Posts tagged ‘practice’
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are of little importance compared to what lies within us.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Most of us are familiar with fictional tale “The Wizard of Oz.” In this story, a twister picked up Dorothy’s Kansas house, with her inside, and carried it to the Land of Oz. Dorothy’s mission throughout the remainder of the adventure was to return home. The residents of Oz suggested that she follow the yellow brick road to Emerald City in order to find the Wizard, who supposedly would help her return.
Along the way she met companions: the Scarecrow, who was convinced his life would be better if he only had a brain; the Tin Man, who desired a heart; and the Lion, who believed he was deficient of courage. Each of these characters thought that he was lacking something and put his faith in the legendary Wizard to give him what was missing. However, when they finally reach the Emerald City, their expectations were shattered to find an unsympathetic Wizard. Nevertheless, as they continued the journey, each one illustrated the quality he felt was most absent: the Scarecrow demonstrated wisdom, the Tin Man embodied tenderness, and the Lion behaved bravely. In each case, they revealed that they had those inherent virtues the whole time, but they just weren’t adept at accessing them in the beginning. The Wizard, who turned out to be a charlatan, could only present the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion with outward symbols in recognition of their qualities: a diploma, a medal, and a testimonial, respectively. The Wizard wasn’t able to give them anything they didn’t already possess.
And, what about Dorothy; she still hadn’t found a way home to Kansas? When the Wizard’s hot air balloon finally sailed away from Oz without her, Dorothy believed her last option for returning was lost. Yet, auspiciously, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, appeared once again. Glinda informed Dorothy that she didn’t need to be helped any longer. In fact, Dorothy always had the power to go back to Kansas, but she had to learn it for herself.
Mindfulness practice often follows much the same journey. When first arriving at this practice, many of us have been seeking solace, fulfillment, and security from sources outside of ourselves; to provide what we believe to be lacking or to fill perceived holes in our lives. Yet, we have not found satisfaction in those attempts. In contrast, as we cultivate mindfulness skills, we find a greater ability to bring our attention to our own experience, rather than searching externally. In doing so, we essentially develop the capacity to come into closer contact with our intrinsic nature, to find our way home. Reconnecting with our inner wisdom, heart, and courage is possible. Buddha is commonly quoted as having said, “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” We realize we always have had this power. We just needed to learn how to access it. And, essentially, the way we do this is by bringing our awareness into the present moment, rather than unconsciously becoming engaged in distractions, either outside of ourselves or in our own mind. Bringing your attention to the present moment is the equivalent of Dorothy clicking her heals together and saying, “There’s no place like home.”
“it is here
in the breath
it is here
in the stillness between breaths
it is here
in the active mind
it is here
in the resting mind
it is here
in the dream’s panorama
it is here
in each moment of awakening
it is here
when all is well
it is here
when fear has nothing left to fear
there is pure noticing
there is no need for doing
no frantic searching
can find the obvious
no seeking needed
to find that which seeks
it is here
where it can never be lost
“We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it. But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.”
– John Newton
I’ll begin by sharing with you an often told anecdote. A lecturer, when explaining the impacts of stress to an audience, raised a glass of water and asked, “How heavy is this glass of water?” Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz. The lecturer replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long you try to hold it. If you hold it for a minute, that’s not a problem. If you hold it for an hour, your arm will ache. If you hold it for a day, you’ll have to call an ambulance. In each case, it’s the same weight, but the longer you hold it, the heavier it becomes.” She continued, “And that’s the way it is with stress. If we carry our burdens all the time, no matter how minor they seem, sooner or later, as the burden becomes increasingly heavy, it becomes an obstacle for us.”
Likewise, each of us is vulnerable to preoccupations, from the moment we arise in the morning until we fall asleep at night. Knowingly or unknowingly, we accumulate these concerns and carry them around with us, picking up more and more without freeing ourselves of the previous ones. As we do so, they become a greater and greater burden. You may be surprised at how much weight you are hauling day to day. And that energy can be better employed for things that really matter right now.
