Winning and Mindfulness

Winning and Mindfulness

a better  meditating phil

(P.S. It’s Thursday morning. The Red Sox have won with great aplomb. They did a fantastic job. So I may need to temper my request to get the team over to the Benson-Henry Institute. From the words of Big Papi, David Ortiz, the message was clear: Over this past season, the Red Sox cultivated what is most important in practicing mindfulness – compassion. Compassion for each other. Compassion for the victims and families who suffered through the Boston Marathon bombing. It was powerful to hear Ortiz and to see the tears in the eyes of his team members. Wow once again. This time for a great winning team.)

As I sit here watching Game 6 of the World Series, I find my thoughts turning to what role, if any, mindfulness has to winning in baseball or other team sports. Being a Red Sox fan, I need a distraction as the tension mounts and I fear a possible loss. You’re probably asking, “Where’s your faith?” Hey, it’s been 95 years since the Sox won in their home field. But, I will confess I always prepare myself for the worst.

Unlike what I should do as a mindfulness practitioner (aka try some meditation), I’ve followed my habitual tendency to google whatever I’m thinking. I type in “mindfulness and winning.” Much to my surprise, I end up at the Bless Your Hearts. blog about Phil Jackson.

Phil coachingPhil Jackson is one of the winningest coaches in NBA history. He practices mindfulness with his preference for Zen Buddhism (for Phil, meditation produces mindfulness).

Asking my sports-driven hubby about Phil Jackson, he immediately responded that Phil was the known as the Zen Master. Perhaps that can account for this quote from Mr. Jackson.

Winning with Mindfulness

Winning is important to me, but what brings me real joy is the experience of being fully engaged in whatever I’m doing.  Phil Jackson (

Wow. I must hand it to Phil Jackson. This is what we all aspire to. Who would have known this would come from a basketball coach. Could I find a baseball coach or player who had the same fervor for meditation and mindfulness?

I thought back to the horrible 2012 Red Sox debacle. Back then, I kept wondering why the Red Sox were not lined up at the MGH Benson-Henry Institute for meditation and mindfulness training with Dr. Benson. How could namesake John Henry not have his team involved in such a renowned institute? Had I found myself at some ritzy party with John Henry, I would have attacked him with my belief that mindfulness could turn the team around.

Back to googling to see what connection I could find with baseball. Up comes a website entitled MindBodyGreen (love the title) where I found an inspiring article about Shawn Green. Sports-driven husband did not have the most complimentary comments about Green but conceded that he was a decent hitter. In 2011, Shawn Green published The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95MPH, where he talks extensively about how meditation played a role in his success.

Shawn Green hit 328 home runs when he played major league baseball in the 1990s and 2000s. During this era many of the league’s power-hitters used steroids, but Green says he used meditation to hit home runs.

According to the book reviewer, Shawn Green talks about the power of “stillness” which he elaborates on in his book.

“The way I’m using it is more like quieting the mind. The way I did that was through my tee work, where I would concentrate on the action — really listen to the sound of the bat hitting the ball, the sound of the ball hitting the back of the net, the breathing, and really getting into that moment and action of hitting. Earlier in my career, I got to the point where there was a lot of noise. There is a lot of thinking, and you see people at the plate paralyzed. … The less you can think, the more successful you’re going to be because your body naturally takes over and does thing the right way.”

Needless to say I’m impressed by both Phil Jackson and Shawn Green. In fact, they have become heroes as I think about analogies for mindfulness in corporate environments. Hopefully these analogies will help my cause with my mindfulness skeptics (aka sports-driven hubby). In the meantime, of course I hope the Red Sox win the World Series (preferably tonight so my mindfulness program at Simmons College is not interrupted tomorrow night).

So dear Red Sox and Mr. Henry, I’d love to have the Red Sox be the icon winners who also practice mindfulness. Go Sox!!!

