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  • Practice Mindfulness

    Filed under Focus
    Apr 26

    Audio: Practice Mindfulness [Time – 22:10, File Size – 20.8 MB]

    [Acknowledgement:  The main inspiration for this post comes from various interviews and articles featuring Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.  Kabat-Zinn started his career as a scientist at MIT and it is with this scientific perspective (along with his clinical research to support many of his positions) that he shares his thoughts on the power of mindfulness. He teaches mindfulness meditation as a technique to help people cope with stress, anxiety, pain and illness. You can check out the links below for more about Jon and his work.]

    In this post I hope to convince you of the power of mindfulness — the practice of bringing your full awareness into the present moment. This is very different from that “kinda sorta” awareness that you have while you are attending a meeting, firing off a text message, and eating lunch all at the same time. And it is different from the awareness you experience within a conversation while you are trying to stifle clever or fearful or angry or resentful thoughts that are clamoring for your attention. And it is different from the awareness you experience when sitting alone at your desk, working to solve a problem while thoughts of past difficulties and future fears challenge your concentration. Instead, it is a cleaner, simpler kind of awareness. It is simply being fully present, with all your attention. It is, in the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, “paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, without judgment.” This is mindfulness.

    Why practice mindfulness? What’s in it for you, as a project manager or creative project team member? Better decisions. Clearer distinctions and analyses. More powerful judgments. Less stress. What’s in it for you, as a spouse, parent, or friend? The ability to participate in relationships more fully, more compassionately, and more authentically.

    For most of us, our minds are like the internet — an undisciplined and nearly endless expanse of content that can be enlightening, engaging, amusing, and frightening all at the same time. Unfortunately, like  the internet, the stuff that bubbles up from the content of our minds is not always accurate or relevant. And, just when you think you are beginning to unravel a knot full of contradictions to comprehend the truth, you are rudely bombarded by inappropriate and distracting pop-up thoughts that appear from nowhere. Like the sometimes over-stimulating experience of surfing the web, the experience of being a conscious human being can also be confusing or downright overwhelming. However, when we’re surfing the web, we can rein in much of the chaos by using a powerful web browser such as Internet Explorer or Firefox with pop-up blockers and search engines like Google to help us stay focused. But how can we navigate the turbulent storm of thoughts that fly every which way in our consciousness? What “browser” is available to help us move through the chaos of our minds?

    The practice of mindfulness can be such a browser. Just as the newbie web surfer flits madly about the web responding to the random stimuli of ads and animations and sensational headlines, so too does the unmindful person bounce around his own consciousness responding to random thoughts and feelings that arrive unannounced, like so many rude pop-ups, to mislead and distort perceptions. If, however, you are able to be fully present — to step back and look at the big picture — to witness this pattern of self-inflicted, thought-induced tension, noise, and chaos for what it is (simply a mind whirling somewhat out of control), then you have begun the journey to mindfulness. And you’ve begun to create your own custom-built mindfulness browser to navigate your consciousness.

    You Already Practice Mindfulness

    It’s almost impossible to avoid being mindful at least part of the time. Here are some typical experiences people have during which they are likely to be fully mindful:

    • Climbing the sheer vertical face of a rock wall, high above a valley floor
    • Sitting in a garden watching a flower
    • Patiently admiring a sunset or a cloud formation
    • Listening intently to a favorite piece of music
    • Writing a poem or story
    • Painting a picture
    • Intensely running or biking or playing basketball
    • Listening to the sounds of birds chattering or waves lapping the shoreline
    • Meditating
    • Simply staring into space and discovering a few minutes of tranquility in what seems like a timeless and formless place

    In all these cases, the participant is likely to “lose track of time” or to even “lose themselves” in the simplicity and clarity of the experience. In other words, they are “paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, without judgment.” And it is this ultra alert condition that allows great decision making, something that’s particularly valuable in the case of the rock wall climbing or other high intensity activities that require fast, accurate judgments.

    So, given that we have all probably had many experiences like the ones I just described, then we all know what it is to be fully mindful — at least in a limited, “happy accident” sort of way. But wouldn’t it be great to be able to consciously steer yourself to a more mindful place? … to be able to “step outside” a chaotic and confusing moment and witness your own thoughts and reactions? … then to be able to simply dismiss the negative and unproductive stuff and calmly and clearly see reality?

