Mindfulness practices are gaining converts in the Upstate business community as a path to real financial benefits

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The problems you’re having at work might be all in your head.

At least, the solutions might be, so companies are spending more time and energy on bringing mindfulness practices to the working world. The trend has finally made its way to the Palmetto State, where new groups are forming and mindfulness teachers are turning their attention to business clients.

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that’s meant to clear the clutter from the busy modern mind. It’s not about sitting eyes-closed with crossed legs twisted into the lotus position. Rather, it’s a way of approaching life, work, health and relationships, and it’s pretty much invisible. Practitioners describe mindfulness as a heightened level of awareness that allows practitioners to be better attuned to their own thoughts, resulting in a host of different benefits.

“As physical exercise is for the body, mindfulness is for the mind and the brain,” said Eimer Kernan, mindfulness trainer with WellSmart Solutions. “Focus and concentration are a key to performance, and they can be trained.”

 

In good company

 

Big business has embraced mindfulness for several years, reporting cost savings in addition to intangible benefits. Since 2010, 3,500 employees at Aetna have taken mindfulness-training programs. The company reported a 33 percent reduction in employee stress levels after one hour of mindful movement per week and health care savings of $2,000 on average per employee.

Of 400 employees at General Mills who have participated, 80 percent said they now make better decisions and 89 percent of senior managers reported being better listeners after training. The mindfulness wave crested in Silicon Valley, where over 1,000 Google employees have taken part in the company’s trademarked “Search Inside Yourself” mindfulness training (now available to any company).

The practice fostered important personal changes and contributes directly to Chris Brown’s professional success, said the president, chief investment officer and chief compliance officer at Family Legacy Inc. in Greenville. He has had a mindfulness practice for about half of his 15 years with the wealth management firm, even teaching mindfulness to others for a time.

“My personality type is very aggressive and very Type A, and I just run people over. I’m used to being the smartest guy in the room, and I get what I want,” Brown said. “Mindfulness made me very much collaborative, seeking solutions with and around other people.”

He believes a person’s state of mind is the greatest determinant of success, and meditation is the best way to become aware of it. The results touted by practitioners and researchers can seem incongruous with the simplicity of the method. People find they often get a lot more done.

 

New to the community

 

Although he often encounters people with mental hang-ups that limit their businesses, he said mindfulness is still very much “outside of the box” in his field and in the local business community, so he doesn’t bring that up. Instead he brings mindfulness to his own role in helping people understand and attain their true desires.

Others, however, are taking mindfulness to area businesses as an integral part of their own business models.

EngageMindfulnessComplete Life Coaching offers mindfulness training to business leaders and owners at their private executive retreats. WellSmart Solutions focuses specifically on mindfulness, and began shifting toward offering training to companies about a year ago. WellSmart was a vendor at the recent conference of the Society for Human Resource Managers, where Kernan said local professionals were aware of mindfulness.

“Many HR directors came to our booth. They know about it and they’re curious about how they might bring it into their space,” Kernan said. “We’re finding that most people in key positions, whether it be admin or HR, do know of it and its growing importance in the work environment.” They often want to try a small pilot program before bringing it fully into the workplace, she said.

Kernan said mindfulness finds its way into a company through many avenues: HR departments, company leaders or employees. In health care settings, it might be used on the clinical side to help patients until somebody recognizes potential benefits for staff as well. “Somewhere there’s usually a champion within the company,” Kernan said.

At Google and Intel, it was the engineers. At Aetna, it was the CEO.

 

How it feels

 

“It’s like trying to tell somebody what an apple tastes like. You can tell them it’s sweet or crunchy, but you can’t really express it fully to another person,” Family Legacy Inc.’s Brown said.

Kernan said she sells people on mindfulness by helping people have a discernible experience within the first five minutes of trying it out. She and others say part of the difficulty of introducing mindfulness practice to a new field is that it must be experienced to be understood.

“One of the things that happens is people fall asleep,” Kernan said. “It’s the first time they’ve been in a truly relaxed state without being asleep.” But she maintains that relaxation, not tension, is a human’s natural state. The training teaches people how to experience that type of tension release throughout the day, while they are awake and working.

“If anything, it makes things more intense and more raw,” Brown said. “But that said, when you’re done, you’re done… you’ll simply be doing your best. Then you get up from that and go do something else to your very best.”

Kernan said that most people are surprised, when they stop to pay attention, by how many thoughts are running through their minds. They are also surprised by how accessible mindfulness tools are.

Kernan also emphasizes that mindfulness is not about “emptying” the mind.

“Our minds are made to think just like our lungs are made to breathe. But it is about quieting the frenzied mind and being able to pay attention in the present moment.”

Instructors agree that it’s something you can experience quickly, but real change takes time.

“We are capable of delivering quick results with our [retreats] to jump-start people and teams once a mental commitment has been made. However, it still takes time for the real benefits to take hold and literally pay off for a company – about one year,” said Ingrid Sthare, co-owner of Complete Life Coaching.

 

A little warm and fuzzy

 

Mindfulness teachers and practitioners say a mindfulness practice eventually leads to increased compassion for others, though it might be hard to say why that is.

Although meditation is a part of religious traditions around the world, Kernan said mindfulness in the workplace has been a completely secular practice for 20 years. Still, there is an underlying understanding that mindfulness is something that transcends mere focus. Values are attached, such as non-judgmental awareness, acceptance, curiosity and kindness.

“Is a sniper being mindful? Sure, they’re concentrating on one thing. But would we say they’re doing a mindfulness practice? No,” Kernan said.

Brown said a longstanding mindfulness practice will eventually lead most people to find an undercurrent of kindness, which he says is just he best way to get things done.

“I’m not saying it’s going to happen for you in 10 days, two weeks or six months, but eventually you’re going to wake up and say, ‘Oh, that’s real.’ It’s an odd yet very powerful realization.”

Even if you don’t get there, he says, you’ll probably end up being nicer to your kids, and having better relationships at work.

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