Mindfulness & Wellbeing

Mindfulness at Work

When I worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, I had close to 200 clients in my case load and the demands were overwhelming. Each person had a history of injury, disability, and needs that were often heart wrenching. For instance, my clients included an office worker whose desk collapsed on her one day leaving her in chronic pain for the rest of her life plus many others with head injuries, spinal cord injuries, or mental health disabilities.

The stress for both my clients and me was over powering at times. I was constantly filled with gratitude that I had a longstanding mindfulness practice that supported me and contributed to my clients. However, it’s a very limited view to see mindfulness training as simply a stress reduction or wellness program.

Mindfulness is the capacity to be aware of what’s happening in the present moment with a quality of attention that’s curious, and accepting. The point is to pay close attention, to see more clearly what’s happening in the moment, including physical sensations, thoughts and emotions.

How is this helpful? As one example, when I’m aware of physical sensations, it’s possible to catch tension and tightness in my body quickly before thoughts and emotions escalate. This deeply affects how we interact with customers, clients, patients or co-workers since interactions often happen in stressful moments. Mindfulness supports an ability to be more open and sensitive to others, to recognize when a busy mind or outside distractions take us away from being really present. It helps us find more sensitivity to our customers’ needs.

I experienced this a couple years ago when I had eye surgery. It was a little nerve wracking considering I was to be awake for the whole procedure. I got to the surgery center early in the morning and was greeted by nurses who did everything physically necessary to get me prepped for surgery but didn’t pay a lot of attention to my emotional state. At one point my surgeon came over. I’m sure she was far busier than the nurses or staff, yet she took the time to notice my anxiety and she showed that sensitivity with the smallest of gestures. She lightly touched my shoulder and said “Are you OK?”. In that moment she was able to be mindful in a very small way that made a huge difference.

Being sensitive to patients or clients also includes mindful listening. This might involve collaborating on projects, for instance, which is more and more necessary in today’s workplace, or navigating that difficult encounter with your boss. Many people think they’re listening when they’re really thinking about their response. While the other person is speaking it’s common for one’s mind to be analyzing, judging, problem solving, agreeing, or disagreeing rather than tuning into what the other person is actually saying. Mindfulness helps in bringing a sense of curiosity and compassion without an agenda while listening. This then becomes a firm basis from which to respond.

Here’s an example where mindful listening and empathy were crucial. In this video, police Lieutenant Richard Goerling describes a very stressful situation when he was on a call to deal with a 12-year old boy who was totally out of control.

The boy’s mother was an admitted prostitute and drug user. Goerling says, in the past, he might have been very judgmental to the mother but after learning mindfulness skills he has found it possible to be more compassionate. He comments:

In that moment she found humanity in this encounter with police. And even though everybody around her in her neighborhood was likely judging her and had their own conclusions and knew the right answer and had a prescription for how she could change her life, in that moment she got to encounter a police officer who wasn’t judging her or her world and who was simply able to help her. Mindfulness can really transform the relationship between police and the people we are sworn to serve.”

Just as important as empathizing with others is practicing self-acceptance. Accepting yourself means embracing even those parts you don’t like, including your weaknesses and short comings. For instance, sometimes, after a difficult day, my mind is perseverating about all the difficulties and challenges I had that day, judging my actions, blaming myself. Being mindful means, first, just noticing I’m doing that which can make a big difference. Maybe I’m only thinking about the one thing I had difficulty with and forgetting the four things that went beautifully. Sometimes I really need to troubleshoot difficulties and plan new approaches. In that case, slowing down, taking a pause, listening to myself carefully allows inner wisdom to emerge in a way it never can when my mind is going in endless circles of judgment and recrimination.

There are many other ways that mindfulness can be helpful. For instance, when a multitude of demands are coming at me from many directions, it’s often difficult to focus. That happened every day on the job I mentioned above. It was easy to be pulled in many directions, to start something, get interrupted, move off in 5 directions at once or get distracted by all the things that needed to be done to the extent that not much got done. Mindfulness was invaluable in helping me focus. First, I’d tune into my body and notice the tension. I would follow that with a mindful breath, a pause. Then I would remind myself to just come back to one thing, just this one thing, right here, right now, simply coming back to the present moment over and over.

