Mindfulness Is More Than Just Focus

When you spend time observing your thoughts, you start to realise that that's all they are - thoughts. And then you notice things about them - not just their content, but also their emotional payload, their frequency, patterns in which ones you have when and why.

Bring your attention to the sensation of your breath. Try to keep it there. When your mind wanders, which it will, notice that this has happened, and bring your attention back to your breath.

This is most people's experience of practicing mindfulness. And repeating this practice strengthens the mental muscle of Focus. Psychologists call this attention regulation. Every time you notice that your attention has wandered, and bring it back to the breath, you're strengthening the neural networks responsible for checking where your attention is and maintaining it on the desired object. Over time and with consistent practice, you will find that your attention wanders less frequently, and that when it does, you'll notice more quickly.

As I described in a previous post, being able to notice your mind wandering and redirect your attention allows you to interrupt rumination and rebalance the tug of war between your amygdala and your frontal cortex.

But with increased attention from the media, people are starting to consider mindfulness and its effects more deeply, and are starting to discuss perceived risks from becoming more mindful in everyday life. Unfortunately, some of these proposed risks stem more from incomplete understanding of mindfulness than from mindfulness itself.

One piece in particular caught my eye recently. In his piece titled "There Are Risks to Mindfulness at Work" on HBR.org, David Brendel talks about his experience of coaching people using mindfulness in a business context. He calls out two risks that he sees to widespread adoption of mindfulness in a workplace setting: avoidance and groupthink.

I'll touch on the second first. By 'groupthink', Brendel means the risk that people are forced, in meetings or as teams, to practice mindfulness, and he rightly points out that no one should be forced to practice, or even engage in, mindfulness. I completely agree. At Headspace we would never advocate or condone anyone being forced to engage with mindfulness. Instead we aim to create the most compelling invitation to practice. Whether any individual wishes to take up that invitation should always be entirely up to them.

But the 'avoidance' risk deserves consideration. Brendel writes: "Some people use mindfulness strategies to avoid critical thinking tasks. I've worked with clients who, instead of rationally thinking through a career challenge or ethical dilemma, prefer to disconnect from their challenges and retreat into a meditative mindset."

Brendel goes on to call out an example where a client uses present-moment attention as an escape: "One of my clients spent so much time meditating and "mindfully" accepting her life "on its own terms" that she failed to confront underperforming workers (and discipline or fire the worst offenders) in her company."

This is a great example of something I see becoming common in the public conversation about mindfulness: thinking that attention regulation is all that there is to mindfulness.

However there is another critically important aspect to mindfulness that is being overlooked (or under-appreciated) in the public conversation about mindfulness - metacognition. This is psychologists' term for the practice of observing your own thoughts or feelings. It's still present-moment awareness through attention regulation, but it encompasses awareness of thoughts and feelings, rather than just what's coming in through the five senses.

The reason this is important, and beneficial, is that when you spend time observing your thoughts, you start to realise that that's all they are - thoughts. And then you notice things about them - not just their content, but also their emotional payload, their frequency, patterns in which ones you have when and why. And noticing all this does two fundamental things.

Firstly, it allows you to appreciate that thoughts are neither absolute nor necessarily true.

They're just thoughts, with no more importance than you attach to them. And you get a feel for the types of thoughts that you tend to have, their biases. This is one of the main reasons some of the world's most deeply analytical people, whose careers and livelihoods depend on rational analysis - hedge fund investors - swear by meditation. It gives them insight into their own biases so that they're better able to make unbiased decisions. If you're thinking about investing a nine-figure sum of money, making the most unbiased decision you're able to is, literally, priceless!

Secondly, by having that awareness of your thoughts and feelings, you develop the ability to choose how you respond in any given situation, rather than just reacting. The thoughts and feelings that are triggered by a situation become information that you can take in to account to help you choose the most appropriate response, as opposed to being at their mercy.

So it's good that people are considering risks. But the main risk here is that true mindfulness is incompletely understood and incorporated, not that it is in any way detrimental to people performing at their best, in business or any other setting.


To find out more about the ongoing research into mindfulness and meditation visit the Science pages over on the Headspace website

This is a blog series produced in partnership with Headspace, a project designed to demystify meditation. With scientifically proven techniques that are easy-to-earn and fun-to-do, Headspace can be used every day to experience a healthier and happier mind.

You can try it on for size with the free Take10 program by visiting headspace.com

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