Even after COVID, the increase in people with burnout symptoms and illnesses is not levelling off. On the contrary. Mark Lockwood knows how managers can protect themselves and their teams from burnout and at the same time increase their performance and satisfaction. I’ve spoken with the teacher of self-responsibility and spiritual transformation who founded an institute for contemplative intelligence in South Africa 10 years ago.
This was in December 2022.
Mark, does your experience confirm that there are more and more people with burnout?
Yes, there is indeed a mental health crisis, burnout is definitely one of them. The curve started to rise about 10 to 15 years ago and then went steeply uphill with COVID. This spike is not flattening out.
A lot of these people are managers. They come to us because they suffer from fatigue, insomnia, irritability, excessive stress and they don’t know what to do. And, believe me, they don’t like to hear our answer: “You have to change your life!” “I can’t,” they then say, “I run a successful business and I have responsibilities!”
We then try to teach these people that the is NOT a contradiction, you can do both at the same time. Eliminate the symptoms, i.e. fight burnout, and you can learn to be more productive and get more done. But for that you have to use certain tools. And that’s what you can learn with us.
Do you have data to support this statement?
There are many studies on burnout, stress, stress-related illnesses. In 2018, I think there were 50,000 studies …
Do you have your own data?
Yes. We measure people before they come to us and afterwards – physical measurements, emotional imagery measurements and even energy measurements.
We do brain scans. We found that very often people operated from the limbic system in the back of the brain. This is the fight-flight-frost centre of the brain. In people experiencing stress and burnout, this area of the brain lit up in the video recordings. On follow-up, 6 – 12 weeks later, a completely different part of the brain lights up – they have shifted their energy and focus from the will to survive to the prefrontal cortex, behind the forehead. In the forehead brain sits what makes a person human – a controlled, rational, socially active person who makes their own decisions based on their experiences and whose consequences they take into account. In other words, the prefrontal cortex can be trained – and that’s exactly what we do with the people who come to us.
Do you see patterns in the data?
Yes! Among business people, we see that high-functioning people ignore subtle warning signs. They work too many hours a day, they get headaches, suffer from insomnia and in most cases heartburn and indigestion, but they ignore all these symptoms and just carry on. Many people also have emotional and/or relationship problems. Still, they carry on.
There is a study done in Massachusetts that says that the main cause of stress-related heart attacks resulting in death is neither poor diet, lack of exercise nor stress, but dissatisfaction with the job. People are unhappy at work. They are literally shortening their lives because they are overworked and obviously doing work that no longer has any meaning or purpose for them.
This is a very sobering result. It doesn’t have to come to the heart attacks and illnesses if we just learn how to take care of our physiological, psychological, emotional and spiritual selves.
What is the connection between burnout and contemplative intelligence?
When we are stressed and burnt out, we tend to satisfy our so-called basic needs – the need for security, meaning, the need for love and belonging and growth. This is all within the range of IQ. A successful career fits into this picture – we need that economic success to satisfy our needs for security and meaning.
But if we strive for a higher quality of life that is also sustainable and doesn’t shorten your life by 15 years because of a heart attack or severe pain, then we also need to use our emotional intelligence. We need to ask the question: How do I feel? And then answer it honestly. This requires time for self-reflection and putting it all into a bigger picture – you in your environment. You have to learn to use your contemplative intelligence!
This is not so easy. But contemplative practices like meditation, qigong, centring prayer or mindfulness practice help with that. With these, you learn to look at things from a different perspective. And we use a centring practice such as light contemplation. We need balance, homeostasis, the ying yang to keep us successful, strong and awake.
What is contemplative intelligence (CQ)?
CQ is a process of taking a long, loving look at what is, who you are and how everything else around you unfolds. And you do this without the personality disorders and defence mechanisms that usually come into play.
To reach “your” CQ, you go beyond your personality traits, attitudes and moods and get to the place within yourself where you can be truly honest with yourself and say: “I know I need to slow down, I’m not sleeping well. Let me sit here in the silence and see what comes out!”
And the amazing thing is that something always comes out when people are in silence. Our mind allows that to happen. If we don’t use our contemplative intelligence, we get lost in that fight-flight-frost centre of the brain and we are not ourselves.
How is this different from mindfulness?
Well, we use words as clues, of course. Mindfulness is a new, widely used buzzword. I don’t like the word. Mindfulness states that your mind is full of clutter. Being able to contemplate, be still and know is exactly the opposite of a full mind.
Mindfulness is associated with affirmations. Contemplation is the opposite of that: it’s about going into the stillness of the mind and trying to influence the brain waves with a contemplative practice, such as meditation or a centring word. So you really go into the prefrontal cortex, where your creativity sits, and allow the nothingness to permeate the senses, the body, the emotions and so on, to see what comes out. Mindful listening in a guided meditation, for example, is the opposite.
CQ is really about getting to the zero point. When we reach zero point – heart-mind coherence – then out of that nothingness, ideas, thoughts, new perceptions, new feelings can arise. Because then you are in the prefrontal cortex of your brain, where your creativity is at home.
