The Key to a Mindful Work Life

This expert Q&A with Sharon Salzberg, Janice Marturano, and Barry Boyce explores the role mindfulness plays in taking leadership, measuring success, and preventing burnout.

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Mindful Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce sat down with world-renowned meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg, and Janice Marturano, the founder of the Institute for Mindful Leadership, to discuss the role of mindfulness at work and at home.

Barry Boyce: The two of you are working together on an initiative to explore, in a retreat with experienced mindfulness practitioners, certain kinds of deeper challenges we all face—and particularly challenges that emerge as we take on positions of responsibility and leadership. Mindfulness is often about stress-reduction and focus, which can become the entryway to a deeper exploration, which is what it seems you’re interested in doing now.

Janice Marturano: Yes. This really came about here at the Institute, from people who have been through other retreats that the institute taught, Mindfulness at Work or Mindful Leadership, and we kept hearing a consistent drumbeat of people saying “I want more.” How about a mindfulness 2.0 version that helps us explore how we can use mindfulness for some of the real significant challenges in our society and in our workplace.

Sharon Salzberg: One of the things I’ve been saying for years is that mindfulness is so often beautifully presented as a way to inhabit our lives more fully—to be more present drinking a cup of tea and not always be multitasking. That can bring on a huge change in the quality of one’s life, but classically mindfulness was designed to deepen insight. It’s not just about inhabiting our lives more fully—it’s about understanding our lives and having much sharper discernment about where we want our lives to go and what gives us meaning, what actually makes us happy.

Mindfulness is not just about inhabiting our lives more fully—it’s about understanding our lives and having much sharper discernment about where we want our lives to go and what gives us meaning, what actually makes us happy.

In terms of  leadership, we can look at what makes us strong. We may have been  taught that strength comes from being overbearing and dominant, but when we actually look at our experience mindfully, we can see for ourselves and feel how uptight and lonely that way of behaving is. What we were taught was so gushy and weak—being kind—might not be weak at all. We can use mindfulness for so much more than just enjoying our cup of tea. I applaud drinking your cup of tea mindfully, I just think you can do a lot more.

Marturano: A perfect example of that is when we begin to look for insights about something as simple as our day-to-day calendar. If we do some reflection around looking at a typical day and begin to see what’s arising in our body sensations, what thoughts are popping in our head. We’re looking at that weekly staff meeting and all of a sudden our neck gets tight, or I’m looking at back-to-back-to-back meetings, and I can begin to see some questions emerge: “Why am I going to that 11 o’clock meeting? Does it have something to do with my ego or the stories I’m telling myself? Is it really the best for me and the organization.” It’s much more than, “Oh here I can feel my breath.” I’m not saying that’s not important. But ultimately we need to do more than that, because we’re in a mess in lots of areas of our society. We need all of us to be a little more awake.

Boyce: The world of work has changed quite a lot. With the gig economy a lot of people have to be entrepreneurial, or are changing positions more frequently, or they’re working or volunteering in the nonprofit sector. So as you think about leadership and work, does it encapsulate this full range including people for whom work doesn’t mean going to an office?

Salzberg: I noticed when I wrote Real Happiness at Work that the expectations seemed to be that it must necessarily be about corporate life, because that’s what people associated those kinds of books with. But when I looked at the examples I used, it was  hospice nurses and domestic violence shelter workers, and people in the nonprofit world and artists and writers and freelancers, and people who do not work outside the home. The world of work is not only rapidly changing, it’s also pretty broad. And yet it takes many hours of our day, no matter what we’re doing.

In Real Happiness at Work, I had firefighters, I had a longshoreman, an undercover policewoman—what was really fascinating to me is that one of the greatest predictors of happiness at work is a sense of meaning. And in many cases we’re going to have to bring forth that sense of meaning. It’s not going to happen simply because the mission of the organization is so consonant with our deepest values or we feel we’re really resolving some hideous suffering in this world. It’s about the way we invest work with meaning.

