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Mindfulness @Work

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You can sharpen your focus, enhance self-awareness,
strengthen emotional intelligence –
and along the way you might even find inner peace

When I started my corporate career in my 20s, I struggled when I made a mistake.

It could send me into a tumble of negative thinking.

I would worry. I would stew. I would judge myself harshly.

I would think, “This is the moment when my boss will lose confidence in me.”

It was a tough cycle to endure – and to stop. But a turning point came when I began coaching other people to be more effective at work.

As I focused on understanding emotional intelligence, I also learned about mindfulness – “paying attention …on purpose …non-judgmentally… in the present moment …as if your life depended on it, ” as mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zin puts it in the best-seller “Search Inside Yourself,” by Google executive Chade-Meng Tan.

Almost everyone has negative thoughts and they tend to be “sticky,” to hang on in our minds and memories.

Mindfulness can help us develop the self-knowledge to let a negative experience go.

We can practice a disciplined response – note the thought or feeling, then set it aside.

We can consciously offer an alternative narrative – say, that we are human and everyone makes mistakes. We can be practical: Can we fix that problem? How can we ensure it never happens again?

Over the years, my experience coaching clients has been enriched by my reading and personal experience in the mindfulness realm. This year’s work at Georgetown has moved the practice to the forefront and highlighted its power.

These days mindfulness is front-page news in magazines like Scientific American and TIME. You can read about business applications in Fast Company and the Harvard Business Review, where former Medtronic CEO Bill George last year noted the popularity of mindfulness training at companies from General Mills to Goldman-Sachs.

Books abound, from the classic “Full Catastrophe Living" by Jon Kabat-Zinn to the Thich Nhat Hanh’s “The Miracle of Mindfulness, an Introduction to the Practice of Meditation” to Daniel Goleman’s “Focus,” his latest work on emotional intelligence.

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To get started, hit the ‘on’ switch
and leave behind ‘auto-pilot’

Simply put, mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in each moment; listening with openness, curiosity and acceptance; and training ourselves to hit a pause button before we act on the complicated thoughts and emotions that arise.

In practical terms, it strengthens our self-awareness -- the basis for emotional intelligence -- and we gradually move towards a different way of operating with others.

We may become calmer, better listeners. We may feel more grounded and authentic and mindfulness may help mitigate biases we don’t even know we have, says the Harvard Business Review. It can help us “slow down to move fast,” as Forbes put it.

Research shows mindfulness meditation may actually increase activity in parts of the brain associated with positive emotion, improve concentration on tasks, boost our immune systems and moderate response to stress. The brains of long-time meditators are being studied as studies suggest mindfulness training might even slow the process of cellular aging.

You can find strategies for practicing mindfulness in just a few minutes every day. Here are seven quick ideas to get started:

  1. Try “micro-meditations” of deep breathing, as this Harvard Business Review post suggests. Experiment with 1 to 3 minutes throughout your day. Think: “I breathe in” – slowly – “and I breathe out." If it helps, try using an image like swinging in a hammock or the movement of a butterfly's wings. If your mind wanders, gently nudge your attention back to your breath. Or breathe through your mouth and exhale through your nose. Deeply. It’s hard to do that and stay distracted.
  2. Get grounded with a “body scan.” This isn’t the time to assess whether you should have skipped that cheeseburger at lunch or are in shape for swimsuit season. Sitting still or lying down, for a few minutes or a half-hour, start at your head and work slowly downward. Monitor sensations, area-by-area, side-by-side, head-to-toes. The goal is to relax and to quietly, methodically increase physical self-awareness.
  3. Take mindfulness for a walk, swim or run. Walking meditation is a common practice – with the goal of attention, not aerobics. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and prolific author, puts it this way: “You are touching life in the present moment with your foot.” We can find mindful moments in daily workouts, too. Whether swimming, running, skiing or biking, we can focus on our breathing and the rhythm of each movement. The air whooshing by, the gentle splash of the water, the earth below us, the stretching of our muscles: We can bring more attention to the moment.
  4. Bring new attention to routine activities. You could view stopping at a red traffic light as a gift of 30 quiet seconds. Or you could wash dishes more mindfully, appreciating the beauty of the bubbles, the rhythm of the routine, the shiny plates transformed. Try a game of fives where every day you notice five things every day that usually go unappreciated. The colors of the landscape as your drive to work. The comfort of a favorite chair. The first sip of tea. The breeze. The sound of birds at dusk.
  5. Work on creating space – a pause -- between thoughts, emotions and immediate reaction. Meng shares a strategy called the SiBerian North RailRoad, nicknamed for the first letters of its five steps: Stop. Breathe. Notice. Reflect. Respond. The goal: Pay attention to the onset of an emotional trigger and consider the response, reflecting on the most positive outcome. If you assume, as Meng does, that everyone ultimately wants to be happy, consider the motivation of someone acting a certain way and let that understanding guide your response.
  6. Practice listening. We all zone out at meetings occasionally, go blank during conversations and even impatiently wait out someone speaking so that we can give our own opinions. Our attention is the most important gift we can give others, says Meng, who suggests practicing three minutes of uninterrupted listening with a partner as a formal exercise. When our minds wander, he says, we shouldn’t scold ourselves but simply re-focus.
  7. Check out the growing number of mindfulness apps for your phone. I wake up to Simply Being, which offers short, guided meditations on a schedule of your choice.

    It’s interesting: Once you raise your awareness of mindfulness, you begin to notice references in unexpected places.

    A new play with periods of purposeful silence was recently reviewed in the New York Times.

    And there is a poem a friend recently shared -- “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean writer/diplomat. An excerpt:

    “Now we will count to twelve
    and we will all keep still.
    For once on the face of the earth,
    let's not speak in any language;
    let's stop for one second,
    and not move our arms so much.
    It would be an exotic moment
    without rush, without engines;
    we would all be together …
    What I want should not be confused
    with total inactivity.
    Life is what it is about…”

Want to learn more?

Andy Puddicombe’s TED talk says we can’t always change what happens in our life but we can change how we experience it.

Matthieu Ricard's elegant and amusing TED talk addresses the habits of happiness.
His book “Why Meditate? Working with Thoughts and Emotions” is a short, accessible guide for those interested in starting a meditation practice.

Listen to Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer talk about measurable benefits of mindfulness and leadership at a conference. Or read this terrific Harvard Business Review interview that outlines her research over the past 30 years.

John Kabat-Zinn talks about his research on mindfulness as a tool for stress reduction and health benefits.

Share your experiences
with mindfulness

Our newsletter will return to this topic so I’d welcome your thoughts and experiences.

If you are embracing mindfulness in your work or personal life, tell us how – and how it’s made a difference.

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