Mindfulness is not just about adapting to a difficult situation, however. Sometimes, the word “acceptance” is used when explaining mindfulness and this might imply passivity, accepting things as they are. Instead, mindfulness helps with realizing we have the option to make choices in every moment, which leads to wise and skillful action. For instance, maybe you’re considering a job change but feel conflicted. Part of you is anxious about starting over in a new situation, or blaming yourself for difficulties you’re having with your current boss. Seeing difficulties with openness and curiosity means seeing the actual situation clearly. We can see whether we’re acting out of habit, or fear or anger or truly responding to this particular situation and this particular set of circumstances. We can open up to a whole range of options instead of being fixated on only one or two possibilities. We can work with anger and other strong emotions and find skillful responses which is the opposite of passivity.

Even in areas not directly thought of as soft skills, or people skills, mindfulness can be crucial. These engineers explain that both art and science, technical skills and ability to think out of the box are necessary for product design. Finding inspiration and innovation comes when you can quiet the mind, quiet the voices of judgment and criticism, move off of autopilot and move into an intuitive frame of mind.

Mindfulness helps us to be more fully present in our relationships at work, whether with a supervisor, coworker, customers, clients or patients.  As we learn to sit back and listen to others we can learn to respond more out of a creative, intuitive, connected place.  This can allow us to step out of fixed ideas of who we are and begin to see each other as fellow human beings.  This is an active, not passive, role that contributes to seeing more options and to identifying actions that will contribute to the overall mission and purpose of the organization. Yes, mindfulness is about much more than stress reduction.

Inspiration for Uncertain Times

sunrise-quote-dreamstime_xs

During this time of uncertainty as we move into the beginning of 2017, I find I can be easily caught up in fear and angst about the many negative scenarios and projections in the media regarding what will unfold over the coming years. I have been, probably like many people, trying to find a way to anchor my responses in a sense of possibility and optimism (rather than fear and scarcity) which is grounded in reality. My deepest wish is to contribute to the many different possible solutions to our shared human difficulties.

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Bridging Divides

This election cycle is almost over. I’m breathing a sigh of relief! It seems like it’s been going on forever.

Of course, the stress is not going to be over just because the election is past. No matter what the results are, half the people of this country will be extremely dissatisfied. How will we ever heal divisions given the way positions have hardened and polarized? Bridging divides seems so urgent and yet it feels totally out of reach at this moment. Still I don’t want to get stuck in hopelessness and despair.

election-debate

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Mindfulness and Racial Bias

I’m heading off to a silent retreat next week with the discord of our peace-in-the-worldcontentious times ringing in my ears. I question whether my mindfulness practice is simply my own personal journey or can mindfulness really make a difference in the larger world?

Many people, myself included, come to a mindfulness practice thinking about personal issues. Indeed there is ample research showing that cultivating mindfulness can have a major effect on decreasing stress and in learning to work with physical pain or mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Still, in these times of discord, beset by racism, classism and myriad other isms, I ponder the place of a mindfulness practice in the wider world.

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Home for the Holidays

Holidays can be a difficult time. We go home to our families and old patterns of relating may be triggered which can produce stress and suffering. Mindful self care is a way to approach these moments with more curiosity and compassion for ourselves and those we love.

I-still-want-to-smack-some-

For instance, suppose you’re home having thanksgiving dinner with your parents and siblings and their spouses. You ask for seconds of pumpkin pie and your mother says somewhat quietly but loud enough so others can overhear, “Are you sure you want that second helping? Remember how you struggled with weight in your 20s.”

How could mindfulness help in that situation?

I take a moment to envision myself in the situation. I start by bringing awareness to what’s happening for me which is a way of bringing compassion to myself and seeing clearly what is going on, on the deepest level.

As I put myself in her situation, I’m surprised at the intensity of my reaction. I’m stunned. It’s like someone punched me in the gut. I feel blindsided by her words and so initially I’m shocked and then hurt and angry. I’m embarrassed that she would bring this up in front of my siblings and their spouses and seemingly has no awareness of how that would affect me. I’m disappointed that my mom still sees me as the person I was 20 years ago.