One woman worked in a call center fielding customer complaints, and she was radiant. She said, I love everybody. I can’t help everybody but I’m totally honest with them. By the time they get to me, they’ve talked to two or three people already, they’re completely frustrated. If I say I’ll get back to you by two o’clock I’ll get back to you by two o’clock. I had recently myself been a complaining customer and I did not have that kind of experience. And I realized she makes people’s day brighter, because she has found meaning. To get there we have to reach deep inside ourselves and bring it out. Meaningfulness is not about status or hierarchy. We need to be creative, we need to reconnect to reformulate our deepest values.

Marturano: One of the most magical times when I’m with a group of people on retreat is at the very beginning when we see that we’re from all over geographically, a big mix of all kinds of professionals, all kinds of workers, all together. We see how different we are. And over the course of a relatively short period of time, we start to see the common threads, the things that are true about all of us. When we explore and find similar pieces of humanity in people, that fuels our compassion and that fuels our insights and our understanding of one another.

Leadership is never about your title or the size of your budget or how many people you manage. Leadership is always about influence. Do you influence more often for better or more often for worse?

Leadership is never about your title or the size of your budget or how many people you manage. Leadership is always about influence. Whether you’re a sole practitioner, or you’re leading a family, or you’re leading a clinic, or leading a multibillion dollar company, it’s about influence. Do you influence more often for better or more often for worse? What we’re aspiring to is every day to feel as though we have more often influenced for better and less often influenced for worse. And to do that we have to learn a lot about ourselves and what’s going on in our bodies and minds and what hooks us emotionally, and how we can connect more fully to the big picture and the people around us.

Healing Isolation and Loneliness: How Mindfulness Tunes Us Into Interconnectedness 

Boyce: You have been talking about living in the midst of increasingly divided society, The feeling of society being divided is so prevalent these days. It’s taking us by surprise, just how divided we are. We often think of that as a political problem. How are you treating it as a personal problem, or a personal challenge in your teaching?

Marturano: My fellow teachers and I hear from employees almost everywhere we go that a feeling of division in our overall society has seeped into the workplace in a way that has created a constant buzz, a stressor—yet another hurdle that separates people. A conversation can often erupt into something bigger and scarier, and people can either engage in that kind of confrontation, or more often just become more and more isolated: “I’m not going to talk about that, or talk to you about anything, because I don’t know if I’m going to touch on something that might spark an uncomfortable conversation or worse.” And the question I always get is: “How can mindfulness practice help us?” How can we use mindfulness to begin to learn a different way of being?”

In addition to hearing from people in retreats and training sessions about the stress of a divided society, I noticed that I was personally getting hooked by the news media, by the political pundits, to the point where it was physically making me sick. My news junkie habits were causing me to get a headache, or my stomach would get upset, or I would to hear this really loud voice in my head, saying “How could they think that way? What’s wrong with these people?” I began to make some really tactical changes about what I was doing, how I was taking in the news, what stations I would listen to, what pundits I would listen to. Just paying attention to my own body was really central for me in awakening to what’s happening here. Getting aggravated every day wasn’t skilled.

Salzberg: It fascinates me that there seems to be a great upsurge in loneliness. It’s reported to be on the rise in the US and in England they recently appointed a minister for  loneliness. Likewise, I was just reading that in Japan that loneliness is really on the upswing. And yet, even though we feel isolated and divided, and lonelier than ever it would seem, the truth is that our lives are interconnected. That’s what mindfulness can keep teaching us.

When I go into a workplace to teach I ask people, “How many other people need to be doing their jobs well for you to be able to do your job well?” You may be a neurosurgeon, but you need a cleaner to clean the operating theater. We’re all counting on the people maintaining our roads or transit systems that get us to and from work. We live in an interconnected universe, and the more alone and antagonistic and divided we feel, the further we are from the truth of how things actually are. And so I wonder if what’s creating this sense of isolation and loneliness is that we’re actually fighting reality, because aside from our political differences, we are deeply connected.

Boyce: When you ask us to think of those connections, it brings us a bit more down to  earth and into our bodies and hearts, whereas the stuff swirling around in the news media is an abstraction in your head. It’s inherently disconnected from where you are in the moment.

