Get the Mindfulness Edge
Most of us have heard of mindfulness. These days it is all the rage in certain circles. My friend Matt Tenney is one who practices it in a way that inspires. It’s not just how he does it but also where he first learned it: in a prison cell. That’s right, my friend Matt was once behind bars where he changed his entire outlook and changed the course of his life. In fact, that dark time in his life seems to have been the best time because many people have learned from his mistakes and from what he learned through the ordeal.
“Every moment of our lives can be infused with the deepest meaning possible.” –Matt Tenney
Today, Matt Tenney works to develop highly effective leaders who achieve extraordinary long-term business outcomes—and live more fulfilling lives—as a result of realizing high levels of self-mastery. He is a social entrepreneur, an author, a keynote speaker, and a corporate trainer. Matt’s clients include Wells Fargo, Marriott, Keller Williams, Four Seasons, and many other companies, associations, and universities.
His first book, Serve to Be Great, is one I highly recommend. Now, his latest is all about mindfulness and how it can rewire your brain for success. It is a fascinating read, full of research to back up the many claims of the practice. I recently asked Matt about his latest book, The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence Without Adding to Your Schedule.
Train Your Mind for Optimal Performance
What are the key ways mindfulness can help us improve professionally and personally?
Everyone seems to agree that all successes and all failures begin in the mind. Yet very few of us take time to train the mind to function better. Most of us add knowledge through study, which can be very helpful. However, we know that a person can be very “book smart” but still have great difficulty making good decisions and/or developing and sustaining healthy relationships with other people.
It is clear that just as important as what we know is the type of mind we show up with every day. Mindfulness training provides a way to systematically develop a healthier, more effective mind, and there’s now a large body of research suggesting that mindfulness training changes the physical structure of our brains in ways that help us perform better both professionally and personally.
Perhaps most important for business, mindfulness training changes the brain in ways that enhance self-awareness and mental agility, which may be the two most important leadership skills there are. These skills reduce the degree to which we’re influenced by the biases we all have. This freedom from bias can dramatically improve our business acumen and our impact on the bottom line.
Also, self-awareness is the foundation of emotional and social intelligence, which are essential for creating and sustaining high-performance team cultures. All other things being equal, over the long term, a team with a more positive emotional climate is going to significantly outperform a team with a negative emotional climate. Mindfulness training improves our impact on the emotional climate of our teams.
Mindfulness training can also have a dramatic impact on our personal lives. The practice helps free us from unpleasant emotions like anxiety, fear, and anger and helps develop a special type of happiness that does not depend on what happens to us or what we have. We can train to develop unconditional happiness.
Mindfulness training results in highly refined levels of self-awareness.
The Biggest Mindfulness Misconception
Many people read about mindfulness and have a variety of perceptions about it. What is the biggest misconception people have about the practice?
The biggest misconception I see is that people conflate being mindful and techniques for developing mindfulness. People think engaging in mindfulness practice means we have to add to our schedules unfamiliar techniques like sitting still and watching our breath go in and out. Sitting still and watching our breath is not necessarily mindfulness practice. It is one technique, of many, that can facilitate the development of mindfulness.
To begin practicing mindfulness, you don’t need to add anything to your schedule. You just need to make and sustain a subtle inner shift during the activities you already engage in every day.
Study: Mindfulness training results in physical changes to the structure of the brain.
What’s your definition of mindfulness?
This is actually related to another misconception. People often think that mindfulness was invented by someone, and they want to know who invented it. Mindfulness is actually an inherent human capacity. It wasn’t invented by anyone.
We are “being mindful” when we shift from being our thinking to being aware of our thinking, which enables us to have a balanced, non-judgmental awareness of what’s actually happening in the present moment both within us and around us.
Most of us become mindfully self-aware in this way many, many times every day. However, most of us become mindfully self-aware on accident, and we can’t sustain mindfulness for more than 10 seconds or so before we’re pulled right back into being that voice in our heads that is constantly blabbering away.
Thus “mindfulness training” is training to become mindfully self-aware whenever we want to, even in demanding situations, and to be able to sustain mindful self-awareness as long as we want to.
In other words, we’re developing the ability to see our thinking objectively and not be pulled into being our thinking against our will. This may be the greatest freedom we can ever realize. It is freedom from habits, conditioning, and compulsion.
Why A Beginner’s Attitude Is Crucial to Success
Why is having a beginner’s attitude so important?
In a general sense, having the attitude of a beginner versus the attitude of an expert helps us to make discoveries that can change our lives, our businesses, and even our understanding of the world. Albert Einstein, for instance, credited his success almost entirely to having the curious attitude of a child. Although he possessed tremendous knowledge about physics, he was able to temporarily let go of his knowledge and approach problems as though he knew nothing about them.
Applying this attitude of a beginner on a moment-to-moment basis is the essence of mindfulness. People who read a lot about mindfulness often get confused by all of the different techniques and practices. However, to make rapid progress training the mind, and more fully enjoy the journey, we are well-served to focus more on our attitude in the present moment than what technique we’re trying to practice.
