Mindfulness at work

At work can seem like the hardest place to practice mindfulness given the many demands and responsibilities we have to manage on a daily basis. Under such circumstances being present and focused can feel like a luxury or indulgence that’s not really practical in a world of pressing deadlines, never ending multi-tasking and huge project piles.

Yet in the office is where we stand to really benefit from being mindful. Rasmus Hougaard, a teacher of mindfulness meditation and the director of The Potential Project, is a strong advocate of corporate based mindfulness training. In his presentation at Mind & Its Potential 2011, he outlined the reasons why.

Hougaard says many global companies are now prioritising mindfulness in their workplaces because they recognise their overworked staff are struggling as they suffer from a combination of burnout and chronic distractedness.

The good news is there is hope, and the word for it is “neuroplasticity”. If you’re a regular reader of my blogs, you’ll know that the brain’s capacity for change is immense in that “we have a lot of potential to change a busy stressful work life into something greater: clear minded, focused, efficient, happy and kind,” says Hougaard.

It just takes training. Hougaard defines this as “learning to manage the monkey mind”, a mind that jumps from thought to thought just like a monkey. So what are the effects of this mental training on our working life? In the last decade or so, more than 2500 research studies have examined this very question, and many have shown “amazing results.”

Mindfulness has numerous benefits. For example, it helps relieve stress and it “keeps our brain vigilant and fast reacting”; it turns out the number of grey cells in the cortex, that part of the brain we use for intellectual thinking and problem solving, continues to increase throughout life in folk who practice mindfulness. Mindfulness practitioners are also better able to stay focussed on an activity, and their reaction time to stimuli doesn’t automatically decrease with age.

Hougaard says it’s not hard to learn about mindfulness. There are squillions of books on the topic, and many qualified teachers for personalised instruction. Hougaard also recommends the ABCD model, which he helped develop. He explains it this way:

The A stands for anatomy, and is about positioning the body just so during the formal practice of mindfulness.
The B stands for breathing or the breath, which is the anchor our attention needs to focus on to stop the mind from wandering.
The C stands for counting, an aid to help you stay with the breath.
The D stands for distractions, the thoughts that pop into your mind and can so easily distract you from your breath.

But as Hougaard says, a busy work environment is not exactly conducive to sitting quietly and practicing ABCD meditation. “So the other part of mindfulness training is the training in action where you’re taking this ABCD into work life, into everything you’re doing”.

Hougaard says that doing so is simple. First, you focus on what you want for as long as you need to, such as the email you’re writing, or the phone call you’re on. Second, you don’t let irrelevant thoughts or external distractions such as the chatter in the office cubicle next to yours take your mind off whatever it is you’re doing. You just keep remembering to bring your attention back to the moment and the activity you’re in. “So really being a master of your own mind in all situations. That’s what it’s like to live a mindful working life,” says Hougaard.


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