Marturano: It’s also fear producing. We are in a time when things are being said that I thought decades ago had been eliminated . That’s unsettling for people and when you’re unsettled that gives the opening for fear, and fear drives a lot of dividing and isolating  behavior. With mindfulness, we can ask how do I influence when I’m feeling fearful or when those around me are feeling fearful. That’s one of those points of exploration we engage in on retreat.

Boyce: Fear is the perfect drug to create disconnection. If you’re afraid of something, you want to be separated from it.

Marturano: That’s a great way to put it. Yes.

Practicing Mindfulness in Moments of Uncertainty

Boyce: Another area you are touching on in the teaching you are doing together is “moral uncertainty.” What do you mean by that and how does that emerge for people in their daily lives or in their work life?

Marturano: If you remain in a career long enough, you will encounter a moment or two where you’re faced with something that lies in a gray area. It’s not clearly a right or wrong, and you need to make some choices around it. It could be about financial reporting in a public company. It’s the end of the quarter, and if you book some earnings that really should go into the next quarter, you can end up with a better outlook for investors. Does it really matter if I fudge these figures?, you might ask yourself, so you end up doing something you don’t feel good about later. There’s always a lot of pressure to make things look as good as possible.

There are also moral uncertainty questions that arise about safety, quality, caring for colleagues, playing fair in the competitive marketplace. There are millions of them and they arise every day. In learning mindful leadership and mindfulness at work, to address this, we commit to spend the time necessary to understand what our personal principles are.

We need to make these personal principles so familiar to ourselves that in a moment of uncertainty those principles are here for us to touch on, to guide us. In a busy world, we don’t usually get the time to do that kind of self-examination, to really understand what our principles are—not what somebody told you, not what’s said in a book. What are your principles? What drives you in the midst of the storm? You can’t wait to find that out when you’re in the storm. Helping people clarify those principles has been a passion of mine personally for a long time, because back in my days in the corporate world I saw what happened when a connection to deep personal principles wasn’t there for people.

Boyce: So you’re saying that you can develop a code for yourself, like a Hippocratic Oath of your own.

Marturano: What you really have to explore is what is it that makes you who you are. What are those principles that resonate with you? It really is something that physically resonates with people when they do that kind of reflection and come up with their list of principles. Then people do some journaling after the reflection, and they report on how it feels: these things are at the core of who I am. If I look back on my life when I made choices that were aligned with these values, I felt at peace. They resonate for me. They inspire me.

Salzberg: One of the great gifts mindfulness practice gives us is the ability to sit with some very painful feelings, and some of these feelings involve morality—what feels right or wrong. I am intrigued by the idea of a “moral wound.” It originated as a term in warfare. An idealistic youth goes off to fight and is shattered by what they actually witness, and what they are being asked to do. It leaves them with a “moral wound.”

But now the term is used in nursing schools and lots of workplaces. I’ve heard it most perhaps with hospice nurses. The medical establishment is ready to let the patient go, the patient is ready to let go, but the family can’t let go. What do you do, what do you say, how do you act? Situations like that are very complicated, and we need to be able to sit with the painful feelings that emerge there—instead of running from them or denying them—and see where that leads us.

We need to be able to reach out to one another and feel more comfortable revealing vulnerability, instead of feeling that we have to present a mask of perfection. We need tools to be able to get through complex, painful difficult situations in a better way. And I personally have found that there are quite a number of tools within the sphere of mindfulness training that can help us stay with our pain, fear, and vulnerability.

Boyce: Does our uncertainty go away as a result of using these practices?

Marturano: We’re not talking about the uncertainty disappearing. We’re talking about turning toward it and using our principles to help us guide how we act in the moment. We can’t change everything around us, but we can change how we meet it.

How Mindfulness Can Help With Burnout

Boyce: Another one of your big topics is burnout. Several people in my life, as well as myself, have had a variety of episodes of burnout over the years, and some of them haven’t been pretty. You get to the point where you’re running on adrenaline and you’ve lost awareness of how exhausted you are, and how ineffective your decision making is at that point. I also know younger people entering professions such as law or medicine that have an ethic of trying to burn people out and see if they survive. How do you talk with people about burnout? And what do you have to offer them to help?

