Mindfulness is increasingly being taught nowadays in the workplace, with the emphasis being on how the practice cultivates attention, and helps people cope with the demands of work. Or we may decide to try it with the hope that our career will improve if we learn to handle our working relationships more skilfully.
All of this may indeed be available through mindfulness practice.
However, there is a very real problem taking this approach to mindfulness training and that is that we are turning it into a form of performance enhancement.
Mindfulness, as it happens, enables us to look at what we already are. It frees us from the tyranny of the oughts and the shoulds, and the desire to be better, faster and more efficient which is often found at work.
Paradoxical though this may sound, rather than a doing mindfulness is more of an undoing, a recognition that grasping for success and betterment – whether it comes as status, recognition, identity or profit – is in itself stressful, and makes us even unhappier.
If in fact mindfulness training does indeed lead to better wellbeing, focus and performance, it comes from letting go of our desire for focus, performance and well-being. Ironical, eh?
This means that the notion of mindfulness at work is a tricky proposition. We may start out with the intention to improve something but if this is actually to be accomplished we need to stop trying to improve.
Instead, when we practice mindfulness we are setting conditions in which we invite ourselves to relax, slow down, trust and let our attention rest on the direct experience of our senses – sound, touch, the thoughts and emotions passing through the mind.
Mindfulness practice suggests we explore the possibility that our fixation on solving, thinking and producing is part of what limits us.
But we live in a results-based culture which means that trying not to go for a result goes against the grain. When we compromise this letting go of striving, we are not actually practising mindfulness.
If we allow ourselves to submit to this radical approach, things may start to happen, perhaps not what we expected though. As we get more in touch with our experience through stillness and the practice of mindfulness, we can become more aware of our relationship to work as such.
We start to become aware of what drives us and this enables us to decide whether following these drivers actually do result in satisfaction. We start to see the influence of the wider culture of our place of work, and observe whether we are nurtured by it or depleted, and whether this culture benefits others.
As we continue to practice mindfulness and train in awareness and resilience, we may become more curious, creative, and centred in our existing work, or we may recognise an uncomfortable mismatch between the career we’ve found ourselves in and a deeper calling – which opens up the possibility that we may decide to change direction.
Rather than our own personal failing, it may become apparent that the symptoms arising from the pressure we’re under at work are part of a systemic dysfunction. We can then choose to stand up to those pressures, or campaign to change them, or find a healthier place to spend our days.
With a regular mindfulness practice we may discover that we’re drawn to a working life in which service rather than sales, compassion rather than competition and artistry rather than aggression become important. We heal the stressful split between who we feel we are as a person and who we sometimes feel driven to be in our lives, especially at work.
So without having to do any performance enhancement training we open our awareness to the benefits that arise as a result of mindfulness training, such as emotional intelligence, resilience, greater attention.
There’s no better day to be still and practice mindfulness than today. And no better time than now.