Fortunately, mindfulness provides an opportunity for you to lighten your load, to free yourself of these burdens. By asking yourself to be aware of your experience in the here and now, to be fully in the present moment, you can release the energy you are expending on preoccupations that have been consuming your attention. Additionally, as you do this, you can become more familiar with the nature of the concerns that pull your attention and gain insight into those patterns. Recognizing these patterns enables you to allow the preoccupations to arise and pass, without grabbing hold of them, thus freeing you from their encumbrance.
In the midst of a recent group mindfulness practice, one of the participants, Donald, described an experience of his burdens easing in this manner: “And then, between one mindful footstep and another, I realized that I was free. In the moment, I had escaped the weight of the world. The bills, the projects, the politics… None of that was with me in the now. Nor are they now. I am aware of them, patiently waiting their turn. But I’m no longer carrying them, in the now.”
To help facilitate this process, each time I lead an all-day retreat, as part of an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, I offer students the opportunity to lighten their load when the retreat begins. As we check in, I encourage students to hand over to me, for safe keeping during the day, any preoccupations they are carrying with them. To be clear, these are not burdens I add to my own plate, instead, I place them into a virtual, infinite storage space where they can be housed. Students hand over things such as concerns about a work project, a child’s soccer game that is being missed, anxieties about health, errands that need to be run, and a variety of other tasks on “to do” lists. This process assists students by freeing up their attention so that they are more able to bring their awareness fully into the present moment throughout the day. At the end of the retreat, students have the option to collect items they had entrusted to me, or keep them in the storage area more permanently. There are very few people who end up taking back items from the storage area; only things that still require attention are retrieved.
You can do this for yourself. First, recognize what you are carrying around with you – really stop and pay attention as you consider this. Then, before you go any further, out of kindness for yourself, put down anything that may be a burden to you right now. (There is plenty of room in the virtual storage space for your burdens to be housed, so go ahead put them there.) Start even for a moment, and if you can, refrain from picking them back up again. (You may leave them in the storage area permanently.) Repeat this process on a regular basis to continue to lighten your load.
“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”
– Lou Holtz
“There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
– Mohandas K. Gandhi
In over fifteen years of supporting people who are experiencing the effects of stress in their lives, one thing hasn’t changed: people generally feel overwhelmed by the demands they are facing and by their attempts to keep up with them; they are busy— too busy. This is true whether individuals are students, in professional careers, non-professional workers, unemployed job seekers or retired. Commonly, newly retired people attend my classes having expected retirement to bring them relief from the busyness of their employed life, only to find a that they are caught up in different kinds of demands, but still don’t feel like they have enough time.
The question becomes, is all of this busyness, with the wear and tear it is taking in our lives, really taking us somewhere worthwhile? Or instead, are most of us merely caught, knowingly or unknowingly, on the hamster wheel of life, running faster and faster without a meaningful payoff?
Tim Kreider, in a recent essay he wrote entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap1,” spoke to this trend of being too busy: “Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.” “The present hysteria,” according to Kreider,” is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.” Kreider asserted that in our current culture, busyness is often “a boast disguised as a complaint.” “It makes you feel important, sought-after and put-upon.” And this complaint is coming from those who are “busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.” Furthermore, he maintained that “busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” He said, “I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.” On the other hand, Kreider advocated the value of inactivity: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.” He concluded by stating, “Life is too short to be busy.”
If you are not convinced of Kreider’s argument in support of slowing down your busyness, you might be interested to read the top five regrets of the dying2, as compiled by Bonnie Ware, a nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. The regrets of the dying recorded by Ware support the conviction made by Paul Tsongis, “Nobody on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office’”:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Ware comments about regret number five are particularly significant: “This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.” Too often, people do not see the cost of remaining caught up in their busyness until they no longer have the choice to make changes.