Salzberg: There’s a range of conditions: fatigue, exhaustion, burnout, and vicarious trauma, which occurs when you’re working in some traumatic circumstance and you start exhibiting symptoms of the traumatized population. Things seem meaninglessness, bleak, and chaotic. Why do anything? Your whole worldview can get affected. You could be working in a prison, a refugee camp, in a school where most of the kids’ have parents or family that are incarcerated. You just don’t see the path forward. You start imbibing that sense of hopelessness.

Basic burnout does start with exhaustion. I tend to work a lot with people called caregivers. Fortunately, now I’m seeing a wave of interest in empathy training. This can be a cold and cruel world for many people and the more empathy people have the better it is. But as I look at the the caregivers I work with, it seems to me that they have plenty of empathy. That’s not their issue; they are burning out for some other reason. What is the reason, what’s the lack of balance here? If they have a lot of empathy, do they lack a sense of compassion for themselves? Do they have too few boundaries, thinking they can fix it all? It’s not our universe to control, sadly. Knowing that is wisdom. How much wisdom, how much equanimity, how much of these other factors can come into play? Many people don’t need empathy training. They need to cultivate wisdom.

Wisdom is not a cognitive thing only. It’s a complete experience that sees more clearly how things actually are. We can come to feel in our bones the frustration of trying to control something we will never be able to control or having extreme standards of perfection. It’s wisdom that tells us not to be indifferent to the needs and challenges surrounding usbut to be balanced and also to recognize that the results we seek and the influence we have may not be so apparent right away.

We have a craving for instant gratification, and it may be that all we’re able to do is  plant a seed. It’s going to take some more time for something to unfold, a new change in policy or a process that’s going take some time. We can dissolve a lot of that frustration if we have some insight into not being in control: I can’t just just say poof and have everything accord with my view.

Marturano: Most of the people I‘ve worked with over the last decade have a large degree of burnout—It’s become a way of being in the workplace. It becomes a badge of courage: “I get by on four hours of sleep a night,” or “I was so busy I didn’t even have time to go to the bathroom.” One of the most shocking things I ever heard from a medical director was that they were overrun by prescriptions for two things: sleeping pills and bladder infection medication, because people don’t go to the bathroom as often as they should. People don’t take time for a good lunch. In more than 30 years of working with leaders, I would say that the very best leaders have two things in common:  1) They have bright minds and warm hearts—no problem offering everything they have to other people whether that’s their family, their friends, or their colleagues, and 2) they have huge problems putting themselves on the to-do list. If it’s on there at all, it’s at the bottom.

One of the key insights coming from mindfulness is that if everyone else deserves to be taken care of, how come I’m the only one that’s not? What what makes me so special that everybody else needs care but I don’t? If you’re running on four, five hours of sleep and you’re not eating well and you’re not taking care of yourself, you can’t be at your best and as a society we can’t afford that. We really need leaders who can be role models of self-care and who can find the win-win-win solutions we need today: good for the organization, good for the employee, good for society.

Salzberg: When we can’t take care, when we can’t include ourselves in the bigger field of care, it’s the end of resilience. We’re not able to enjoy anything because it feels too  selfish. We can’t even let ourselves sit and look at a flower, to have a little space in our lives.

Marturano: We have to help people overcome the hurdle of thinking that taking time for attention and self-care is self-indulgent and not really going to help them achieve their goals. It helps people when they come to understand that if you want greater focus, if you want to have some spaciousness for creativity, mindfulness can help with that. We understand things about the mind right now: for example, you need certain amount of space to care for a brain, and if you don’t take good care of your mind and your body, you cannot be focused and creative.

We also know that just being outside in nature is good for the brain. A key part of most retreats is time outside, and people will say things like, “I used to love this as a child but I never spend time just taking a walk outside anymore.” It’s so rejuvenating to do something as simple as walk to a place where you can feel the air.

Is Mindfulness Making a Difference in the Workplace?

