At the moment, I'm on vacation. It's summer. It's relaxing.
Wait a minute...if I'm on vacation, why am I writing this?
Ever since I ceased working full-time, earlier this year, in order to focus on starting a part-time business, I've noticed just how busy I've been keeping myself.
Don't get me wrong. I worked really hard when I was working full-time, including regularly putting in many extra hours. I rarely took lunch. When I stopped, I thought I would take a few months off and chill.
It began well; I went on a week-long meditation retreat just after I left. So far, so good. In the protected, structured space of the retreat center, I assumed I would wind down. I did, a bit. But in retrospect, I treated that retreat as if it were my "job" for a week--I worked at it. (I'll treat it very differently next time)
Next, I began creating a website, doing all of it myself--a steep learning curve for me as I'd never done this before. For a while, I worked on this project seven days a week. I revised, I tinkered. I thought about it incessantly. I viewed other folks' websites. I couldn't keep away from the task for long. Finally, I had it done.
Ahhh, I thought. Now, I can take some time off.
But I noticed something odd: It was so hard to just stop.
Most Americans have real trouble with downtime. We can't put down the electronic devices that tether us to work. (Enough media attention has been given to that so I won't discuss it here.) But even when we aren't "connected," we have to be doing something...anything, it seems at times. Otherwise, many of us (most?) become jittery and restless.
Really? Is it helpful and healthy to keep busy every moment?
I'm entirely open to the possibility that for some people, the answer may be yes. We are all wired differently, I know.
And yet, for most Americans, I do wonder about our inability to slow down and drift for a bit each day. I'm not talking the whole of a workday; I'm talking about taking an actual lunch hour, taking a walk at lunch, taking a break when we truly are doing something other than working or being online...daring to simply stare into space for five minutes.
“What is this life so full of care,
And what about evenings and weekends? Where have they gone? Why are we all working all the time? I know all the stock answers about constant pressures at work, the need for some of us to work two or even three jobs just to keep our heads above water, how after work it's all about the family. These are all very true, but still...Why can we not take a minute or two just to clear our minds periodically, just to be quiet, just to "do nothing?"
Here is a very useful article from Scientific American on the benefits of slowing down and doing nothing occasionally. It's a long article. It's worth reading. Why not allow yourself the time to actually read it, not just skim it? All the latest neurobiological research is validating that "doing nothing" for a while is great for health and can actually make us more productive--and Americans are certainly intent on being productive.
Consider this quote from the article I just referenced above: "...A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future."
We all have trouble slowing down. I'm working on it. I'm reminded of older family members, in the past, sitting on the porch--remember porches?--and staring into space for a just a little bit. I remember how, when I would sit with them, I would be restless and itchy. And yet, I know that it would inevitably refresh me. And the more often I would participate, on family vacations, the less restless and less "itchy" I would be, just sitting.
So think about it: Sit on your porch, or take your dog for a walk, or have an actual lunch with someone you enjoy and don't talk about work. Do that yoga. Or go for a run. Work on your quilt. Read a trashy novel, or a good one you've long wanted to devour. Have that pool party. Put your phone/tablet down as you watch your kid's softball game. Just be. Just sit. Just be fully present for a few minutes a couple of times a day. You'll be surprised at how hard it is, and how rewarding.
It's what you need.
You know it.
Even if it's uncomfortable to allow yourself to do it at first, you'll get used to it.
Plug in to yourself, and recharge; you'll be much more productive.
"Fun, fun, How can you have fun? Just sittin' doing nothin' when there's nothin' to be done." Dr Seuss (in a cartoon)
Sick of hearing about "the mindful revolution" and mindfulness in general? Feeling like this is just the latest fad? I don't blame you...and I'm a mindfulness practitioner. But I do worry that all the publicity about it right now could turn folks off. As someone who was forced, early on, into a religion that didn't make any sense to me, I truly abhor "conversion" talk. Some of the publicity borders on that.
That said, there is so much to recommend becoming more aware in our lives...at work, and at home. There is so much to recommend being able to choose our responses rather than being driven by knee-jerk reactions, which we often wish we could take back later.
The secular version of mindfulness (you do not have to be a Buddhist to be mindful) has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with becoming more effective in all aspects of life and work. Equally unusual these days, it reminds us to slow down, and reminds us that a whole life will speed past us if we do not learn to focus on each moment.
Any type of coaching or counseling will ask you to become more mindful--whether or not that term is used. If you want to change a behavior, the first step is thinking through what needs to change and why. Next, when are you exhibiting the behavior you wish to change? When does the behavior come up for you? What would you like to do instead? And so on...all these steps are actually aspects of mindfulness.
It's not just sitting on a cushion and meditating. There are many ways of becoming more aware, moment by moment, that we use to deepen our sense of aliveness and increase our choices.
Here's a thoughtful short piece about what's wrong and what's right about the current mindfulness craze. It's very much worth reading if you're on the fence about exploring why mindfulness might be relevant for you, both at work and at home.
