Do you ever wish that you could stop the world and climb off . . . if only for a minute? Just long enough to catch your breath and regain your center? Most of us willingly acknowledge that our world seems to be getting a bit crazier, a bit more off kilter, with every passing day. And, with it, so are we.
The peace for which we long seems increasingly harder to find.
While there are countless ways to deal with the stresses of life in the 21st Century, one of the most effective and drug free methods has us reaching back into a time long, long ago; somewhere between the 6th and 4th centuries, when Siddhartha, who became the Buddha or enlightened (awakened) one, began meditating as a way to end the suffering he had witnessed.
Stripped of its religious trappings, meditation—particularly the method known as Mindfulness—has gone mainstream. Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn first brought Mindfulness into a secular setting in 1979—introducing the practice into the University of Massachusetts hospital system as a way of helping patients deal with the fear and uncertainty of their cancer diagnosis.
Almost 30 years later, MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and its benefits have spread far and wide; into school rooms, hospitals, prisons, corporations, the military, police departments and countless other settings.
What Is Mindfulness Meditation?
Although Mindfulness has found acceptance in many places throughout our country, there may still be some confusion about this vs. other meditative practices. Some people may still envision an ochre-robed monk sitting on a cushion, chanting OM. Or perhaps the stories of Zen Masters who ‘help’ meditators stay focused by hitting them on the shoulder with a stick come to mind.
While certain elements of classic Buddhist or Hindu meditation remain as a natural part of Mindfulness Meditation practice—i.e., a sense of focus, sitting up straight vs. slouching, eyes closed, Mindfulness includes ‘goals’ that differ somewhat from classical contemplative practices, as well as the invitation to bring a sense of loving attention to the practice.
Mindfulness, in a word, is about being Present. As one writer put it, “Mindfulness is about putting down our juggling balls for a little bit. It’s about embracing the beauty of mono-tasking.” As I see it, Mindfulness helps us remember what’s most important in our lives.
When we are truly present, we become aware of the ‘little’ things. Things like the sound of birdsong in the morning. Or the gentle touch of a child’s hand. The sound of rain drops against a window pane. The floating journey of a butterfly. These are the things we miss in our rush to ‘do’ whatever it is we think we need to do. How might your day be different if you noticed the sunrise? Or that hawk sitting on the tree you just passed?
Conversely, mindfulness helps us become more effective at what we do because we gain the capacity to focus; to stay with the task at hand vs. having our attention jump from one thing to another. Most of us can relate these days to the “Look, there’s a Squirrel Syndrome!’ A huge downside to our distractedness is the realization that although we may have juggled a lot of balls, we haven’t really accomplished anything. Talk about adding to our stress!
When we practice Mindfulness, we discover a quality of peace and stillness that’s always here, ever present, but that we miss in the midst of busy days and a busy mind. Much of the time our thoughts are ineffective—caught up in regret about the past or worry about the future—but rarely focused on the experience we’re having right now. As we tune in to this moment through Mindfulness, we come to realize that the peace we long for is right here. That in this moment, all is well.
And, like anything worth its while, it takes practice. Just as we can’t expect to play a Bach Cantata the first time we sit down at a piano, we practice. The key to living a Mindful life is to do the same; to practice . . . and to make it a natural part of our life. It is there, in the practice of Mindfulness in our daily lives that it, and we, come to life.
What are some of the benefits?
Leaders who have brought Mindfulness into their environments explain it this way: “The research is pretty conclusive: when kids feel better, they learn better. One precedes the other,” declares Alan Brown, a consultant with Mindful Schools where he offers mindfulness training to the private school’s freshman and sophomores. He teaches kids how to be attuned to themselves and recognize feelings that may be subconsciously guiding their lives, like when they’re hyped up with sugar or stressed out about a test.”*
As proof of how mainstream Mindfulness has become, Time Magazine published a Special Edition about it (August 2017). From their article on Mindfulness in the classroom: “Mindfulness and meditation programs are emerging as powerful ways to calm down kids, sharpen their brain and make them kinder to their classmates.” In the same article, lead researcher and developmental-psychology professor at UNC-Wilmington, Simone Nyugen, says: “A few minutes of breathing, a few minutes of paying attention to the moment are appearing to make a difference.”
