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Why you need to practice mindfulness

I used to restock incense in a rundown storefront turned distributor’s warehouse on Capitol Hill in Seattle. I also sold dreamcatchers, Tarot cards, and books by Shakti Gaiwan and other personal and spiritual development luminaries to bookstores throughout the Northwest. It was the late 80s; it was the height and tail-end of the New Age movement’s popularity, and I needed a job.

Although I remained at the margins of that movement—opting not to ritually reexperience my birth, or book any astral travel, for example–I did become interested in Zen Buddhism and meditation. Over the years, in fits and starts, I came to appreciate the value of mindfulness, which is a form of meditation that helps you to experience the present moment, to be here now, and which has many benefits for both the mind and body.

Mindfulness for the mainstream

Now, many years later, mindfulness is again popular. More popular in fact than it was back then. Severed from its ties to the New Age movement, It’s more about business value than it is about the pursuit of ultimate truth or enlightenment.

Search for “mindfulness” and you’ll find (at the time of this writing) that Netflix is releasing a new pre-school cartoon series called Luna Petunia that has a “strong intended focus on mindfulness”, that the New York Knicks are using mindfulness to “allow athletes to reflect and to slow down the mind—to get it into game shape,” and that the Harvard Business Review is exploring how mindfulness can help to develop leadership skills.

If you haven’t tuned into this new era of mindfulness yet, you may be surprised to discover how widely it’s being adopted and just how beneficial it can be—hype aside.

Reality in the present moment

The essence of mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment. As Steve Hagen explains it in Buddhism is not what you think "...we simply must be here, immediately present with what’s going on and not lost in thought or speculation. We need to see what’s going on in this moment including what’s going on in our own mind."

He goes on to say that "If it’s Truth we’re after, we’ll find that we cannot start with any assumptions or concepts whatsoever. Instead, we must approach the world with bare, naked attention, seeing it without any mental bias—without concepts, beliefs, preconceptions, presumptions, or expectations."

Of course, easier said than done. However, mindfulness doesn’t have to be about pursuing ultimate truth or enlightenment, and you don’t need to retreat to the woods for decades of solitary meditation practice.

Mindfulness can be as simple as focused attention to the present moment, no matter how banal. Savoring a great cup of coffee, its taste, it’s aroma, the experience of drinking it—and while in those focused moments pushing your ever-present and often pointlessly distracting thoughts to the recesses of your mind.

A mindful experience, of whatever kind, makes you aware of, or reminds you, that you are not your thoughts, that there’s a reality separate from them—and most importantly, that you can escape them now and then.

A mindful experience, of whatever kind, makes you aware of, or reminds you, that you are not your thoughts, that there’s a reality separate from them—and most importantly, that you can escape them now and then.

How mindfulness benefits you

That simple, but not always easy act of achieving a respite from the incessant noise of your thoughts and all the filters you use to process the external world, has proven to be very beneficial for improving physical and mental health.

Mindfulness can help you reduce stress, fight depression, promote more positive thoughts, boost your immune system, improve focus and concentration, improve learning and memory, and even to help us develop more empathy.

When you’re in a mindful state, your brain reacts by decreasing beta waves. The processing engine slows down. You gain back some control in that slowing down and you can direct your mind to focus on other, more positive, directions. You can use mindfulness to touch base with reality and to self-improve.

The mindful enterprise

What’s good for the health, happiness, and productivity of a person who practices mindfulness is also good for the companies they work for, as you can imagine, and many businesses have established employee mindfulness training programs as part of their wellness programs.

David Gelles, a business reporter for The New York Times, documents the rise of this trend among companies such as Google, Ford, Target, and General Mills in his book Mindful Work. For these companies, and others, the business value is real. Aetna recently revealed that their mindfulness program “has saved about $2,000 per employee in healthcare costs, and gained about $3,000 per employee in productivity.”

Mindfulness in the workplace isn’t only about the collective benefit of individual employees improving their focus and concentration and handling stress better. It’s seen as important for leadership as well.

Ellen Langer, a professor of Psychology at Harvard University, author of Mindfulness, which was published over 25 years ago, has had a strong influence on many business thinkers and leaders. The mindfulness she advocates is not a result of a meditation practice, but rather from paying attention to what’s happening in the workplace, being present in that sense–not on autopilot, noticing new things, and because of that being more a charismatic leader and better able to successfully run an organization or business.

Ultimately, it’s about paying attention

Mindfulness is defined, used, and practiced in many different ways now. But what’s consistent throughout all these different applications of and paths to mindfulness is a focus on paying attention to the reality that’s outside your own head.

Mindfulness is a focus on paying attention to the reality that’s outside your own head.

Settling down the noise and loosening the grip (and often, the distortion) of your own thoughts, and the increasing number of distractions we happily invite into our lives through our smartphones and internet-connected devices, isn’t getting any easier.

Matthieu Ricard, a French writer and Buddhist monk, tells the story of a monk friend who arriving in Times Square in Manhattan for the first time and looking up at the massive 5-story billboards and colors and lights says “They’re trying to steal our minds.” Imagine the reaction he’d have to an iPhone.

The fact is, everything is trying to steal your mind, your attention.

Anton de Young is a published writer and photographer. As a long-time Zendesk employee, he built the Zendesk customer education and training teams, and helped to launch Relate’s website and event series. Now a freelancer, Anton is busy exploring the world from his new home in Lisbon, Portugal. Find him on Twitter: @antondeyoung.