Mindfulness Matters

The following essay was published recently in the Delaware Business Times, and can be found at DE Business Times.  In this essay I reference the Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware, an important agency that helps underserved populations in Delaware.  You can read more about the Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware at Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware.  Finally, this essay also references a non-profit dedicated to spreading Mindfulness training in Delaware and worldwide, the Global Investment Foundation for Tomorrow, or GIFT.  You can learn more about GIFT at GIFT.  I have been helping GIFT as a paid contractor in Delaware since January of 2017.

If you’ve ever gazed at a very young baby, say about five months old, you’ve likely been gazed at in return.  You’ll notice in that gaze that there is no judgment, perhaps a little joy, maybe some irritation if the baby’s belly is empty or bottom is soiled.  You’ll notice how simple it is to respond in the moment, and in your simple response how easily you feel connected to that young life.

When we talk about “being mindful” we hear all sorts of definitions, and, frankly, a lot of hype sometimes.  But mindfulness is really something quite simple:  paying attention in the present moment without judging.  While it is a very simple construct, its application in our lives is quite a bit of work, at least for adults.   It turns out that children take to this practice easily, because being mindful is a mindset with which they are still familiar.  As adults we turn our attention again and again to the past and the future, often at the expense of noticing the present moment.  And sometimes, when we notice the present moment, we allow our memories or anticipation to cloud our perspective of what is happening right here, right now.

Boys and Girls Clubs of Delaware(BGCDE) serves over 40,000 kids annually.  During spring 2017, I had the pleasure of introducing simple mindfulness practices to a group of full time employees, through the GIFT Initiative.  Each of these dedicated staff recognized in their mindfulness practices the simple child-like innocence of the mindful state.  The result, staff are finding ways to help the kids they serve to experience being simply present, paying attention on purpose, and not judging.

Why does this matter?  When a business invests in their staff’s development and overall wellness, it has a trickledown effect to the services it provides.  In the case of Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware, informed and trained staff in mindfulness are able to implement strategies and practices into their services to young people, ultimately creating a safe, less stressful environment for kids to be who they are meant to be while exploring opportunities to enhance themselves.

Of course it’s not just children who benefit from mindfulness training.  Most research in this area concerns the impact of mindfulness on adults.  It turns out that mindful adults experience reduced stress, improvements in hypertension and memory, and lower levels of depression, anxiety, and addiction.  Workplace studies have demonstrated that mindful employees are more cooperative in their dealings with other employees, and that the time they take to practice meditation during the workday, typically about 15 minutes, greatly enhances their focus and productivity.  In fact, the list of major corporations that make mindfulness part of their corporate culture is long, and not limited to Silicon Valley high tech firms like Apple, Google, and Facebook.  Companies like General Mills, Aetna, and Proctor and Gamble have meditation and yoga programs.  William “Bill” George, former CEO of Medtronic and current Harvard Business School Professor, has meditated since 1974 and now counts mindfulness as a key element to business leadership.  George states that “mindfulness enables leaders to be fully present, aware of themselves and their impact on other people, and sensitive to their reactions in stressful situations”.

Delaware, with the support of 150+ statewide stakeholders from public and private sectors, is on course to become the First Mindful State.  Mindful school children will find it easier to focus their attention and regulate their emotions.  Mindful teens will be more likely to be self-disciplined and ready for higher education.  Mindful adults will suffer from fewer stress-related illnesses, lowering overall healthcare expenses.  Mindful leaders will have greater calm and clarity making important decisions about the people and corporations they serve.  When a person is mindful there are no more “zero sum” games, only situations in which we all can advance and improve in our lives.

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Hypocrisy at its Best

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of hypocrisy is “the practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case.”  I can only speak for myself, but I think it is very difficult to avoid being a hypocrite!  Imagine a world where everyone claimed that their standard of behavior or belief was only as lofty as their actual behavior.  I like the idea that we claim higher ideals than we’re able to accomplish.  It makes me think of one of my favorite words, aspiration.

When I think of the way I would like to be as a person I am considering my aspirational self.  That version of me is quite wonderful!  He is thoughtful, generous, kind, amusing, erudite, well read: in other words, quite perfect!  But I fail over and over again to live up to this aspirational image as I go about the business of each ordinary day.  I fail over and over again, and regret that I cannot quite meet these standards I set for myself.  And I’m in good company.  No less of a man that Saul of Tarsus, St. Paul to Christians, said “for I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans, 7:15).