As I look deeper, I realize I really want her to see me as I am now, an adult, married, a competent professional, with good self-care skills. Her statement feels so disrespectful. So I guess in addition to acceptance of me as I am now, what I also want is respect. As I connect, I notice I’m feeling a lot of sadness and hurt more than anger. I really need to give myself understanding and acceptance for my feelings as they are now. As I’m sensing my yearning for understanding and acceptance from my mom, I touch into the capacity to give that to myself. I stop and just pause.

holiday-gathering-dreamstim

After I do that, I become aware of another level in myself, which is curiosity about what might be going on for my mom that she would say something like that. What deep longings might be going on for her that might be behind what she said?

Perhaps she feels some distance from me and my professional life and my competency in my life and even into my married life. We don’t visit often like this so there’s a lot she doesn’t know about me. Or perhaps she doesn’t feel a connection with me as I am today. So I’m wondering if her comments are a desperate attempt to connect with me in a way that she did in the past. She did have a deep intimate connection with me years ago where she felt able to contribute and help me in areas where I was struggling. Sensing this now I’m feeling a shift to a sadness that’s different because being a mother now myself, I can sense that loss of connection for a parent as a child grows into an adult. Perhaps she didn’t know another way to bridge that space with me other than with the comment she made.

So now I’m feeling some understanding and I’m moving into compassion for that loss of the closeness she had at one time with me. Maybe with that understanding I can find a way to communicate with her about how I felt without being judgmental or harsh. I also want to share with her my actual need to be seen and accepted for who I am. I’m also in touch with a longing to find ways to connect that would be meaningful for both of us and that might be a new exploration for both of us.

As I move out of visualizing the situation, I realize it’s so human to have painful feelings and thoughts. What’s important is how we respond to them. Mindfulness helps us to be more aware, in the moment, as the thoughts and feelings arise…and to bring curiosity and friendliness to them like simply saying to our emotions, “I see you”  This seeing is with kindness and compassion for ourselves and for the hurt or frustration or disappointment we’re  experiencing. It’s also a curiosity about what it is we are longing for and care about at a deeper level which may be triggering these feelings. From that place it’s easier to guess what’s going on for others and to communicate without being so judgmental or harsh.

I would like to emphasize that this kind of self-reflection and self-compassion “in the midst”, which might be implied from this post, would be quite unusual.  Just to have the presence of mind to pause and breathe mindfully in the moment would be an extraordinary act of mindfulness.  For most of us, the reflection and self-compassion and empathy come after the fact…often the “fruit” of the mindful pause in the midst.

 

 

Self Care for the Holidays

Walk Slowly (Danna Faulds)

It only takes a reminder to breathe,
a moment to be still, and just like that,
something in me settles, softens, makes
space for imperfection. The harsh voice
of judgment drops to a whisper and I
remember again that life isn’t a relay
race; that we will all cross the finish
line; that waking up to life is what we
were born for. As many times as I
forget, catch myself charging forward
without even knowing where I’m going,
that many times I can make the choice
to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk
slowly into the mystery.

Often we get extremely busy with the fast-paced demands of a job, with taking care of others, or just with day-to-day activities.  External demands can seem overwhelming, especially in the holiday season. When family, friends, parties, and gift-buying, all become too much, it’s easy to let taking care of ourselves go by the wayside.

I remind myself that in this moment, in any moment, I can choose to stop, take a breath, notice, be aware. I can choose to bring my focus back and touch into what I want this holiday season to be about at the deepest level. I can choose to take time to nourish myself, to love and care for myself. In the process I make possible the deep connection with others that I so yearn for and that is the essence of this holiday season.

dreamstime_m_47305293 [mother & daughter play at Christmas]

Ways to mindful self care when the going gets tough:

  1. Becoming aware of being triggered. Especially noticing it in the body.
  2. STOP. Pause. Allowing whatever is happening. Making space for it with a sense of curiosity and friendliness.
  3. Noticing thoughts. Are there expectations? Limited perceptions? Self judgments? Knee-jerk reactions? Remember that thoughts are just thoughts.
  4. Tuning into what you care about, value, long for, or need at the deepest level. Nurture self compassion.
  5. Listening for and guessing what the other person cares about, values, longs for, or needs at the deepest level. Let the other person know you are making an effort to tune into what is happening for them at the heart level.
  6. Speaking your truth. Ask yourself: Is what I’m saying helpful? true? necessary? kind? Does it express what I’m yearning for at a deep level.
  7. Asking for what you need. Keep in mind there are many possible strategies for meeting particular needs.

