Modern neuroimaging techniques reveal the brain networks and neuronal activity involved in self-control and inhibition, memory and learning, desire and satisfaction, emotions, social awareness, mindlessness and daydreaming, and mindfulness and concentration. With this newfound ability to “see” brain function, scientists have been able to test potential interventions affecting these traits that inform our day-to-day behaviors, our success, and our happiness. Over the past couple decades, this science has facilitated a fortunate convergence of traditional and modern theories and practices of developing productive habits of mind.
One of these habits of mind critical to our effectiveness and happiness is commonly referred to as “mindfulness.” Perhaps viewed as overhyped in the popular “self-help” literature, mindfulness simply is a state of non-judgmental awareness in the present moment enabled by undivided attention or concentration. It is a surprisingly rare state of being for most of us because our brains’ default mode is ruminating about the past or planning or rehearsing the future. When in the default mode of thinking, you lose opportunities to see and attend to present reality, what’s going on around you or inside you. You miss cues for creativity, for enhancing relationships, for controlling your emotions, and for joy.
Evolution rewarded us for being dissatisfied with what we have so that we would seek more. It caused us to emphasize perceived threats, to ignore what we mistakenly think is unimportant, and to focus on analyzing and fixing things. Naturally, then, you devote most of your attention to how things should be, what is wrong, what needs to be fixed, and what needs to be defended against. Humans are evolutionarily inclined to focus on the past and on the future because natural selection didn't value being in the present moment, other than to perceive and escape immediate dangers. Because evolution has caused us to create our own suffering, we need a modern technology, such as mindfulness practices, to counteract our innate masochistic tendencies.
Many of the largest and innovative organizations exploit mindfulness, including Google with its "search inside yourself" program intended to reduce stress, improve productivity, and increase happiness among workers. Legendary basketball coach, Phil Jackson, taught meditative techniques to his world champion teams. And the Marines train new soldiers in mindfulness as a form of mental discipline (part of the Marine’s Mind Fitness Training or “M-Fit”).
Mindfulness, concentration, and self-awareness are habits of mind that require cultivation by practicing to awaken from your mindless slumber, to open your eyes, and to clean your lenses. One extremely effective and traditional practice to this end is meditation, which has been studied with modern brain imaging experiments. Other effective practices include repeated attention to, and practice of, present awareness, empathy, non-judgment, non-attachment, patience, maintaining a beginner’s mind, acceptance, right conduct, right speech, and letting go. Practicing these attitudes will enhance your mindfulness, concentration, self-control, leadership performance, personal relationships, and happiness.