When practicing our craft, there are times when we must be fully absorbed in both the context and the content of the dynamics we encounter. Not everything we do as change facilitators requires this kind of intense focus, but when called for, it’s essential that we have the capacity to narrow our attention to the one person/thing in front of us. Doing so allows us to work with the uniqueness of each situation rather than either reacting out of unconscious conditioning, without giving proper thought to our response, or blindly applying concepts or models that may not be appropriate or effective for the circumstances.
The importance of being fully in the present moment, or mindful, is emphasized in many philosophical, cultural, spiritual, and religious writings. Mindfulness, though, is more than merely being attentive. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn1 describes it as follows:
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality…The key to this path, which lies at the root of Buddhism, Taoism, and yoga, and which we also find in the works of people like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, and in Native American wisdom, is an appreciation for the present moment and the cultivation of an intimate relationship with it through a continual attending to it with care and discernment. It is the direct opposite of taking life for granted.”
Pinpoint Awareness Is Key
As practitioners, we need the ability to engage our full attention on something when the situation calls for it—to focus with pinpoint awareness on one thought, emotion, action, person, object, etc. From this perspective, mindfulness literally means to fill our minds with no more than one endeavor…to narrow our conscious awareness to one thing at a time…to focus on a single individual, situation, or issue without interruption.
The purpose of this particular feature of mindfulness is to limit our range and deepen the intensity of our attention in order to bring a heightened sensitivity to what is being observed and/or acted on in a situation. Being mindful toward someone or something means relating to whoever or whatever is in front of you with “alert participation.” Mindful change practitioners are capable of doing five things:
- Concentrate (they can filter out distractions)
- Re-direct awareness back to the person or task at hand when distractions do intrude (some “wandering” of attention is inevitable)
- ”Compartmentalize” (they mentally file distractions and address them later)
- Focus on what is unfolding now (they don’t replay the past or anticipate the future)
- Watch what is happening without bias (they don’t decide in advance what will happen and what it will mean)
If mindfulness means being watchful about what is unfolding in front of you, then operating while on “auto pilot” (with only a small part of your attention engaged) is “mindlessness.” See if you can recognize these common examples of mindless behavior.
- Driving for miles without being aware of steering the car or the passing scenery
- Putting last year’s date on a check
- Calling someone by the wrong name, or forgetting a person’s name moments after hearing it
- Rushing through activities without thinking of what you are doing
- Thinking of something else while engaged in an unrelated task or conversation
- Multi-tasking to the point of being only marginally attentive to the primary activity you are trying to accomplish
- Being careless when pursuing a specific task
- Trying to simultaneously listen in on another conversation or capture someone else’s attention while attempting to maintain a conversation with the person in front of you
- Rehashing in your mind something said earlier in the day or rehearsing what will be said later in the day while engaged in an unrelated conversation or activity
- Lighting a cigarette, making statements, biting fingernails, or reaching for food without realizing it
Mindlessness is seldom the result of a conscious decision. People don’t say to themselves, “I’m only going to listen to 20% of what this person has to say because I have more important things to think about.” No, mindlessness is usually due to an unconscious shift we make while we are in the midst of a task or a conversation. That is, we are mindless about going into a mindless state. Our automatic pilot takes over without our awareness.
Mindlessness can become our primary mode of operating at any time, but we are particularly vulnerable in situations such as the following:
- While trying to accomplish too many things at once
- When engaged in a situation or task we believe we are familiar with or knowledgeable about and can handle with a minimum amount of attention
- While in a reactive (knee-jerk) mode—responding to events based on habitual thought patterns or impulsive emotional conditioning
- When so pre-occupied with worry about something that has happened or anticipation about what might happen that we don’t allocate attention to what is taking place in front of us
- When overly focused on ourselves (our problems, fears, anxieties, opportunities, desires, accomplishments, etc.)
What this tells us is that multi-tasking, familiarity, emotional reactions, preoccupation with the past and future, and self-absorption are all powerful inhibitors to our mindfulness. Yet, these are everyday occurrences for facilitators of organizational change.
In the next post, I’ll suggest some ways of becoming more mindful.
1 Kabat-Zinn, Jon (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.