Are you feeling exhausted or stressed? Do you need time to recover? Have you ever practised Mindfulness? If you don’t, you are missing out on all its benefits.
Last week we talked about the importance of self-reflection and taking time for yourself. This week we spoke to Zoe Williams, executive leadership coach. She explained what mindfulness is and how to start practising both in your personal and professional life.
“Mindfulness is focusing on fewer things, one thing or nothing, depending on how much you practise it.”
The majority of us rarely focus on just one thing; on the contrary, we are always carrying a lot of thoughts at the same time in our minds. This can lead to exhaustion and stress.
“Mindfulness is about reducing the number of things that we focus on at a time.”
We are not our thoughts
The first thing to understand is that we are not our thoughts. As Zoe explains, we can think about our thoughts as a radio station. It’s something separate from us, and we can decide whether we listen to it or not and when.
“Sometimes, at the end of the day, I talk to my friends, and we joke about the wild radio station we had in our minds that day. But then the next day, you will tune in to a different radio station, and your thoughts will be different.”
And the beauty of it all is that you can always decide how much attention you pay to the “radio”.
Mindfulness and meditation
Meditation is one of the techniques to practice mindfulness, but it’s not the only one. (More about this below)
When meditating, you usually try to sit very still and slow down the number of nervous system responses being sent to your body. This is why we should preferably sit on the floor, in silence and with our eyes closed. This way, we reduce the amount of sensory input we send to our brains. We also focus on our breathing.
What meditation does is help slow our nervous systems down and allow our brains to relax. It’s about getting our minds into a restful state without going to sleep.
“It’s actually better than sleep because you are conscious, and your nervous system is still alert.”
Our nervous system is the one that causes our minds to race, and through our breathing, we can regulate that response. (We talk more about breathing below)
What are the benefits of Mindfulness?
The main benefit of mindfulness is that we allow our nervous system to calm and rest. This is essential because it’s in this calm state that our nervous system focuses on healing.
Our bodies are constantly in a state of restore and repair. If our nervous system continually focuses on the outside and not on healing our bodies, we will suffer from more illnesses and diseases.
Therefore it makes sense that the more we allow our nervous system to focus on the inside, the better we will feel.
“Practising mindfulness helps to slow our ageing too. I certainly look younger now than in my twenties.”
How can we start?
As mentioned above, meditation is not the only technique we can use to practise mindfulness.
Mindfulness practice is any activity that helps you focus on one thing and stop paying attention to your thoughts. This can be reading, gardening, sudoku, crosswords, baking, sewing, knitting, in essence, anything that helps you turn the volume of the “radio” down.
Zoe recommends starting with an activity that we already enjoy. “It’s really difficult to create new habits and break old ones, so do something you already enjoy.”
Even going for a walk while listening to a podcast can be a way of practising mindfulness.
Another great thing about Mindfulness is that once we have mastered it, we can practice it with other people. For example, many people practice it with their kids. You can use any activity and do it together while in silence.
She explains how beautiful and memorable her experience was, living in Tibet with Buddhist monks who practise mindfulness almost all day long. The great thing is that they do it as a community and thrive off of each other, as well as themselves.
We asked Zoe to gives us some advice and exercises to help with our breathing. She mentioned “the box breathing technique”.
The ideal way to practice this breathing technique is by lying down with your back flat on the floor and your hands on your stomach. The main focus point is that you start centring your breathing from the belly instead of the chest.
We breathe in through our nose and count to 4, hold in for 4, exhale through our mouths for 4, and wait for 4 until the next breath.
This can make us feel lightheaded initially, which is another reason why it’s good to be lying down.
We need to understand that the more oxygen we can get into our nervous systems, the safer and calmer we will feel. When we only do diaphragmatic breathing, which is breathing from our chest, we only fill 30 to 40 % of the capacity of our lungs.
This is a shallow type of breathing, usually the one we use when in a fight or flight situation. This sends a signal to our brains that tells it we are in danger and need to be alert.
When we breathe through our stomach, we take in more oxygen into our lungs, which sends a message to our brains that it’s safe to relax and focus on healing.
Doing this exercise just ten times has a tremendous effect on our nervous systems and the number of stress hormones that we get rushing through our bodies.
What are some of the biggest challenges when starting with Mindfulness?
“The biggest challenge is getting used to the discomfort of the brain not being able to switch off.”
Actually, when we start practising mindfulness, it’s pretty normal to have more thoughts and find it even more difficult to relax. According to Zoe, this is one of the reasons many people quit mindfulness at the beginning. But this is just the resistance from our brains because they don’t want to be without a job.
If we think of our brains as a tool, it’s easy to understand that it wants to be helpful. Our brains are designed to solve problems, but most of us, in our everyday lives, have covered the main issues our brains are designed to solve; finding food, for example. So our brains create problems, issues and things to think about.
“We are addicted to thinking.”
The most important thing is accepting the fact that our thoughts will always be there, but we don’t need to focus on them. Instead, we can practise mindfulness and focus on something else.
If we think about watching TV, our thoughts are still there, but we are just not engaging with them. They are running in the background. Our thoughts are there even when we sleep, which is why we dream.
Zoe uses the example of the “parents filter”. “When you are in a birthday party with many kids shouting and screaming around you, parents can turn down the volume. It’s the same with our thoughts.”
Another big challenge for some people is to set boundaries. It’s quite normal for parents, for example, to feel guilty or selfish if they take time for themselves. Nonetheless, we all need our time just to relax and heal; this will also make us be better in our connections and relationships with others.
Mindfulness in the workplace
Zoe works with many companies where she implements mindfulness practices. This can be very beneficial for innovation, creating psychological safety and deeper connections between team members.
The first thing Zoe recommends for companies that want to implement some of these practices is to think about when it’s appropriate to practice mindfulness.
There are many moments where we need to be reactive, fast in our thinking. This varies depending on the industry too.
A good time to practice mindfulness within your team is before starting a meeting when you need people to be ready to listen and communicate effectively or when they need to be innovative, creative or feel safe.
Some of the companies she works for use the box breathing exercise before starting a meeting. She calls it “setting the tone or intention”. As a leader, you need to set the tone and communicate to the rest of the team that now it’s the time to feel safe, relax, and be comfortable in bringing your best ideas and the best version of yourself. This simple exercise can have a dramatic impact on our team members, their confidence and their outputs.
It’s also a good idea for people to use this technique when they have back to back meetings. Taking the time to do 10 or 20 deep breaths between meetings can help our concentration and focus.
The Optimist View…
Whatever activity feels comfortable for you, there is no doubt that practising mindfulness is beneficial and available to every one of us.
We should never forget to take care of ourselves. Think about the instructions on the plane “put your mask on first”. The reason is that we need to be safe to help others.
We can extrapolate the example to our daily lives. If we want to serve others, do our jobs properly and have a fulfilling life, we need to first focus on ourselves.
Unfortunately, this is not an easy task because the majority of us are hectic and busy.
At Optimist Performance, we help people to overcome their challenges and achieve their full potential. Learn more about how our executive coaching programmes can help you readjust the balance and focus on you and how you fulfil your potential by clicking here. Alternatively, get in touch today and find out how we can help.
About Zoe Williams
Zoe Williams is the Founder of Luminary Mindset where she helps leaders to elevate the Emotional Intelligence (EI) culture of their organisations.
Learn more about Zoe and Luminary Mindset here.