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Can Mindfulness Teach “Grit”

images-2 imagesWisdom from a MacArthur Genius: Psychologist Angela Duckworth on Why Grit, Not IQ, Predicts Success 

“Character is at least as important as intellect.”

A headline from a recent Brain Pickings newsletter (a simply amazing resource for stimulating our minds) caught my attention and led me to reflecting on the question of whether “grit” can be learned or taught.

In working with a group of graduate students at Simmons School of Management (SOM), I hope to find at least a partial answer to this question. SOM students are participating in YogaUnbound’s Mindfulness for Leaders Program to learn techniques and tools for addressing the challenges they will face when taking their management and business degrees into the workplace.

In our initial Discipline and Commitment session, we explored discipline as “determined efforts” — something valued and cultivated for greater clarity and commitment. We used a yoga sequence to prepare for a pinnacle pose (aka challenging pose). Throughout the sequence, SOM students examine their strengths and weaknesses and assess their reaction to poses they found difficult;  they compare this reaction to how they feel when faced with difficult situations in their day-to-day life. Was their tendency to pull back and feel defeated or to muscle it out with a determination that might not always be a healthy one?

While grit might be most associated with “muscling it out,” will more mindfulness techniques, combined with the concept of “practice, practice, practice,” provide a more suitable path for those who tend to pull back as well as for those who over-extend themselves? When we pull back from difficult yoga pose or feel frustrated with meditating, we need a safe and supportive environment to fail and to try again. We need a way to practice and discover a path of achieving goals. In essence, a practice that helps us discover our grit, our ability to be persistent and feel the rewards of consistency and discipline.

For those who over-muscle our way into a pose (and possibly overdo our meditation practice), we need an environment that helps bring our practice back into balance for health and safety concerns. In a work environment, we’d classify this over-achiever as being a Type A personality, who too often burn out or, even worse, have stress and health issues.

But back to Angela Duckworth and where this blog began…

Ms. Duckworth switched from a lucrative consulting career with McKinsey to teaching math to middle-school students. As a math teacher, she had found students’ self-discipline scores were far better predictors of their academic performance than their IQ scores. Trying to understand why some students succeeded while others did not became her focus and passion, and ultimately lead to Ms. Duckworth pursuing a career as a research psychologist at UPenn.

Angela Duckworth’s research suggested that it’s useful to divide the mechanics of achievement into two separate dimensions: motivation and volition. In her view, each is necessary to achieve long-term goals, but neither is sufficient alone.

As stated in Brain Pickings:

 For example, “Most of us are familiar with the experience of possessing motivation but lacking volition: You can be extremely motivated to lose weight, for example, but unless you have the volition – the willpower, the self-control – to put down the cherry Danish and pick up the free weights, you’re not going to succeed. If a child is highly motivated, the self-control techniques and exercises Duckworth tried to teach [the students in her study] might be very helpful. But what if students just aren’t motivated to achieve the goals their teachers or parents want them to achieve? Then, Duckworth acknowledges, all the self-control tricks in the world aren’t going to help.”

Thinking about Angela Duckworth’s focus on the need for grit to succeed and achieve our goals, I come back to the questions of whether mindfulness can possibly play a role in developing grit.

As the founder of YogaUnbound’s Mindfulness for Leaders, I’ve been asked why I feel yoga is an important component of the program. While being diligent in developing a long-term meditation practice is key to well-being and all the other qualities we promote with mindfulness, challenging yoga poses ask us to physically and mentally experience determination and commitment – a total mind-body experience. In our mindfulness classes, we practice in an environment where you can make mistakes – even laugh when you fall over – and begin to savor each improvement in doing this pose. You begin to realize how doing it over and over again leads to success, however you have defined it.

In researching how mindfulness with a focus on yoga is having a significant impact, I found the closest parallel to yoga being used with athletes to applying yoga in the workplace.

