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Minding the Questions

IMG_1373Much of skillful leadership involves asking great questions…and really wanting to know the answer. Today’s question involves a disciplined awareness and an inquisitiveness on your part:

What’s Needed Most Right Now, at a Time like This?

This is a worthwhile question; worthy of bringing your attention to- a refrain to ask yourself with curiosity from time to time throughout each day. You could choose to even make it a practice.

The response to this question may at times feel like nothing special: make the oatmeal, get gas, or bring an umbrella. But don’t let it fool you. When we become more present to the mundane, we are vastly better equipped as we respond to what’s needed most right now in the complex and fast changing situations of our professional and personal lives. Simply orienting your life fully and completely to what is required of you as a unique individual brought here to this particular moment has the possibility to bring more growth and more calm into your life than many hours of trying diligently to figure it all out.

And for that matter, one of the many benefits of choosing to still the mind and body in the first place is that it assists with consistently answering this question with insight, intelligence and ease.

What’s Needed Most Right Now, at a Time like This?dreamstime_13130519 (1)

I don’t know what “at a time like this” looks like for you right now. I don’t know what many tasks are waiting to be completed or how many people are calling your name and waiting for a response. I don’t know if you are carrying a recent loss or cares over illness (yours or another’s) and how it’s informing your workday. I don’t know if you are unadulterated in your happiness this morning as you begin this Monday. But you do. Taking into consideration what’s most important right now has much to do with the circumstances that are inextricable to this moment. So remember to bring a gentle awareness and appreciation of this as well.

And this question is not for you alone. As part of an organization, as members of a leadership team, answering this critical and fundamental question again and again with precision, as a group, creates a clarity of vision. Together, seeing what’s most important right now increases the likelihood of that alignment of sight. From that perspective, the possibilities are limitless.

“Er”, “Um”, “Like”: Mindful vs. Mindless Speech

I stumbled across a creative and innovative practice this morning that is worth sharing. It incorporates mindfulness into our daily lives in a way that forces us to actually think about what we are saying and how we are saying it. This simple but challenging instruction brings an immediate and positive shift to how we are in the world. 020206_trdp_s6 (1)
The exercise is to become aware of the use of “filler” words and phrases, and try to eliminate them from your speech. These are words such as “um”, “like”, “well”, “you know”, “kind of.” I have been told that one of mine is “by the way.” You may already know what yours are, or perhaps haven’t given it any attention and are somewhat unaware. These phrases can shift overtime for us but underlying them is the question of why we use them. See if you can notice what is happening when you do. Where are you when it happens? Is it an ingrained habit? Are you giving a presentation and there is some anxiety? Do you feel like you are entering a difficult conversation?
photo_468_20080904This is not easy. When you first begin to practice in this way, you may be shocked by how much you use these filler words. This habit tends to be strong, so remember to be patient with yourself. It can be helpful to enlist friends and family to point out when you are “doing” it again. Bring lots of friendliness to yourself, even smiling softly as you notice the tendency and practice this intentional thoughtfulness. To give a little perspective, Jan Chozen Bays in her wonderful book, Mindfulness on the Go, reports that “a typical teenager uses the filler word “like” an estimated two hundred thousand times a year!”
Filler words seem to serve several functions. For instance, Bays says, “They are space holders, telling the listener that you are going to start speaking or that you are not finished speaking yet…they also soften what we say, making it less definitive or assertive.” You can imagine how this tendency can hinder us in all areas of life, in particular our work life. If you are trying to win the hearts and minds of a client, your team or coworkers, ending your presentation, “So, anyway, I, you know, think we should, basically, kind of go ahead with the project” doesn’t quite move or inspire.
branch4The most effective speakers, the ones that are truly inspirational and effect change do not use filler words. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, we recognize this kind of clarity when we hear it. Conversely, lots of “ums” and “sort ofs” obstruct the listener from hearing you in subtle and not so subtle ways. They can make the speaker sound less intelligent, less competent and dilute the importance of what is being said.
We could point to our modern culture with its relativistic bent as the cause of the increased usage of filler words. Decades ago, speaking in this way was not commonplace. Yet no matter the catalyst, with mindful attention we can choose to do things differently.
We can speak clearly, concisely and without couching our wisdom and knowledge. With mindfulness, we refrain from harmful speech. You begin, as Don Miguel Ruiz instructs in the First of his Four Agreements to, “Be impeccable with your word.” It takes patience, kindness and yes, practice. And it has the power to open wide the gate of communication with others and illuminate your own path.070711a7017 (1)

