Companies from Google to Ford have begun offering mindfulness courses to their employees, arguing that the benefits – more productive, engaged and healthier employees – far outweigh the costs.
At the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, marketing professor David Mick teaches a popular “Wisdom and Well-Being” course equipping business students with philosophical concepts and mindfulness practices that could improve their personal and professional lives.
“The course is founded on the idea that what people want in their lives is to flourish, to have well-being,” said Mick, who studied philosophy before pursuing a Ph.D. in marketing.
Each week, students apply readings on philosophy and mindfulness to business cases and to their lives. Together with the Commerce School’s rigorous quantitative curriculum, courses like Mick’s develop the analytical prowess and emotional intelligence that top companies look for in new hires.
The same lessons could be valuable tools for anyone cultivating wisdom in their professional and personal lives. Below, Mick outlines 10 helpful practices culled from the wisdom literature and mindfulness philosophies he studies.
Mick suggests identifying three stressful events you have been through in recent weeks and how you responded. Did you eat, exercise, or perhaps just take a breath? What helped? What didn’t?
“Being more cognizant and mindful of when you are facing stress helps you recognize it in the moment and name it as anger, frustration or fear,” he said. “Study your body’s response, because we tend to respond physically to stressful events. When you are mindful of that, you can recognize stress, mitigate certain automatic responses and have more choice in how you respond.”
Reflect on situations that have humbled you, distinguishing between what Mick calls “submissive humility” and “self-assured humility.”
“Mahatma Gandhi, an iconic figure renowned for wisdom, was not submissively humble; he was more self-assuredly humble,” Mick said. “Reflecting on times you were humbled reminds you not to be submissive, but simply to realize that what we do not know dwarfs what we know.”
Forgetting that, Mick said, can encourage overconfidence and cloud one’s decision-making ability.
Living With Uncertainty
Similarly, Mick stresses the importance of embracing uncertainty.
“We live with radical uncertainty in our lives and we have much less control than we think we do,” he said. Events outside of our control – such as a computer virus or a traffic accident – can derail even the best-laid plans.
“Professionals need to be careful about believing that we have more control than we do,” he said. “Many of us rely on making to-do lists, organizing apps on our phone, constantly sorting emails or cleaning to reflect some semblance of control. Those can be good things, of course, but if you are not cognizant of constant plans for control and their deeper implications, sudden changes can knock you drastically off course.”
Mick describes resilience as “one of the major pillars of wisdom.” He asks students to recall a particularly challenging time and reflect on how they got through it and what they learned.
“They need to realize that they can get through it and that, even if they are not exactly the same person anymore, they learned important lessons,” he said. “As people grow older, if they are becoming wiser, it is often because they have learned from some of the most difficult experiences in their life and they can then become mentors to others going through the same thing.”
Understanding Mindfulness and Meditation
Mick defines mindfulness as a present-oriented, non-judgmental state of being.
“Your mind is not running to the future or ruminating on the past. You are in the moment, present in whatever conversation you are having or activity you are doing,” he said. “Secondly, you are nonjudgmental, which is very hard because being judgmental is almost built evolutionarily into who we are. Mindfulness can help you mitigate any rapid judgments, possibly seeing things a bit more objectively and recognizing more choices as you assess what to do.”
Meditation practices often focus on breathing as an anchor for the brain.
“You cannot tell your brain to stop thinking entirely, but you can keep it from wandering wildly,” he said. “Through mindfulness meditation, you can reach deeper states of calm and relaxation.”
Often, he said, seasoned meditation practitioners report that they are more focused in conversations or meetings, or have a longer attention span.
The next time you have to make a decision, weigh the benefits of making it instantly or holding off.
“In today’s technology-driven world, where many things happen instantaneously, we often want to get things done right away instead of sitting with decisions for a bit,” Mick said. “That’s understandable for competitive advantage, but sometimes sitting with a decision, seeking more information and finding new points of view is important.”
He teaches his students the acronym “STOP” – Stop, Take a Breath, Observe, Proceed.
Understanding the Impact of Technology and Knowing When To Retreat
Think about the frustration you feel when a website takes more than a few seconds to load, or perhaps worse, the feeling of losing your phone or having it die without your charger nearby.
“When you have withdrawal symptoms and you don’t know how to replace the thing you have been separated from, that’s addiction,” Mick said. “Technology has sped up our lives and sometimes gives us a false sense of omniscience, if not omnipotence.”
To help students recognize all of this and practice mindfulness, he takes his class on a retreat to Yogaville, a yoga and meditation center about an hour from Charlottesville.
“I want them to know that retreat centers like this are available in many places,” he said. “Getting back to nature, turning everything else off and getting back in touch with your values and virtues can be so valuable.”
Mick also encourages students and professionals to read broadly outside of their field of expertise.
“Wisdom is about being able to frame a problem or situation in different ways so that you can recognize other options,” he said. “Many of us get stuck in certain fields, reading only certain kinds of books. If you don’t broaden your reading, you might have a narrower mindset.”
Taking Care of Your Health
Exercise, eating well and getting enough sleep are also very important to cultivating mindfulness, Mick said.
“More and more research is showing how critical sleep is,” he said. “People who try to cheat on sleep are really asking for a lot of bad health outcomes, and it is much harder to be mindful when you are tired.”
The ancient Greek philosophy of taking everything in moderation has not lost its power with time. Even good things, like exercise, can become addictive if overdone, Mick said.
“You can become overly dependent on virtually anything, and wisdom philosophy suggests that, for anything you are dependent on, you should consider why you are doing it and what the consequences are,” he said. “That takes contemplation, thoughtfulness and self-control, and it’s hard. But, by living in moderation, and by developing contemplative practices like mindfulness, I believe you can increase the likelihood of living more wisely, with enhanced well-being.”