Anxiety and the Here and Now

Why is it so hard for leaders in organizations to be present?

Posted May 17, 2018

Courtesy of pixabay
Source: Courtesy of pixabay

Mindfulness and Executive Presence have been two of the biggest trends in leadership development in the past few years, with both depending on a more immediate engagement with the Here and Now.  But if you ask the average leader how much of their day is spent in the Here and Now, my guess is they’ll say, ‘Not much.’

The reason why it’s so hard to spend time in the Here and Now, as anyone who has tried their hand at meditating will know, is that the mind is a restless beast, constantly chafing at the bit of its immediate surroundings. When we look we don’t see what’s right in front of us – we see AND INTERPRET what’s there.  Similarly, we don’t hear sounds – we hear A LOUD NOISE or BEAUTIFUL MUSIC. Our interpretive brain is constantly working overtime, labelling and categorizing, and there’s seemingly nothing we can do about it.

Getting to know your interpretive mind

Practice makes perfect with most things, and certainly with meditation. The more consistently and longer you meditate, the more likely it is you’ll have brief flashes of the Here and Now, where the interpretive brain takes a rest. But why are these flashes so brief? What gets in the way of our staying longer in the Here and Now?

To answer that question for yourself, try this meditation technique:

  1. Sit comfortably with a straight back, with a timer set for 15-30 minutes, and focus on your breath
  2. Once you have been able to quiet your mind and focus on your breath, you will likely discover, quite often I expect, that your mind has wondered. As with most meditations, bring your attention back to your breath at this point.
  3. BUT, before you do, become aware of where your mind has wondered and NAME THAT THOUGHT.
  4. Possible contenders include: worrying, fantasizing, hoping, loving, hating, and many more.

If you’re like me, worrying will feature prominently in your distracting thoughts. You’ll worry about the pain in your legs or back (if you’re sitting cross-legged), about whether you’re doing it right, about whether you're on the right path or not. And all this will be going on while your goal is simply to be in the Here and Now.

So why is it so hard to be in the Here and Now?

In my experience, as both a meditator and an academic, it’s because the Here and Now prompts a primal anxiety that distracting thoughts, including the worries listed above, defend against. In other words, so long as I’m worrying about the pain in my legs, or whether I’m doing it right, I don’t have to face the fact that this person I think I am and this life I am invested in DOESN’T REALLY EXIST. To remain comfortably in the Here and Now I would need to fully embrace the fact that the person I think I am is nothing more than a useful fiction. In other words, I would need to stop believing who I think I am, and instead simply BE.

There is no rational way to come to this conclusion. Rational understanding can lessen your commitment to the fiction that is you, and make sense of the anxiety that arises when faced with the emptiness that lies beyond that fiction. But only practice can, over time, lessen the feeling of panic that very naturally arises in the body when faced with this realization.

Leadership as a spiritual journey

This may all sound very esoteric and unrelated to the practicalities of working life, but the capacity to tolerate challenges to fixed ideas of self is what enables leaders in organizations to reconcile competing perspectives, build consensus and enjoy long-term, sustainable success.

That's why leadership is ultimately as much a spiritual journey as it is a social and political one.

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