Imagine this: It’s after 5 PM, and your train is leaving in less than a half-hour. You’re in the middle of saving your final edits to the presentation for the executive team meeting first thing tomorrow, when you hear the unwelcome ping of an incoming IM from your boss: “Sorry for the last-minute change, but can you pls. revise your presentation to incorporate the latest data, and tweak your recommendations? Thanks in advance. Have a good one!” At the same time, you see an incoming text from your spouse, reminding you that your kids’ much-anticipated band concert is tonight.
You feel nauseous, your pulse quickens, breathing becomes shallow and your thinking becomes muddled. (“I’ll never make that train. My boss won’t understand if I can’t get this done. I can’t miss that train. I won’t disappoint my kids again. There’s no way I can get this done before tomorrow. If I don’t, I may never have another chance with the executives again. Maybe I can grab a couple of energy drinks on the way home. I have no idea how I can pull this off… ”
If your colleague was in a similar position, you’d probably suggest she take a few deep breaths to calm down to achieve a bit of clarity. You might offer to help her brainstorm options that would make it possible for her to see her kids perform tonight and impress her boss tomorrow. We can be super helpful to others when we see them in full panic mode. And yet, when it comes to helping ourselves alleviate the panic, it can feel almost impossible to stop long enough to find a way out.
Joining me to write this month’s Communique is my friend and colleague Paula Webster, founder of NowPoint, an organization providing mindfulness coaching and mindful leadership training. Paula works with clients young and old, in schools, hospitals, businesses and all kinds of organizations, to help them train their brains to work with them instead of against them (or in one word to “notice”). I recently spoke with Paula to discover what we really mean by “mindfulness,” and how we can practice it, especially in high-pressure situations – just “asking for a friend.”
Q: Over the last few years, more and more organizations are offering training and quiet space to help their members achieve “mindfulness.” What does mindfulness really mean?
A: The definition I like best is “mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way, intentionally in the present moment being aware of awareness itself – without judgment,” originally coined by Jon Kabat Zinn, the founder of the Center for Mindfulness at UMass Medical Center and the person considered most responsible for the proliferation of secular mindfulness. To achieve mindfulness, we need to create the conditions in our mind to see things as they are, unclouded by the ongoing narrative or proliferation of thoughts that can create distraction, anxiety and depression. Just paying attention isn’t enough. We need to demonstrate kindness and real curiosity at the same time, especially to ourselves.
Q: Why has mindfulness become such a popular topic lately?
A: We have many more demands and so much information coming at us through multiple channels, more frequently and often at all hours. We’re bombarded by text messages, IMs, emails, meeting requests, to-do lists, social media posts, phone calls and drop-ins. At the same time, we still have to get all of our work done. The very same technologies that promise to help us work more efficiently and faster, in reality give us more pressure. As a result, many people live in a constant state of stress, and not just at work. For most of us, experiencing continual stress has a profoundly negative impact – physically, emotionally and intellectually.
Q: Can you describe how being mindful works to help deleterious effects of stress? What’s actually happening to our brains and our bodies when we practice mindfulness?
A: Just the simple act of slow, deep breathing engages our parasympathetic nervous system and reduces fight-or-flight response, originating in the amygdala, which fires and sends out a stream of hormones. The amygdala can be triggered just as powerfully by a call from the boss or by being chased by a saber-toothed tiger. Neuroscience research also shows that mindfulness meditation can actually increase the gray matter of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, where our power of reasoning comes from. The more mindful we are, the greater our ability to think clearly and critically. Mindfulness practice also helps us make new neural connections, similar to how our brains work when we learn a new language or instrument. Increasing the neuroplasticity of our brains also can help us achieve better emotional balance, cultivate greater empathy, tap into our intuition, modulate our responses and deepen our own self-awareness. In a nutshell, we are creating greater resilience by consistently practicing mindfulness.
Q: How practical is mindfulness practice, especially in a work setting?