Salzberg: I was involved in the Garrison Institute program bringing the tools of yoga and meditation to frontline domestic violence shelter workers. And there was always a big discussion about what metric to use to judge improvement, because employers would like something like fewer sick days, but what if when you’re well balanced, maybe more sick days is a better variable to be looking for than fewer?

That points to the pioneering and primitive nature of the science of researching the results of meditation practice. It’s really at the beginning stages of studying a very complex activity. Meditation is not so simple as just getting more focused. It’s very intricate, with lots of elements to it.

The recent piece in the New York Times about how it’s not good for your employees to be doing meditation because they may get demotivated is a case in point. The subjects in that study did five minutes of practice. I can’t remember the first five minutes of my practice! It’s so complex a field, you need to really know what you’re asserting. The scientists themselves who are really dedicated to studying mindfulness tend to be really humble and say “it seems like” or “it could be.” They don’t claim to know for certain how your brain will respond to mindfulness practice.

I’ve never gone into a company where anyone has said to me “I want to use the practice to be more productive,” or “to feel less so I can work harder.” Every person who has said anything about their motivation has been very real about it: “I have a kid I’m worried about,” or “I have an alcoholic brother,” or “I’m not sleeping,” or “I may have this disease.” People aren’t thinking: What if I could only be more of an automaton.

How Mindfulness Helps You Navigate What Matters Most—to You

Marturano: Also, a big motivation for people is how do I become more present? I’m always here and there and half the other place. I can’t stay in the meeting because my mind’s still back with my kid or thinking about my 2 o’clock appointment. I feel like I have ping pong balls in my head. How can this help me start to be actually here when my body’s here?

There’s a big danger today with quick fixes. We’re all learning everything in five minutes a day. Indeed, you might get something from redirecting your attention for five minutes. But it’s deeper insight that leads to real change.

You don’t get to that in programs where  you learn everything in an hour and you’re done. Mindfulness needs to be joined with dialogue, so you have the chance to explore—and for somebody else to help you explore—what’s coming up for you. That was key for me in my own learning about how to really have mindfulness make a difference, and it still is a central part of what mindfulness means in my life.

Salzberg: I use the phrase connecting to bigger picture a lot. It’s about having perspective about immediate success or immediate failure, not being so quick to assess something as a waste of time because nothing immediately tangible came of it. Connecting to a bigger picture means, for one thing, remembering that things take time. Connecting to that bigger truth of life will help me have the energy and the resilience to go on, instead of just being stuck.

Mindfulness gives us a glimpse of certain basic truths about life, such as that everything is changing all the time. It’s one thing to know that intellectually, which we all do, and it’s another thing to have an increasingly embodied understanding of that, so that when you start to reify something or you think I’m going to feel this way forever, or think this is over now because I fell down, because it didn’t work right away, you realize those stories you’re telling yourself are not true. You recognize that it is indeed a story you’re telling yourself. You see for yourself firsthand that the story is a lie, or at least a very partial picture, a slice of a much bigger thing.

You may have carried the smaller perspective that a strong leader is somebody who takes strong command, but you may begin to see that this smaller picture of leadership doesn’t include listening, inclusion, or accomodation of other points of view. It’s me-centered. When you’ve seen for yourself that this picture is not true—that the strength we associate with an overbearing leader is a seeming strength that is too harsh, too brittle, too isolating—you gain perspective again. Then you can go forward.

Marturano: The bigger picture is something that can often fall by the wayside because we’ve become all about putting out today’s fires. We pay a lot of attention to what screams the loudest versus what’s important. The important issues, the strategic issues, the humanitarian issues, the win-win-win issues don’t make it onto the calendar because people are screaming and I’m reacting to the screaming instead of looking at the big picture.

The things that scream the loudest are not necessarily the most important. When we start to open up to the possibility that that may be true, we start to take some purposeful pauses where we’re able to stop and look at the day and say OK, what’s really important about today? Or for that matter, look at our life—what’s really important to me, not what people are telling me to do? And that big picture sometimes includes our life purpose, our life role, our journey in our careers.

