Written by George Perry, April 2021
What is mindfulness – what does it really mean?
In the past 5-6 years the notion of mindfulness has been hard to avoid (unless you’ve been living in a barn), so much to the point where some critics have cynically labelled our mass market version of it as ‘McMindfulness’.
Mindfulness Here, Mindfulness There
Mindfulness is everywhere. If you go onto an App store and type in the word ‘mindfulness’, you’ll get a choice of 2500 apps that you can download, and they can provide you all sorts of features such as guided meditations, white noise, and even reading you bedtime stories.
Even before the pandemic had started, the industry was already huge. In 2019, 52 million people downloaded these apps, an increase of 52% from the previous year, and generating $195 million in revenue. But now, in this past year of Covid (the UK having recently passed the 12-month ‘anniversary’ of the original lockdown), the trend towards mindfulness has been growing even further, with no signs of slowing down any time in the near future.
The Growth of Mindfulness
The global mindfulness meditation App market is expected to reach $4,377 million by 2027, and that market isn’t expected to shrink if you take into account that currently 53% of US senior citizens say they meditate, and also the number of children meditating has surged by 800% since 2012. There are even signs of Virtual Reality adding to the burgeoning industry, which is in its own right forecast to be worth $3.9 billion by 2023.
The market-leading Headspace App is already used in 190 countries, and with monthly subscriptions worth between $5 to $18 per user, this is big business.
Even the BBC, a public broadcaster, has started providing listeners regular episodes of The Mindful Mix to download, including a Covid-19 special, with added narration from Sir David Attenborough – his voice in itself being perhaps the most soothing, dulcet tones ever to be recorded (and I’m sure these regular podcasts were a brilliant piece of stress-busting relief for people during last year’s lockdowns, albeit I’m sure that if you would’ve told someone the BBC would be providing this ten or twenty years ago, they would’ve laughed).
The point is, mindfulness is everywhere. It is everywhere you look; but, where did this all spring from? Why the sudden popularity?
I’m pretty sure that mindfulness wasn’t invented alongside the iPhone, and according to the research I’ve done, turns out I’m right. I suppose the point is that mobile phone apps just make accessing mindfulness-on-the-go easier than ever before; the apps make mindfulness fit in with our modern lifestyles nicely – which seems slightly ironic as it is apparently the modern way of living which brings us so much stress in the first place.
Nevertheless, as you might imagine, there is somewhat of a longer history to mindfulness than it just coming out of nowhere in the past 5-10 years and appearing as Apps on peoples’ phones.
Before I explore the history of mindfulness though, I’m keen to get to the root of what mindfulness even means.
Just Be Mindful
A few years ago, well before the current mindfulness trend was a hot topic, it was a glorious sunny day and I decided to take my bike on a train to get out into the countryside for a decent day of riding. As I was carrying my bike down the stairs the station master approached me to tell me that any moment now, all of the arriving trains were due to be packed with sports fans about to disembark en masse on their way to the big match that day.
I asked him what he meant by that, and if somehow one man and his bike had any less right to be there and using public transport than an opposing tide of sports-hungry fans. No, he said, but he was warning me to, “Just be mindful”.
So, is that it?
Well, it turns out that, most likely unwittingly from the station master that day, he had given me the very opposite definition of what is meant by mindfulness.
In his definition, I was meant to watch what other people were doing (and then presumably adjust my behaviour/actions to accommodate those other people). That’s all very well and good, and as a point of manners you should consider the impact of your actions to others around you, including strangers, otherwise we’d live in a very hostile society.
But mindfulness, as it turns out, is the contrary of what the station master was suggesting. It is not about watching what other people are doing, but about thinking of yourself and essentially watching what you’re doing – focusing on yourself, and not others.
In addition, mindfulness, it would appear, is about ‘being present’, ‘living in the moment’, and all those other seemingly cliches that we now hear so often. But that’s part of my point, they are only cliches now because the language surrounding this has spilled over from something very niche to become something part of the mainstream, so that it now dominates our everyday lexicon – hence 2500 mindfulness Apps on the market, and you can’t avoid mindfulness in any direction you look.
The rise in popularity of mindfulness seems to have skyrocketed in the past five years, but it probably comes as no surprise to you that its journey did not start there, nor did it arise from thin air.
If you’re screaming out by now that the principles of mindfulness have their origins in eastern philosophy and Buddhism, you’d be right. If you’re also crying out that what the west has seemingly latched onto in the past half-decade is something that has been practiced on a daily basis by people living in east Asia as part of their everyday culture for thousands of years, then you’d also be right.
According to followers of Buddha, his teachings are 2564 years old (almost one year for every app on the market!), and it is these principles of mindfulness, which leads to enlightenment, as the core message he was putting out. Meditation being one aspect of practicing mindfulness (as a way of fine-tuning your mind) to achieve that enlightenment.
The Rise of Modern Mindfulness Movement
The origins of how it folded into the western sphere apparently go back to the turn of last century – and people didn’t have smart phones back then. Even though mindfulness had been folded into Buddhism for centuries by that point, it was the work of Ledi Sayadaw, a Buddhist monk from Burma, who began to teach the doctrines of mindfulness as a separate, standalone subject.
Burma was (and still is) a predominantly Buddhist country, but faced with the fear of their traditional culture being eroded due to British colonisation, Ledi Sayadaw began to isolate mindfulness as an element of Buddhism that could be preserved.