Clayton Horton, director of Greenpath Yoga Studio in San Francisco and a former triathlete and competitive swimmer, states that endurance is simply “the ability to persevere.” Horton feels that yoga improves one’s endurance by helping athletes to relax, preserve energy, and better concentrate—especially in demanding circumstances. “Yoga gives you the mental strength to be still and to concentrate in the midst of a difficult pose or while your muscles are burning,” he explains. “With yoga, you learn the ability to observe the patterns of tension in the body that take away from efficiency.It is important for athletes not to be distracted. Yoga can help you to sit back and be the witness or to observe and be a little clearer and make better decisions, like being able to pace yourself during a 10K run or a long workout.” (Yoga Journal)

As any MBA student will attest, perhaps one of the most important learning experiences during your degree program is feeling a similar burn to what is described above for an athletic endeavor. The hours of group study, exams, analyzing, researching and writing – often while holding down a full or part-time job – is like running a constant 10K. It’s in preparation for what they will experience in workplace when a product needs to get to market, a strategic plan is being presented to senior management or you’re starting up a new company.

The goal of YogaUnbound’s mindfulness program is to give these MBA/management students the experience of being in the intensity of the work environment through challenging but mindful yoga poses. When they need to be fully engaged, to be present and observe so that they can make better decisions, and persevere to achieve the results they aspire to, they can turn to their mindfulness and yoga training. They can uncover their “true grit” and move forward with inner strength, awareness and confidence).

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Mindfulness and the “Shoulds”

I met a woman at the dog park the other day and we got to talking about yoga, meditation, “mindfulness” and, really, what brings us peace.  I know, pretty intense for a conversation at the dog park, but that’s the beauty of the random conversations I strike up with the other dog-owners who seek out the beautiful oasis of a park where I bring my dog.

This woman is a former professional ballet dancer and I could tell the moment I met her that she has an extraordinary sense of presence.  She spoke of how her husband is very into meditation and yoga as a path to his own inner peace and is always telling her she should go to yoga classes.  She explains to me that she has tried a few yoga asana classes and they were “disastrous” for her.  She didn’t like the heat, she didn’t like the approach, she didn’t like the way it made her body feel and she didn’t like the perceived competition in the room.  She felt the opposite of peaceful.

Now this is a woman who, as a dancer, is schooled in body awareness and knows what does and does not work for her body.  She gave it the old college try and, knowing herself, decided that yoga classes were not the way for her to access inner peace.  She then segued into a story about how she had gone to temple the previous weekend of Yom Kippur.  It was a spiritual endeavor, but ended up filling her spirit with dread.  She saw too many people she knew, there was too much “going on,” which she felt diverted her from accessing her own spirituality.  So she left services early and drove to the sanctuary of a Greek Orthodox church (I think, though it may have been a monastery) where her mother-in-law was buried and where she had spent lots of meaningful time with her mother-in-law in the past.  She lit a candle and was immediately soothed by the peace and serenity of the sanctuary, and immediately felt a connection to the divine.  It was in that moment and that space that she found a sense of inner peace and was able to connect with her own spirituality, outside the confines of her own religion.

I tell this story because this woman and her story embodied a sense of mindfulness and frank self-awareness that I don’t often encounter in our culture.  As I embark on teaching a Yoga and Mindfulness for Leaders & Executives course to a group of women at Simmons School of Management next week, I started thinking about the “shoulds” that are shoved down our throats in American culture.

How many people are told by well-meaning friends and family members that they should go to a yoga class or they should meditate?  I know I’m guilty of should-ing at times.  As a yogini, I truly believe that yoga (including meditation) is a genuine path toward the goal of stilling the whirling thoughts in one’s mind in order to see clearly and find some sort of inner peace and stability.

However, I’ve come to that through years of my own practice and, believe me, my yoga does not look anything like the asana classes one sees in most American towns and cities or in Lululemon ads.  It takes discipline and years of practice to build the self-awareness that can lead to the stilling of the mind. As my friend from the dog park knew, what brings stillness to one individual can wreak havoc on the mind of another.