If you've ever been curious about meditation...if you roll your eyes when someone raises the topic...if you've tried it and quit...or if you believe it's a bunch of woo-woo bull-crap...then this is a book well worth reading.
My favorite introduction to the book occurs when Steven Colbert hosts Dan Harris, the author, on his show. Colbert flashes the book at the audience and proceeds to read the entire title and subtitle out loud, after which he quips, "...I'm afraid that's all we have time for..." (That 6 minute, wonderfully skewed interview can be found here if you'd like to see it)
The Colbert interview emphasizes the genuine humor with which the book is written. It's a frequently laugh-out-loud funny while simultaneously almost disturbingly honest book by a die-hard skeptic--a hard-charging reporter, competitive on every level. This is a guy who has been a war correspondent, a veteran journalist, a network news anchor, and someone whose cynicism about almost everything, especially meditation, was (and frequently still is) bone-deep.
Which makes his experimentation with meditation unlikely, and his experiences with it absolutely riveting.
But...why bother to read it, other than for fun? What does this have to do with work?
Harris is, in his own words, a "maniacally hard worker," and incredibly driven and passionate about his career. And as he describes in the book, he had quite an ego at work and frequently snapped at colleagues and bosses in ways he later lived to regret. Some of his work deeply affected him in negative ways; he returned from covering wars in the Middle East and, like so many soldiers and journalists, couldn't adjust well to civilian life.
This is a chronicle of how he was finally convinced to try meditation--something he'd always made fun of--and the effect it had on every aspect of his life, including his career.
The book was a page-turner; I couldn't believe how honest he was about his propensity for being judgmental about everyone and everything...only to later discover just how wrong his judgments were. I could relate. Throughout the book, he has the courage to share his private (often unkind) thoughts about the people he meets...only to later understand the falsity of those private thoughts, and even what drove them. I could relate to that, too.
"Taming the voice in his head," which immediately has the effect of taming some of his anxiety and problematic behavior, is only one of the benefits of his meditation practice.
Let's face it; most of us have unkind, judgmental thoughts but we keep them to ourselves, most of the time, in order to keep things smooth on the surface. Harris allows us to peek into his thought processes before he ever began to meditate--thoughts which are common to us all and highly ego-driven, and the results are not pretty.
The story of his fast-rising career is fascinating, as is the account of how he stumbled into a meditation practice. As the book jacket will tell you, he had to do something after his war-related PTSD and drug use led to an on-air meltdown witnessed by millions of people, and threatened to end his career.
What happens once he begins meditating is intriguing, funny, and provocative. He covers the emerging neuroscience research on meditation in highly understandable terms. He brings a journalist's investigative perspective to various teachers and gurus he interviews along the way. His comments on them will surprise you. Agree or disagree, you're sure to be interested in what he has to say on some of the more well-known teachers in various meditative traditions. He also discusses his own insights through his own practice, talks about how his practice begins to dramatically and positively affect his life and work, and makes a strong case for why this could be true for everyone.
Best of all, it's clear that if a guy this astoundingly busy can make time to meditate, so can most of the rest of us.
He's an excellent and highly entertaining writer. I have to say I loved this book. I could relate to so much of it from my own experience. It clearly underscores how and why mindfulness meditation can increase effectiveness for anyone, in any type of work, at any level.
The only downside, to me, was his unrelenting cynicism and judgment toward those who could best be described as New Agers. During the course of the book, he recognizes how unfairly judgmental he is toward whole swaths of the population, and opens his mind to many different types of people as a result (descriptions of how this happens are both honest and funny).
But not for this one segment of the population; at the end of the book he is still talking about them in scathing terms and blames them for why meditation isn't more widely accepted. While I understand the point he's trying to make about the need to describe mindfulness in ways that will make it more credible to folks who aren't New Age-y, I found it surprising that this one slice of the population was continuously verbally tarred and feathered. Odd, considering he's willing to at least listen to everyone else, knowing that he doesn't need to agree...just listen. But his mind remains closed to this population, whom he always describes in the most sarcastic and mocking terms.
I saw a recent clip of an interview with Harris for the August issue of Mindful Magazine. He says he now believes that once he's done with his journalism career, he will probably teach meditation. For a guy who is still hard-charging, skeptical, and competitive (now in a "2.0" manner; he hasn't lost his edge at work, that's certain), this was surprising and delightful to hear. See a short excerpt of that article here.
By the end of the book he is summarizing all the ways meditation has helped his career (and the rest of his life) and giving some shrewd advice as to how it could help anyone be more effective.
If you find yourself "reacting" at work in knee-jerk fashion, rather than making thoughtful choices--or if you just want to become more conscious at work--please consider reading this book.
Here's a very interesting article on the power of active reflection to improve work performance. The "field experiment" at the end of the article is especially telling. Locate the article here.
How can we make this happen in today's crazy-busy workplace? I believe it's possible, and would have major benefits to us all.