Oftentimes, people will be told “You’ll be great at this. We’ve got the job for you. You’re going to be terrific at this.” And so our ego takes over. I’m going to be terrific at it. I should go do that. And we don’t take a beat to say. Do I want to do that? Is that something that resonates with who I am or what I am. We have people who show up on retreat who say, “You know I don’t know how I got here. I’ve been told I do a great job. I’ve been doing it for 20 years, but I really don’t know how this happened and never really wanted to do this.

Sometimes the bigger picture is for us, and sometimes the bigger picture is for our organization, and sometimes it’s about our kids and helping them see that bigger picture.

Using Mindfulness to Tap into Joy

Boyce: You also are going to explore in your retreat the idea of “allowing for joy.” What does that mean?

Marturano: What has been amazing in my life is how mindfulness helps me to see how available joy is every day. I went through stretches of my life that were very full and I thought I was very happy. And yet I blew past all those moments that could have been moments of joy. So one of the things I hope people begin to notice is to just be aware that the moment of joy is right there, right here, right now. And to notice how different your life feels, even on those crappy days that are really hard, if you can just be awake to those moments that touch your heart.

Salzberg: We need our really astute thinking and we need clarity of vision, but there are times when our concepts and our ideas of perfection are so overwhelming that we just can’t take delight in what’s going on. A friend of mine took me to Washington, DC, to to see the cherry trees on the National Mall, which bloom all at once. It was cherry blossom season and I was standing there looking at all these delicate pink blossoms and thinking, “Wow that is so beautiful.” And then my friend said, “Oh no, it’s past the peak, and then I thought, “Oh no I’m having a bad experience. All of a sudden I just absorbed her feeling that I should have come last week. Probably had some guilt too: it’s all my fault. I was not enjoying it anymore. How many times a day do you do something like that to undermine the joy of the moment.

The idea is not to be selfish and bask in joy in some self-centered way. To be resilient, we need an inner resource, since how stress affects us is based on the resources that we meet the stressors in our life with. So we need some joy, as a resource. We need that fullness, we need energy, we need something that lifts us, lift our spirits, as we meet adversity and challenge.

Marturano: Our challenge sometimes is that we’re so unaccustomed to doing it that we don’t even know what it feels like to actually feel that moment of joy. A chief executive who looked at the sky on one of my retreats realized as he looked up that he had not seen the stars in 20 years. It was so powerful a feeling that he just lay down in the grass and stayed there staring at the stars for a long time—such a joyful moment.

Boyce: I love that verb “allow.” When Sharon was talking about the cherry blossoms, it reminded me how often we’re trying to have an experience. In mindfulness practice, no matter how long you’ve been doing it, you can always rely on returning to the breath as an anchor. But after you’ve noticed the breath, there is a moment of openness. In a sense, that’s where the real goods lie. It’s not about getting every damn breath. Something can come in at that point between breaths. That’s not trying. That’s allowing, which is just a beautiful thing.

Finding Space for Yourself

Marturano: The higher up you get in an organization, the broader your experiences are —or the more responsibility you have, the more it can feel as though the camaraderie you had when you were one of the entry-level folks all in a group working together is gone. There is more weight to your influence. Each decision, each choice you make, has a bigger effect. It’s maybe not even a ripple anymore—it can be a wave. That can lead people to close off, to think “This is all on me now.” That kind of stress and weightiness can become isolating.

In all the years I was in leadership positions, there was no safe space there. That’s why leaders appreciate it so much on a mindfulness retreat.

If you’re making a choice that others had not made before, that’s requires courage. But being courageous can also be very isolating. So how do you meet those times? If you are about to make a passionate choice or a creative choice outside the box, it can make you feel very alone and out there by yourself.

There are ways we can help people begin to see what holds them back in those situations. Once again, it’s about self-discovery. Where’s my ego in all this? What are the stories I’m telling myself? Is there a full-length feature film on a loop in my head now? Are there ways for me to work with the thinking and the emotions that are showing up in those kinds of situations? It can be powerful to explore these questions with mindfulness when you’re in a group of other people who are also interested in influencing for the better, because you have a safe space to actually talk about something that you might not when you’re in your usual context at work. In all the years I was in leadership positions, there was no safe space there. That’s why leaders appreciate it so much on a mindfulness retreat.