So often in the context of leadership and being advised what it takes to be competent and successful, especially as women (not that this doesn’t apply to men, but I can only speak from my own experience as a woman), we are schooled on how we should be and act in order to succeed.  We should be more assertive, we should be tougher negotiators but, wait, not too tough or too assertive, because then we’ll be perceived as ice princesses (the polite term).  We should be more decisive, but also collaborative.  We should be approachable, but not let people trample over our boundaries.  I’m confused even writing this list!

In my mind, this conundrum brings us back to the simple idea that, instead of reading all the latest books on successful leadership styles or the latest research on how women should behave in order to make it to the top, we need to first, as individuals, know ourselves.  Take the time to be mindful and self-aware and really meditate on what matters to us as individuals, so we can use that to anchor ourselves as we determine what is good for our career, our business, our clients, our group or our career.

Yoga and meditation may not be for everyone, but it has the extraordinary potential to provide us with the tools we need to search inside ourselves for the authentic voice that will enable us to be the best leader we can be.  To leave the temple when we need to leave the temple in order to find peace in a different sanctuary.

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Obama, Syria and Mindful Leadership

The constant “tough” talk about not going into Syria and President Obama’s decision to seek  Congressional approval clearly conveys the challenge of becoming a thoughtful, mindful leader. Reading Nicholas Kristoff’s column today in the NYT, I was most disappointed to find that he now believes the U.S. can no longer ignore the slaughter of Syrians. Even Maureen Dowd voiced her opinion that Obama is not fulfilling his role of commander-in-chief by involving Congress in the decision to attack Syria. And, in fact, he will be viewed as a weak leader if we do not attack Syria.

What happened to our hope for a new world leadership? For leaders who were able to evaluate their decisions and and adjust direction when the consequences demanded a retreat? To renew my spirit and my beliefs about leadership, I reread Depak Chopra’s The Consious Lifestyle: How a Leader Should View Power. 

In Chopra’s words:

“Ruthless plunder and swaggering disregard for Nature’s balance aren’t things we can afford much longer. Human ingenuity guarantees that there will always be new avenues for success. Choosing to be a conscious leader doesn’t imply that your rise to the top will be thwarted. It’s really a matter of the road less traveled. We aren’t used to living with conscious capitalism, and yet our survival depends on it. Similarly, we desperately need conscious government and a conscious military. A new power base that can deliver sustainability is the key to success from now on. The only question is how long it will take for society to create leaders with enough vision to see it.”

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Arianna Huffington Assesses the Realities of Workplace Burnout

Once again, Arianna Huffington hits the nail on the head about what is happening in our 24/7 technology-oriented, always-on workplace. Her comprehensive view — Burnout: The Disease of our Civilization — captures how the culture of the workplace impacts our lives, our success and the success of our organizations.

In reading this astute assessment, I could not help but think of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Coming to Our Senses” and Kabat-Zinn’s crusade to bring mindfulness into everyone’s life. Like Kabat-Zinn, Ms. Huffington’s explores the benefits and need for mindfulness and other mind-body practices to address the stress, low productivity, lack of creativity — as well as failure — that result from burnout. Her Third Metric campaign is an important effort that will lead to needed change in our corporations and organizations. Let’s hope she and other thought-leaders continue to get traction in the business press and the mindshare of our leaders and executives.

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Clinging to Mindfulness – The Art of Rock Climbing

Clinging to Mindfulness – The Art of Rock Climbing.

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Clinging to Mindfulness – The Art of Rock Climbing

Coming off the 8-week UMass Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, I thought back to canyoneering and rock climbing at Zion National Park when I heard the following quote from Joanna Marcy


“Uncertainty, when accepted, sheds a bright light on the power of intention. That is what you can count on: Not the outcomes, but the motivations you bring, the vision you hold, the compass setting you chose to follow.”

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Mindful Leadership: Can Sports Teach Us Anything That Mindfulness Can’t?


