Mindfulness: how to train your chattering monkey mind

If mindfulness was a measured objective for executives, would the business world be a better place?

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If mindfulness was a measured objective for executives, would the business world be a better place?

Peter Danby, an executive coach who teaches mindfulness on London Business School’s Accelerated Development Programme, says it’s possible. 

“If we were all mindful of the impact our actions have, what’s happening around us and why we think and do the things we do, then the world could be a better place. But it has to be linked to a set of values that guide the choices you make and the skills and behaviours that make them happen,” he says. In the Buddhist philosophy, ‘right mindfulness’ is just one of the eight disciplines that lead you to that better place. 

To some, the modern mindfulness movement has become yet another thing to do. It’s seen as a way of dealing with the pressures that come from the motto: work faster, do more with less. It enables you to squeeze even more out of yourself and companies out of employees. So rather than adding ‘be present’ to your corporate to-do list, why not ask: what do I gain from being present? 

First, meet your ‘monkey mind’, a metaphor based on a Buddhist idea where the monkey is an uncontrollable, chattering distraction inside your head. When stress levels are high, the symbol is described as ‘a mad monkey bitten by a scorpion’. It homes in on worst-case scenarios and raises your blood pressure by endlessly re-running them. Mindfulness is a way of developing the ability to discipline the mind, take control of that chattering and bring focus to thinking.

Mindfulness is “meta-mindset” that enables people to be fully present, pay attention and consciously digest what is happening internally and in the outside world. “We know that creating this stillness is beneficial for your health,” says Danby, “but there is much more to mindfulness than that. Mindful space brings the ability to focus your thinking and manage your emotions, which can enhance your decision-making, work, relationships and ability to deal with conflict – in other words, your leadership.”

Plugging in also focuses your attention. In the smartphone sound-bite era, the average attention span today is eight seconds – supporting the website rule, if it doesn’t load in eight seconds, users won’t wait to see it. Being ultra-alert and mindful can help your brain change its structure for the better, known as neuroplasticity. Your brain continually changes, so focussing your attention where you want it when you want it can make you better at doing so. 

Stop, look, listen, smell

Sounding good? To practise the art, Danby says, “Try replacing the mantra, ‘work faster, do more with less’ with ‘stop, look, listen, smell’”. It is based on an article written by army veteran and sniper Jeffry Harrison who was tasked with carrying 75 pounds of kit and hitting long-distance targets while battling exhaustion. 

“He needed absolute focus because one wrong move would have led to fatal consequences. The technique was to bring attention to his senses. By stopping to notice the way the environment smelt, sounded and looked, he found that he was better able to focus in critical moments.”

Great leadership is made up of three things according to Danby: personal, relationship and situational mastery. “Mindfulness can help with personal mastery and achieving all-round wellbeing,” he says. 

How? In order to make better decisions, you need clarity. But in the workplace, how easy is it to calm a restless mind? Is taking a moment to concentrate on breathing practical, or just a little odd? “You don’t need to meditate to get the benefits of mindfulness,” says Danby. “You just have to breathe.”

There is no magic; start by focusing on your breath. “You might start by taking conscious ‘breathing breaks’ during your working day – when cleaning your teeth or making a coffee. Bring your full attention to each breath. Notice the air entering and leaving your body and how it affects different parts of you. It sounds easy, but just notice how quickly your mind becomes distracted by other thoughts. Each time you notice the distraction, bring your attention back to the breath – and smile at the mad monkey. If you do that, you will find it easier to steel the mind in all walks of life.”

The benefits for executives 

Making an investment requires tangible returns – Danby’s list of benefits is long. Five is just the start. 

1. Better sleep

I once met an executive who had not slept well for 30 years. After applying mindfulness to his life he finally had a full night’s sleep. It’s paradoxical because mindfulness makes you fully aware and probably the most awake you’ve ever been. With cognisant breathing, you fill the mind with the four senses and remove the things that stop you sleeping, like anxiety and stress. 

Of course, the challenge comes when there’s more happening in the mind at the very moment you’re trying to be still. You might think, ‘I’m supposed to be asleep! Why aren’t I sleeping?’ and then become fixated on that. If you get frustrated, my tip is to accept the way you are right now; you’re awake so why worry about that? Just breathe. If you’re worrying about your sleep, just let it go. Notice how your mind wonders: it’s a little victory over the mad monkey each time you take a mental check. 

2. Improved health

What implications can a ‘mindlessness’ attitude have on people’s health? The modern father-figure of mindfulness Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn’s research focuses on heightened levels of anxiety and stress. I’m interested in what happens to us when we’re in a constant state of restlessness.

Let me clarify, stress is an important part of our lives. It’s what makes life exciting; it helps us to perform. But it’s got to be balanced with calm. From psychology, we know that when we’re under pressure our behaviour flips. We shout and snap; we don’t think straight – and it impacts everyone around us. With clarity, we can think more clearly about the broader implications of our decisions, rather than doing things faster and doing more with less. So, the improved health of an individual has much wider implications: it makes a big difference to people and their teams, organisations and the broader environment. 

3. Increased empathy 

As a leader, if you’re not fully present, an entire workforce is potentially at risk. Think of the rising stars who remain invisible until they’re spotted or the bad traits that grow and fester if left unnoticed. 

Coaches now use mindfulness to empower leaders with more skilled self-awareness. The more conscious they are, particularly of people’s emotions, the more they inspire change and lead hearts and minds. If you disconnect actions from feelings then what happens to the spirit of an organisation? It is lost. In turn, teams become uninspired, overworked and performance decreases. 

When you tune into what’s really happening, you start to notice thought patterns about your own feelings. Focusing for just a minute or two on your breath is a magical way of controlling your physical, emotional and mental state. Just taking that simple step can raise your level of empathy and focus your attention. 

4. Smarter choices 

In the Buddhism, again, there’s the idea of choice; not just choosing the right decisions, but choosing the right words and taking the right steps. Mindfulness is linked to making better choices because it helps people gain a sense of what’s real and what isn’t. It helps us sift through information, listen to what’s going on inside and digest our reactions.

In psychologist Steven Peters’ book The Chimp Paradox, the brain is dissected into three parts: the inner chimp, which is the emotional part of our brain designed by evolution to support survival. The rational human mind, which weighs up evidence and reaches conclusions using cognition. And the computer, where a bank of automated habits and responses, good and bad, are processed. The computer processes information 20-times faster and the chimp five-times faster than the human brain.

To make smarter decisions, the computer needs to ask: where did that message come from, where was it stored and what’s the validity? If the chimp and human are relaxed, the computer will run on auto. If the chimp sees no danger, it hands over to the human or computer depending on what’s already stored away. It makes efficient, smarter choices. 

5. Lower stress levels 

Consider this: when people are deeply in touch with the meaning behind their stress, the level of stress drops. 

You need to know what’s causing the illness to cure it. If you want good physical health, the first port of call is normally the gym – but somehow that doesn’t lead to good health. Running on a treadmill is a great way to keep physically fit, but it won’t necessarily help you live healthier for longer. You might need to change what you eat first. Your stress can reduce simply by understanding its root cause as well as your intent to do something about it. 

Biographer Walter Isaacson quoted Steve Jobs: “If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there's room to hear more subtle things… Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment.” Imagine that, more time in a world constrained by clocks. 

Mindfulness is not an academic theoretical exercise; the concept has been around for at least 4,000 years. To work faster, do more with less and tame your mad chattering monkey, try simply to take a breath and see, hear and smell more than you could before. 

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