10 Simple Ways to Invite Mindfulness into the Present Moment

Mindfulness is not reserved for only those times when you are “formally practicing.” While taking the time to close your eyes and follow your breath, or taking a mindful walk can be enormously helpful,  we can build our awareness by bringing our full attention to our everyday daily activities. These are the tasks that have been so ingrained by repetition , so habitual that they are often times performed on autopilot. It can almost be like we are sleepwalking.  We sometimes don’t even remember doing them!apples_edit

Yet even the most mundane of these provides an opportunity to notice something new or bring some calm and clarity right into the here and now.  We can choose to bring a fresh mind and an open curiosity to these moments.

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Begin by simply observing the sensations occurring within the body and the mind, and being attune to the sights and sounds around you as you :
1. First wake up and get out of bed in the morning
2. Brush our teeth
3. Have a cup of coffee or tea
4. Eat a meal or a single piece of fruit
5. Wash the dishes
6. Fold Laundry
7. Take your first step outdoors
8. Exercise
9. Sit at a red light
10. Stand in Line (anyplace you have to wait)

You may want to start with focusing on one of these activities. Returning your attention again and again (the mind will most likely wander) to what you are seeing, smelling, touching, tasting…and to any feelings that may be arising within your body. What are you thinking while you are doing this activity? Not judging the thinking or the feelings, just noticing, as if you were simply a kind, impartial observer to the whole of the experience. You can name the thoughts (remembering, planning, worrying, etc.) and feelings (joy, sadness, excitement) without getting too attached to any of it.  See what happens.

Experiment. You may expand your awareness to encompass them all.

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Practical Applications of Mindful Leadership

Much of what I do each day entails fostering and facilitating mindfulness training for leaders of industry, academia and healthcare. Many of these leaders have already enjoyed an illustrious track record of success and innovation in their field. And some are just getting started. But wherever they are on their journey, they tend to share certain qualities: a quick mind, high emotional IQ, substantial educational backgrounds and varied and impressive work experience. Rarer still but counted among them are the managers who display true adeptness at leading by example, championing team members’ accomplishments and having a bold vision for their organization.artful cairns

So what is it that separates those who are great leaders from those who also model transformational leadership?

It is the willingness and ability to see things clearly and to act, as much as is possible, from that vantage point. This means being fully aware of our own perspectives, tendencies, and yes, biases in any given moment while remaining open to the ideas and beliefs of others (noticing the way the mind tends to quickly judge their opinions either negatively or positively) “without getting lost in a thicket of views.” This is mindfulness. It often includes seeing and doing things differently. It can be uncomfortable for a time like riding a bike, but gets easier with continued effort. Web

A practical application of this kind of seeing clearly and acting mindfully can be shown in the common vulnerability of organizations to experience breakdowns in communication or in the frequency of colleagues to hesitate rather than engage in authentic dialogue.

Here are some strategies to encourage rather than impede useful dialogue:

1. If you aren’t fully present yourself, dialogue isn’t possible. Remind yourself to put your phone away, make eye contact and sit still. Focus on what the person is saying, not what you’re about to say.
2. Plan your words carefully. Think about how you sound. “Well I just don’t get it” can be taken by the other person as they are being discounted. It may be wiser to say: “Can you explain this idea a bit more?”
3. Notice your own mindset before a meeting or important conversation. If you are frustrated or tired, you may want to engage in a few minutes of breathing or simply sitting, so you are less likely to react or be perceived to act in a negative way.
4. In the same way, observe when others are shutting down, tuning out, becoming defensive, not answering questions or blocking them. (And how many meetings are filled with people who don’t answer questions?!) When this occurs, you can try redefining the question or simply asking the question in a different tone.
5. Remember not to over-detail. It’s become pretty clear that a person can only maintain maximum full attention for only four sentences. Whenever you’ve gone beyond four sentences and are hoping for dialogue, be aware that the listener’s brain is getting crowded and attention is being diverted.*  Water lilies

