As a mother, an executive, a citizen, and — let’s say it — a human, I’ve been deeply troubled by the recent tumultuous social, political and environmental events. Mass shootings. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Global political instability. Racism. Nuclear threat. Humanitarian crises. These problems are so large and distressing that they inflict a daily dose of trauma that tear at our conscience and can leave us feeling debilitated and powerless.
And yet, these, these are the times that require our most ingenious solutions. Our most determined response. Our deepest reservoir of courage. These are the times we need to navigate with utmost intelligence, moral imagination and a steady heart. These are the times that call for mindful leadership.
As executives, social entrepreneurs, and activists, we may be aware of mindfulness as a tool to reduce stress, improve cognitive functioning, and even improve gene expression. Indeed, countless studies are demonstrating the multifaceted emotional and physical benefits of the seemingly subtle and simple practice of paying wise attention “to what’s happening in the present moment, in the mind, body and external environment, with an attitude of curiosity and kindness.”
In a time when we might feel quite powerless to affect change, rekindling our power becomes the first order of business.
But Mindfulness offers a set of far more profound benefits for us leaders and change-makers. Mindfulness is a gateway to cultivating the clarity of mind, moral reasoning, inner resource and depth of resilience necessary to navigate the radical complexities and challenges we are facing.
In a time when we might feel quite powerless to affect change, rekindling our power becomes the first order of business. Mindfulness cultivates six profound, transformational powers that can help us rise to meet our humanity’s challenges. Let’s explore them together.
1. The Power of Belief
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
These days, one look at the headlines is often enough to make us feel disheartened, angry, or even outraged. Mindfulness teaches us that these are unhelpful states of mind. Positive transformation rarely happens from a place of constriction, defensiveness, or rage. These states often turn into bitterness, disillusionment, resentment, and even illness.
Instead, I invite you to reflect on the greatest advancements in human history: Renaissance. Human rights. Democracy. Footprints on the moon. The end of segregation and apartheid. Internet. What is the common quality of these inflections of change?
While we may be enraged, disheartened, or disillusioned by the current events, these times call for us to generate the power of belief.
At our best, we transform from one of our most formidable powers — the power of belief. Belief in our common humanity. Belief in a flourishing future. Belief in justice and love.
Belief has the power to galvanize and inspire us to act. Leaders who lead from the power of belief mobilize us by portraying a vivid vision of a future we yearn for. When a leader holds the power of belief, their eyes are brighter, they walk with pur-pose, they lean in more intently, and they show up with a magnetic spirit of possibility. Belief gives leaders strength and energy that other people can feel.
While we may be enraged, disheartened, or disillusioned by the current events, these times call for us to generate the power of belief. To tune inwards and reconnect the meaning of our work, with the dent we intend to make in the universe. To do the profound work of visioning. To rekindle the feelings of possibility and to paint a vibrant picture of our potential future. Not to numb, complain, argue, debate, divide or deny. But to lean into our challenges, offer leadership, real hope, real problem identification and solutions. To lead from belief. This is true mobilizing power. The power of visionary leadership.
2. The Power of Equanimity
“Peace in oneself, peace in the world.” —Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the most celebrated Zen Masters of our time, tells the story of Vietnamese refugees crossing the Gulf of Siam during the Vietnam War.
The refugees left Vietnam in small boats and were often caught in rough seas and storms. Threatened by the big waves, people would panic, run to the other side of the boat, further tipping and risking its capsizing. But if even one person could remain calm and lucid in the middle of the storm, they could influence each other to stay calm. Equanimity, in the face of tumult, can save lives.
These are stormy times that require us to act from a place of balance. To recognize that when we become reactive to news, clashes in conversations, or environmental distress, we are no wiser than the people on those small boats.
Equanimity is a state of balance. It’s a grounded response to challenges. It’s the power to act from our best and highest self, at all times. It’s the knowledge that when we are in balance, when we live from our wisest place, we lift others into balance and we create the conditions for others to rise. It’s cultivating love, belonging, joy, and purpose in ourselves, because when we carry these strongly in our hearts, we nurture these capacities in others.
The invitation is not to wrestle or suffocate your inner feelings of anger, fear or despair. But to hold these feelings with tenderness, inquiry, and nonjudgment. To understand their true nature, to explore the unmet needs they represent, and to transform their reactivity into skillful action. To sense the possibilities and explore new choices. To inhabit the place of balance and peace that exists behind them.
The more closely you become acquainted with this space of peace, the more easily you inhabit this place of stillness and balance in your daily life.
This is steady power. The power of poised leadership.
3. The Power of Resourcing
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” —Hillel the elder
We are wearing ourselves thin. At best, we are physically and emotionally deplete; at worst, we are becoming numb and desensitized just as a means of survival. The problem is that if we allow ourselves to burn out, we can’t be part of the solution.
Mindfulness is a means to take care of ourselves so we can take care of our world.
If you observe your mind, you may also catch yourself ruminating on the past, or fantasies of the future. Rarely is our mind stable, steady, concentrated in the here and now.
The daily moments of introspection, quiet and gentle meditation can be powerful sources of respite, renewal, and recovery to give us the mental distance to identify new solutions and refuel for change.
