‘The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend,’ Henri Bergson said. Leaders who keep an open mind are more likely to be open to new possibilities, opportunities, views and alternative solutions to familiar problems. In this article Palma Michel, author of The Authority Guide to Mindful Leadership, discusses the importance of mindfulness in creativity
In today’s environment leaders are often operating in new, uncharted ground. With artificial intelligence experts telling us that many jobs will be replaced by robots in the near future it is the creativity of teams, in education as in other sectors, that will bring future success.
When it comes to creativity a leader´s job is to develop a supportive culture where creativity can blossom. A leader´s role is similar to that of the conductor of an orchestra – to orchestrate people around a common purpose and create the space in which everyone can flourish, accelerating their skills for the greater advancement of all.
Creativity requires a space of not knowing, an opening from which something new can emerge. Frequently, the creative process is not linear. It’s more like a spiral. We might have to take several u-turns – or move one step forwards and take two steps backwards – before being catapulted to the next level.
In mindfulness meditation practice we train our attention muscle and cultivate attitudes such as curiosity, a beginner’s mind, focus on the present, acceptance, patience, equanimity, clarity, courage, an attitude of non-judging, letting go and compassion which are all highly supportive when it comes to creativity.
So, how can you use lessons from mindfulness in an educational environment?
1 Use breathing to manage your nervous system
Stress works against creativity. When you feel pressured, or feel triggered in any way, try this short breathing exercise to calm down your amygdala and get yourself feeling relaxed:
Take a few conscious breaths through your nostrils, inhaling deeply all the way into your abdomen. Exhale through your mouth with pursed lips. Count to two on your inhale and elongate your exhale by counting to four.
The key is to make your exhale slightly longer than your inhale.
2 Take a break
Be mindful of your physical and your mental energy. We often keeping working beyond the point of usefulness when what we need is time to rest and recharge. If we continue thinking about a problem with our conscious mind we block our unconscious from coming up with those ‘eureka’ moments.
The next time you notice you are getting stuck when dealing with an important problem, take a break. Sometimes all that’s required is a good night sleep instead of another hour of pushing.
3 Question and listen
When people stop listening there is little room for anything new to arise; rather, there is a risk of an individual becoming complacent or a team developing limiting ‘group think’. Mindfulness practice encourages openness and curiosity about what arises in the moment. Asking questions is an easy way to break through mental noise and bring curiosity to any situation. Don´t assume you know the answer, or that something is a given, but continually ask questions and challenge your assumptions – including your own beliefs about a situation.
When you’re in a meeting, give your full attention to the speaker and listen to them with compassion and openness. If your mind wanders off, or you catch yourself rehearsing your own opinion, bring your attention back to the speaker.
4 Focus on process
Creativity can easily be blocked when people focus on the end result and lose sight of the process. Whenever we are walking on uncharted ground we are bound to make mistakes. To create something new we need the freedom to experiment in order to create a perfect teaching tool, for example.
So instead of being solely focused on the final destination, get interested in the process and see what you can learn. Continue asking questions throughout the process, not just afterwards. You could even hold ‘pre-mortems’, thinking through all the different reasons why a project could fail.
Practicing mindfulness naturally instills a process – rather than an outcome – orientation, as the focus is on our experience in the present moment without being fixed on a particular outcome.
5 Build trust
High achieving leaders often find it hard to let go of micromanaging, particularly in education when you’re constantly faced with changing initiatives. However, that´s the challenge – letting go. The alternative is stifling colleagues’ creativity. If one person controls the creative process too tightly there is no room for anything unexpected to arise. It can be an unexpected mash-up that gives rise to creativity by giving our standard thinking a shake.
Notice if you have a tendency to want to control everything and everyone around you. Mindfulness practice encourages letting go by observing what arises in the present moment without being attached to it.