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.

Ease and Balance in the Midst of Challenge

We often say the purpose of mindfulness it to be able to be more fully present in the midst of our lives, for the pleasant as well as the unpleasant moments.  I recently had an opportunity to use my mindfulness practice in a very challenging situation.

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If in rush hour traffic you can remain perfectly calm. If you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy. If you can love everyone around you unconditionally.  And if you can always find contentment just where you are, then you’re probably….a dog.                     —Shauna Shapiro

Most of us tend to set up unrealistic goals and judge ourselves harshly when we don’t meet them. Even when we do accomplish a goal, the joy is often short lived. Got that college diploma, well what about a job? Then a promotion? Then… on and on. Life becomes an endless stream of “not quite good enough”, a never ending struggle.

 

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It’s that time of year again, the time when many of us make New Year’s resolutions. Maybe you’ve resolved to exercise more or to go on a diet to lose weight. Perhaps you’ve decided to increase your time meditating or maybe you just want to stop criticizing your spouse so often.

Whatever it is, if you’re anything like me, you may find yourself starting with immense enthusiasm and then watching with dismay as your best intentions peter out in a short period of time. This can quickly get into a negative, downward spiral of self criticism which actually undermines any positive goals you’re trying to accomplish.

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Self Care at the End of the Election Season

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Are you feeling stressed out, losing sleep, feeling emotions charged and mind racing over the upcoming election? I know I am.  Friends, clients and family members have reported symptoms as varied as emotional outbursts, difficulty sleeping and preoccupation to being totally disengaged or disconnecting with the process completely.

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Pausing as a Gift of Mindfulness

Minion Balloon at Beach [2] IMG_1374

My husband had suggested kite flying as an activity for us to share with our 8 year old grandson. We found an amazing kite store with a huge array of kites, guaranteed to be easy to fly and fun.  On Wednesday’s the kite store also sponsored a large kite show at the beach in the evening.

So our plan was to pick up our grandson from summer school at noon and head to the shore with kites & boogie board in tow. We would play in the surf first, take a break to have dinner and return in time for the kite show. As with all good plans, we ran into complications.  I felt myself begin to get tense and stressed as Summer school ran late that day delaying our arrival at the beach until almost 4.

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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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Mindful Summer Tips

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A common view of Summer is a time of vacations and time to kick back a bit. Often this is not the case for many people. Parents with children have their ongoing demands to juggle work and family responsibilities. This is compounded by finding and managing new or multiple options for their children on Summer break from school.  Frequently workers find themselves required to take on extra work to cover for fellow employees on vacation.

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Why Would We Want to Tune into Our Frustrations & Challenging Moments?

SnowAngel-5644

Recently we had a “perfect storm” of snow, 25+ inches over a 12 hour period. My eight year old grandson was bored and restless after a day cooped up in the house, so my husband and I picked him up in a attempt to relieve his parents.

He was hankering to get out in the snow, so we all decided it was slowing up and time to get out the snow blower and shovels. We were working down the sidewalk to the garage, following behind my husband on the snow blower with our shovels. I looked back to see how my grandson was doing and much to my horror he was moving more snow onto the sidewalk than off. With each shovel off he would jump in the snow bank displacing it back on the sidewalk.

I felt myself becoming irritated and totally distracted. All I could think about was how much he was complicating an already difficult task.

Then I remembered a mindfulness practice we teach in our classes. It’s called STOP.

“S” is for stop or PAUSE for a moment.

“T” is for ‘Take a slow, mindful breath’

“O” is for ‘Observe’.

“P” is for Proceed

So I paused, took a breath and started to observe what was going on, with curiosity and nonjudgment. First, I noticed physical sensations: I felt tight & tense across my shoulders and in my stomach. Next my mood and emotional tone: I noticed I was irritated and annoyed. Then I noticed my thoughts: “I hope they call soon for him to come home.” and “How inconsiderate, can’t he see how hard we’re working to clear the snow?”.

This pause helped me move more into the moment. I became aware of the delight in his playfulness and the naturalness of it all. I remembered how much we’ve been missing spending time with him, now that he’s eight and so much more involved with friends and sports. Then I felt sadness, followed by regret that I might have missed this moment and opportunity to be with him by judging him for his natural response to snow. So I called to him and suggested we make angels in the snow away from the sidewalk, which he was delighted to do. He was jumping into the snow, spreading his arms and legs up and down to make the angels and needing me to reach over to him to pull him out because the snow was so deep.  We laughed together in delight at the effort and the sight of his angels in the snow.

I am so grateful for this ‘fruit’ of my mindfulness practice. I was able to become aware in the moment and STOP to turn toward the reactivity I was experiencing with curiosity. In that ‘turning toward” and STOPing I was able to enjoy the delight of my grandchild and of my child within.

If you would like to learn more about developing these mindfulness skills, check out our upcoming classes.

Mindfulness and Chronic Pain

I’ve been dealing with chronic pain in my back and hip for some time now. I just want to avoid it all, distract myself, eat some ice cream, put my feet up, get comfortable.

There is certainly a time for distraction. Yet mindfulness practice suggests turning towards instead of running away. Why would I want to do that when getting away is so much more comfortable? I struggle with that question.

body-vipassana-1054233_960_When I move away from what’s happening in my body,  I can see the walls moving in tighter and tighter. My world becomes small, my body stiff and danger seemingly lurks everywhere. Mindfulness practice, being aware, actually makes that ever more painfully obvious.

I’ve gradually come to see that I have no real choice. Well I always have choice. What I mean is that when I take that difficult step into whatever is unpleasant, when I come to know what is really happening within that unwanted sensation, it’s no longer so threatening. It’s no longer just an amorphous pain in my back. It’s no longer a thought, a concept. It’s sensation. It’s something that I can explore and really come to know. It’s constantly changing. Sometimes it’s intense. More often it’s not. I begin to see from direct experience what helps and what hinders, what I can do for myself and what type of support I might want to ask for. I learn to tailor exercise to my exact needs rather than to some concept of what I should be doing. I find a way to see my wholeness without denying my limitations and to dance with life in the midst of “the full catastrophe” of what life throws at me, as Jon Kabat Zinn puts it.

Body scan meditation

Body Scan Meditation

The body scan is a meditation practice that can support you in becoming curious about and mindful of body sensations.

Get a free body scan recording (plus tips and tools from our newsletter) when you join our mailing list.

 

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.

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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.

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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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Close Encounter

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Recently, I was driving to visit a friend at her horse farm. Traffic was light on the two lane, secondary road and my mind was wandering ahead with concerns about being late. Suddenly the car in front of me veered into the opposite lane. The first car of oncoming traffic narrowly missed a collision, but the panel truck behind struck the car head on. The car bounced back into my lane and came to a stop about 20 feet in front of me. I instinctively braked and pulled onto the shoulder. All of this unfolded in slow motion. It felt like time stood still.

I felt scared and overwhelmed. I thought “I don’t have skills to be helpful in a situation like this”…I also felt very torn and had a sense of ‘should’ and ‘obligation’ to do something. Then I saw many cars had stopped and a number of men were running toward her car. I decided to drive on.

As I drove off slowly, my car came almost parallel to the car that had crashed. I observed the driver’s arm and head slumped out the driver’s window. It was a woman. She had long curly red hair. She looked very young. I couldn’t imagine she could still be alive. Such a close encounter with death, so sudden and with someone so young, was disorienting and deeply unsettling. I felt shaken to the core. How can someone be here one minute and gone the next?

I wanted to get away, yet I stopped about 500 feet down the road, feeling that nagging thought, “I should go back and tell them what I saw”. But I didn’t. I told myself…”they don’t need me… I’m going to be late”. I continued on, feeling a nagging sense of guilt.

I also found myself detaching with a subtle sense that the person was doing something wrong and deserved it. “She was probably texting. There is a reason for this. It could have been avoided.” Later I realized I was rationalizing that this couldn’t happen to me. I was finding things that I wouldn’t be doing while driving which somehow made me feel safer, separate, and not so vulnerable.

By the time I arrived at my friend’s farm (see an earlier blog , “Building Trust, Turning Toward the Difficult”), I was pretty disconnected from my body and the feelings I was having.

Fortunately, the experience at the farm helped me to reconnect with what was happening for me in my body. My ability to be present and value what was arising in body sensations and feelings, i.e. fear and overwhelm, allowed me to value deeper needs although I was not clearly able to articulate them in the moment.

Equally fortunate, that evening I spoke with two good friends who are fellow mindfulness practitioners. They listened as I spoke about my experience that day and reflected back to me what they heard. They reminded me that it is human to blame others when we are confronted with the natural grief over the fragility and vulnerability of our human condition.

I am grateful for the ‘fruit’ of my mindfulness practice over the years which ‘showed up’ for me in the midst of such an unsettling and disturbing experience. Because of my practice I was able to watch and observe the thoughts as they arose without necessarily believing they were true or getting caught in them. This cultivated a willingness to turn toward what was happening, even though it was unpleasant,  which allowed me (with the support of my friends) to respond to a larger sense of what was unfolding, rather than denying or repressing my experience.

Now, somewhat surprisingly, I’m feeling a sense of gratitude for this very real reminder of our shared fragility. I am reminded, once again, that there is no insurance policy that can protect us from this reality, mental or otherwise. I’m left feeling great compassion for the woman in the car (who survived without life-threatening injury) and myself and my fellow humans. I’m much more in touch with the preciousness of each moment of our shared journey…and with the desire to not get caught up in taking our precious, fragile lives for granted.