The most distinguished leaders and change-makers take resourcing seriously. From daily meditation practices employed by iconic CEOs such as Bridgewater’s Ray Dalio, Aetna’s Mark Bertolini, Ford’s Bill Ford, Oprah, Eileen Fisher, and the late Steve Jobs. To fiercely protected insight retreats from Ghandi’s day of silence to Bill Gates’s bi-annual ThinkWeek retreat in a secret waterfront cottage.
The mindful invitation is to take a break when you are feeling overwhelmed. To practice selfcare so you can take care of your outer circumstances. Consider reducing your exposure to the news. Read things that inspire and empower you, that fill your mind with new ideas and meaning. The idea is not to leave this up to chance, but to mindfully engineer these moments of resourcing, insight and recovery in your daily life.
This is regenerative power. The power of sustained leadership.
4. The Power of Being
"Look closely at the present you are constructing: it should look like the future you are dreaming." —Alice Walker
If you look closely at the present moment, you can touch the past. All the choices and actions you’ve taken in the near and distant past led you to be here now, reading this article. Equally, all the choices you make in this very moment will create the future you will live.
If you observe your mind, you may also catch yourself ruminating on the past, or fantasies of the future. Rarely is our mind stable, steady, concentrated in the here and now. It tends to rehash the past and rehearse the future. And yet, we can’t change the past, and we haven’t yet met the future. We live uniquely in the present moment.
When we understand this profound teaching, we realize that how we are in the present moment is of utmost importance. When we touch this truth deeply, our conduct in the present moment becomes extremely refined. We attend to every moment with care and check — what’s the attitude of my mind? What’s the quality of my being? How intentional are my actions and choices in this very moment?
With mindfulness, we contemplate the infinite possible ramifications of our actions, and this insight leads us to tend carefully to this present moment. To recognize that the only important action is the one we take right now. The only worry we must skillfully navigate is how we are tending to and showing up in the here and the now.
When a leader perfects the power of being in the present moment, they have presence. They wholly show up in every interaction. They take you fully in, act with poise, and embrace what is with dignity and grace. They are able to create a container large enough to hold the challenges of the present moment. They act consciously, in ways that allow them to reflect their deepest human virtues; in ways that tune others into the present moment and thus bring about their best.
This is the power of presence. The power of conscious leadership.
5. The Power of Compassion
“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” —Henry David Thoreau
In our society we live under the illusion that we exist separately from others—that my success is due in whole part to my actions, my doing, my ingenuity. While we do have individual agency, our entire existence is interdependent on all other individuals, beings, causes and conditions surrounding us.
I like to play a game with my children at dinnertime. We call it “the world on your plate.” We practice looking deeply into the nature of the food on our plate and explore all the people, beings, causes and conditions that made it possible for this nourishing meal to be on our plate. From the work that we as parents do to afford the food, to the stockers, drivers, farmers, that grew and brought the food to us. The people who made the equipment that allowed them to till, seed, fertilize, pick, and bring the food to us. We contemplate all that went into creating the fertile soil that made it possible for the food to arise — the minerals, plants, insects and weather that gave fruit to our meal.
When we perform this kind of inquiry, the partitions that keep us feeling separate and independent from others dissolve. We realize how fundamentally interconnected we all are to each other, how delicately our existence, our happiness, our wellbeing is in-terdependent on the existence, happiness and wellbeing of all. When we generate this deep awareness, we realize that when we make others separate from us or “bad,” we inflict on ourselves a small death—a microerosion of our own humanity.
Mindful compassion practice doesn’t ask us to forgive, like or condone people who commit “bad,” violent or unskillful actions. Instead, it asks us to recognize the deep work we need to do to remove the causes and conditions that give rise to those actions. To stay open. To generate impartial compassion and care about the wellbeing of others. To deepen perspective-taking. To raise understanding through questioning, curiosity and love.
This is insightful power. The power of compassionate leadership.
6. The Power of One to the Many
“If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” —Dalai Lama
The most challenging aspect of the problems that require humanity’s attention right now is that they are so complex. The solutions feel remote and elusive. And therein lies the fundamental problem: we are motivated by results and progress. And yet, change — real societal, environmental, political change — is a longrange game. It’s a multigenerational game. It’s a compound game.
With challenges facing our humanity so multifaceted, we can begin to feel disheartened by the apparent lack of progress. We can begin to feel disillusioned by the seemingly feeble impact of our activism, environmental, and social efforts are making.
So the goal doesn’t become the outcome; the goal becomes the vector of the work we are putting into the world. With mindful leadership, we come to ask, “what is the direction of our lives that we want to offer the world?”
Tomas Morton said it best: “Do not depend on the hope of results, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless, and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps at times result in the opposite of what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value the rightness and the truth of the work itself.”
We need individuals who show up every day, driven not only by results, but especially by the worthiness of their work. We need to remember that it’s not necessarily the power of one that will affect change, but the power of one to the many. We need a million small acts of courage and compassion over our lifetime and the incoming generation’s lifetime to affect critical change. We need to nurture our will with a strong community around us that sustains our capacity for collective progress. This is the power of one to the many.
This is compound power. The power of exponential leadership.
These six mindfulness powers exist within us all. With mindfulness, we can ground ourselves, respond insightfully, and be open to a more timeless source of ingenuity and moral wisdom to shape a more generous, compassionate and prosperous collective future. May we stay steady-hearted, clear-minded and compassionate and remember that, as Theodore Parker once noted, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”