This does not have to be your fate, however. I was fortunate to have my eyes opened to the dangers of getting caught in what Kreider referred to as “The ‘Busy’ Trap” many years ago when I took a time management class. Most of that day-long class was spent identifying very detailed goals for the next month, three months, six months, one year, three years, five years, ten years, and on through the next 100 years of our lives. It was a taxing and exhausting process. Toward the end of the day, we were told to write the goals for two more periods: the last six months and final one week of our lives. We were then asked to review the goals for the next 100 years of our lives to see if we incorporated the goals that we identified for the last six months and final week of our lives. Many people in the class, including me, realized that the goals for our final days did not show up in the goals we set for the next 100 years of our lives. The point was clearly made in this experiential process: if the goals for the last six months and week of our life tend to reveal those aspects that are most meaningful to us, why, then, do we go through life on a daily basis without incorporating them into our life! Pablo Neruda answered this question most eloquently in his poem, “Keeping Quiet” when he said, “If we weren’t unanimous about keeping our lives so much in motion, if we could do nothing for once, perhaps a great silence would interrupt this sadness, this never understanding ourselves and threatening ourselves with death.”
Accordingly, I offer you the invitation to slow down periodically with the intention of recognizing what is most meaningful to you in your life. Ask yourself, if you knew that you only had six months to live, how would you employ that time? And if you only had one week to live how would you choose to spend that week? Then see how you can consciously integrate and prioritize those features into your day-to-day existence. Continue taking baby steps in this direction and you will find that you have the capability to step off of the hamster wheel!
“For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.”
– Lily Tomlin
“Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a giant tree, in the midst of them all.”
– The Buddha
One of the most common misconceptions about meditation is that it is used as a way to stop your thoughts and other experiences that preoccupy you, or at least push them aside for the duration of the practice. Contrary to this perception, mindfulness is, instead, a means of becoming more familiar with your thoughts, emotions and physical experiences; rather than trying to push them away, the intention is to acknowledge their presence and meet them as they are. To do otherwise is to be caught by these experiences, personalizing them, and allowing them to unconsciously drive your reactions. Mindfulness enables you to have choice in how you respond to your experiences, once you have acknowledged them, whether they are cognitive, emotional or physical in nature.
Without mindfulness, when you are caught in reaction to your unacknowledged experiences, it can feel as if you are on “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” a Disneyland attraction at that is a twisting, curving ride in the dark: from moment to moment, the rider does not know how long he or she will proceed in a straight line or which direction he or she may suddenly turn. It can feel as if you are out of control of, and sometimes overwhelmed by, what you are experiencing.
Practicing mindfulness provides you with an alternative to this unconscious reactivity, which is a source of much of the suffering in peoples’ day-to-day lives. Equanimity is the ability to respond with balance, or an even mind, amidst the changing conditions in life: the ups, the downs, even the neutral places. Equanimity helps to give you the strength when things don’t go the way you hoped for, wanted or expected. This state of balance is not to be confused with indifference. In contrast, equanimity is the absence of either being hooked by or denying your experience and instead responding from the awareness and acceptance of how things are, without judgment. It is through equanimity that you may find peace and reduce your suffering.
Matthiew Ricard, in his book, Happiness, likens equanimity to the depths of the ocean, “A storm may be raging at the surface, but the depths remain calm. The wise man always remains connected to the depths. On the other hand, he who knows only the surface and is unaware of the depths is lost when he is buffeted by the waves of suffering.”1 Constant changes are a universal part of life. The sense of peace that many people seek arrives from the ability to ride with the changing realities of life with mindfulness, without losing grounding: understanding that all things are in constant change and that it is our own reactions to situations in life that cause us added suffering – we have influence over that.
One way you can assert influence over your reactivity is to cultivate equanimity. This can be deliberately done by repeating some simple phrases to yourself that reinforce this intention for steadiness in your life. Here are some examples of phrases that you can repeat for yourself:
- May I accept things as they are.
