Finding Wisdom Through Mindfulness
February 24, 2023
Have you ever felt overwhelmed at work and on a streak of poor decision-making? That’s because when we are stressed, we tend to make poorer choices. Understanding the root cause to prevent negative work dynamics comes from self-awareness and an understanding of our hidden behavior patterns. When we are self-aware of our common stressors and triggers, we can mitigate their effect on our emotional reactions and proceed with rational actions. This leads to better decision-making while under stress, which is crucial for leaders, who are often under stress while making decisions that have far-reaching impacts.
Have you ever worked with someone that just rubbed you the wrong way? That regardless of what you work on with them, you both just struggled to work well together? This type of divisiveness can be rooted in conflicting character strengths. Being able to reconcile these differences is necessary for maintaining high performance among team members. Yet some people are better at navigating divisiveness than others, they seem never to have issues working with anyone. The people who are better at preventing divisiveness are likely to have greater self-awareness and be able to recognize and avoid the hidden behavior patterns that are triggered by different people. Preventing divisiveness leads to less team dysfunction and higher performance, which is also important to leaders who need their teams to move forward efficiently.
Developing a strong sense of self-awareness has long been a desired quality of world leaders. To be self-aware was known as being mindful. Those who were mindful showed wisdom. And those who were wise made better decisions. From Buddhists to Benjamin Franklin, different definitions and applications of mindfulness and wisdom have been thoroughly discussed throughout history. But how exactly do these two ancient qualities work together, and how can they be developed today in a modern business setting?
What is Mindfulness
Dating back to the 8th Century, the concept of mindfulness was founded in Zen Buddhism. The goal was to train one’s ability of “moment-to-moment awareness of present events” or “remembering to be aware of something.” Many centuries later, the Greek philosophical school of Stoicism also discussed this concept. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus specifically addressed mindfulness in terms of attention, believing practitioners who trained their attention would prevent themselves from being “moved by instinct instead of reason.” By the 14th Century, mindfulness traditions could also be found in Western-religious texts, such as St. Ignatius’s “Rules for Eating,” which describes the importance of mindfulness for proper dining etiquette.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that mindfulness was scientifically researched in terms of phycological and medical applications. In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts. One of Kabat-Zinn’s most well-known contributions to mindfulness practices is his S.T.O.P. Method—Stop, Take a breath, Observe, then Proceed. Since, research studies on mindfulness have included brain neuroimaging, psychological measures, and behavioral tests. This research has predominantly shown that mindfulness meditation improves attention, reduces anxiety and depression, increases emotional regulation, and even improves immune functioning. Furthermore, mindfulness research has also shown that meditations contribute to more healthy senses of self-identity when considering aspects of responsibility, character, and compassion.
Nowadays, businesses are working to leverage the benefits of this ancient concept. Developing mindfulness among leaders and team members helps reduce divisiveness in the workplace, contributing to increased productivity. When individuals are mindful of how they communicate and behave with each other, they are more capable of functioning as an efficient team.
Wisdom Then and Now
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, wisdom is defined as the “capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct.” Yet similar to mindfulness, the beginning roots of the concept of wisdom can be traced back to ancient Asia in Buddhism and Hinduism. In Buddhism, developing wisdom was the central purpose and goal. To the Buddhists, wisdom was described as “seeing things as they are” or having a “penetrating understanding of all phenomena.” In Hinduism, wisdom is described as “knowing oneself as the truth, basis for the entire creation.” To the ancient Greeks, wisdom was considered a virtue (a positive state of thinking, feeling, or acting) and was personified by the goddess Athena. Additionally, the concept of Logos (appealing to logic or reason) was considered by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians to be the manifestation of divine thought as words.
By the 18th Century, many Western-government leaders believed in the importance of developing wisdom and virtue in society and that public education systems shared the responsibility of training these qualities in youth with parents and communities. As such, Benjamin Franklin helped introduce character education into US Public Schools, stating: “nothing is of more importance for the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue.”
In 1985, Robert Sternberg published Implicit Theories of Intelligence, Creativity, and Wisdom in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He described how psychologists had begun studying ancient concepts of wisdom found in myths, religious stories, folk theories, and other commonly held beliefs. From their finding, Sternberg stated: "there is an overlap of the implicit theory of wisdom with intelligence, perceptiveness, spirituality and shrewdness, it is evident that wisdom is an expertise in dealing with difficult questions of life and adaptation to the complex requirements."
In 2007, through the University College of London, Nicholas Maxwell published From Knowledge to Wisdom: A Revolution for Science and the Humanities. In his book, Maxwell describes an urgent need for academia to alter its focus from acquiring and solving problems of knowledge to seeking wisdom to help humanity learn how to create a better world. Maxwell defined this difference of focus towards wisdom as “the capacity to realize what is of value in life for oneself and others.”
Connecting Mindfulness to Wisdom
In “Two Kinds of Intelligence,” the 13th Century Persian Poet Rumi compares two kinds of knowing: external facts versus internal truths. The internal self-awareness described by Rumi is the key that unlocks wisdom. Mindfulness allows us to observe our different thought patterns, motivations, and emotional responses that determine our actions, behavior, and decision-making. This allows us to choose how to respond appropriately to complex and stressful situations—being “moved by reason instead of instinct.” By developing mindfulness, we better understand ourselves, allowing for better decision-making and self-management. This state is what is described as wisdom. As leaders frequently face highly consequential decisions that can impact many lives, making grounded decisions based on reason instead of subconscious reactions is crucial.
Achieving wisdom comes from thorough self-awareness, known as mindfulness. As the Buddhists describe, wisdom is a state of “seeing things as they are.” Therefore, to develop wisdom, we must develop mindfulness, and to develop mindfulness, we must turn inwards to self-reflect.
In 2017, Igor Grossman published Wisdom in Context in Perspectives on Psychological Science. Grossmann describes how there is a major distinction in how wisdom is viewed—as a stable personality trait or a context-bound process. Grossmann states, “Philosophers and psychological scientists have converged on the idea that wisdom involves certain aspects of thinking… enabling application of knowledge to life challenges. Empirical evidence indicates that people’s ability to think wisely varies dramatically across experiential contexts that they encounter over the life span.”
Developing Wisdom for Work
Since wisdom and mindfulness allow leaders to maintain cohesive work environments and effectively resolve differing viewpoints and conflicts, learning how to develop wisdom has become more of a priority for business leaders. Based on Tilt365’s research, wisdom is considered to be one of four major qualities needed to be one’s “whole self.” The other three qualities, besides wisdom, that make up one’s whole self are; courage, resilience, and humanity. Based on the Tilt Framework, wisdom is located in the lower quadrant and comprises the three character strengths of; perspective, diligence, and focus.
By leveraging Tilt 365 assessments, leaders can quickly determine the character strengths within their wisdom quadrant that may need improvement. For example, they may be struggling with focus, which is affecting their overall ability to make accurate decisions. Once aware, leaders can mindfully adjust their habits. In doing so, leaders can effectively develop their wisdom in a scientifically measurable way.
Nevertheless, developing mindfulness and wisdom goes beyond just leaders, as team members of all levels can benefit from these practices. The more people on a team who are mindful of hidden behaviors and triggers (of themselves and others), the less divisive their workplace will be, ultimately leading to increased productivity. When we are mindful of how we communicate and behave with each other, we are far more capable of functioning as an efficient team together.