The fact that mindfulness could be taught and instructed separately, even to a western audience, became handy to any followers, who quickly realised they could teach the basics of what it entails in the space of around 15 minutes, wrapped up as a neat, saleable product. It was then the next phase that saw mindfulness really skyrocket to what it would become today.
From East to West... and Back Again!
After all the ‘journeys of discovery’ that were undertaken by backpackers travelling to India in the 1960s, by the end of the 1970s mindfulness had apparently become fully indoctrinated and westernised, thus becoming somewhat detached from its eastern origins. In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn developed the notion of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and voila! Mindfulness had now been rebranded.
Fast forward to today, and its journey through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s; you can then see how it has gone from a place of niche curiosity from western observers to something that has engulfed the western psyche to be a mainstay in the mainstream – with it, somewhat ironically, now being exported back to the east.
The Importance of Mindfulness in Today’s World
If nothing else, this past year of lockdowns, work from home culture, home schooling, and generally the turning upside down of what was considered normality has seen mindfulness and resilience become even more of a necessity.
Two of our recent podcast episodes (17 and 18) were on resilience, a topic heavily intertwined with mindfulness. Our guest speaker on these episodes, Sharon Olivier, mentions that in recent studies 57% of 3000 UK individuals revealed they were experiencing increased high levels of anxiety, with 64% showing common signs of depression. The problem is that stress, she goes on to say, is something that is necessary for all of us to experience, as it motivates us to be productive, but our bodies were never designed to be overwhelmed by stress on a daily basis.
In fact, the recent studies show that productivity has been on the rise, but creativity is going down. It is important for all of us to have boundaries between work and play and family time. If we constantly expose our bodies to heightened stress, this puts a strain on our immune systems, and this manifests itself physically, whereby we start to get headaches, back and joint pain, and become sleepless due to increased levels of cortisone.
She goes onto say that, despite what is commonly misconceived, resilience is not about ‘bouncing back’, but about knowing where your own personal centre of gravity is, and being able to stick to that whilst also being flexible – likening it to the way that reeds are able to bend and flex to the wind, whereas a tree will show signs of stress and the bark would crack after a storm.
She says that knowing our ‘centre’ is all about knowing who we really are, and having the courage to stick to who we are and being able to return to that centre when things go off-balance. Resilience is a mixture of 50% physical aspects, but the mental aspects should not be denied.
She talks about mindfulness and the importance of being in tune with yourself and noticing when you're feeling off your centre. Importantly, having the ability to bring yourself back to centre when it matters the most – which is known as meta-awareness.
Overall, the process we should all be aiming for is to go from reacting to responding.
Resilience for Organisations
Resilience is also paramount for organisations; and leaders also must be able to respond, and not merely react. In the second part of her log, Sharon Olivier explains how teams can help to create more resilient cultures, and that resilience isn’t purely down to an individual’s responsibility.
Organisations would be best placed to first and foremostly raise awareness of what is meant by resilience. Next, they need to address the mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of resilience, as well as physical aspects through dedicated support.
Structurally, an organisation can change its practices to reduce overall stress amongst employees. They can encourage meetings that introduce ‘human moments’ that allow people to connect, not just serve the purpose of talking about business.
Team leaders have an important role to play in organisations, due to the concept of ‘emotional contagion’ (whatever the team leader is thinking has a rub-off effect on subordinates). To ensure the right contagion is happening, here are two more concepts that team leaders should be pursuing:
- Belonging – it is extremely important that employees feel that they fit in and are cared for as a member of the organisation, almost like being part of a tribe. Without this, there is a natural inclination to feel alienated, which brings on stress – something which could easily be avoided by leaders.
- Psychological Safety – leaders can create a climate where employees feel that it is ‘ok’ to be different, and to speak up when they want. All thought differences are accepted and are embraced into the way the team is managed. Not only that, they are actively encouraged.
Achieving both of the above has the effect of strengthening an employee’s emotional resilience.
What Leaders Can Do to Promote Resilience
Leaders can foster this culture of belonging, and promote psychological safety, by expressing curiosity in team members, and investing time into getting to know each person’s unique talents.
Secondly, leaders should model openness by their own actions. Leaders should be open to feedback and in turn give feedback in a constructive way that empowers people to carry out their responsibilities.
Thirdly, leaders should ensure they are showing compassion, as this shows they care about people, which is part of the sense of belonging and psychological safety that employees need to strengthen their emotional resilience. Furthermore, leaders should ensure they are being fully inclusive and not leaving people out of the dialogue when it is appropriate.
Leaders Ensuring Personal Resilience
Moreover, leaders ought to be resilient themselves, as this in itself is not only healthy for the person but has a knock-on effect on the overall well-being and morale of the team, due to the notion of ‘emotional contagion’, as mentioned above.
Leaders should partake in self-care practices and ensure they have established boundaries in their life so as to not allow stress to overwhelm them, as this would have a negative effect for the rest of the team’s resilience.
However, leaders should also think about other ways to lighten the mood of the team and keep things light-hearted, as this helps to avoid stress levels getting to high, as ultimately subordinates will always look to their leader to set the tone of the team.
If you haven’t listened to the podcasts on resilience yet, they are available here in two parts.