*(Adapted from the collaborative work of Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and George Kohlrieser, Professor of Leadership and Management Behavior at (IMD))

Transformational leaders, in every walk of life, know that change and growth are essential parts of being fully human. Rather than trying to resist these realities or maintain the status quo, mindful leadership embraces and even seeks new ways of thinking and being in their world.

THE MUSE: MINDFULNESS WEARABLES

What about a headpiece to help you to train your brain? As mindfulness continues to gain acceptance as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, it too has become lucrative fodder for inventors and investors who see its potential amidst the big business wellness industry.

Like the Fitbit wristband that measures your movements towards the goal of physical fitness, the latest gadget to help you meditate and improve your focus is called the Muse. At a price tag of about $299, this headband uses electroencephalography sensors to measure the activity of your neurons to detect when your mind is focused and when it’s not.

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The piece sits behind your ears with a thin plastic band with the sensors stretching across your forehead.

With headphones on, the app begins to measure your brain activity as it coaches you through exercises to help you focus. For instance, as you begin the app prompts you to think about musical instruments or well-known celebrities. It then asks you to bring your attention to your breath. Counting your breath as sounds of nature play in the background; the sounds themselves can signify that your mind is starting to drift away from your point of attention.080322a8447 (1)

A session last several minutes and produce for you a line graph that details brain activity in percentages of active, neutral, and calm states. You earn points (little birdy icons) for the times you were calm.

The Muse creatively uses the latest in neuroscience to effectively engage the firing of neurons in our brain. This is good! It is fun. We all like fun. Another real positive is that this latest cool shiny object may actually be the catalyst to entice you to sit down and experiment with meditating. Its carrot approach that provides “rewards” for when you reach some moments of calm focus may keep you coming back and practicing. If you continue to work with it and see some noticeable benefits, (initial reviewers who are new to meditation have found it helpful), you may become interested in sitting and meditating without it or learning more.

In other words, it could lead to fully experiencing and working with mindfulness and its ability to transform, inspire and engender compassion.

Conversely, the nature of novelties is that they tend to peak quickly in popularity and fall from favor in the same fashion (most of my friends that ran out and bought a Fitbit are no longer wearing them or even know where they put them)! It will be interesting to follow up with Muse wearers in a year and see if they are still wearing them daily.

The marketplace eagerly responds to our perennial search for the magic bullet, the quick and easy fix. AND as anyone who practices mindfulness will tell you, instant gratification leaves you grasping for more and more in order to satisfy.

What neuroscientists have also discovered is that when you stop, the brain returns to its wandering mind. It’s our default mode network. Just like our muscles atrophy when we stop lifting weights or exercising.

To learn to be become focused, present, and calm is a process and a daily discipline, just as eating healthfully and getting physical exercise is a lifelong journey. Time and effort are required to build consistent concentration and equanimity.

If you understand that the Muse or any similar device, can be useful if employed as part of a larger program, and you can afford it, give it a try.

I would love to hear from you 365 days from date of purchase.

THE TRUTH ABOUT JUDGING

We humans have a tendency to label things as good or bad, wanting more of the former and avoiding the latter at all costs. Yet this labeling is the antithesis of mindfulness. In truth, it is the root cause of much of our suffering and stress.

You don’t need to take my word for it. Try it for yourself. Throughout the day, see if you can notice how much of the time you are either liking or disliking almost everything that’s occurring.  dreamstime_11087921 (1)

Perhaps you may want to learn a new language. But you say to yourself, “I’m not good at languages” because in high school you struggled in a Spanish class. Once we label an experience, it colors all future experiences that even resemble it slightly. And yet is it necessarily so? Or is it just more thinking that we are inadvertently believing in any given moment?