A: It is as practical as you intend it to be. Is it “practical” to take a walk or hit the gym during the workday? Many organizations offer employees an opportunity to achieve their health and wellness goals in different ways, such as by providing onsite fitness centers, healthy eating programs, an abundance of fresh (and sometimes, free) food, quiet rooms, “play” areas, doggie parks and more. If practicality can be measured by healthier, happier, more engaged, productive and loyal employees (who often carry lower healthcare costs), then yes, mindfulness training is very practical.
Q: What kind of mindfulness training program works best?
A: Mindfulness is something that each individual must learn to do for him/herself. It’s not like getting a massage, which might have a great therapeutic effect, but once it’s over, the benefits can fade quickly. People need the skills to achieve mindfulness on their own time, wherever they are. It’s not a once-and-done type of thing. The good news is that it can be practiced in small doses and still be effective.
Q: For those of us who have little free time or a quiet space during the workday, can you suggest some small things we can do throughout the day to regain needed equanimity?
A: Mindfulness is best cultivated over time, so that you can learn to choose the best tool for a particular situation. There are micro-practices that all of us can work into their day. For example, taking a few deep, slow breaths can help calm our brains. It’s helpful to pause for a moment or two to observe what’s going on in your mind and recognize these are events of the mind. (For example: “I have harsh judgments about my colleague. I have fear that I will disappoint my boss. I am experiencing anger that my manager failed to acknowledge my work.”) And so on. There’s a big difference between noticing the feeling of anger, for example, and being that feeling. Once we recognize that these thoughts and feelings that immobilize us are events of the mind, it’s easier to choose to let go of them, or at the very least, to dial down the volume. See more of Paula’s tips – download this PDF file
Q: If an organization wanted to introduce mindfulness training or practice, where’s a good place to start?
A: I recommend starting at the top if you can. For example, let’s say that senior leaders are kicking off a strategic planning session. This would be a great time to hold a mini-mindfulness workshop where they would practice focused awareness meditation together, using sound or breath as an anchor. Whatever the audience, consider holding workshops where people learn and practice a few techniques in a relatively short amount of time, and then commit to trying it out for just 15 minutes a day. Find ways to hold them accountable, such as bringing them back together to share, or opening up an online community where people can check in, ask questions and share experiences. If your organization has an employee assistance program or a wellness program, this can be a great starting point. The idea is to encourage practicing mindfulness as a practical way to maintain good physical and emotional health, rather than waiting until the stress has become overwhelming.
Q: What tangible benefits have organizations achieved in return for the investments they’ve made in mindfulness programs?
A: Google started offering its “Search Inside Yourself” mindfulness program 10 years ago, and it still has a six-month waitlist today. Aetna, Intel, Target and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters are a few of the other well-known companies that provide mindfulness training. The outcomes are mainly anecdotal, and research is in its infancy stages. Organizational experience with mindfulness at work supports the claim that mindfulness practice increases creativity and innovation. In a 2012 review published by the American Psychological Association, researchers found a positive correlation between mindfulness, job satisfaction, and overall well-being. As Mirabai Bush, Google’s mindfulness program adviser, puts it, “Mindfulness will make your life work better and your work life better. It’s a win-win!”
The capacity to cultivate mindfulness is readily available to all of us. And the good news is that it can take very little time out of your day and needs no special equipment, clothing or space to practice. What it does take is the willingness and ability to pause long enough to pay attention to what’s going on within us and around us so that we may clear our minds and act intentionally.
The NowPoint – Paula Webster’s mindfulness consulting and training practice
Simple mindfulness exercises from Paula – downloadable PDF
Google’s Search Inside Yourself Mindfulness Program – Business Insider article
The Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long – Meditations on Presence – Brain Pickings blog (highly recommended!)
Harvard Business Review blogs – Stress Leads to Bad Decisions – How to Avoid Them and Can 10 Minutes of Meditation Make You More Creative?
Harvard Business Review blogs