    According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, we already have this ability. It is our birth right. In an interview with Krista Tippetton on American Public Media’s Speaking of Faith, Kabat-Zinn says, “… we call ourselves Homo sapien sapiens. That’s the species name we’ve given ourselves. … from the Latin sapere, which means … ‘to know.'” [Note that the word “sapiens” appears twice in this name.] Kabat-Zinn continues, “[We are] the species that knows and knows that it knows. So that means really awareness and meta-awareness.” So it is the very essence of our humanity to be self-aware and, beyond that, aware of that self-awareness! In short, it is our essence to be mindful!

    Our challenge as individuals, then, is to engage our out-of-control minds and cultivate mindfulness so that it becomes more than a happy accident, and instead is part of our day to day living. Leveraging this ability to be aware of what we are being aware of gives us the power to improve the moment-to-moment quality of our lives. In exercising this power, we soon realize we can choose and shape the texture of our own consciousness! We don’t have to be victimized by random thought assaults.

    Health Benefits of Mindfulness

    This is not the place to provide a detailed review of all the clinically proven benefits of mindfulness. But there is no doubt that these practices can positively impact our mental and physical health. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society have, for decades, been healing both bodies and minds by teaching the practice of mindfulness. In turn, other health care institutions and businesses have incorporated their pioneering practices with similar beneficial results. What’s more, we know from studying brain scans of monks who spend time meditating that our amazingly plastic brains can actually be changed physically by the practice of mindful meditation. Specifically, the portion of the brain that is associated with happiness and a sense of well-being is actually larger in people who meditate regularly! So it would appear that these monks have acquired even more brain-power that can be applied to their pursuit, and experience, of happiness!

    As long ago as 1987, Jon Kabat-Zinn was featured in a Washington Post Article titled “Meditation Goes Mainstream: Research is Finding Health Benefits From a Technique Once Considered Mumbo-Jumbo”:

    “This is the image many people have of meditation:  ‘You sit in a full lotus posture and pretend you’re a Buddha.’… So laments Jon Kabat-Zinn… ‘The real essence of meditative practice,’ he says, ‘is how you keep your mind from moment to moment, right through your day.’ Meditation, once considered mystical mumbo-jumbo by most Western scientists, is slowly emerging as a legitimate medical treatment. In clinics around the country, the technique is being used to calm hypertense cardiac patients…[and others…]”

    The point:  For decades, we have seen the accumulation of a mountain of clinical evidence to support the assertion that both your physical and mental health are likely to improve as you improve your ability to be fully mindful.

    Extending Your Mindfulness: Where to Start

    As we’ve shown in the earlier examples, mindfulness is something we all experience from time to time, however randomly. It’s impossible to be human and not have moments of mindfulness. However, the practice of mindfulness in a systematic way allows us to take full advantage of its mental and physical heath benefits. What’s more, practicing mindfulness gives us the ability to better handle stressful situations, such as those encountered on high-intensity, deadline-driven projects. In short, practicing mindfulness in a systematic way gives us a powerful tool for enhancing our overall effectiveness.

    Yes, it’s true that when you hear the word “mindfulness” it is often followed by the word “meditation.” And, without a doubt, nearly all those who advocate mindfulness also advocate meditation as an effective way to cultivate this “awareness of awareness.” But mindfulness does not require a formal meditation practice. The Wikipedia article on Mindfulness explains:

    “In addition to various forms of meditation based around specific sessions, there are mindfulness training exercises that develop awareness throughout the day using designated environmental cues. The aim is to make mindfulness essentially continuous. Examples of such cues are the hourly chimes of clocks, red lights at traffic junctions and crossing the threshold of doors. The mindfulness itself can take the form of nothing more than focusing on three successive breaths. This approach is particularly helpful when it is difficult to establish a regular meditation practice.”

    Kabat-Zinn directs us to the classic starting point for cultivating mindfulness through meditation: awareness of the breath. The object of the game is to simply focus your attention on the movement of air into and out of your nostrils — to simply experience the physical sensation of your own breath and to be with this sensation. The purpose: To “park” your attention on the real and immediate sensation of breathing and to direct your attention away from all those random thoughts that are clamoring to be heard.

    As Jon Kabat-Zinn explains in an interview titled The Present Moment:

    “… the first thing you notice is how impossibly jumpy the mind is… it is very hard to pay attention to any one thing for any period of time because the mind is so agitated that it distracts itself virtually moment by moment. It doesn’t need outside distractions… And this is totally normally. Everybody experiences this as soon as they start paying attention. And then you think ‘Oh my goodness! I could never meditate because my mind is like a train wreck.’ But the fact is everybody’s mind is like that…”

    Kabat-Zinn goes on to explain how the mind is like the ocean, typically agitated by waves and activity on the surface, but calm and peaceful below the surface. What eventually happens in your practice of mindfulness meditation is that you are able to drop below this surface agitation and experience brief moments of tranquility. Over time, and with practice, these brief moments of tranquility become more extended. And, better still, when you have practiced finding this tranquility and have learned how to achieve it in your meditation sessions, you can call on this tranquility in other parts of your daily life, when the agitation threatens to take over.