What’s most important in any given moment of practice is having the curious, non-judgmental attitude of a beginner. In fact, the heart of the practice of mindfulness can be summarized by this statement: In any moment in which you remember, adopt and sustain the curious, nonjudgmental attitude of, “What’s happening now, within me and around me?” You don’t have to go looking for an answer. The moment you ask the question, “What’s happening now?” and you are open to whatever you notice, you have become mindfully self-aware.
You might like to try this during an activity that you (hopefully) engage in every day, brushing your teeth. This is most likely something you do completely on auto-pilot. To make this part of your mindfulness training, make the effort to be curious about what it’s actually like to brush your teeth, as though you’ve never done it before.
Thoughts will come and go, and you’ll likely become distracted a couple of times. That’s okay. You’re effort is to keep coming back to that curious attitude of a beginner, exploring what it’s like to brush your teeth. It should feel almost as though you’re observing yourself brushing your teeth, open to whatever sensations and thoughts pass through your awareness. If you can brush your teeth for two minutes like that, without being distracted by thinking, you’re doing pretty well.
“Self-awareness is the most important leadership skill we develop.” –Matt Tenney
What was the most surprising takeaway for you from the scientific research you included in the book?
I was surprised by a lot of it. I had suspected that mindfulness training changes the brain because I know it changes behaviors, and behaviors don’t change unless there is a change in the part of the brain responsible for that behavior. However, with the exception of a couple of studies, I wasn’t sure if anyone had actually performed credible, peer-reviewed research that would support the changes I intuitively assumed were occurring in the brain as a result of mindfulness training.
This is why I chose Tim Gard as the co-author. He has a PhD in neuroscience and is one of the leaders in the field as it relates to mindfulness. I assumed that if there was a solid study to support an argument, he would find it. I was blown away by what’s out there. He found quality research to support almost every argument we make.
Most fascinating to me was the research on how mindfulness training changes the brain mechanism of certain skills.
For instance, we know that mindfulness training is very helpful for developing the ability to have peace of mind in the face of a challenging situation that can cause physical or emotional pain. Novice practitioners of mindfulness report greater peace of mind than untrained controls. After only a brief amount of training, novice practitioners develop areas of the brain that make them better at intentionally regulating emotion.
Advanced practitioners achieve equal or greater peace of mind in the face of difficulty, but they do so with less conscious effort. The part of the brain that regulates emotion is less active than it is in the novice practitioners. This suggests that their brains have been changed so significantly that the advanced practitioners don’t have to try to regulate emotion. Their brains have been rewired to make them more effective whether or not they’re trying. Being at peace in the face of difficulty is now simply part of who they are.
How has mindfulness made a difference in your own life?
Mindfulness training has had a greater positive influence on my life than anything else. I first learned about the practice while spending 5.5 years confined to a military prison for being stupid, selfish, and dishonest. I had attempted a fraud against the government. Although this was initially the worst experience of my life, it ended up being the most important experience of my life, thanks to mindfulness training.
Mindfulness helped me discover unconditional happiness while confined. This has been an incredible blessing. Although many people believe that they could be happy with nothing, I had the good fortune of directly experiencing it for years. Thus, I know without any trace of doubt that all I need to be happy is to be alive and breathing (and free from any injuries to or diseases of the brain that would cause serious mental illness).
Mindfulness training has also helped me to realize that the most meaningful life we can live is one devoted to serving others. Even more important, mindfulness training has provided the tools to help me more consistently and effectively serve others.
On one hand, mindfulness training allows us to realize sustainable happiness that does not require any conditions to be met. When we realize this happiness, we are able to help others realize that same type of happiness. We may not be able to fix all of the external conditions that a person is dealing with, but we can help them realize peace that does not depend on any external conditions being fixed.
There is also a more subtle but equally important way mindfulness training enables us to more effectively serve others. Mindfulness training helps us gradually become free from the control of the false sense of self that our brain has created, known as the ego. The practice helps us to be less self-centered.
Conditioned, habitual ways of doing things result in suboptimal outcomes.
When we’re less self-centered, we don’t have to go looking for ways to serve others out of some sense of duty, which isn’t sustainable. Serving becomes our natural response to the world around us. In each moment, we find that we simply don’t want to do harm and that we want to help however we can.
If there is one universal truth for how to live a more meaningful life, it is certainly to be less selfish and to treat others with kindness and compassion. When we’re looking back on our lives and reflecting on whether or not we lived them well, I feel very confident that it will all come down to answering one question: “How well did you love?”
Mindfulness training provides us with a systematic method – supported by research in neuroscience – for training ourselves to love both ourselves and others better.
This is why I make an effort to practice mindfulness during every waking moment. Yes, the practice helps me to perform better professionally. Yes, the practice helps me to realize unconditional happiness. Most important, though, the practice helps me to close the gap between wanting to live a meaningful life and actually living one.
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The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence Without Adding to Your Schedule