You Said It: Leading in Turbulent Times — Move from Mindfulness to Mind Stillness

As part of our “You Said It” Op-Ed series, we invite contributors to submit their opinion pieces. Have a submission? Contact us.

In one of my favorite Zen stories, a student goes to a Zen master to learn and eagerly watches the teacher make tea. The Zen Master tips the kettle forward and begins to pour the steaming brew. The student watches the warm liquid rise in the cup, reach the brim and then spill over onto the table.

Shocked, the student blurts, “Zen Master, what are you doing?”

The teacher responds, “Your mind is just like this teacup. So full of your own ideas that you are overflowing. The cup cannot hold it all. You must empty your cup first.”

This can be a metaphor for the evolving, post-COVID workplace because while adding more skills, knowledge and expertise is a vital first step for a leader’s growth, there is a point when adding more of anything becomes counter-productive. Becoming mindful has been a first step for many leaders, but given the challenges leaders face due to pandemic, global crisis, and the looming recession, a new level of calm and stillness is required to inform their actions and guide their teams and businesses.

How to Become More Zen in Your Leadership

In Silicon Valley, clients who are leaders in technology often ask me, “How can I be more Zen in my leadership?” Many say they think that being mindful is the way to go.  

Jon Kabat-Zinn popularized mindfulness in Western culture in the 1990s while the word itself has roots in Buddhist and eastern philosophy. Kabat-Zinn acknowledges his revered spiritual Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, who published The Miracle of Mindfulness, in 1975, in a tribute after his death earlier this year.  

In his pioneering work in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Kabat-Zinn offers proof that after eight weeks of secular, intensive mindfulness training participants reported they were relieved of stress, anxiety, depression and pain.

Today mindfulness has gained popularity in the workplace and companies such as Google, SAP, Proctor & Gamble, and Deloitte provide mindfulness classes for employees. And companies such as Adobe and Accenture provide free access to meditation apps such as Headspace or Calm.

In a Google search of  “mindfulness,” the top definitions include the Mayo Clinic that describes it as “a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment.” states that it “is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed.” Greater Good Science Center says that mindfulness means “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.”

The Tools of Mindfulness

While the tools of mindfulness are foundational to increase concentration and self-awareness, however, something more is needed to manage through the current turbulent times.

In the 2003 critically and popularly successful movie, “The Last Samurai”, the U.S. captain is attempting to learn the sword fighting techniques of the samurai. He is told by samurai’s young son that he has “too many mind,” suggesting that to achieve the next level of mastery he needed to learn to let go of thoughts that consumed him, thus becoming fully present in the moment. 

Eastern teachings contend that “mind stillness” is needed after a person increases awareness of their own thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. After they’ve learned to detach from the thoughts that distract them, they can reach a place of stillness (or “no mind”) within themselves.

Mastering Your Leadership

To reach the next level of mastery in leadership, mind stillness is essential because there’s a quality of spaciousness. There’s a space between the thoughts and the personality. There’s room. In that space a person sees their own perspective as well as the perspectives of others. Calmly seeing what’s there, without getting hooked on the content or triggered by someone’s comments.

The leaders who stand out are confident enough to ask questions and be curious rather than just being the expert. Their openness and calm state of mind win hearts and empower others to contribute.

Recently, while coaching a group of 12 senior vice-presidents of a Fortune 500 technology company, I observed that within minutes of a team discussion, a handful of them dominated the conversation.

One of the silent participants who had practiced presence and awareness, asked a more vocal peer, “What is currently getting in the way of achieving the outcome you just described?”

The other leader paused.

The person asking this question was able then to shift the vocal leader from dominating the conversation to mindfulness, enabling them to pause for reflection and find a new direction. 

Mindfulness opened the door to greater awareness. Mind stillness illuminated the path providing clarity and direction. In essence, a better decision in a shorter amount of time.

This approach can provide leaders time and space to focus on the external market changes, while managing their teams through this transition by taking informed decisive actions.

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Rebecca Arora is the founder of Access Alignment, a leadership consulting firm that partners with senior executives to maximize their potential and impact. The coaching work leverages Rebecca’s experience as a founder and entrepreneur, leader in product and software development, and digital media maven paired with Zen and self-awareness practice. She was a co-founder of Mode Media, which grew to the #1 lifestyle digital media company in the U.S. and the 6th largest technology media company. Prior to that she founded a non-profit for underprivileged youth, worked on product strategy at Oracle and consulting at Accenture.

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