The RSA



Mindfulness: not solving difficult problems

There is currently an explosion of interest in mindfulness, crudely put, the paying of attention to the moment. Mark Leonard argues that simple but powerful mindfulness exercises and broader access to training in the workplace could help us harness the power of our demons for good.

We are a problem solving species. We can make handheld communication devices that do everything apart from wash the dishes; we make dishwashers to do that. However, there is a limit to the problems we can solve. We may be able to make a world where increasing numbers of us have all we could possibly need, but for all our ingenuity, it seems we have unleashed demons we cannot control.

Homo sapiens evolved around a quarter of a million years ago. Seven billion of us now live in a very different world, one in which our society and economy and even the planet itself are under threat.

If you are reading this, you are most probably one of those of us who are fortunate enough to have a roof overhead, comfortable clothing, enough food to eat and a whole load of other stuff. Yet, even amongst those who have these things and more, stress and depression have reached epidemic proportions. What role could mindfulness play in making a better, happier world?

Solving problems is great for all kinds of things, but we are beginning to understand that our minds do not work like machines. Like social groups and the ecosystem that supports life on the planet, our minds are complex systems that are difficult to control but have the remarkable ability to self-organise if given the chance. If placed under stress, our minds can buffer it up to a point but if adverse conditions continue they will reach a tipping point and can fail, often catastrophically.

The current renewed interest in mindfulness has sprung from recent scientific work on depression. For some people a bad day can trigger a downward spiral into the depths of depression; others can acknowledge that they are just having a bad day and sooner or later the fog lifts all of itself. People who suffer from depression notice a low mood and begin to worry that things are going to get worse and sure enough they do. Part of the reason for this is because they ask themselves the question: ‘Why do I feel so bad?’ They treat a bad day like a problem that they need to solve and sure enough they can’t.

By practicing mindfulness exercises we learn to ‘not-do’ anything at all, with purpose. Mindfulness training teaches people who suffer from depression to give themselves a break from using problem solving strategies inappropriately on their emotions. With greater self-acceptance that comes with ‘not-doing’ anything, things tend to get better on their own.

How much better could things be if we could tackle the challenges we face everyday by learning to diffuse stress more effectively? Mindfulness exercises help us to do this in a similar way to the way they help prevent the recurrence of depression. They can give us the tools to uncouple the feedback of over-thinking from our emotions, reducing stress, enabling us to think about things more clearly when it’s useful and to know when it is not.

Of course increasing levels of stress and depression cannot all be put down to applying problem-solving strategies inappropriately. But when we use them on our emotions they tend to backfire and when applied to other people, without taking proper account of the way they feel, the impact can be damaging.

For example, if management strategies are implemented without making sure that employees feel fairly treated, we risk creating a vicious circle of reduced motivation, poor performance and further management intervention. A bit like depression in an individual, this ends up in a destructive spiral of stress and disengagement in an organisation.

What might happen if a significant percentage of people in an organisation were able to break this vicious cycle caused by the stress of over-thinking by practicing mindfulness exercises? Not only would people be less stressed but they would be more aware of the impact of their behaviour on others. Their engagement and happiness would be less dependent on the conditions they experience. They would act as a social buffer to stress in the organisation.

If, individually and collectively, we can be more mindful of the way we employ problem-solving strategies, we could release a great deal of human potential from the damaging effects of stress. If mindfulness training in the workplace became more widely available, organisational cultures would be more likely to emerge from a virtuous circle of employee engagement, collaborative working styles and outstanding performance.

However, releasing human potential from the ravages of stress is not just about improved individual and collective performance. An organisation, which emerges from a culture where employees understand themselves and others around them better, will be more likely to express similar characteristics. When ethical behavior is the norm within an organisation, it will be more likely to take its corporate social responsibility more seriously and behave more ethically with all its stakeholders and society in general.

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  • D N

    Of course increasing levels of stress and depression cannot all be put down to applying problem-solving strategies inappropriately. But when we use them on our emotions they tend to backfire and when applied to other people, without taking proper account of the way they feel, the impact can be damaging. Very true.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andrew.cunningham.98478 Andrew Cunningham

    I heartily suggest using mindfulness as a way of quieting down the mind and getting a bit of relief from the ‘internal chatter’

  • MatthewMezey

    Hi Mark,

    It was great when a member of the RSA’s Social Brain team ran a lunchtime Mindfulness session for any interested RSA staff here – he tried out a number of different practices (He was very much still learning about all this himself). It picked up a fair bit of interest. But he’s not here now, so it stopped.

    I hope we somehow get it going again…

    I’d love to have a chat about this area, if you’re in the vicinity some time.

    I’ve been in a regular Mindfulness group for about 7 years – in the Fourth Way tradition (they use terms like self-remembering, sensing (your body), presence etc – but people like Prof Charles Tart – author of ‘Living the Mindful Life’ confirm that it’s the same thing as mindfulness).

    From my point of view, the most interesting – challenging! – application of these kinds of ideas within organisation has been done by Prof Bill Torbert + co (who also draw on some of Prof Chris Argris’s ideas around ‘command and control’ vs ‘mutual learning’ organisations). Torbert has been practicing mindfulness for decades.

    Torbert call’s his approach ‘Developmental Action Inquiry’ – though I think he might’ve just renamed it slightly…

    I wrote about Torbert, Argyris, leadership and Enterprise 2.0 in this blog post: http://bit.ly/bJraEV (Thought didn’t mention the Mindfulness aspects).

    Torbert’s attempts to show how we can all interweave objective experience (science, research etc) with intersubjective understandings and subjective experience (including mindfulness) is very impressive.

    All this stuff reaches quite deeply into organisations and how they can grow and develop.

    Matthew

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  • Mark Leonard

    Hi Matthew, yes always keen to discuss how these ideas and practices can have an impact on organisations and society today. It seems the more see problems, the more we try to control things, the more we precipitate unintended consequences and so on. It seems we are at the end of the road but “relearning” how to inhabit an “exploratory mode” changes all kinds of things.