- No matter how I might wish things could be otherwise, things are the way they are.
- May I offer my care and presence without conditions, knowing they may be met by anger, gratitude or indifference.
- I wish you happiness and peace, but cannot make your choices for you.
- I care about your pain, but cannot control it.
- Although I wish only the best for you, I also know that your actions, not my wishes for you, will determine your happiness or unhappiness.
- May I remain in peace, and let go of expectations.
- May I offer love, knowing I cannot control the course of life, suffering or death.
- May I see my limits compassionately, just as I see the limitations of others.
Choose one or two of the above phrases that resonate with you and practice repeating them to yourself. Even if the phrases do not feel authentic at first, over time, you may begin to live more in line with the intention that these phrases evoke.
1. Ricard, Matthieu. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2007, page 66.
“I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.”
– Louisa May Alcott
“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
– Madeline L’Engle
If you look up the definition of “vulnerable” in the dictionary, you will find it to mean: 1. capable of being physically or emotionally wounded, and 2. open to attack or damage1; It is a state of being exposed or feeling raw.
This level of exposure can feel very scary. On a daily basis, we minimize this insecurity by creating structures within which we can function with the uncertainties we face: we craft a public image of ourselves that we project to others and we construct an identity for ourselves as a basis to stand upon. Residing within these structures we remain protected from perceived harm, often based on former wounding. However, these constructs also limit us from connecting on a deeper basis with ourselves and one another.
While this protection helps us to get by day to day and even survive, if we begin to rely on these structures as constant and genuine, we can deceive ourselves. Maintaining the illusion that we can have ultimate control in our lives, we lose touch with the reality that everything is constantly changing. Whether we like it or not, there will inevitably be times when the sense of identity to which we are clinging no longer serves us, or the façade that we are presenting no longer fits well. Even when we know this intellectually, it can be challenging for us to release our grip on these structures in which we’re so invested. After all, it can be very frightening to look inside and find nothing to hold onto. Worse, if they disintegrate on their own, it can be even more painful; we may face an unavoidable crisis. As Alison Luterman points out in her poem, Stripping, we are terrified to find out what lies beneath this armor:
I want to strip. It’s the jewel
at the center I seek; let me be oyster, hoarding pearl.
Let me be coal, sheltering diamond.
Though in my heart of hearts I am afraid
I may be onion, each white circle
of stinky tears hiding another
exactly like it, Or rose:
whose petals are her everything.
Ultimately, we can overlook the fact that we must let go of these old structures if we are to grow. Consequently, residing with our vulnerability is actually a gateway to our development. According to Gail Sheehy, “With each passage of human growth, we must shed a protective structure [like a hardy crustacean]. We are left exposed and vulnerable – but also yeasty and embryonic again, capable of stretching in ways we hadn’t known before.”
In our culture, being vulnerable is commonly viewed as a weakness. Relating without the external layers of protection (the façade or mask), can be likened to Samson cutting off his hair – diminishing one’s strength. In reality, residing with our vulnerability may, instead, actually enable us to access innate inner strength and a source of power.
How, then, may we embrace our vulnerability? The answer lies in our willingness to spend time with ourselves, to look more closely at how we are reacting to the uncertainty we face in life and to old wounds that remain open. As we become familiar with our attempt to create and maintain a protective structure we create the possibility of letting it go when we realize it is causing us suffering. Mindfulness meditation provides a way for us to meet ourselves in this compassionate manner. Pema Chödrön speaks to the potential of this effort:
The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is
that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane
enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and
compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about
looking into someone else’s eyes
Through mindfulness practice, there is an opportunity to reside within the spaciousness of change and groundlessness of reality, rather than to perceive them as a threat. When we are mindful of and acknowledge our present experience, we have a means of touching the tender places that may be scary. By hanging out with these raw places in ourselves, in the safe container of meditation, without needing to do or change anything, we can explore what it is like to relate to them with friendliness rather than contraction and what is like to let go of our reaction rather than to contribute to it.
