The past three decades have witnessed an explosion of self-help books and programs aimed at curing everything from motivation to cancer. The Secret is a prominent example. Currently, the mindfulness phenomenon has entered mainstream, and now is entering the boardrooms and employee staffrooms of business. Is mindfulness just another self-help flavor of the month? Now that mindfulness has become popular, it predictably has drawn its critics.

The Secret is a best-selling self-help book written by Rhonda Byrne. The book is influenced by Wallace Wattles’ 1910 book The Science of Getting Rich and is based on the “law of attraction” which claims positive thinking can create life-changing results such as increased wealth, health, and happiness. The book has sold more than 19 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 46 languages, and become the basis for many self-help guru training programs.

Byrne argues in the The Secret  that the law of attraction is a natural law which determines the complete order of the universe and of our personal lives through the process of "like attracts like". The author claims that as we think and feel, a corresponding frequency is sent out into the universe that attracts back to us events and circumstances on that same frequency. For example, if you think angry thoughts and feel angry, it is claimed that you will attract back events and circumstances that cause you to feel more anger. Conversely, if you think and feel positively, you will attract back positive events and circumstances. Proponents of the law claim that desirable outcomes such as health, wealth, and happiness can be attracted simply by changing one's thoughts and feelings. For example, some people believe that using The Secret can cure cancer. As yet, there is no scientific evidence to support these assertions.

The Secret highlights gratitude and visualization as the two most powerful processes to help manifest one's desires. It asserts that being grateful both lifts your frequency higher and affirms that you believe you will receive your desire. Visualization is said to help focus the mind to send out the clearest message to the universe. Several techniques are given for the visualization process, as well as examples of people who claim to have used it successfully to manifest their dreams. The claims made by both the book and film have been highly controversial, and have been criticized by reviewers and readers in both traditional and web-based media. The book has also been heavily criticized by former believers and practitioners, with someclaiming that The Secret was conceived by the author and that the only people generating wealth and happiness from it are the author and the publishers.

Others assert The Secret offers false hope to those in true need of more conventional assistance in their lives. In businesses using the DVD for employee training or morale-building, some reacted to it as "a gimmick" and "disturbing" like "being indoctrinated into a cult.”

In a harshly critical 2010 review, The New York Times states: "“The Power” and “The Secret” are full of references to magnets, energy and quantum mechanics. Byrne’s onslaught of pseudoscientific jargon serves mostly to establish an “illusion of knowledge, as social scientists call our tendency to believe we understand something much better than we really do."

In 2009, Barbara Ehrenreich published Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America as a response to "positive thinking" books, like The Secret, that teach "if I just change my thoughts, I could have it all". She contends this is delusional or even dangerous because it avoids dealing with the real sources of personal problems. It encourages "victim-blaming,” “political complacency,” and a culture-wide "flight from realism" by suggesting failure is the result of not trying "hard enough" or believing "firmly enough in the inevitability of your success.” Those who were "disappointed, resentful, or downcast" were “victims” or “losers.” Ehrenreich advocates, like most psychotherapists "not negative thinking or despair" but "realism, checking out what’s really there and figuring out how to change it.”

Nowadays there’s not much buzz about The Secret anymore, having run it’s fad-like course. What about mindfulness?

Mindfulness meditation has gone mainstream after 35 years of media and research exposure in the Western world. Increasingly, management and trainers are turning to mindfulness to address issues such as employee engagement, stress reduction and positive relationships, providing a a low cost strategy to address employee productivity and well-being problems.

While we can trace mindfulness origins to Buddhism, the practice can be seen in many ancient cultures and spiritual traditions, going back more than 2,500 years. In this way, there is no parallel to self-help fads such as The Secret.

The Western scientific perspective on mindfulness dates back to 1979, when Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an M.D. and molecular biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center initiated mindfulness meditation as therapy for patients suffering from stress, anxiety, pain and illness with significant positive results

So what exactly is mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” Other definitions are: “bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis,” and  “it includes a quality of compassion, acceptance and loving-kindness.”

Subsequently we’ve witnessed a popular explosion of mindfulness, as seen in the hundreds of media stories. Coincidentally, there also has been an explosion in the interest and practice of yoga, which of course, is a form of meditation.

Mindfulness has entered a serious phase now, and we see it being practiced and preached in multiple disciplines including management and leadership and organizational development.

Mindfulness encourages the practitioner to see both themselves and the problems and issues they face in life in a different way, and those changes do change brain functioning, particularly its capacity to connect to experience in a different way. Mindfulness can improve the quality of attention, manage situations that cause stress instead of reacting in an automatic way. Mindfulness is a mindful state of consciousness , a turning inward to present felt experiences.

Care should be taken to not “oversell” mindfulness as a panacea, that promises a completely pleasant and immediately rewarding experience. Because mindfulness practice teaches you to approach and be with difficult emotions, thoughts and experiences instead of avoiding them, the experience can be difficult for some people. Mindfulness does not aim to get you high, to have your head in the clouds, or look for altered states of consciousness. It’s quite the opposite, it enables you to be even more conscious, and less unconscious in your habitual way of being.

