By Kevin Meyer
I’ll preface this post by saying that yes, I’m from crazy California, I eat granola with fruits and nuts in the morning, am vegetarian (well, pescatarian), dislike wearing shoes, and practice yoga. At least I don’t have dreadlocks – yet. So there – now you’re warned.
I’m currently winging my way over to Hawaii’s Big Island, probably my favorite U.S. destination, and a place I’ve been to a few times a year for over a couple decades – including only three weeks ago. It’s a special place for me and especially my wife, who was born in Hilo and then eventually married me in Makena. Unfortunately this trip isn’t really for pleasure as we’ll be scattering the ashes of both of my wife’s parents, who long ago went to Hawaii on their honeymoon… and quit their jobs and just stayed. Yes, it’s that kind of place. I guess in a way we’re experiencing the circle of life, and perhaps this time closing one of its intricate loops.
Long-time readers will remember that years ago I would often escape to Hawaii on my own for a couple days to decompress and recalibrate. Solitude, silence, and the sea can do wonders when life is throwing some incredible work and personal chaos at you, as it was at me.
This is where I discovered the concepts and power of Zen, where I read Matthew May’s The Shibumi Strategy that tied it all together, and where I became human again. The chaos that had enveloped me had turned me into a bit of a neurotic mess. I created contingency plans A, B, C, and D for every possible business and personal situation, spending far more time and energy creating those multiple redundant backup plans than it would have taken to simply recover from the rare occurrence when something actually did go wrong. Learning to be mindful helped put the world into proper perspective, created a calm mind and being, thereby freeing up a tremendous amount of energy.
On the plane I’m listening to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, a great album for calming the mind, and contemplating a couple of recent articles on mindful leadership. I’m a little concerned.
Just as lean is much more than 5S and value stream mapping, mindfulness is much more than simply being aware as a leader. A lean “transformation” based on simply implementing a set of common lean tools, without realizing it’s a holistic management system, will inevitably fail. Some lean consultants and writers, perhaps angling for the quick buck or out of ignorance, have focused on the tools at the expense of the system. Now I fear we’re seeing the same with mindfulness.
A couple days ago Maria Gonzalez wrote a piece for HBR titled Mindfulness for People Who Are Too Busy to Meditate. It’s a good article, and I agree with many of the techniques, and especially the benefits.
For instance, researchers have found that mindfulness can reprogram the brain to be more rational and less emotional. When faced with a decision, meditators showed increased activity in the posterior insula of the brain, which has been linked to rational decision making. This allowed them to make decisions based more on fact than emotion. This is good news since other research has found that reasoning is actually suffused with emotion. Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive and negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds. We push threatening information away and hold friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators but to data itself.
She goes on to describe a concept of “micro meditation” for those who don’t want to practice full meditation. I also use “micro meditation” to re-center throughout the day. Taking just a minute to become aware of my breathing, the feeling of the steering wheel beneath my hands, or the sounds when the car radio is turned off. Just being truly aware in the moment, of your senses and emotions, without thinking about projects, people, things – or the past or the future. A minute or two is obviously easier than a full 20 to 30 minutes each morning.
As with tool-based lean, it works – temporarily and superficially. But it’s not transformative. To become truly aware and present in the moment, long term, takes a lot of very hard work. Micro meditation, as with the individual tools of lean, is just a tool. It supports the larger concept, but it is not the larger concept itself. Last week there was also an article in The Wall Street Journal on Khajak Keledjiano, CEO of Intermix, now part of Gap. Mr. Keledjiano discovered mindfulness and meditation on a dare.
A friend bet Khajak Keledjian $15,000 six years ago that he wouldn't be able to sit still for 15 minutes in complete silence. After nearly five months of trying, the 41-year-old CEO of high-fashion retailer Intermix couldn't do it.
Real meditation is not just silence, it’s purposely not thinking about projects or people, the past or the present. Silencing the mind to become aware of underlying thoughts, emotions, environment, and perspectives. And it is incredibly difficult – it took me two months before I could successfully count ten breaths without my mind going off on a tangent with other thoughts. Counting ten breaths is the most basic exercise. It took a year to build my meditation practice from 5 to 10 to now 20 minutes. Here’s an introductory article, and a short but much deeper one from a more Zen Buddhist perspective. To a Buddhist, even real meditation is just a tool of a much larger belief system.
Many confuse meditation with prayer. It’s completely different – but they are very complementary. My morning practice has four components: a twenty minute (and I still struggle) period of meditation to clear the mind and become aware in the present. Then a few minutes where I focus purely on gratitude for family, friends, and blessings. That sets the stage – and perspective – for a period of prayer. Amazing how little you need to ask for when you’re present in the moment and realize how much you already have to be thankful for. Prayer then becomes focused outward, as it should be. Finally, I end with a couple minutes identifying my top two to four projects for the day. In the evening, just before bed, I usually take time for a couple minutes of hansei – reflection – on how I did with those goals and how I can improve, then a couple minutes of meditation to calm the mind, then sleep.
If you simply pause a moment to count a breath or two you don’t realize how much hard work it takes to become truly aware in the present – every moment. And, as with lean, it is still a never-ending journey – both to continually reinforce and sustain, and to improve and grow. You can easily identify someone who doesn’t get lean because they say they’ve “done lean.” The same with being mindful. You don’t “do” or become mindful – you’re continually working very hard at it.
Mr. Keledjian does work hard at it. Even with an incredibly busy schedule he makes his morning practice a priority, which is something I still struggle with. To reinforce the personal practice he takes classes at least once a week, and goes on a retreat once a year. He’s also diving into Kundalini – the yoga of the mind – and something I’ve just recently started to explore.
Mindfulness, and mindful leadership, is becoming very popular as the benefits become better known. It’s taught at the leading business schools, in the military, and on the sports fields. That’s great. But just as lean has sometimes been simplified to a set of tools in order to grab the quick short-term win at the expense of a long-term, sustained transformation, quick-and-easy mindfulness has a similar risk.
Real transformation is a journey that takes hard work and perseverance… forever.