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Why entrepreneurs need mindfulness (and it's not too shabby for everyone else either)
Slow down, you move too fast entrepreneurial types.
Slow down, you move too fast entrepreneurial types.
My path to becoming a social entrepreneur was an accidental one. I had spent many years as a doctor specialising in the field of psychiatry. In order to manage the stress of my work, I turned to meditation. It took a while before I was sold on it. For someone who thrived on being active it was almost intolerable to sit still. I remember falling asleep from boredom and experiencing the most profound agitation as though an unstoppable army of ants was crawling under my skin.
Our minds are our most precious resource; they are the source of happiness or depression, creativity or self-destruction, problem-solving or problem-making. It seems strange that we hardly take the time to care for what is our greatest asset. It’s part of our culture to maintain physical fitness and vitality. We brush our teeth every day to take care of of our hygiene and external appearance. So why not take time each day to look after our mind, to ensure it is functioning optimally? Current scientific studies are showing that regular meditation effectively maintains a healthy mind that is more focussed, clear and creative.
Like many people who are driven to create and make things happen, I used to wonder why anyone would “just sit there” doing meditation. As a compulsive doer, sitting down to meditate was profoundly challenging. Where was the productivity in that? But as much as I loved being creative and working on new projects, I discovered that without a way to tune in and calm down I was going to burn out. As meditation became part of my regular mental fitness regime, it redirected my life and catapulted me into becoming an accidental entrepreneur, which is a little ironic.
Four years ago I created Mindful in May, a global online meditation campaign that teaches people how to meditate and raises money to build clean water wells in developing countries. The idea came to me one day while I was sitting in meditation. I imagined there were many people in the world who wanted an easy, accessible way to learn how to meditate.
Mindfulness has supported me along the path to becoming a social entrepreneur. Here are six ways it can help you.
1. Tap into deeper creativity and innovation
Meditation creates an oasis of quiet, which gives the mind space to decompress at a time of information and technology overload. Although meditation is not about actively trying to make something happen, ripples of thought, sensation and emotion can creatively collide and result in innovative ideas and solutions.
As Einstein famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Mindfulness meditation cultivates a different state of mind, which can support an alternative perspective in everyday life.
2. Communicate more effectively under stress
Being a good communicator is a fundamental ingredient in leading a team. Under stress our communication skills significantly decline and there are neurobiological reasons for this. The fight or flight response, driven by our amygdala, is a reflex response to perceived threat, which evolved to protect us from danger. The problem is that this warning system has not changed for about 100,000 years. Nowadays rather than the threat of physical predators, we face psychological stressors, like an argument with our partner or a looming deadline. It requires mental power to solve issues effectively, but our higher functioning brain, the prefrontal cortex, goes offline when we’re hijacked by the amygdala response.
Regular mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase the thickness of the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with such higher level brain functions as calming ourselves down in the heat of emotion and being able to communicate and problem solve more effectively.
3. Manage self doubt
Running your own business involves constantly pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. For most of us this inevitably comes with moments of fear and self doubt. The inner critic can become quite loud and persistent in its attempt to protect you from failure. The problem is that without training we can be fooled into listening to these compelling thoughts which are very often just useless negative mind chatter that is being generated by underlying feelings of fear. Mindfulness gives you a completely new way of relating to your thoughts through helping you discover that your thoughts are real but not necessarily true. This helps you unhook from unhelpful self doubt that would otherwise get in the way of you taking action towards what you really desire.
4. Manage the discomfort of uncertainty
As an entrepreneur you create your own path and there are no guarantees it will turn out well. When you invest all of your energy, working relentlessly to bring your vision to life, there will be moments of uncertainty that can trigger self doubt, anxiety and confusion.
Mindfulness teaches you to make room for difficult emotions and find more effective ways of managing them. Increasing your self awareness allows you to tune in to what is going on and find effective solutions and make wiser decisions, rather than react on automatic pilot.
5. Sharpen your focus
With invisible umbilical cords connecting us to our devices, staying focussed is an increasing challenge. Our attention buzzes around with the restlessness of a mosquito fluttering between emails, Facebook, Twitter and text messages. We need to upgrade our “inner technology” of attention to meet the demands of an increasingly complex world.
A regular meditation practice helps you to develop an inner witness that monitors your attention. Over time it’s like an inner coach who points out behaviours, thoughts or actions that are at odds with your goals or values. With mindfulness you are more able to stay on task.
6. Take care of yourself
The energy required to run a business can make burn-out a very real risk. Your stress response was not designed to be sustained for extended periods. In fact, the stress response was designed for a very specific reason—to redirect the energy and blood flow in your body so that you could literally run away from a physical predator. The problem is that these days our stress response is triggered many times in a day. When the stress response is constantly switched on, it puts us at a higher risk of chronic inflammatory conditions, infertility, diabetes, obesity, anxiety and depression to name a few. Mindfulness meditation is a powerful practice that supports us in bringing our bodies back into a balanced, healthy state, protecting us from the long term impact of stress. There are studies that have demonstrated that mindfulness meditation can positively impact our bodies down to the level of gene expression in ways that counter the effects of stress and inflammation.
The problem is that to reap all of these benefits you actually have to practise regularly which can be challenging with the already competing demands on your to do list! That’s why I created the Mindful in May challenge, a month where thousands of people across the world learn how to meditate for 10 minutes a day and get sponsored to commit to the challenge. It’s a way to create a clear mind for you and clean water for others.