Mindfulness focuses on being, or non-doing, and in that way, presents a stark contrast to our organizational work lives, and even our personal lives, which focus so much on doing.  It is now being practiced and advocated by celebrities, psychotherapists, physicians and high profile CEOs. Educational leaders, prison wardens and post-secondary institutions now have programs in mindfulness.

While popularity is not necessarily a good gauge of effectiveness, there is more than adequate research evidence to substantiate the efficacy of mindfulness:

  • Since 2001, through the work of neuroscientist Richard Davidson and others, we’ve learned that left prefrontal cortex activity, associated with higher states of personal growth, meaning and purpose, measure at extraordinary high levels with people who practice mindful meditation regularly;
  • Research shows mindfulness leads to significant changes in the brain: More cognitive flexibility, creativity and innovativeness, higher levels of well-being, better emotional regulation and more empathy, as reflected in increased levels of alpha and beta brain wave activity;
  • The National Institute of Health is currently financing more than 50 studies testing the potential health benefits of mindfulness techniques;
  • Researchers at the University of Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School and MIT reported from their studies of mindfulness that mindfulness practitioners were far more able to “turn down the volume” on distracting information and focus their attention better than non-mindfulness practitioners;
  • A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry reported that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy delivered in a group format is as effective as antidepressant medication in treating depression;
  • According to a study published in the journal, Psychoneuroendocrinology, the positive effects of mindfulness begin at the cellular level, altering levels of telomerase immune cells;
  • A study by Kirk Brown at the University of Rochester found that people high on a mindfulness scale were more aware of their unconscious processes and had more cognitive control and greater ability to shape what they do and what they say, than people lower on the mindfulness scale.

Mindfulness has now entered the corporate world where it is integrated into educational and well being programs for executives and employees, and where its value has been recognized in terms of employee engagement, productivity , well-being an alternative to more costly health and wellness initiatives.

Most contemporary management and leadership literature is a predictive recasting of 19th and 20th century institutional thinking-multitasking, bigger, better, faster; planning, analysis and problem solving. Work on steroids.

While it is true that the effectiveness of leaders is determined by the results they achieve, those results are an outcome of the impact the leaders have on others. Behavior is driven by thinking and emotions. Thinking and emotions can be a result of mindfulness or mindlessness.

Neuroscience research clearly established that we act, decide and choose as a result of inner forces, often unconscious, and the brain’s reactive and protective mechanisms often rule us. Research also points to the existence of emotions being contagious and viral in the workplaces, often initiated by the emotional states of leaders.

Daniel Siegel, a neuroscientist and author of The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, contends that a corporate culture of cognitive shortcuts results in oversimplication, curtailed curiosity, reliance on ingrained beliefs and the development of perceptional blind spots. He argues that mindfulness practices enable individuals to jettison judgment and develop more flexible feelings toward what before may have been mental events they tried to avoid, or towards which they had intense averse reactions.

The three foundational elements of mindfulness--objectivity, openness, and observation--create a tripod that stabilizes the mind’s attentional lens. This enables the mind to become conscious of the mind itself and thus become liberated from the common ways in which it is imprisoned by its own preoccupations. This is why, through mindfulness practice, we can transform self-created suffering into personal liberation. As we engage in mindful awareness practices, we have the potential to develop long-term personality traits from intentionally created mindful states. Research has suggested that these mindfulness traits include the capacity to suspend judgments, to act in awareness of our moment-to-moment experience, to achieve emotional equilibrium or equanimity, to describe our internal world with language.

Daniel Goleman, an acknowledged expert on emotional intelligence in leadership and organizations, writes in his bookPrimal Leadership, “the first task of management has nothing to do with leading others; step one poses the challenge of knowing and managing oneself.” If leaders are constantly in the doing phase, without taking time for self-reflection and mindfulness, this knowing of oneself presents a serious challenge.

Richard Boyatzis, professor of organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, and author of Resonant Leadership, argues that good leaders attain resonance with those around them through self awareness and relationship management, all clearly connected to mindfulness.

Our modern world has become unbalanced, with an excessive focus on doing and speed and multitasking, with little time for just "being" and reflection.  Mindfulness can restore that balance to leaders and workplaces.  Coaches who specialize in working with leaders in organizations, particularly senior leaders, can shape their coaching practice and methodologies to incorporate mindfulness successfully. The impact can be significant.

My particular interest is as an executive coach working with C-Suite executives, integrating mindfulness into an approach that focuses on self-awareness, self-management and behavior modification. While running a typical 6-10 week mindfulness training program can have significant benefits, I’m convinced that as a stand-alone development activity, it could lose its impact on both leaders and employees because it is not imbedded in the organizational culture. Care must be taken to not over-promote mindfulness as a universal panacea or management development flavor of the month.

Follow me on Twitter @raybwilliams

Stay tune for my forthcoming book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Create Mindful Workplaces.

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