Office politics. Dictatorial bosses. Coworkers’ emotions bouncing up and down and sideways. Hi-tech tools that keep changing and updating. An uncertain economy and a volatile job market. Escalating levels of expectation. Loss of direction. Too much to do. Too little time. Not enough sleep.
Whether you work in a traditional or progressive environment, on your own or in a sea of cubicles, work life is full of challenges. Most of us are beholden to the income we receive from our jobs, and beyond that, we get up and go to work because we have a real desire to contribute to the greater good. Turning away from work is not an option for most of us, so we buck up and throw ourselves into the challenges of the workplace. Some of us are doing well, successful and satisfied. But too many of us are not happy at work. We’re stressed out and quite possibly confused. We may appear to be effective, but gnawing issues like those above can make work secretly (or not so secretly) a drag. That’s not great for us and it’s not great for the people we’re working with. So where do we begin if we want to improve our work life for ourselves and those around us? I suggest starting with the mind. Ask yourself: what is the quality of my mind at work? What’s happening in my mind as the hours at work go by day in and day out? Is my mind working at its utmost?
The mind contains untold resources and possibilities—for creativity, kindness, compassion, insight, and wisdom. It’s a storehouse of tremendous energy and drive. And yet it can also be a nattering annoyance, an untamed animal, or a millstone that drags us down. Sometimes we would like to just shut it off so we can get some work done or have a moment’s peace. Yet our mind is the one thing we can’t shut off. So why not make the most of it instead? Why not put it to good use? Through mindfulness, we can train our minds to work better.
By training us to pay attention moment by moment to where we are and what we’re doing, mindfulness can help us choose how we will behave, nudging (or jolting) us out of autopilot mode. Here are a few suggestions for how to bring mindfulness into our workplace. This won’t just give us some relief from stress; it can actually change, even transform, how we work.
Check Your Lenses
Do we see what is really there, or is what we experience filtered through our own thoughts and preconceptions? Maybe we should check how we’re seeing before we try to change what we’re seeing. First, we need to make sure our lens is clear.
Much of the suffering and discomfort we experience at work—and elsewhere—stems from our deeply held views, opinions, and ideas that become lenses through which we perceive the events of our lives. No doubt the machinery of perception each of us has developed has served us well for the most part, guiding and supporting us at critical junctures. But the burden of adhering to set patterns of perceiving while we grapple with the drama and minutiae of everyday life can be limiting and, frankly, an invitation to misery.
When we’re convinced things ought to be a certain way and they’re not, we suffer. When someone refuses to act in the way we think they should, we suffer. When we don’t get what we want, when we want it—or when we get what we don’t want, anytime—you guessed it: we suffer. The workplace, such a microcosm of life in its entirety, is rife with opportunities to march straight into suffering. What we need to explore is whether our distress really derives from the workplace itself or instead from how we apply our default ways of perceiving to the challenges we face at work.
The mind will try to force any situation it meets into its favorite ways of perceiving and will react with distress when it meets resistance. Many years ago I had a coworker who consistently got me riled up. She had a way of doing things that just got under my skin. I would think to myself, “If she would only act this way instead of that way, we would all be happier and more productive.” This was pretty much a daily, and sometimes hourly, occurrence.
Of course, what I was really feeling was that if she acted differently, I would be happier and more productive. I was seeking the comfort of the familiar and the expected and yearned for my coworker to act in a way that precisely supported my needs. However, as soon as I realized that I was caught up in a particular way of perceiving, I found I could alter my perception and apply real choice to how I felt about her. And when choice entered the equation, I quickly realized I no longer needed my colleague to change—because I had.
It can be difficult enough to be open-minded toward others, but it is even more difficult to be open-minded toward oneself. It takes real training. To discover the ways of perceiving you’re apt to blindly apply, experiment with keeping yourself curious, attentive, and receptive.
Whenever you detect yourself falling into an old, familiar pattern, stop and examine what is actually going on. Notice the physical sensations in your body; notice the emotions that have bloomed; notice what stories your mind is generating that make your body tense and inflame your emotions. But it’s important not to disparage yourself for falling into an old and unhelpful pattern. Recognize the potentially explosive negative charge generated by your body, thoughts, and emotions. Accept that it has arisen, then make the decision to be in control of it instead of being controlled by it.
Put Some Space Between You and Your Reactions
Inflexible patterns of perceiving inevitably prove too small, too confining, for all that our minds need to encompass and accomplish. Inflexible patterns of reacting squeeze the life out of us. Each of us has our own pet scenarios that chafe against our expectations. When they pop up, they threaten to stir up jealousy, anger, defensiveness, mindless striving, and a stew of other possibilities. We may end up saying or doing something hurtful, something we’ll regret later and may have to apologize for. We leapt before we looked.