Boyce: You’re talking about having a time and space when you can actually explore what may limit you from allowing joy or what may make you believe you truly are isolated or that the picture is small. You’re suggesting that you need a retreat to give you the space to explore things that you can’t necessarily do in the heat of the moment. You need some time away dedicated to that kind of work or inspiration.

Most people never turn their phone off! They just charge it. Somebody recently was saying we know how to re-charge our phones but not ourselves.

Marturano: You also need to unplug. You absolutely need to turn off the phone. And that in and of itself can be a terrifying moment. Turn it off? You mean don’t just put it on silent? No, it actually has a switch. You turn  it off. Most people never turn their phone off! They just charge it. Somebody recently was saying we know how to re-charge our phones but not ourselves.

How to Uncover Bias and Promote Diversity

Boyce: We have all sorts of laws and policies and initiatives, which we’ve had for many decades, to promote diversity. We have the notion that we are a society that believes in equality and does everything it can to promote it. But we’re shocked to find out that although we’ve made some great progress, there is not only lots we haven’t done, we’ve had some reversals. We’re also coming to understand how automatic and pervasive our habit is of seeing other people as not being part of who we are, not part of our group. In terms of implicit bias, unconscious bias, lots of us are shocked to find out that deep in the recesses of our mind we have biases that go unnoticed and it makes us upset to discover that. We don’t quite know what to do about it. How do you begin to explore that with with people in a mindfulness retreat?

Salzberg: In terms of the tool of mindfulness, there’s something about being able to uncover things without so much self judgment. We know that every thought is not something you want to take to heart and build a self-image around and carry an action out from. But you also will not be well served by 18 hours of lambasting yourself for having had the thought about wanting to tell someone that they’re stupid or whatever errant thought crops up in your mind. We can learn how to see in a way that’s clear and effective and decisive—I am not going there—but that is also kinder to ourselves.

One of the universal effects of mindfulness is that we get to see not only our own emotional landscape, which may have been somewhat hidden from us, but we get to see more and more of our assumptions.

I started meditating when I was 18, when I went to India, and my first teacher was S.N. Goenka. And I once went marching up to Goenka and said to him that I never used to be an angry person before I started meditating, thereby laying blame exactly where I felt it belonged, which was on him. It was clearly his fault that I was so angry. Of course I had been unusually angry before I started, but I’d never really seen it before. Learning how to see it in just the right way not just about judging myself about it was the trick.

With more mindfulness, we get to see our own assumptions all of the time. We’ll have some rude bias of some kind —racial, gender or able-ism, whatever it is. What do we do then? We need to have the courage to unearth these things and yet relate to them in a fresh way.

Marturano: It’s very important that we’re able to see and feel what arises for us when we’re in situations where we’re not feeling comfortable. And when you start to have that  commitment, you begin to just notice them, without judging yourself. Rather we simply notice “I’m sitting in this room and I’m not feeling open right now. I can feel myself closing in.” Just that much is the beginning we need.

It doesn’t have to be “And so now I won’t be closed ever again.” Compassion is about deep understanding. We need a place where we can cultivate self-discovery and get to that deeper understanding by first viewing what’s real, what’s true for us in that moment—and also tying it to the understanding that just because it’s arising now doesn’t mean it stays that way. Everything changes.

Another practice we do to understand more about unconscious biases is to invite a reflection on a time when you felt excluded. Then we have some open dialogue around what that felt like. The specifics don’t matter. It’s really bringing to the mind and body and heart what it felt like to be excluded, because making that feeling real can be an important motivator to help us open more to others.

Sharon Salzberg and Janice Marturano are conducting a four-day retreat, Deepening the Journey, from October 4 to October 7, at Eastover Estate and Retreat in Lenox, MA.

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Work

Finding the Space to Lead 

Janice Marturano, former vice president at General Mills, shows us how it’s possible to cultivate continual attention to detail, the needs of others, and the big picture.  Read More 

  • Janice Marturano
  • January 27, 2014