I have a theory on this that I believe makes sense.  I think that the root of hypocrisy begins, ironically, with aspirational thinking.  I have come to believe that in general people are kindhearted and have a motivation toward “the good.”  At our best we have a strong knowing, maybe even a felt experience, of who we can be at our best, and we want to be at our best, especially with the people we most love.  But we fail for so many reasons.  I think the most common reason is simply fatigue.  We get tired physically and emotionally, and fail to meet our standards.  We get discouraged by life and its many setbacks, sometimes of our own making and sometimes seemingly at random.  And, again, we fail to live up to our own standards.  The fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous cites an acronym associated with addiction relapse: HALT, or H(ungry), A(ngry), L(onely), T(ired).  Indeed, when any of these conditions are present, we are more likely to fail to live up to our aspirational self.

But we absolutely should set aspirations!  For in the setting of an aspiration we may fail repeatedly, but the intention to live in a loftier way alone lifts the level of our lived experience.  For it is my aspirations that inspire me to be kind, generous, and thoughtful.  It is my aspirations that give me the extra energy at the end of a long day to make one more phone call to offer comfort to someone suffering or advice to someone who feels lost.  My aspirations alone help me to be a better man.  Those same aspirations that sound like accusations in the midst of my failure are the same voices whispering in my ear to persevere in hard times, go the distance, be the best man I can possibly be.

Which brings me back to your mindfulness practice.  If mindfulness is new to you, and you are struggling to find the time and the place to practice mindfulness, do not despair because of your failure to do so.  Continue to aspire to be mindful!  The aspiration alone lifts you up, makes you aware that you could, perhaps should, be engaging the practice, and those thoughts will linger and remind you to take advantage of every opportunity, no matter how small, to reengage the practice.  The intention to be mindful alone will change your way of being.  If you aspire to have a strong mind and gentle heart the pain of your hypocrisy as you fail to be strong and gentle will bring you back to your practice over and over again.  Don’t be afraid to be a hypocrite in the best sense of the word: it is simply your way of living your aspirations.

A Walk in the Woods

My wife is taking the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program.  As a mindfulness instructor I’ve avoided trying to influence her to do so and I’ve resisted the temptation to ask her “how is it going?”  Yesterday was her all-day retreat and I did ask afterward what she thought of the training.  She answered that it was quite helpful, and she was grateful for getting the instruction.  She complained mildly, however, about the walking meditation.  “I just don’t care for it because my mind wanders a lot.”

Ironically walking meditation is my most favored form of meditating.  Each meditator tends to have a favored form of meditation and, to some extent, our own way of being mindful.  As a teacher I know that meditation is a simple practice, but also that it is difficult to convey to people what exactly it is we are doing in the moment that we are being mindful.  Since it is a felt experience rather than a cognitive construct, mindfulness instructors turn to metaphors and analogies, always giving guidance and encouragement to our students to persist in the practice.

It is simple to instruct a student in walking meditation if you only focus on the form.  “Walk slowly, deliberately.  Notice all of the sensations.  Start with your feet.  Notice how they feel when they touch the ground and when they balance as you very slowly roll from heel to toe…..”

Today I spent an hour walking mindfully on a path near my home that winds its way through a wooded area.  The trees were festooned with garlands of orange and yellow and green autumnal beauty.  The sweet smell of organic matter decomposing and rotting filled my senses, and made me yearn for my walk to be slower and even more attentive.  Then, with great swiftness and surprise, a flash of white brought my attention to the periphery of my vision.  I stopped and peered through the trees and spotted a white-tailed deer, a doe, about 40 yards from me.  She, too, had stopped and was gazing at me, equally attentive.  I lowered myself to a squatting posture, and returned her gaze.  Our eyes were locked together, and all I could feel was a desire to be as non-threatening to her as I could be, in hopes that she would feel as calm and mindful as I felt.  Our locked gazes lasted for a minute, and then she lowered her head and began to forage in the brush for food.

I began to walk again, still very slowly, but my walking took on a renewed intention.  I was walking in a direction parallel to the doe, as she walked slowly, continuing to forage.  I began to walk with the spirit of ahimsa, the Sanskrit word usually translated as “non-injury.”  I wanted each step to convey to the doe that I was no threat to her.  I wanted my breath and my pulse to be calmed, my heartbeat filled with compassion and warmth.  I wanted to walk as if I could approach her in a clearing in the woods, and she would know I presented no threat, and would only help her if she needed help and I could do so in some way.  As I walked I could feel every fiber of my body, in a way of my being, having the sincere desire to be a source of safety and compassion for this doe in the woods.

After a few minutes she trotted off, probably to find another area with more abundant feed.  I continued to walk, noticing the residual of feeling in my body from my experience of caring for this lovely creature.  And I realized that when we walk in meditation we should imagine that we are walking toward some person or some being that we treasure, who needs to know that we present no threat.  We need to walk with hearts filled with felt-compassion for all creatures, intending to be a source of ahimsa for the world.  If you walk in this way your meditation will bring great peace to your heart and mind, and your life will be filled with great comfort and ease.

Peace,

Jim