A “Sporting” Conundrum

It was a casual discussion with friends over a delicious meal. There was lots of lively conversation about politics and social issues when the topic turned to sports and their impact on women’s success and leadership abilities. Then the discussion became contentious.

One perspective, expressed by a college advisor, felt the fixation on sports is not helping students in their college and professional pursuits. In fact, this fixation was de-valuing the non-athlete and taking too much time away from intellectual and academic pursuits. The other perspective, expressed by women who had worked in corporate environments, believed in the value of team sports for women’s success. In their view, post-Title IX women had a stronger sense of confidence and better team-building skills that translated to being a better managers and leaders.

The debate, as I found among my friends, can bring out some very strong opinions and passions.

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Mindfulness from a Prison Cell

Last week there was much focus on South Africa and the transformation of this country by Nelson Mandela. As President Mandela continues to fight for his life — and heal his lungs damaged during his prison term – one cannot help but reflect on the contribution of this amazing and inspirational leader.

Richard Stengel collaborated with Mandela on his autobiography and traveled with him everywhere. Eating with him, watching him campaign, hearing him think out loud, Stengel wrote Mandela’s Way.  Stengel offers insightful lessons for leaders and he also touches on two qualities that contributed to Mandela’s leadership legacy — magnanimity and empathy.

Reflecting on these qualities and how the practice of mindfulness is being preached for business leaders, I could not help but wonder if Mandela’s time in prison and solitary confinement moved him into almost a constant state of mindfulness. Not that we want to find ourselves in President Mandela’s solitary confinement cell, but in a sense it’s having that time of deep reflection that executives, leaders and managers struggle to find in today’s “on” world.

Stengel writes of his interaction with Mandela about the impact of prison on the person, on the leader, he became:

“Many times I asked him, how is the man who emerged in prison in 1990 different from the man who went into prison in 1964? He kind of hated that question. But finally, out of frustration, he said to me, ‘I came out mature.’ In a way, that is such a key line. Prison was his great teacher. Prison was kind of a crucible for him. It taught him the long view. The young man who went into prison, in his mid-40s, was a passionate, tempestuous “rabble-rouser,” as he called himself. He was much more of a firebrand. Prison changed him. In some ways, what Mandela’s Way is about is learning those things that he learned in prison at a fraction of the cost that he had to pay.”

The definition of magnanimity captures so much of what we look for in our leaders — loftiness of spirit enabling one to bear trouble calmly, to disdain meanness and pettiness, and to display a noble generosity. According to Mandela, this quality helped him be more controlled, self-disciplined, more measured and to take the long view of what he needed to accomplish. What comes immediately to mind is Mandela’s brilliant and unique venture to unite the apartheid-torn land by enlisting the Afrikaner’s national rugby team on a mission to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. That required a truly magnanimous leader.

Similarly empathy, a quality most often cited of strong leaders, is demonstrated so often and so frequently that it’s hard to chose what best captures Mandela’s ability to reach out and “address the hearts” of his friends and enemies. One example Stengel notes is how Mandela learned the Afrikaner’s Dutch dialect and let them keep their national anthem. His leadership was based on the strength of what he believed in – uniting South Africa.

A recent NYT op-ed column by Bill Keller noted that Mandela was a consummate negotiator. “Once he got you to the bargaining table, he was not going to leave empty-handed. Mandela bargained with Afrikaner militants, Zulu nationalists and the white government that had imprisoned him for 27 years. He was an expert at deducing how far each side could go. He was patient. He was opportunistic, using every crisis to good effect. He understood that half the battle was convincing your own side that a concession could be a victory. And he was willing to take a risk. Mandela usually seemed to be having the time of his life. Perhaps this is because (sadly for his family) the movement was his life. He shook every hand as if he was discovering a new friend and maintained a twinkle in his eye that said: this is fun.”