Learn more about how to bring mindful self care into your life:

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Mindfulness, Empathy and Doctors

Recently I’ve been dealing with a cancer scare. Getting an accurate diagnosis necessitated going to half a dozen doctors and an equal number of technicians for a variety of tests. Throughout this process I became highly aware of how each person’s ability to listen, explain, and empathize had a profound effect on me.

For instance, I went to my surgeon for a pre-op visit. He seemed distracted and annoyed that he needed to talk to me. I thought he was barely listening. Luckily there were two surgeons doing my surgery. The second doctor excused him saying, “He’s expert technically. A good bedside manner isn’t so important.” Then I learned he had said I approved a surgical procedure we’d barely discussed much less one that had been agreed to.

It was obvious to me that “bedside manner”, which sounds like an optional extra, wasn’t an accurate description of what I was longing for. I wanted a doctor who would listen to me, accurately hear what I was saying, and even step into my shoes for even a second.

I often hear, “they just don’t have time”. I’m aware of the pressures on everyone in our current healthcare system and I know time pressure is intense. Yet when I hear this, I think that what I’m suggesting isn’t fully understood.

Here’s an example from a doctor I saw later, after my surgery. At my first appointment with him, when he walked into the room, he looked me in the eye and said, “I’ve been reading your records. They’ve sent you around the block a few times, haven’t they?” I felt a huge sigh of relief. With one sentence this doctor told me he cared about me and had an inkling of what I’d been going thru. He also probably saved himself a lot of time because now he was talking to a patient who was relaxed, better able to respond to his questions and more open to hearing what he had to say.

What I’m talking about are doctors who can mindfully listen and even empathize with me. Mindfulness means the capacity to live in the present moment with a quality of attention that is curious, open and accepting. Empathy, (the ability to sense another person’s feelings and needs, to imagine what their life is like, to connect with what’s alive for them in the moment), arises from mindful presence.

In this post I illustrated why I feel it is important for healthcare practitioners to be trained in mindfulness and empathy skills. However, I don’t mean to imply that these skills aren’t important for me too, as a patient. Next week I will write about how my mindfulness practice proved invaluable for me throughout this process. (Note: my surgery turned out well and I need no further treatment.)

 

Stand Within the Chaos

Can you bring to mind a time when someone gave you the precious gift of truly listening to you? Deep into your heart? Maybe it was a moment of deep despair, or just a moment of confusion. Beneath everything, all the storms you carry around on the surface, they saw you. They knew you. They touched your humanity.

Recently I came across this video of Carolyn Mabry. Here’s one experience she describes in the video. It’s a cold, snowy night. She’s standing on a bridge. There’s confusion, people are standing around. Her focus has narrowed to nothing more and nothing less than one person, a person threatening to jump.

I imagine myself on that bridge with her. I feel the cold seeping into my body. I’ve worked on a crisis hotline. I know a little of what it takes to talk to people who are actively contemplating suicide. Yet somehow this seems much more real than anything I experienced in a warm room and a telephone distance away.

I wonder, what would it take to engage with that person on the bridge, at that moment to really, fully, be there with that person?

Here’s what she says about what it takes:

“…this is an example of partnership. We worked together here. He told me. I asked him… We exchanged ideas. I want him to realize I’m on his side… I don’t want to get over this moment as quick as possible at your expense. I want it to come from your inner knowing which I know will come out if I make space for it. ..I think anyone in touch with their own heart and intuition can do it but they must have so much confidence in the person and the fact that there is a place in that person that knows, and respect that place…Respect everything that person has been through, that  brought them to this moment, to believe that they can lead to a  solution, because it’s much easier than struggling with the person. It’s nurturing…It’s the attitude and belief system that have to go with it. The words don’t count unless they do…That’s the thing. be able to stand right within all the chaos and see the stillness of that person and know the answer is there, know there is meaning to it.”