These assessments, though occasionally conscious are more often unconscious. They are simply reflex reactions based on past experiences. Our judging mind is showing up in the habitual, predictable way as it has countless times before. This is not about fault finding or trying to control our thinking. The process happens so quickly that we are not even aware that we are unaware. These thoughts have become automatic.

However, we do have a choice. In fact, we have many choices. When we become present to the content of our thoughts, we gain access to our available choices-to respond rather than react to these thoughts. We open up a pause that can generate countless opportunities for new experiences.  dreamstime_12677239 (1)

I often share the story below with my students in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction courses. It illustrates how our interpretations of what is happening is directly linked to the level of stress we may be feeling at any given time. And how our interpretations are never the whole story.

There once was a peasant farmer who lived in a remote village in China. His only means of plowing his fields was an ox. When the ox died, he flew into a panic about how he was going to feed his family. The villagers told him to seek counsel at the home of the old sage who lived on the outskirts of town.

The farmer said to the wise man, “I don’t know what to do. My ox has died and my family may starve. This is the worst thing that could ever have happened to me!”

The sage paused, looking him squarely in the eyes and said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The farmer walked away in disbelief. How could he say such a thing when here he was in such distress. He told his family and neighbors that this was no wise man; he didn’t know what he was talking about.

However, the next morning the farmer discovered a strong young horse grazing in a distant field. He trained the horse and in short order, he was able to plow his fields better and faster than before. Not only that, the horse ate less feed than the ox. The farmer thought to himself, “You know, maybe that old man is wise after all. Finding this horse was a stroke of great luck.”

He decided to go the sage and thank him. “You know”, the farmer explained, “I thought you were crazy for telling me that maybe it wasn’t bad luck that my ox had died. But now I know you were right, I found this horse and he plows even better than the ox. It has been the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

The sage again looked into his eyes and said, “maybe yes, maybe no.”

The farmer, incredulously said, “Are you kidding me?” Shaking his head and walking away, he thought “This guy is nuts! I am not coming here again.”

A few days later, his only son was riding the horse while working and was bucked off. He broke his leg and the horse had to be put down. Inconsolable, the farmer recalled that the sage had indeed spoken wisely and decided to go back to seek advice. After sharing these latest events, he said to the wise man, “Now you have to admit, this is absolutely the worst thing that could have possibly happened to me!!”

And the old man, calmly and lovingly replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”cairn over rocks

This infuriated the farmer so much, he stormed back to the village and told anyone who would listen how ridiculous the so-called wise man was.

The very next day, troops arrived in the village to take all the able-bodied young men away to fight in the on-going war. His son was the only one who was saved. His broken leg spared him from almost certain death.

When we can step back and pause with a mind that does not truly know the answer, we can extend our view. We can see potential in all occurrences, gaining a bird’s eye perspective, a wisdom on our own lives.

REWIRING YOUR BRAIN

2006-3-8-tree-pathUsually we start a new personal development program (whether that be practicing mindfulness, getting physically fit,  eating more healthfully) with a great burst of enthusiasm. Yet after the initial “excitement” wears off, and despite our best intentions, we sometimes find we don’t follow through on our commitment. We don’t persist. Perhaps we don’t see immediate results so we become disheartened. Our efforts dwindle or we stop altogether.

And the not so helpful habits…they’re right there. So instead of feeling bad about this, perhaps even a little guilty, what to do? How do we re-engage in this moment our commitment to be more present?

We can remember that we are re-wiring our brain and that this takes time. Mindfulness practices are among the most powerful agents of brain change known to modern science. Practitioners have know this for centuries from their own lived experience: feeling less stress, having a better memory, enjoying greater happiness. And now in a growing number of research studies, we are seeing actual changes in brain structure that confirm these experiences in the lab, in a relatively short period of time.    The first study to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s grey matter was led by a team at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Participants in an 8 week program who practiced mindfulness an average of 27 minutes a day at least 6 days a week were shown in MRI imaging to have measurable changes in brain structure, the regions associated with learning, memory, self-awareness and compassion were growing (grey matter increasing), and those regions involved with stress and anxiety were shrinking (grey matter) decreasing.

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