Conversely, when we stop to examine how we typically respond to situations, we create space for more creative and flexible responses. Ultimately, as we build the habit of mindfully examining our responses in the moment, mindful awareness becomes our new default mode.
Let’s take an example that hopefully is not too familiar. You’ve been working tirelessly with a coworker on a project, but when it comes time to receive accolades for the project’s success, your partner manages to take all the credit. You’re now entering that decisive moment when you have the chance to become master of your reactions. Or, to put it another way, to meet your experience.
Becoming aware of the impact the slight has had on you is the first step. Separate yourself from yourself just enough to allow you to examine, free from rote reactions, how your body, emotions, and thoughts are combining to gear up for a response.
By decoupling what’s happening from your reaction to what’s happening, odds are you will prevent yourself from simply being carried along by the experience and instead will prove yourself capable of getting ahead of it.
In examining your thoughts, you’ll probably see a story forming, something along the lines of how you heroically brought the project to completion, only to have it stolen away at the last minute. Once you can see this narrative open out before you like a book—once you have become the reader of the story instead of its protagonist—you have put yourself in position to let it evaporate. You may notice how the pounding heart, sweaty palms, and tightened shoulders you just experienced slip away along with the storyline you just let go of. You gently shift to a state that is more relaxed and, as a result, more confident. States of being, which can seem so permanent and monumental, are not in fact static. They shift moment to moment, and they can change in response to our awareness of them. It’s amazing how easily a grimace can morph into a smile.
There’s no need to assume that mindful self-examination means you have to allow your coworker to take credit where credit isn’t due. Rather, its goal is to allow you to respond in a new way that frees you from old, ingrained, automatic patterns.
Pay Attention to the Small Stuff
Consciously, confidently meeting experiences, instead of being carried away by them, is a practice you can apply in all situations. It is helpful not just in emotionally charged events like the one above, but also in situations that may seem insignificant, but which could become more significant if left unexamined.
Let’s say you’ve taken the attitude that the tasks assigned to you are unimportant or undervalued. Ask yourself if you feel that way because it is true. Or do you feel that way because you’re so used to telling yourself it’s true that you can’t think of it in any other way?
Think even smaller. Imagine something as routine as the way you hoist the phone to your ear when it rings. By really examining this action—seemingly so inconsequential, so unworthy of examination—you feel like it’s something you’re doing for the very first time. You may detect anxiety traveling down your arm and tension as you pick up the phone. Experiencing everyday actions up close in this way is not about being self-conscious. It’s about bringing choice, attention, and awareness back into things that you’ve allowed to become automatic. By opening up to the tiniest habit, you make it possible to crack open the larger habits, which seem more resistant to change. You can look at every action and interaction freshly.
The more you understand your own mind, the more you can understand the minds of others. If you come to understand your own body language, you can read the body language of others better. Mindfulness doesn’t give you a crystal ball, but it tends to increase your empathy, your ability to put yourself in someone’s shoes with greater understanding. It enhances your connection with other people and supports you as you build relationships. No action, reaction, interaction, or relationship ever feels uninteresting or unworkable if a curious mind is brought to bear on it. You can actually transform that feeling of, “Oh man, here comes John, my supervisor—I bet he wants me to change my work, again” into “Here comes John again. How can I see and hear him, without judgment, as though we were interacting for the very first time—just dealing with what comes up in the moment?”
Make a Habit of It
For mindfulness to work at work, it helps to have both a formal practice of mindfulness and informal practices that extend mindfulness into everyday life. Formal practice involves learning a basic mindfulness meditation such as following the breath and practicing it on a regular, preferably daily, schedule. Informal practice, no less important, can literally take place any second of the day. It involves nothing more than focusing the mind on whatever is happening in the present moment, outside of the shopworn patterns we have built up over a lifetime.
Mindfulness interrupts the conditioned responses that prevent us from exploring new avenues of thought, choking our creative potential. Each time we stand up against a habit—whether it’s checking our smartphone during a conversation or reacting defensively to a coworker’s passing remark—we weaken the grip of our conditioning. We lay down new tracks in the brain and fashion new synaptic connections. We become less likely in the future to default to patterns that can trap us into being satisfied with ineffective and outmoded strategies. We take steps to improve not only how we are at work but the work environment itself.
In this way, mindfulness is not just personal. It has a contagious quality that will change the culture in an organization—not necessarily in big, sweeping ways but gradually, incrementally.
This article also appeared in the August 2013 issue of Mindful magazine.