands
- Set a timer for two to three minutes. Now sit quietly, holding your hands together. Feel your hands.
- At the end of this time ask yourself, ‘During the past couple of minutes, did I at any point lose the feel of my hands?’ (Your answer may very well be, ‘Yes. I stopped feeling them when my mind wandered off to something else.’)
As you reflect on this experience, you may notice that the mind wandered off the moment you forgot the feel of your hands. In that moment you lost the continuity of attention.
The key is feeling, as it is one of the five senses. The five senses are a key toolkit for helping us stay present to our lives. In a sense, they are the present. You cannot smell two seconds from now; you cannot see three seconds ago. You can only engage with the senses now.
At its most basic level, mindfulness is about maintaining connection with our senses, thereby cultivating a ‘sensational’ life. Mindful leaders pay attention and stay connected.
Mindful leaders stay connected
How do we know we are being mindful, rather than just touching the present for brief moments? We know this through the felt continuity of awareness.
Normally our attention flits from thoughts of the present to the past to the future so quickly we don’t even notice it. But if we pay careful attention we will notice an underlying superficiality, a feeling of disconnectedness, of not being fully present to what is happening in and around us.
Compare how you feel when you are doing something you aren’t truly interested in with how you feel when you are engaged and enjoying life.
In the first case you are there, but not really there. In the second, your sense of engagement creates a vividness and vitality that is in itself pleasurable.
That continuous presence leads to a clear memory of what happened and how it happened. You feel more alive, whole and connected. This is mindfulness.
The benefits we enjoy through the practice of mindfulness start with a greater sense of ease in our daily life, then gradually extend deeper into the field of experience. Our stress is reduced. We are opened up to the possibility of experiencing joy, insight, understanding and awakening in ways hitherto unknown to us. And ultimately, we become a far more mindful leader.