Why do we need contemplative intelligence?
Neurologically, we have become too accustomed to the familiar past. We get out of bed on the same side, we brush our teeth the same way, we have the same shower routine, we eat the same foods. We live by a programme of the mind that loves heuristic or autonomous thinking. It hates work and tends to keep us in a world of certainty and security.
We need CQ to break out of this programme.
A CEO can bankrupt the company by not reinventing the wheel by not developing new products, but by running on autopilot. To wake up from this autopilot, he needs his CQ, heart-brain synchronicity. And people who do CQ exercises, just two minutes of silence and centring every now and then, can “keep running” and are more successful than people who don’t have access to their prefrontal cortex.
Neurologically, without CQ you are stuck, unimaginative, dull and always looking for the familiar. If you rely only on the mind, that’s not enough to make viable and lasting high-level change.
And why do we need this now?
The problems around us are becoming more complex and diverse. We are for the most part still trapped in old tried and tested patterns of behaviour and get stressed as soon as our mind reacts to these problems and moves at a faster pace. This is amplified by social media, the age of distraction, the fast pace – inevitably the mind starts racing. Unfortunately, our brains have not adapted, they have not evolved fast enough. As a result, we are in survival mode and barely able to step out of that mode a few times a day and stop this obsessive and fast-paced thinking that causes anxiety, depression, burnout, heart attacks.
CQ allows you to do just that. It allows you to take control, not only of your business or your life, but also of your own being. You find new ideas, concepts, suggestions, behaviours, you leave this survival mode and start to create anew.
Why do managers often have a problem with this?
From an early age we are taught to persevere. You can do it! It’s a weakness not to make it. Resting means weakness. We know that from statistics. But you have to pause and take breaks so you can do your best. So the ultimate achievement in business is not about pushing, but about some kind of thinking and feeling strategy that helps you to last longer, both physically and mentally and even spiritually! Unfortunately, this realisation has not yet caught on.
How can you learn contemplative intelligence?
Just like you learn to play the piano – you don’t sit down at the piano and play Beethoven right away, do you? At our centre, we suggest people look across the ocean, learn to appreciate life again, the simple things around us. To move from constant evaluation and judgement to gratitude, to be present instead of checking the news on your phone, to practice compassion, peace and forgiveness – literally turning on another part of the brain. All this can be learned with simple exercises.
Are there any typical principles or attitudes of CQ?
Gratitude, for example. Gratitude is located in the prefrontal cortex. Judgement is in the limbic system – gratitude literally sits in a different part of the brain than judgement. It is within our power to stay in a space of gratitude rather than complaining and judging. The shift between spaces does not happen automatically. We actually have to develop these attitudes personally and take responsibility for them. We need to redefine our intentions, and for that we need more silence.
A contemplative practice means that you focus on maintaining the attitude of gratitude and focus on your intention, because where you focus is where the energy flows. So if you don’t focus, your energy will scatter.
How can I guide myself through CQ?
It starts in the evening before you go to bed. We know from science that the last thoughts we have usually stay with us for the time we are asleep. So make yourself aware of these last thoughts in the evening. Take a deep breath and think about the next day. And then you wake up in the morning and you don’t activate the autopilot, the familiar past, which, as Einstein said, makes you do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. Instead, you wake up, think and use your intelligence to make the decisions you want to make.
Another type of CQ is meta-thinking. You have to go beyond the mind and the persona. So when you think about thinking, you use your CQ. You realise that you are witnessing an average of 85,000 thoughts a day and you realise that you are not those thoughts that are compulsive in nature. You are more than that. And you come into the position of witnessing some of those 85,000 thoughts and begin to change the ones that you would like to change. And that’s what contemplative intelligence is.
And as a leader, how do you transfer that experience to your team?
That’s a great question. Just as you do preventive maintenance for the company fleet, you need to do the same for your team. Contemplative practices like mindfulness, conscious pauses, meditation should be integrated into the workplace. Many companies are already doing that.
This is the meta-thinking I was talking about earlier,
we have to teach employees to always look at the big picture. They must not get bogged down in routine, but rather penetrate the creative space of their brain.
But that means that many measurements in HR departments are the wrong ones, doesn’t it?
I think so too. I think the measurements that are used are analytical by nature and always look at intelligence quotient. It is about going beyond analytical intelligence and diving into something unknown, new and fresh. HR has to learn to think in meta-levels. And that is exactly what a gap is. It is a gap where most companies are not willing to use ingenuity for themselves, their employees, their product and others and really look at everything from a completely new perspective. Managers hide behind the restructuring costs involved in doing so, forgetting the opportunity cost of a potential company failure.
We are starting to think about it and realise that this “out of the box” theory is necessary – regardless of the size of the company. The CEO needs to take the time to stop the thought processes, perceptions, feelings and attitudes that keep the company trapped in the familiar past and engage with something new. The new, that is where we are in the technological progress that all businesses are moving towards. It’s faster than ever before. It’s more innovative than ever before. And you have to keep up with that in a healthy way, and that’s not easy.