Finally, Gil Fronsdal, the primary teacher for the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, CA, suggests that adding a contemplation, reflection and inquiry component to mindfulness meditation can be a skillful way to learn more about these areas of vulnerability. One way to do this is through writing or journaling when you touch these sensitive places in your practice.
Allowing yourself to become more familiar with these intrinsic aspects of yourself, as challenging as it may be, frees you to respond from this authentic place instead of being driven by fear. Hafiz emphasizes this possibility in his poem, It Felt Love: “How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world all its beauty? It felt the encouragement of light against its being, otherwise, we all remain too frightened.”
2. John Welwood, “Vulnerability and Power in the Therapeutic Process” in Awakening the Heart (1983).
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
– Brene Brown
“There are no mistakes. The events we bring upon ourselves, no matter how unpleasant, are necessary in order to learn what we need to learn; whatever steps we take, they’re necessary to reach the places we’ve chosen to go.”
— Richard Bach
The wandering mind is the often the most dominant experience when anyone first attempts to learn mindfulness practice. Although it is a natural characteristic of being human, most of us don’t realize how busy our minds are until someone asks us to pay attention to our experience, such as the breath, for an extended time; we are generally unaware that preoccupations about the future or the past have such a strong grip on us. Therefore, many people interpret that they are “doing the practice wrong” when they realize that their mind is wandering so frequently and that they are ensnared by those thoughts. They judge themselves as not being good at practicing mindfulness.
Instead, it is helpful to understand that you free yourself of the grip of your wandering mind by noticing when you are caught by it. It is in that moment of noticing that you are preoccupied by thoughts that you have the opportunity to bring your awareness back to the here and now. Ultimately, you foster the increasing ability to bring your mind into the present moment by noticing when it is not present, and learning to welcome it back, rather than punitively judging yourself when you are not paying attention. You are not “doing the practice wrong,” this is actually how you develop the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a process, like building a muscle that gets stronger with use over time. Physiologically, you are creating new neural pathways that support your ability to bring your awareness into the present, and each time you repeat that pattern, the neural pathway becomes stronger and the signal becomes faster. With greater use, that pathway is easier for you to access. So, to cultivate mindfulness, follow the advice of Saint Francis de Sales, “If the heart wanders or is distracted, bring it back to the point quite gently …. And even if you did nothing during the whole of your hour but bring your heart back …, though it went away every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.”
Carl Jung asserted, “Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not.” Accordingly, knowing that your mind is not in the present moment, that it, instead, has been wandering, is a valuable experience. This helps you to learn to differentiate when your mind is actually present. Also enables you to develop insight about the patterns of thought that pull and preoccupy your attention. As counterintuitive as it may sound, learning more about your wandering mind, and your tendency to get seduced by it, helps you develop the capability to be present more often.
The same is true regarding any aspect of your experience, not merely your wandering mind. In her poem, Unconditional, Jennifer Paine Welwood suggests,
Willing to experience aloneness,
I discover connection everywhere;
Turning to face my fear,
I meet the warrior who lives within…
Opening to my loss,
I gain the embrace of the universe;
Surrendering into emptiness,
I find fullness without end.
For example, if you feel impatient, rather than fighting against that feeling and trying to force yourself to act patient, instead you may learn about patience by exploring and becoming more familiar with your experience of impatience – acknowledging it fully and getting to know it more intimately. Patience then comes from your ability to be free of impatience.
Similarly, rather than pushing away experiences of pain to try to minimize your discomfort, see what it is like to be willing to explore your experience of pain. By turning your awareness in towards it, taking a very close look at the pain, noticing how it feels in your body, separately from the thoughts that are triggered, you may at some point notice moments of being free of the grip the pain has upon you.
