Foundations of Leadership Presence: Mindfulness of the Body

Aug 17, 2017

A number of years ago I was in a training class and I asked the teacher how to help my clients become more in tune with their body. His reply was “First you have to be in touch with your own.” Like most leaders I live in a world where I can easily be consumed and distracted from what is happening in the present moment by a steady stream of thoughts – planning, ruminating, obsessing, daydreaming etc. The cost of living and leading this way is tremendous – it negatively impacts the personal and professional relationships around me, the quality of my work, my ability to lead successfully and my overall sense of fulfillment. I know I’m not alone in this.

In our modern world of technology, thoughts and ideas, our body is seen simply as the vehicle that carries our heads around.  The journey to develop a relationship with my body, to be more connected to what I am experiencing in the moment, is the foundation to breaking the habit of constant thought and is a powerful means by which I am learning to anchor myself to the present moment and cultivate greater “presence.” As I go along on this journey, and I support clients in doing so, we are together stepping into a more impactful way to live and lead.

In the Majjhima Nikaya (sutta 36), the Buddha says, “If the body is not mastered, the mind cannot be mastered. If the body is mastered, mind is mastered.”  Being mindful of our body’s experience, the sensations and signals it sends, begins with remembering we have a body.  The body is a tremendous storehouse of wisdom. It sends us clues to thoughts and emotions we are experiencing but of which we may not yet be aware. As leaders our bodies are also sending strong signals – about which we may be unaware – to those we lead.

Take for example a client who was the CFO of a large hospital system and was described as intimidating and bullying by people around him. When I asked his team what made them see him as intimidating they indicated that when he didn’t agree with someone or they weren’t performing to his expectations (thinking) he leaned forward against the table, clenched his fists, and turned red (body) because he was angry (feelings).  He had no idea that his body reacted this way and it certainly wasn’t his intention to create an intimidating environment. He had to learn to recognize his body’s cues so he could more skillfully respond and create a safe environment for his team.

Remembering the Body

Body responses are universal – part of being human – and, like the leader described above, may trigger unintended reactions if we aren’t paying attention to the signals our body is sending us. Lauri Nummenmaa, et al., recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science the results of a study demonstrating that “Different emotions were consistently associated with statistically separable bodily sensation maps across experiments.”  These experiments concluded that even across cultures emotions are associated with the same bodily sensations and that perception of these signals plays a role in generating the corresponding emotion. The body may be ahead of our conscious awareness and enhancing these thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness of the body gives us important cues about what we are thinking and feeling and can prevent us from being “emotionally hijacked” into unintended reactions that fail to have our intended impact.

So Where Do We Begin?

I have people begin body mindfulness practice by tuning into various parts of their body in turn.

Try it now:

Do a body scan – what sensations are you aware of in your head, neck, shoulders…

Your arms and hands…

Chest, stomach, pelvis…

Legs, feet?

Is there tingling? Pressure? Hot? Cold?

I had my client described above develop such a practice. As he became more aware of his body he began to notice that his body was getting tense, particularly across his shoulders, neck and head. He described his blood as boiling and could feel himself start to lean forward in his chair. With this awareness, he was able to intervene and take more responsibility for how he was showing up in meetings. He consciously relaxed his shoulders, took slow deep breaths and made soft eye contact with people — all of which sent signals to his nervous system to slow down, reduced his own stress and lessened the tension in the room.

There are a number of other practices that can help leaders cultivate a better relationship with their body – exercising mindfully, yoga, Thai chi or even a walk in nature (without a device!) are all effective if we take advantage of the time and pay attention to what we are experiencing while doing them.

Engage the Body without Judgment

As we begin to focus on our body there is a tendency to judge sensations as “good” or “bad.”  We like some such as the tingling of excitement in our stomach and dislike others such as the tightening of our chest that comes with anxiety.  In doing so we cling to the pleasant ones and push away the unpleasant ones. This is a very “normal” or human pattern but it isn’t particularly skillful if we are trying to cultivate presence. If we think back to the definition of mindfulness from John Kabat-Zinn we are reminded not to judge what we are experiencing but to cultivate our awareness; to note our direct experience of the sensations but refrain from allowing self-talk to construct stories around them.

Clinging to judgments, past experiences, and future expectations will actually increase tension, pain, and suffering.  It is the story in our mind that we react to, rather than the reality of the present.  We can choose not to succumb to these thoughts, emotions, and unskillful reactions by practicing awareness of the body’s messages without seeking to change them. Phillip Moffit in his book Awakening the Body says it this way:  “In practicing mindfulness of the body, it’s your direct experience that’s important, not your judgments about your body, your wishes for what it might be, or your stories about how it came to be as it is.”

The world is in desperate need of present, embodied leaders right now. In a complex world of globalization, technical advancement, multiple generations in the work force, and many more challenges it is easy for leaders to become overwhelmed, distracted and hijacked. Many leaders, through no fault of their own, have failed to develop to a level that matches the complexity in which they currently lead. They are therefore whipped around by unconscious thoughts, feelings, and reactions but aren’t able to respond skillfully in the moment to the complexities they face.  Mindfulness in general and mindfulness of the body in particular is central to helping leaders accelerate the pace of their development.

“The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice.  And because we fail to notice there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”- R.D. Laing