This article is for people who stand at a crossroads. Perhaps you want to engage more actively in your career. Or maybe you seek deeper personal fulfillment. Last year, I had an educational experience that gave me both. George Mason University offers a certificate in Well-being Foundations of Personal Transformation, and I was a member of the first cohort.
Let’s just say that the experience was nothing like I expected, yet the results have been profound. I make decisions in a completely different way than just a few, short months ago. My professional and personal lives are starting to flourish beyond what I believed possible. This is a common theme for the other members of my cohort too.
A new program begins on March 28, so I want to give people a perspective that I didn’t have about how this experience helps people tap more deeply into their potential to lead fuller, more fulfilling lives. Co-facilitators, Mark Thurston and Mary Elizabeth Lynch from the Personal Transformation and Courage Institute granted an interview so that Modern CD Business readers can gain insight into this powerful program.
Q: Mindfulness has become a term that’s frequently used, but I think is often misunderstood. Can you demystify the term for our readers?
MEL: Mindfulness helps us deal constructively with the grip of our fast-paced lives in at least three ways.
Mindfulness helps us to slow down, reduce anxiety and stress, and build capacity for a more balanced perspective of our lives. Then, when life events come flying at us we can better assess what is important, what needs our attention, and how best to accomplish our goals.
Practicing mindfulness also helps us engage all of our cognitive resources – our analytical processes as well as intuitive insights. Research has shown that slowing down and being able to focus attention allows us to sharpen both cognitive faculties, make better decisions, and be more creative.Finally, mindfulness practices help us create “space” in our lives. We need space to gain perspective, be more creative, live more deeply from our core values and promote greater well-being in our lives. As we practice creating inner and outer space in our lives, we can build better relationships with ourselves and with others. Our actions better reflect who we are at our best – and we feel more at peace with our lives and find that we are able to meet challenges and opportunities with confidence.
MT: It’s important to note that mindfulness is not just something you do for 5-10 minutes in the morning or evening. It is the discipline to come back to your ideal throughout the day, and practice leads to cognitive fitness.
One of the elements of cognitive fitness is to be able to stand back from our emotions. We still feel, but we regulate our emotions. Everybody can see how emotional regulation can lead to a happier personal life and more productive professional life. We’re more attentive and focused. We listen better to other people, which leads to better collaboration.
Q: Let’s explore that a little more. How does mindfulness fit into the workplace?
MT: There are a couple of common misconceptions about how mindfulness fits into the workplace. Some people express concern that mindfulness promotes Buddhism or other religious orientations. That’s not the basis for what we teach. We view what we do as a humanistic way of framing mindfulness as cognitive fitness. Another misconception is that people who meditate become placid, calm, and so compassionate they lose the fire they need to be effective and keep business on the cutting-edge.
MEL: In fact, the research shows that mindfulness practices lead to many positive outcomes in the workplace. For example, people who engage in mindfulness practices are more focused, present and attentive to their work; they tend to be more creative, in-tune with their values and more productive overall. Mindfulness is as much an experience as it is a conceptual understanding. Having a framework in which to understand mindfulness is important, but the deeper meaning and impact of these practices comes from experiencing it and incorporating it into your life.
Mindfulness boosts creativity and productivity, fosters collaboration, improves prioritization, leads to engagement, and ultimately produces better business outcomes.
Q: What does being part of a cohort, or group, mean for program participants?
MT: Being part of a small, intimate group in a wholly safe space is important. People get inspired as they watch others alongside them do their inquiry. I’ve seen time and again that when a question of deep intentionality is explored in cohort or community setting, something really special takes place.
MEL: It is very empowering for people to get clarity around what inspires and directs their lives. In work settings, colleagues bond more deeply when they see and appreciate each other’s strengths and values. People get the sense that their core values help to direct and define their leadership abilities, and they begin to act more purposefully from those qualities.
Q: How do positive psychology and neuroscience fit into your teachings?
MEL: It’s always important to have theories and concepts that help to frame and give context to experiential learning. Scientific validation of these practices can deepen the impact of the experience for many people. The more we understand how the brain works and how mindfulness practices lead to greater cognitive fitness, the more we are willing to engage in these practices and use them to enhance well-being in our lives. .
Q: The topic of healthy will development was one that helped me identify my own suboptimal behavior patterns. Can you speak to what healthy will is?
MT: The topic of will has been one that psychology has often brushed aside. But, it has recently resurfaced and this discipline is just now coming to the forefront. The focus has been on the coercive side, as in forcing ourselves to do something. That’s a piece of it. There’s also collaborative will and the will of the wisdom within us.
Willingness is a lovely word; the opposite of willfulness. ‘Willingness’ molds highly functional workgroups in a manner that includes group will, willingness, and the appreciation for the autonomy of each individual.
MEL: Many people equate willingness with physical action in the world. There’s a broader of application. It takes a willingness to be mindful, to be receptive and to be open to thinking about oneself and others in new ways. It also takes willingness to work constructively with emotions and attitudes. We are making internal choices all the time – and they manifest as our actions.
Q: Is there a common theme in what people gain from courses they take through The Personal Transformation and Courage Institute and GMU’s Center for the Advancement of Well-being?
MEL: I think there are many common, intertwined themes. Participants get more deeply in touch with what really matters in their lives. They tap into the courage it takes to live in a way that reflects what matters most to them. They learn to listen to and constructively respond to their thoughts, emotions and body wisdom. People see what has been limiting them in the way they think about themselves and their place in the world, and they learn skills and practices that help them make the changes that lead to greater well-being, equanimity and resilience in their lives. I think our participants also come to see that everyone struggles with very similar issues. The cohort provides a safe place to explore these issues, with the loving support of the facilitators and other members of the group.
MT: Many program participants learn to measure their lives more intrinsically than extrinsically. More and more, they realize that sense of fulfillment, meaning, and happiness is rooted in their own choices and they have more power over that than external conditions. This realization enables the locus of control to move inward. This does not mean these people become introverted. Instead, the source of their happiness is more internal. They learn to believe in themselves, feel more grounded in their strengths, and they blossom. It’s a matter of courage and self-mastery. Becoming more courageous is one of the byproducts we’ve seen time and again.
For more information about GMU’s Center for the Advancement of Well-being and the certificate program, please visit the George Mason website. You can also check out what members of last year’s cohort say about their experience.