And to think, this man developed into such an amazing leader not testing and experimenting with his leadership style over some 30 years. Instead he found his voice, his commitment and his passion to lead by spending these years in a meditative and mindful journey – imprisoned physically but freer than most of us in his ability to go deep within to explore and uncover what he needed to do.

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Mindful Leadership: Can Sports Teach Us Anything That Mindfulness Can’t?

A “Sporting” Conundrum

It was a casual discussion with friends over a delicious meal. There was lots of lively conversation about politics and social issues when the topic turned to sports and their impact on women’s success and leadership abilities. Then the discussion became contentious.

One perspective, expressed by a college advisor, felt the fixation on sports is not helping students in their college and professional pursuits. In fact, this fixation was de-valuing the non-athlete and taking too much time away from intellectual and academic pursuits. The other perspective, expressed by women who had worked in corporate environments, believed in the value of team sports for women’s success. In their view, post-Title IX women had a stronger sense of confidence and better team-building skills that translated to being a better managers and leaders.

The debate, as I found among my friends, can bring out some very strong opinions and passions.

It has so many perspectives and views based on our personal experiences and observations that the only area of agreement is to accept that we do not agree.

In reflecting on this debate — and thinking about my own beliefs in the power of mindfulness to enhance leadership skills — I decided to investigate what research has found about the impact of sports on women’s leadership and success. I uncovered two studies:

  • The first is a summary of research and commentary from the website Care2 on the 40th anniversary of passing the Title IX legislation and its impact on training new generations of leaders. It cites research conducted by Dr. Leanne Doherty from Simmons College focused on the role of sports cited by recent female candidates running for Congress. Care2 also points to EMILY’s List and the ranking of several members who competed in sports in high school or college.
  • The other study is based on a global survey conducted by EY (Ernst & Young) that links the role of sports in the development of leadership skills for female executives and their ability to motivate teams. The EY survey of 821 senior managers and executives (40% female, 60% male) found that in comparing C-level female respondents to other female managers, far more had participated in sports at a higher level. Interestingly, 55% of the C-suite women had played sports at a university level, compared with 39% of other female managers.

Sports v. Mindfulness Question

Returning to my thoughts on mindfulness and leadership, I could not help but wonder whether sports could do more than a mindfulness practice in honing and enhancing leadership skills. Let’s look at the qualities often mentioned in leadership training, particularly in the emerging focus on mindfulness as a path to enhanced leadership. The qualities more often mentioned include:

  • Discipline and Commitment
  • Confidence, Clarity and Creativity
  • Attentiveness and Awareness
  • Trust
  • Openness and Empathy
  • Magnanimity

I believe anyone who’s had been in a team sport would fully claim most of these qualities are critical to achieving a level of accomplishment in a sport and being part of a winning team. For the captain (aka leader) of the team, these qualities are even more important. So what then could sports possibly teach a leader that practicing mindfulness could not?

The Experience of Losing and Winning

What a team sport does that deepening our introspective skills cannot do alone is give us the day-to-day and week-to-week experience of winning and losing – of knowing that each game won is often followed by one that you lose and vice versa. Through these win/lose experiences we learn how to gracefully lose, respect your competitors and keep find equanimity (or keep your cool). Each time you lose a game, you learn that the world does not collapse, that there is another chance. Even more, you look at each game with a new, refreshed attitude and learn to let go of those deflated feelings of defeat.

In a sense, this experience becomes the foundation that enables each of us to develop our underlying leadership qualities.

For those who have not competed in a team sport, our understanding of how to overcome the devastation of feeling the experience of losing comes through years of working in the “real world” where projects are canceled, products lose out to the competition, start-up companies fail and jobs are eliminated. While these real-world experiences are a part of everyone’s career, it takes longer to gain the long-term perspective that we need as leaders.

In looking back at my “friendly discussion” about the value of sports, I wish I had thought this through before and been able to eloquently defend my belief in sports for women. Just like team sports can get us to our goals of leadership and effectiveness easier and faster, so too this little bit of research would have made my argument stronger and more convincing.

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