Instead of judging yourself, congratulate yourself for noticing when your mind has wandered, or that you feel impatient or what the experience of pain feels like. This is the heart of the mindfulness practice, insight, knowing what your experience truly is in the moment.
“Patience is something you admire in the driver behind you and scorn in the one ahead.”
– Mac McCleary
Driving is an activity that most of us do on a daily basis. It also tends to incur a significant amount of stress. In fact, commuting to and from work may be the most stressful part of the day for some people. It is, at a minimum, a contributing factor to the accumulation and cycle of stress within daily life. Therefore, this an especially fruitful place to apply mindfulness skills.
The practice of mindful driving entails paying attention to your experience (what you see, hear, feel, smell) while driving rather than getting engaged in other stimulation or being preoccupied by your thoughts. There is plenty to pay attention to while you are driving. In fact, for many people, driving is a very stimulating experience on its own, even without adding other distractions. So when we then engage in additional stimulation, it can be overwhelming to our system.
Here are some suggestions for driving with more mindful awareness:
- Turn off all optional sound (radio: music/news/talk; CD/tape; mp3 player)
- Eliminate other distractions (phone, food, etc.)
- When you are stopped, either at a red light or in heavy traffic, use that as an opportunity to check in with yourself. Notice if you are holding tension in your body and see if you can release that. Areas particularly vulnerable to tension while driving are your jaw (notice if you are clenching your teeth) as well as your arms and hands (notice if your fists are tightening). Notice if your mind is preoccupied and see if you can return your awareness to the moment. Taking a few abdominal breaths can be helpful to bring yourself back to balance.
- When on the freeway, select one of the right-hand-most lanes and drive at or close to the speed limit, unless conditions demand that all drivers slow down. Allow other drivers to pass you if they seem to want to exceed your speed. People commonly have a misconception regarding how much time will be saved by going faster. It may surprise you to learn that calculations estimate by increasing your speed from 65mph to 75mph you may only save 1 minute 14 seconds every 10 miles. According to Natural Resources Canada, speedy and aggressive driving burns excessive fuel and money and only saves a matter of minutes.
- In heavy highway traffic, pick a lane and stay in it, but not the fast lane. Over the course of many miles, all lanes will go approximately the same speed. In the end, excessive lane changing will not get you to your destination any faster, and ultimately only makes traffic run more slowly overall. It also increases your chances of a collision. According to some statistics, 10% of crashes are due to lane changes.
- Leave a few minutes earlier than you think will be required to arrive at your destination. Giving yourself this buffer may be one of the best ways to reduce the stress that arises from time pressure. Tip: Google Maps will not only provide you with driving directions to your destination but you can also ask to see up-to-date traffic conditions to help you plan your route before you leave.
- And if you are running behind schedule while you are on the road, or get caught in unexpected traffic, accept that you will arrive whenever you arrive. Let go of your tendency to strive to make up for lost time or change the circumstances you are in. Once you are on the road, you have fewer means to significantly impact when you will arrive.
Driving need not be a necessary evil. Instead, it can be another opportunity to bring mindfulness into your daily life. Try some of these suggestions to see if you can reduce the toll that driving takes on your health and well-being.
It is no secret to those who know me that meditation, and mindfulness in general, is one of my passions. Like many others, I originally developed a meditation practice to address challenges I was experiencing in my daily life.
Upon graduating from college, with a background in engineering and a progressive attitude, I chose a career in the high tech hardware and software industry in the Silicon Valley. The high tech industry is excessively demanding—those who work in these environments undergo highs and lows similar to being on a roller coaster and are faced with constant and rapid change, as well as arduous time commitments and workloads that can take a toll on other aspects of one’s life. “What life?” some may ask! This has not been an easy path, especially as I have matured and increasingly taken on more responsibilities besides my work. To thrive under these conditions, I turned to my mindfulness practice with the intention of achieving greater balance, satisfaction, and effectiveness in my life.
