Mindfulness is hip! How science, social media and the GFC triggered the mindful leadership revolution.

Mindfulness Is Hip!

(Reading time 5 minutes)

Mindfulness is hip!

Mindfulness is trending in all channels of social media. In 2014 mindfulness was the new buzzword among celebrities from Katy Perry to Sir Richard Branson, from Will Smith’s kids to media magnate Arianna Huffington. And by all signs that was just the beginning. 2015 is the year that will see mindfulness practice become embedded as a fundamental leadership trait in the boardrooms of the early adopters.

So why has this esoteric practice formerly reserved to monastic lifestyles suddenly entered our collective consciousness and infiltrated the hard and serious world of big business?

Enter science, Social Media and the GFC.

While for centuries meditation was exclusively the domain of spiritual practice, often in faraway temples atop misty mountains, and of purple-crystal-worshipping-new-age-hippies, it was not until the last decade that medical imaging technology, in particular MRI’s, has made it possible to study meditation in a controlled scientific context. While the likes of Jon-Kabat Zinn have been promoting the virtues of mindfulness to professionals before then, there was no fully validated evidence that any of this was more than anecdotal. But a series of recent published and ongoing studies conducted in the likes of Harvard University Medical School have not only validated and reinforced the anecdotes of the mystics, but revealed a raft of other remarkable and highly beneficial phenomena.

So far the science has revealed this:

  • Meditation practice turns down the “inner voice” in our mind (a function of our language centre) and reduces self talk, which is overwhelmingly imaginary stuff constructed out of fragments of past experience. Why is this good? Because while pre-emptying dangerous situations is an evolutionary important trait, it has “overstepped” its bounds in our technologically and socially advanced world. By reducing this mental chatter we become more aware of the true context of an experience. Information is not pre-filtered by our emotions, and as a result of this clarity we are able to make better decisions.
  • Meditation increases creativity. This means that as we are able to see problems with more clarity, we are also able to imagine a wider range of possible solutions.
  • Meditation reduces stress. This happens both directly as a result of chemical activity in the brain, but also on a meta level: as we are better able to comprehend, evaluate and engage with a situation, we are also less emotional and more in control, which in turn increases our confidence and unleashes all kind of positive metabolic responses. Which leads to the next point: Health.
  • Meditation makes you healthier. As we become less inclined to emotional responses to stimuli for food, alcohol, drugs and toxic behavioural traits, we are less likely to succumb to those. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Meditation releases happy hormones in your body, which in turn invigorate your immune system making you less succeptible to illness, and more likely to recover quickly. Never mind the fact that feeling good will also benefit how you engage with others. And that brings us to the next benefit: Empathy.
  • Meditation increases your empathy and compassion. While this may sounds like a Buddhist quote, it is actually happens at a chemical neurological level. We become more connected to our sense of life and that of other beings. In simple terms it means you will have much better relationships with people because you will behave kindly towards them. You become more trustworthy and you will be more trustworthy.

While all this may once have sounded too good to be true, it is now understood on a neuro-scientific level to be true. And I have left our a lot, this iss really just the tip of the iceberg. Meditation re-wires and physically reshapes our brain for mindfulness, and physically alters not only how we perceive the world, but how we engage with it. It also alters (and improves) how our bodies function.

So far so good. So how does Social Media fit into the story?

Social media plays two key roles in the mindfulness revolution: The more obvious one is the dispersion of information. As twitter and other platforms shifted from text to images, tiles with happy quotes proliferated and got shared. The second one is curated feeds. Stuff that got shared got seen, the rest of the stuff disappeared from our collective consciousness. Two things got shared frequently: the happy quote and the videos of dramatic incidents (from rescues to beheadings, from extraordinary feats to epic fails). People’s lunch postings faded from view, making many social media channels less personal and more about entretainment. While many demographics have swarmed to new apps that look to overcome that, the general sense of loneliness, meaninglessness and alienation has hit hard across right the connected generations.

Add to this the GFC.

While the glitter of the virtual world of imaginary stardom faded (and still continues to fade) slowly, the discontent, distrust in “the system”, fear and sense of personal failure brought about by the global financial crisis that began in late 2008 was somewhat more sudden, less visible and far more personal. It affected people from all social strata, and continues to do so as its effects are slowly displaced by tectonic shifts in industry and the exponential increase in labour automation.

These three factors were catalysts that made it acceptable for the profound social discontent to become a public conversation.

The secret reality of the 90-plus hour work week and the stratospheric career ladders as being inwardly un-fulfilling is no longer a secret.

The overarching question has now shifted from “How can I get to the top of the career ladder” to “How can I get to the top of my personal fulfillment ladder?” (or in most cases – “Which one is my ladder?”)

Social media has aided the spread of this idea, combined with some timely “seeds” like books such as Tim Ferriss’ disruptively titled “4-hour Work Week”, more recently Arianna Huffington’s “Thrive” written following her sudden and personal crash from corporate life burnout, or one of the most read blogs in the world, Leo Babuta’s “Zen habits”. A plethora of “off-line” and “minimalist living” movements have spawned further legitimising the mindful lifestyle as the logical progression from a high consumption, high demand and high delusion life.

Most principles around mindfulness and meditation are simple. The “practice” in the form of meditation does the “hard rewiring” and makes the process of implementing constructive habits much easier, there is still an perception amongst business leaders and self-declared high performers that sitting still is bad for business, science has now joined the chorus and thoroughly validated the once esoteric claims of meditation and mindful living. Like all things, mindfulness and meditation takes practice and a willingness to learn a few new things.

The innovators have been mindful for a long time. Now the early adopters are jumping on board. There is no question that business leadership is facing a structural transformation. Coupled with the deep shifts underway in global work-culture, automation and mechanisation of tasks, leadership is becoming centered on meaning, on significance, on experience and on adherence to its altruistic foundational values. Mindful Leadership is not a fad, it is the next step in the evolution of leadership. Soon mindless leaders will become irrelevant, and eventually become extinct together with the business they once lead.

Mindfulness has been around for centuries, with the help of science and inevitable social tipping points is now becoming mainstream.

Mindfulness is hip.  But don’t mistake it for a fad.

The future of leadership is mindful, founded on bettering the human condition, including that of the leaders themselves.

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