In any given day, how many people do you notice (yourself included) who drive while texting, stroll in the park on a beautiful day with a cell phone glued to their ear, or simultaneously eat lunch, check emails and talk on the phone? We have become a nation of multitaskers, blind to the present moment. As long as the workday continues to invade personal time, life becomes an endless series of intrusions that can swallow you up, disconnecting you from yourself and others. If you don’t take time for self-reflection, it’s easy to get caught in a race that leaves you hurried and harried and sometimes burnt out.
If you’re like most employees, you’re engaged in mindless working—toiling around the clock at a survival level. Your mind creates stress even when none is really present for one reason: survival. When your body perceives a threat, worry causes you to respond as though the threat is real even when it’s just imaginary. Stress or fear over a downturn in the economy, loss of a promotion, a faltering relationship with a boss or colleague or fear of an upcoming job challenge creates survival suffering (or high arousal in your sympathetic nervous system).
In survival suffering, you’re working mindlessly. You lose your connection to yourself, and your mind begins to use you. Your worry and stress feed dread and uncertainty. And your mind imagines the worst (for example, “I’ll probably fall flat on my face”), and the worry and dread become the real problem, eclipsing the original situation. You become hijacked by the internal suffering—a magnification of the original problem.
What Is Mindfulness?
When you practice mindful working, you use present-moment awareness to flip the survival suffering around. Then you calmly navigate workplace woes with clarity, self-compassion, courage and creativity. And you’re more efficient and productive. Mindfulness, once considered an occult Eastern spiritual practice, is an ancient practice that has achieved modern-day mainstream respectability.
Mindfulness is the ability to pay compassionate, nonjudgmental attention to what you’re thinking and feeling and to what’s happening inside your body and around you in the present moment. As you practice this technique, you train your mind to do what it doesn’t do instinctively: to come back to the present, to enjoy the moment, and to appreciate your life instead of focusing on survival worries (“What if I get laid off?” or “Can I measure up?”). With practice, mindfulness gets you to a state where your mind is relaxed and alert at the same time. A growing body of scientific evidence attests to the link between mindfulness with stress reduction, well-being and greater job productivity and career success.
Practicing Mindfulness Exercises
Mindfulness practices aren’t as easy as I make them sound, but they’re not all that difficult either. Just 5 minutes a day can make a difference. Even though you’re not aware of it, you’re judging yourself and your experience of others much of the time. And your mind might be miles away from your body, caught up in streams of thoughts about future or past judgments.
Take time right now to notice your thoughts. In a relaxed position, put yourself fully into the present moment. Try watching the thoughts streaming through your mind with a nonjudgmental attitude. You don’t have to do anything but pay attention to them. Don’t try to change or fix them. Just be aware of them. Are the thoughts centered on the future or the past, or are they focused in the present? Are they calm and serene, or worried and anxious? You’ll probably notice that they’re preparing you to react to situations with more stress than necessary. Or they might be replaying a negative situation that you could have handled differently. This type of paying attention to your mind is an example of mindful awareness.
Here’s another exercise that takes your attention to your body:
- Turn your attention to your fingers and focus there for a minute.
- Wiggle your fingers and notice how this sensory experience feels. Focus on how the wiggling looks and sounds. Do you hear any crackling in your joints or sounds of skin against skin? What else are you aware of?
- Notice if you judge yourself or the exercise, or if you have trouble staying focused.
- Now ask yourself if this exercise gave you an immediate connection to the present moment. Or did your judgment interfere with your being fully engaged? If you were fully engaged during the exercise, you might have noticed that previous worries or stressful thoughts were absent.
Recharging Your Batteries Sidestepping Your Mental Fogs
Mindfulness techniques are powerful antidotes for dodging mental fogs. In four simple steps, you can harness the social circuitry of your brain, enabling you to be attuned to your own mind:
- Keep your focus in the present moment.
- Move at a steady, calm pace.
- Be attuned to yourself and your surroundings.
- Accept without judgment whatever you’re aware of that arises in each moment.
Kayakers say the best way to escape when you’re trapped in a hydraulic—a turbulent, funnel-shaped current—is to relax, and it will spit you out. But the natural tendency is to fight against the current. And that can keep you stuck, even drown you. Similarly, the way to get unstuck from a torrent of survival thoughts streaming through your mind is to welcome them and watch them with curiosity. Let them come and go without personalizing, judging, resisting or identifying with them. Eventually they will float away, and you will be prepared to brace the workday and handle just about any challenge that comes your way.
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