Role models I met along the way had been advocating the value of meditation in the workplace, Les Kaye and Lewis Richmond among them. Inspired by their values of integrating meditation into one’s work life, along with my personal experience attempting to do so, I set out to explore the effects of meditation for people who work in the business world as my doctoral thesis for a PhD in psychology, “Business people who meditate: The impact of the practice on their experience in the workplace.” *
This study explored the impact of a long-term meditation practice on business professionals’ experience in the workplace. The participants consisted of business people (4 females and 4 males, ranging in age from 37 to 63) who maintained long-term meditation practices. The duration of participants’ meditation practice ranged from 2.5 to 33 years with a mean of 11.8 years. Participants held a variety of professional positions, including 2 executives, 1 manager, 3 individual contributors, and 2 consultants. One-on-one in-depth interviews were conducted to investigate the effect, if any, their meditation practice had on their experience in the workplace.
Analysis of the data revealed 8 major themes related to aspects of the participants’ work life. Take a look and see if you can relate to any of these themes, and if they motivate you to continue to practice:
- Improved inner state
100% of the participants in this study reported being less stressed and calmer or more patient at work as a result of their practice, enabling them to interact more fully with coworkers, cope with difficult situations, or face adversity. Moreover, several of the participants described this as the most significant impact their practice has had on their experience in the workplace.
- Increased functioning at work
Participants reported positive effects of their meditation practice such as improved ability to listen to coworkers or clients and truly hearing what they are saying, increased productivity, improved concentration, and greater mastery or competence in their work. Instead of getting caught up or agonizing over all of the things that needed to be done, participants reported being able to do what was in front of them, working each problem as it comes up, minimizing procrastination and, ultimately, being more effective.
- Improved perception of self
Participants reported greater compassion for, or acceptance of, themselves, increased self-esteem or self-confidence, and improved ability to trust and forgive themselves. In turn, they believed that this has had a positive impact on their work experience in a number of ways, such as being more positive, more willing to contribute, or more at ease.
- Increased sensitivity toward others
All of the participants in this study revealed that their meditation practice has impacted the way they see their colleagues and customers. Without exception, the responses indicated an increase in sensitivity and openness toward others in the workplace: greater compassion; ability to have and show more respect for individuals at work, regardless of their position; and more forgiving.
- Shift in priorities of work toward greater balance
Participants reported that they invested less of themselves in work: they worked fewer hours or were not as compulsive about work. For example, one participant said she wasn’t “willing to drive [herself] 80 hours a week anymore. Another said, “I’m not 110% devoted to the success of the business at the expense of every other aspect of my life. (It is relevant to note that this shift in priorities did not come at the expense of perceived productivity; instead, participants reported increased productivity, as stated in the second theme above.)
- Increased focus on ethical behavior
All of the participants discussed ways in which they have increased their focus on ethical behavior in their work as a result of their meditation practice including greater attention to ethical speech, greater attention to ethical actions, increased ethical standards, and more selective business associations. Half of the participants acknowledged having always had ethical values; however, their practiced has confirmed and enhanced those innate values for them in their work.
- Improved relationships
A majority of the participants reported a positive impact of their meditation practice on their relationships in the workplace: paying more attention to relationships and experiencing less conflict in relationships. Several of the participants described this to be one of the most significant impacts their meditation practice has had on their work experience: enriching their work, making it more enjoyable, and providing greater personal satisfaction.
- Integration of practice with life
100% of the participants indicated that their meditation practice permeates all aspects of their life. Moreover, the participants reported that they are no longer able to separate their practice and its impacts from the rest of their life; their life and practice have become integrated. As one participant stated, “It’s apparent to me, in a way that it never has been before, that I can’t differentiate. The practice is not something different than my life. And I’ve often thought of them as little bit dichotomized or zero/one. That’s just not true anymore.”
These results suggest that long-term meditation practice may have positive impacts for not only the individual in the workplace but also for coworkers, customers, and the organization as a whole. As a mindfulness teacher and practitioner, as well as someone who works in the business world, I am grateful each day for the benefits I receive from my practice. I’d like to hear more about how your mindfulness practice impacts your experience in the workplace. Please let me know.