“On a daily basis, we bump up against human suffering,” says Lt. Richard Goerling, head of Hillsboro (Oregon) Police Department’s investigative division and a faculty member at Pacific University. “It doesn’t take very long for police officers’ well-being to erode dramatically,” he adds, ticking off studies that track early mortality and cardiovascular issues among public safety professionals. Through the organization Mindful Badge, several police departments in the Portland area and Northern California are learning how mindfulness can better cops’ performance: sharpening their attention to life-or-death details, cultivating empathy and compassion that’s crucial for stops and searches and building resilience before encountering trauma. The theory goes that once an officer receives mental training, he can sense when a stressor in his environment is activating his flight-or-flight reactions and then check those instincts. “If a police officer is in their own crisis,” Goerling suggests, “they’re not going to meet that person in a way that’s totally effective.” The lieutenant is aware that mindfulness isn’t a cure-all for “a landscape of suffering,” but he believes it’s a first step to changing a “broken” police culture that takes its officers’ health for granted.”*
Changing our ways
“Change rarely comes to our nation’s capital, but that’s okay in Rep. Tim Ryan’s mind. A meditative practice equipped him to deal with legislative gridlock and partisan bickering. The seven-term Democrat representing northeastern Ohio practices mindfulness in a half lotus position for roughly 40 minutes daily — a regimen he began after attending one of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s retreats in 2008, after which he gained “a whole new way of relating with what was going on in the world,” Ryan tells The Atlantic. “And like any good thing that a congressman finds — a new technology, a new policy idea — immediately I said, ‘How do we get this out?’” Ryan first wrote the book “A Mindful Nation,” exploring the ways mindfulness is being implemented across America, and today, in sessions of the House Appropriations Committee on which he sits, the representative advocates for more funds to be deployed to teach meditation tactics.” *
As a leadership strategy, mindfulness helps people to be more effective by directing focus to the most pertinent task at hand. Deprogramming multitasking tendencies and intentionally focusing with full attention results in higher quality interactions and decisions. Mindful decision makers take the time to consider all options, and therefore make more-informed decisions. Managers who model and promote mindful practices with their teams create an environment of engagement.
Google is one company that prides itself on being socially conscious, offering employees substantial benefits and perks, including more than a dozen mindfulness courses. Google believes that these mindfulness programs teach emotional intelligence, which helps people better understand their colleagues’ motivations. They also boost resilience to stress and improve mental focus. Participants of the “Search Inside Yourself” program at Google report feeling calmer, more patient, and better able to listen. They also say the program helped them better handle stress and defuse emotions.
As many organizations can attest, bringing mindfulness to the workplace has decreased people’s stress levels while improving focus and clarity, as well as listening and decision-making skills, and overall well-being. Perhaps most importantly from a management perspective, mindfulness gives employees permission to think. Mindfulness, they say, is the essence of engagement. Being fully present — and allowing your team to be fully in the moment — will reap rewards on both a personal and professional level.
In my own experience of teaching Mindfulness, I have seen it make a significant difference in the lives of students who struggle with anxiety and panic attacks. As one student recently reported, “I am more present in the moment, better able to deal with difficult emotions and more aware of triggers for anxiety. (From there, I) then slowly address/attend to the anxiety.”
Mindfulness and Health
And then there’s the issue of physical health. While you may think that your constant headaches, frequent insomnia, stomach upset and digestive issues are purely physical, there is increasing evidence that they stem from our minds; our thoughts. Ultimately, a vast majority of the illnesses and physical discomforts we experience is a result of chronic stress. While a little bit of stress can serve as a motivating force for meeting deadlines, the kind of stress borne of constant pressure—worry about finances, the state of the world, relationship challenges, etc.,—can lead to heart attack, stroke, cancer and other potentially fatal diseases.
Because Mindfulness invites us to acknowledge our thoughts and feelings, the very experience of seeing and simply allowing them, rather than trying to avoid or deny them, can help us release the stress that holding on to them creates. While this may seem counter-intuitive, it works! The cliché ‘What we resist, persists,’ attests to the power of letting them be, rather than fighting them.
When we discover our capacity, through this practice, to simply be aware of feelings and thoughts, we recognize that we don’t have to ‘own’ them. Mindfulness practice provides the space from which we can witness the discomforts and recognize that we are the observer of them. As with anything else that we witness, we stand at some ‘distance’ from what we are observing. Thus, we can allow thoughts and feelings to arise and pass away, as they will. From ‘this’ place, we discover an abiding sense of peace and calm in the midst of the raging storm.
How to Begin
As Ferris Bueller said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Begin by stopping. Sit.
Be aware of your surroundings.
Find a quiet place where you can simply be, without thinking . . . about anything.
Feel the chair or the ground under your feet.
Focus on your breath. Is it shallow or coming from your lower abdomen?
How many breaths can you count before a thought shows up?
Gently, and lovingly, notice thoughts, without doing anything about them.
Meet thoughts without judgment.
Experience this moment.
Join a class for guidance.
Lina Landess is a Holistic Health & Trauma Release Coach, EFT/Tapping Practitioner, Mindfulness Meditation Facilitator and Author, living and working in Greensboro, NC. She offers Trauma Release and Wellness Coaching sessions over Skype and FaceTime, as well as in person.
*Quotes from Time’s Special Mindfulness edition.