Mindful leadership is the product of self-awareness. Through self-awareness, we are able to see our limiting behaviours and transform them.
You can be mindful of everything you perceive, think, know, intuit and experience (which is vast).
But in developing mindfulness for mindful leadership, it can be very helpful to orient your practice around four foundations, each with its own nuances, lessons and insights. These are:
1. Mindfulness of the Body/Senses
This foundation is the easiest and least subtle aspect of self-awareness, which is why most mindfulness training, especially in beginner programs, is so focused on mindfulness of breathing and the body.
This foundation includes being mindful of the physical world. That is, it’s about being present both to your internal body sensations and to external components, such as truly listening to people, watching the road when driving your car and tasting your food as you eat.
2. Mindfulness of Feeling Tone
Mindfulness allows us to notice our reactions to physical sensations and their accompanying emotions and to gain an understanding of our relationship with our inner and outer world.
Becoming mindful of the feeling tone helps us to see our preferences in the world and within ourselves (chocolate over strawberry ice cream, joyful feelings over heavy dull feelings).
Our experience of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral may appear to be inherent to the thing we contact, but on closer examination it actually depends on the process of contact. We are involved.
The biggest insight from paying attention here is to notice our reactions when we encounter unpleasant, pleasant or neutral.
We naturally seek to avoid the unpleasant, crave and cling to the pleasant, and generally ignore the neutral. Tuning in to our default reactions mindfully is a fundamental aspect of interrupting our conditioned responses to our experiences, and of developing inner strength, empathy and connectedness.
Learning to stop running away from uncomfortable emotions through numbing, repressing or acting out is a critical element of integrity and maturity.
3. Mindfulness of Thoughts
When we are unmindful, we associate and identify ourselves with our thoughts. We become entranced by our own minds and believe our thoughts represent objective truths (even though the vast majority are based on subjective assumptions and imagination).
If our thinking is challenged by others, we feel personally challenged and quickly move to defend or rationalise our position, which damages our mindful leadership credibility.
Mindfulness helps us to become more objective, less attached and more rational in our thinking.
Critically, it releases us from huge doses of self-judgement and opens the way for kindness, curiosity and learning.
When we are no longer invested in defending our thoughts or ideas, we are able to truly test our ways of thinking and discover new ways of thinking.
4. Mindfulness of the Way We Make Meaning
The interpretations we make and conclusions we draw from life experiences and about what things mean are based on fundamental assumptions. Not only do we usually not question these assumptions, but we’re often not even aware of them.
The fourth foundation is being aware of the broader framework from which we derive meaning about what’s going on, and therefore draw the conclusions we do.
It’s being awake to the lessons we learn and the interpretations, prejudices and values underlying those lessons. It’s being mindful of our deeply held views, set ideas and unconscious biases—the ways we filter reality.
Mindfulness allows us to see through our fixed views, to let go of old prejudices and unhelpful, embedded beliefs (such as ‘I am not good enough’).
Once we become mindful of these four foundations, we are no longer possessed by them or pushed around helplessly by them. Mindfulness is the key to liberating ourselves from the incessant push and pull of our physical sensations, emotions and thoughts. Only then can we develop mindful leadership.
But in order to become truly useful and effective in our mindful leadership efforts, mindfulness must be extended over time. It’s not enough just to touch the present every now and then; we must be present continuously for long periods of time.
When we are, we start noticing our self-defeating habitual patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour through the lens of objective mindfulness. Thus we are able to start stepping free of them, which enhances our mindful leadership.