* Forbes, J. (1999). Business people who meditate: The impact of the practice on their experience in the workplace. UMI Number:9958678.
“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”
– Louisa May Alcott
A person came to me recently very frustrated as she was struggling with a difficult situation. She was in lot of emotional pain and she desperately wanted her situation to change; she wanted things to be different than they were right at that moment.
Her circumstances are not different from those many people are facing and hers is likely a situation that is familiar to many of you. If we are honest with ourselves, there are aspects of our lives that feel as if they are out of our control and at times we find ourselves challenged, or even overwhelmed, by this experience. You are not alone if you relate to this. Be assured, this is a common experience, part of the human condition, and often causes us quite a bit of suffering.
Mindfulness is a skillful way to address these feelings of pain and suffering that arise in your day-to-day attempts to survive. It is important to understand, however, that by cultivating mindfulness as a means of addressing the stress in your life, the circumstances of your life are not likely to go away; they may not even change. Instead, changes are happening internally, within yourself; the work you are doing is from the inside out. As you cultivate awareness in the here and now, you have the opportunity to transform the way you relate to the difficulties you encounter. By developing mindfulness, you enable yourself to see what you are experiencing more clearly and become more familiar with your habits of reacting to that. With greater clarity, you may have the possibility of responding more effectively to the challenges in your life rather than reacting automatically, falling into the same in-grown patterns that keep you stuck. Responding with greater awareness, over time, frees you from the maladaptive reactions that otherwise continue to keep you in a cycle of suffering: either reacting as a victim to the circumstances around your, or instead, being caught in denial.
You probably have experienced the futility of changing your circumstances from the outside, without addressing your internal reactions. Some examples are: quitting a job that isn’t working only to find the same problems creep up once you are in a new job, ending a problematic relationship only to find yourself experiencing the same dynamics in the next one, or finding yourself repeating the parenting styles of your parents even though you vowed you would never treat your own children in that manner. Unless you become familiar with your ingrained habitual reactions and gently work with them to explore new ways of responding out of choice, you are destined to stay stuck, a prey to your circumstances, and endure the pain that results.
However, there are options and you do have significant influence in your life, even if control is illusive. As you develop new ways of responding to the challenges in your life with awareness, not only can you minimize your own pain and suffering, but you can also become a role model for others in your life: children, spouses, co-workers and friends. As Gandhi said, “We must be the changes we wish to see in the world.”
When you are feeling the pain of dealing with challenges in life, before you react, see if you can take some time to direct your attention inward, toward your own experience. With continued practice, you may begin to be able to explore new options and respond, with choice, out of your growing awareness.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
– Viktor E. Frankl
Mindfulness Can Change Your Brain: improvements in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking
Most people come to learn mindfulness meditation with the hopes of improving their well-being and quality of life. However, one of the challenges of undertaking a commitment to mindfulness practice is that the changes you experience may be gradual and subtle. The benefits are not always obvious to the practitioner as they develop over time. Therefore, it can be helpful to receive reinforcement for your on-going practice.
Here’s some reinforcement for you. Encouraging results were released in a study published in the January 30th issue of Psychiatry Research: Imaging. In this study, MRI images were obtained from 16 participants before and after taking an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program and compared with a control group of 17 individuals who did not take the program. The MRI images from those who practiced mindfulness every day found increases in gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. Increases in other areas of the brain were also identified in the MBSR participants as compared to the control group. “The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”
Take these affirmative results to heart and have confidence that your mindfulness practice may improve your memory, emotional regulation, empathy and perspective in life. Let this be encouragement for you to continue to practice mindfulness, return to your practice if it has waned, or begin a practice if you have not tried it yet. And as more research is performed, I look forward to sharing more information on the positive effects of your mindfulness practice.