    Finally, there is this important distinction to remember:  Mindfulness meditation is not intended to put you in some sort of blissed-out state of numbness. Instead, the goal is actually heightened, clarified awareness. As Kabat-Zinn tells us: “You’re not trying to put yourself into some kind of calm stupor, but a vivid and lucid awareness of what’s actually unfolding moment by moment… you’re very alert! And that means you can respond to changes in your mind and changes in your body much more effectively than if you were in some sort of calm stupor.”  In short, it’s all about awakening as opposed to being made numb by your mind’s internal chatter!

    In the meantime, when you first start meditating, what do you do with these thoughts that assault you while you are trying to focus on your breath? Kabat-Zinn suggests that you don’t fight them and try to drive them out because, “… this will only give you a headache!” Instead, he recommends a “light touch.” Simply look at them as they rise up, notice them, and watch them drift away and pop like soap bubbles. You might say something to yourself like “Oh there it goes. I’m worrying… worrying.” Or “There’s another. I’m thinking and remembering,” and so on. What happens when you apply this “light touch” is that the thoughts just bubble up, drift around, and vanish. You don’t engage them in a battle and give them power.

    This advice to apply a “light touch” to thoughts that arise and the image of soap bubbles popping is the most useful guidance I ever received regarding meditation. In fact, once I applied these to my fledgling mediation practice, I was soon able to relax and give my mind permission to be jumpy and undisciplined. And eventually, it settles down and I will have a few precious moments of mindful clarity. And that’s about all anyone can ask for from a meditation session!

    Note that Jon Kabat-Zinn, Eckhart Tolle, and many other advocates of secular, mindful meditation share this perspective: You should try to find the practice that suits you the best and apply it. Don’t be afraid to try several different guided meditation techniques, then settle on the one that seems to work best for you. I’ve listed some resources at the end of this post that will provide some background information and perspective on mindfulness, as well as some audios that you can use as “guided meditations” to help jump start your mindful meditation practice.

    A Personal Note: How I Benefit from my Mindful Meditation Sessions

    Every morning I meditate for about 20 minutes before I start my day. After doing this for a couple of years, I have found two powerful benefits. First, I seem to have developed the ability to find this quiet mindful space and to call on it in the other parts of my life, when I’m not meditating. It’s as though I always have a comfortable bench under a shade tree to which I can retreat for a few minutes when things are getting too frenzied out there on the sunny playing field of my life. Second, this mindfulness practice has lowered (yes, lowered) my tolerance to stress! I am no longer willing to put up with my mind spinning out of control dreading fictional futures or ranting about past horrors. When the noise starts, I can see it as it really is: just noise. And I witness it, and wait for it to pop like so many soap bubbles. I don’t claim to be in perfect harmony, but all-in-all, my 20 minute daily mindfulness meditation practice is well worth the time spent!

    Greers Challenges…

    Reflections….

    • Think about those preceding examples of activities that encourage mindfulness (rock climbing, staring at a sunset, etc.).
    • Do you have similar activities that encourage your own moments of mindfulness? What are they?
    • How can you organize your life so that it includes more of these mindfulness-inducing activities?
    • If you don’t already practice meditation, consider experimenting with it using some of the tools in the “Learn More…” section below.

    Team Challenges

    Ask your team:

    • Think about those preceding examples of activities that encourage mindfulness (rock climbing, staring at a sunset, etc.).
    • Do you have similar activities that encourage your own moments of mindfulness? What are they?
    • How can we organize our time at work so that it includes more of these mindfulness-inducing activities?
    • Do we need (or can you find here on our work premises) a quiet place that supports meditation?
    • How might our senior management or other staff support your practice of mindfulness?

    Project Manager Challenges

    • If you don’t already practice meditation, experiment with it using some of the tools in the “Learn More…” section below.
    • Respect your project team members when they try practicing mindfulness or mindful meditation.
    • Support your project team’s practice of mindfulness by helping them make time and find a quiet place for brief meditations that rejuvenate.
    • Be especially attentive to people on your team who are stressed and “don’t have the time” for practicing mindfulness. Help them figure out how make the time for this important, rejuvenating practice.
    • Do some research and see for yourself that it’s a good business decision to encourage your team members to practice mindfulness.

    Learn More…

    Background Information

    Guided Meditations (audio tools to help you get started… experiment with several!)


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