Mindfulness in action

The real reason the Bulls won three straight NBA championships from 1991 to ’93 was that we plugged in to the power of oneness instead of the power of one man, and transcended the divisive forces of the ego that have crippled far more gifted teams.” Phil Jackson, legendary coach of Chicago Bulls, 1989-98, winner of six NBA titles during the time Michael Jordan was on the team, from his book “Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior,” 1995.

How did Phil Jackson do this? He coached players to be mindful. He explains: “When players practice what is known as mindfulness–simply paying attention to what’s actually happening–not only do they play better and win more, they also become more attuned with each other.” So how does “paying attention to what’s actually happening” have these effects?

When we are at ease with ourselves and those around us we are more focused, less stressed and less likely to react emotionally. When we are an integral part of a group, we naturally cooperate with those around us to achieve shared goals.

However, working practices often encourage individualistic self-serving behaviour and intra-group competition. There is an implicit threat of social exclusion if there is failure to perform. All too often working practices feed stress and undermine social connectedness.

Phil Jackson goes onto say: “Like life, basketball is messy and unpredictable. It has its way with you, no matter how hard you try to control it. The trick is to experience each moment with a clear mind and open heart. When you do that, the game–and life–will take care of itself.” When we set targets it’s often hard to take account of the “messy and unpredictable” way in which things really happen. Would it make sense for an NBA team to set targets? Don’t the players want to win every game? If they didn’t hit the targets, there would be likely to be all’s sorts of damaging fallout in a team and if targets were hit then this would be likely to undermine motivation. When we try to manage people, all kinds of unintended consequences tend to confound our best efforts.

So how do we create an environment where the natural tendency to want to “win every game” is released and where individuals can flourish? It’s the connectedness in the team that protects individuals from damaging fallout when performance is below what is expected and it’s connectedness that creates the conditions where individuals flourish. Naturally we need to create working practices that support employees and foster connectedness. We need to use tools, which help people to feel part of a group and enable people to develop to the best of their ability.

Phil Jackson found the answer: “The trick is to experience each moment with a clear mind and open heart.” Today we have over-developed our capacity to live in the world of our thoughts. We have forgotten what it’s like to have “a clear mind.” In fact we tend to judge ourselves harshly when things don’t go as planned, we worry about the future and distract ourselves with daydreaming the second our attention is not demanded of us. These are all symptoms of stress.

Stress shuts down our ability to monitor what is going on in the moment and cuts us off from our feelings. We control our feelings until someone or something presses our buttons. We don’t notice our reaction to a trigger before it’s too late. We say something or do something that relieves the emotional pressure for a moment or two but all too often this is something we later regret. Our actions give us cause for further self-criticism and often this goes with patterns of blame. We isolate ourselves and disempower ourselves and become the helpless victims of circumstance.

Mindfulness exercises give us access to our thoughts and feelings. These exercises give us the tools to notice what is going on for us and to process our emotions without reacting. We develop greater understanding our own patterns of thinking and feeling and greater sensitivity to how we are reacting in any situation. We become more skillful in dealing with difficult situations and develop confidence, gain security from better relationships and build productive working patterns for ourselves and with people we work with. All this comes from simple but powerful exercises that train our attention, develop our awareness and give us a greater understanding of the way our minds work.

Mark Leonard set up Oxford Mindfulness Centre spin-off company Mindfulness Exchange with Marina Grazier, adapting best practice from clinical mindfulness teaching to provide mindfulness training in the workplace. Email gerasmos@yahoo.co.uk

For mindfulness training for the workplace go to: www.mindfulness-exchange.com

For more information about mindfulness in the workplace go to: www.mindfulnet.org

Reading: Best selling self-help book based on up to date research: Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman.