Mindfulness at work

Recently, I was asked to speak to the Great Lakes Region Virtual Retreat for Research Development Professionals. The conference, hosted by the Indiana University Office of the Vice President for Research, took, as its theme: Research Development in Pivotal Times and our session focused on Covid-19’s impacts and opportunities.

            In a former life I was a tenured faculty member and a college administrator and that means I’ve had the privilege of working with research development professionals at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, Butler University in Indianapolis, and, most recently, Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. One thing that always stood out to me about the role that people in your line of work occupy is that you are always in the middle. You are always the link connecting granting agencies to faculty and administrators—in brainstorming sessions, in calls with program officers, in meetings about draft after draft of a proposal —you are constantly in the position of clarifying and translating, mediating and managing and not from a position in the hierarchy that gives you a lot of authority.  Your work often epitomizes the experience of having an enormous amount of responsibility but not a commensurate amount of power.

            It seems to me that people really ought to be nicer to you!

            Into this already challenging work, comes COVID-19. The impact on your workplace your work practices has probably been enormous and as colleges and universities have suffered significant financial challenges, your work has become more essential as the stakes and the pressure rise.

            Again, I say, people should be nicer to you. But just in case you think that’s an unrealistic expectation, I’m going to offer you an achievable alternative: being nicer to yourself. Contradictory feedback, condescending colleagues, impossible deadlines—those things aren’t going away. Being in the middle managing people’s expectations and personality clashes—they’re here to stay too. What can change is how you think about yourself in relationship to those challenges.

            In my work as a life coach, I often draw on my training in interpersonal communication to help my clients navigate relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. But the additional work I’ve done to understand mindfulness always comes to the foreground because, ultimately, it is the relationship we have with ourselves that has the greatest impact on our life and our life with others.

            And I would argue that intrapersonal communication, the way we talk to ourselves, is the central component of mindfulness. The word mindfulness comes from Western interpretations of Buddhist teachings and simply means: bringing our awareness to the present moment without judgment. That’s a pretty straightforward idea but if you’ve ever sought to practice mindfulness, to bring your awareness to the present moment without judgment, you know that it can be devilishly difficult to achieve.

            Then why is it a worthwhile goal? Because mindfulness brings us greater internal peace: and being peaceful within ourselves allows us to bring more peace into our relationships with others and the world. Being the source of greater peace in our fractured, polarized, conflict-ridden world seems to me something all of us might want to strive for.

            Why is achieving mindfulness so difficult, what gets in the way? Simply put: Our thoughts. Each of us has developed habits of mind that not only take us out of the present moment but also create what Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach calls a veil—a veil between us and other people, a veil between our understanding of our authentic self and the social self with which we typically face the world.

            What kind of thoughts am I talking about? I’m talking about the internal voice that is our constant companion. The one Martha Beck describes as either a dictator or a wild child. The dictator is full of judgment, is quick to criticize, the opposite of Mary Richards, who could “take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile,” the dictator can take the best day, the happiest day, the day full of love and ease and plenty and remind us: the other shoe is going to drop, they’re going to see you’re a fraud, don’t get a big head, this worked out but it would have been even better if only you had . . .

            The wild child is the dictator’s partner—it’s the voice of pure need who wants nothing more than a nap, a hug, and a piece of chocolate. It’s you at the end of a long year that was in reality only a month, an exhausting month that was only a week, a grueling day that was only an hour. The child is the perfect target for the dictator. The more it needs the more the dictator criticizes it for what it needs.

            The first step in a mindfulness practice is to begin to notice these voices. Noticing, in a Buddhist sense, that you are not your thoughts, you are not these voices but you are the authentic self who is the witness to these two voices.

            I want to describe a practice that can help you start to notice these voices, to become a student of your own mind, to put a little space between you and those voices.

            Using the alarm on your smart phone set it for two or three random times of the day. When it goes off, ask yourself two questions (maybe even take the time to write out the answers):

            How do I feel in my body?

            This first question, how do I feel in my body is critically important to becoming a student of your own mind. Developing greater bodily awareness is important because the body is our early warning system. Even if you tend to think of yourself as always up in your head, always thinking, always lost in your own thoughts, technically, you still have a body. And your body really is responding both to the external environment and to what’s going on in your head. Anxiety, stress, fear, anger, joy, happiness, elation are all felt in the body. As we develop greater awareness of where we feel what we feel, we start to notice our physical reactions sooner, start to understand that the physical sensation is the precursor to where our mind is going to go and where my mind goes my words, my interactions with myself and others follow.

            The second question is: What is my mind doing? It’s not “what am I thinking about?” but what is my mind doing? The goal isn’t to identify the content of our thoughts but the affect, the habit, the verb.

Am I fretting about a project, am I rehearsing a conversation I need to have with a colleague, am I berating myself for a mistake?

After doing this a few times, here are some things people notice.

            We start to notice where in our body we carry tension, anxiety, and fear as well as joy and happiness and relief.

            We notice that our mind is often in the future or the past. We find that our thoughts have wandered off and are busy reviewing our behavior, especially interactions we’ve had with others. We are revising those interactions in the spirit of “If only I’d said. . .” We are frequently rehearsing interactions we may have in the future or that we’d like to have but probably won’t.

            Think of the many, many meetings you attend. In addition to leaving with a longer to-do list, how often do you leave playing the conversation over and over-cringing at the places where colleague seemed condescending, where you received contradictory feedback on a proposal?

            We notice how often we get caught up in the habit of judgment. Much of this is pervasive self-criticism. No behavior is too big or too small to escape the dictator’s critical eye. I trip walking up the stairs and my first thought is, “I’m so clumsy. What’s wrong with me?” A grant proposal is successful but all you tell yourself is, “Yeah, but I shouldn’t have spent so much time on it.” Or reviewers’ comments come back, 90 percent are positive but it’s negative ones that seem to lodge in your soul.

            But the judging eye also looks outward. Try this sometime. Take a walk or a drive and try to notice what’s in your environment without giving it thumbs up or thumbs down. Can you look at a tree, a house, another driver without thinking “That’s a beautiful tree,” “That an ugly house,” “That’s a terrible driver.” Now try it at work—listening to understand, not refute, speaking to be understood not to defend.

            I’m not criticizing the act of judging. I’m saying that if it is the default position for me in all situations, then I’m over-using it. And, more than that, I’m creating a veil between others and myself that may or may not be necessary and may or may not be helpful. Constant judgment narrows my view and prevents me from seeing the whole picture.

            Finally, we notice that taken together the tendency to focus on the future or the past combined with the pervasive self-criticism is the real source of anxiety and reactivity or as the Buddhists would say, “suffering.” Specifically, as we listen to the voices of the child and dictator we begin to recognize the stories they tell us over and over again about who we are, about our limitations, about our failures. Have you ever noticed how little time you spend reminding yourself of your successes?  We realize that we are not seeing things as they are but through the eyes and the stories of the dictator and child.

            The impulse as we come to notice these habits of mind is to push those voices down, eliminate them. Well there’s good new and bad news. It is the case, that few of us will reach enlightenment. That means we’re stuck with these voices. That’s the bad news. The good news is that taking another essential principle of mindfulness and applying it to those voices can alleviate the suffering those voices cause.

That principle is lovingkindness or compassion. The dictator’s methods are poor but the dictator’s impulse is always self-protection.  The child’s needs may be articulated melodramatically but the truth is there are time when we need a nap, a hug, and a piece of chocolate.

            When I challenge clients to address their relentless self-criticism with compassion so that it loosens its grip on them, they tell me they’re afraid to let it go because they’re convinced it’s essential for their success. That’s the dictator’s story:  unless the dictator is constantly on your own case, you’re going to fail, it’s all going to fall apart, you’re going to wind up alone, and broke, and miserable.

            I asked a client once what purpose her anxiety and continuous self-criticism served, and she said, “Hey, it got me the editorship of the law review.” Okay, but think of the energy required to be in this state of constant vigilance.

            So as you become a student of your own mind, as you are able to notice those voices a new habit I urge you to develop is to pause, to acknowledge that you are hearing the dictator or wild child, to address that figure with compassion. “I hear you, I know you’re afraid, I know you mean well. It’s going to be okay. I’ve got this.”

            Oh, dear. Does that sound too touchy-feely?  If it does, let me suggest a purely pragmatic reason to try it.  

            Your energy is going to get expended no matter what. This way of proceeding allows you to expend that precious resource in a way that has the potential to improve the situation you’re in. When we enter situations with those inner voices unchecked, we don’t listen as well as we need to, we don’t understand and comprehend our situation as well as we need to. We aren’t seeing the reality of the situation. We are seeing through the veil of our dictator’s fear and negativity, our wild child’s fatigue and neediness. We are less open and more defensive, more reactive and less thoughtfully responsive.

            The challenges inherent in your work may not be caused by the COVID crisis but many are surely exacerbated by it and new ones have arisen. A final suggestion as you approach any situation where the habits of judgment, fearful and negative thinking, or self-criticism arise:

            Three deep breaths. Not just any three breaths but those suggested by mindfulness educator Laurie Cameron.

            Breath one focus on the sensation of your breath entering and leaving your body

            Breath two notice any place in your body where you feel tension and relax

            Breath three set your intention for this moment—to be calm, open, compassionate

            It takes almost no time and I urge you to give yourself permission to be calm, open, and compassionate even when entering a situation that in the past has been stressful.

            What I’ve talked about today is more than enough to get you started on a mindfulness journey if you’re so inclined. There are several excellent books about mindfulness that I’ve put them into the chat.  It’s important for me to say that even after reading them, I often struggled to focus on the present, to let go of the negative stories that I’d told myself for so long. I often felt frustrated and like a good academic I would think, “Why this is this still so hard. I’ve read the books!!!”

            That’s the thing about mindfulness. Easy to understand but understanding is not the same practicing. Each moment is an opportunity to practice. We won’t always succeed but over time will learn to accept too—and to treat ourselves with compassion when we succeed and when we fail. My favorite meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says, “Compassion that does not include the self is incomplete.” Don’t leave your self out. Be kind to you.

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

Ruth King, Mindful of Race

Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True

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