Archive for March, 2011
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened. “
– Mark Twain
“What, me worry?” is the signature phrase of Alfred E. Neuman, the fictional mascot and iconic cover boy of Mad magazine. His mischievous character is depicted as not having a care in the world. Unlike Alfred, many of us are plagued by worries from time to time. In fact, there are times when you might relate more to Ray Lamontagne’s lyrics from his song, Trouble: “Worry … Worry, worry, worry, worry. Worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone.”
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a worry as a “mental distress or agitation resulting from concern usually for something impending or anticipated.” From a cognitive-behavioral psychology viewpoint, a worry is a type of distorted thought, one that is exaggerated or irrational – out of balance from reality. More specifically, worry can be categorized as a form of catastrophic thinking: believing that something is far worse than it actually is. These thoughts can stem from an event, from which you think of all of the worst consequences, dwelling on the worst possible outcome. Or they can come from your own imagination of the future, anticipating all of the possible things that can go wrong, thinking of all of the “what If’s,” or expecting disaster.
In a mindfulness class last year, I asked my students whether worries are really necessary for our lives to function well. One student, Kirk, inquired further, “If you aren’t worrying, does that mean that you don’t care? Will things still get done if I don’t worry about them?” He pointed out that sometimes we get into the habit of believing that worry is a representation of how much we care about someone or something. So if we aren’t worrying, we are afraid that we don’t care or things won’t get done. In fact, worry can become so habitual that lack of worry may feel foreign or unsettling. Kirk pointed out that he was even worried about not worrying. Another student, Gloria, felt the same way. She then started to question whether the results of things were different when she worried or didn’t worry about them. In her exploration, she found that the results were the same whether she worried or didn’t; therefore, the worry wasn’t necessary or helpful. A third student, Arlene, suggested that it can be detrimental to try to go “cold turkey” reducing worry. Instead, she finds it more helpful to have something to replace it, such as a song, or a poem that is affirming.
Sometimes we start to believe that our worry is what is responsible for keeping things from happening. For example, I may unconsciously think that as long as I worry about a certain possibility, it won’t happen. One student, Robert, told a illustrative story about a man who watered his lawn even when it was raining. When neighbor asked why, the man replied, “To keep the elephants away.” When the neighbor pointed out that there weren’t any elephants anywhere near, the man claimed, “See, it works!” Sometimes, we rationalize that the worry is working – keeping bad things at bay. And then, when bad things don’t happen, we attribute it to the fact that we worried, thus, reinforcing the pattern. In this way we can mistakenly develop an illusion that we actually have control over the outcome of the future, merely from our thoughts about it.
These patterns of thought are not harmless. Preoccupation with our worries may keep us from noticing the toll that it actually takes physically, emotionally and interpersonally. The energy that you are spending worrying may actually be reducing the quality of your life in each moment. For instance, if you check in with your experience when you are in the midst of worry; you may notice physical impacts, such as tension in your body, digestive disruption, inability to sleep or even pain; you may notice emotional impacts such as anger or frustration; you may notice interpersonal impacts, such as not listening to other people when they are trying to communicate with you. Additionally, you may begin to notice a chain of distorted thoughts that get triggered, escalating this state or keeping you engaged for a prolonged period. By paying attention, you might recognize that there is a cost to your worry, not only for you but for others around you!
There is an alternative, however. Instead of allowing your worries to continue to take a toll on you, try working with them in a more mindful way:
- Start to notice when you are caught in worrying thoughts
- Write the worrisome thoughts down to make a record of them when they occur along with some notes about how you are feeling physically, emotionally, interpersonally (how you are reacting) and other thoughts that may get triggered. This helps you develop greater awareness not only of the thoughts themselves, but of the price you are paying as you engage in them.
- You may begin to see patterns emerge: what conditions trigger these worries, or how you end up feeling physically, emotionally or interpersonally.
- The next time you catch yourself engaged in worrisome thoughts, try rebutting those thoughts with a more balance or affirmative alternative.
An example of this process:
Situation: Your teenager when out to a movie with friends in the evening. It is raining very hard and he was supposed to be home by 11pm. It is now 11:30pm.
A catastrophic thought: “He was hurt in a car accident or in some other terrible situation.”
A rebuttal to that thought: “He is a teenager and may not be paying as much attention to the time as I’d like him to. He might still be having fun with his friends instead of recognizing how late it is.”
With mindful awareness, you have the opportunity to minimize the amount of time and energy you spend worrying. You may find that your life continues to function well without it and, moreover, you may actually find that the quality of your moment-to-moment experience improves.
“In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double”
– Bobby McFerrin
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.