What Does Mindfulness Even Mean, Anyway?

Posted 03.10.2014

If you do a Google search on the word, mindfulness, you’ll find close to six and a half million results.  Safe to say you could spend the rest of the day reading through all of that and still have a lot left to read.  (Probably not the most mindful use of your time actually.)  In any case, mindfulness is clearly a hot topic as this recent cover story in Time magazine illustrates.

Since I’m writing a book on the mindfulness alternative to being overworked and overwhelmed, I get asked a lot how I define mindfulness.  Before I share my answer, let me say two things as a preamble.I know mindfulness pick me

One, is that if you want to go deeper on this topic you should check out the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg and other contemporary mindfulness experts who have been at this a lot longer than me.  Two, if you’re not inclined to go deeper right now, know that you don’t have to aspire to be a Buddhist monk or nun to benefit from mindfulness.  It can help anyone deal with the overwork and the overwhelm that’s such a fact of life today.

Based on dozens of interviews I’ve conducted with everyday leaders, experts in health and wellness and my own experience with clients and in my own life, my definition of mindfulness comes down to two big ideas:  awareness and intention.

Here are a few quick quotes from people I’ve interviewed for the new book that explain those two big ideas:

AwarenessBryan Kest is a 30 plus year yoga instructor who invented the concept of Power Yoga.  He has a gift for making complicated things simple.  Bryan believes that mindfulness is simply “about trying to stay conscious of where your mind dwells so then you can decide, ‘Is that a healthy place?’”  On the other end of the spectrum from Bryan’s career path is retired U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen who told me, “You’ve got to be careful about what rents space in your head… if there are too many things rattling around in your brain you can’t focus. “  I think Kest and Allen are basically saying the same thing:  if you want to be effective and productive, you have to be tuned in to what’s going on between your ears.  That’s why I think awareness is one of the two big ideas behind mindfulness.

Intention:  The other big idea is intention.  The two step flow is to first be aware and then be intentional about the right action to take (which might just be do nothing).  Sunglasses and sports apparel powerhouse Oakley’s senior vice president of HR, Caroline Kenyon, has a great perspective on how mindfulness can serve the overworked and overwhelmed leader.  She believes that mindfulness is a matter of being intentional about “what has to happen today versus tomorrow… (it’s) not clearing your brain, it’s being able to think clearly.”

What’s your take?  How do you define mindfulness?  How do you apply it in your work as a leader?