In essence, the roots of mindfulness can be traced back centuries to Buddhist teachings, and even back millennia to traditions within Hinduism. Over the last couple of decades there has been a surge in hype around mindfulness; it’s become the darling of self and organizational health circles. This trendiness has made it profitable, and all sorts of entities are cashing in on it with apps, books, videos, you name it.
Like anything that attains buzz-worthy status and is packaged to sell, you have to decide for yourself what’s the real, good stuff lying within there (that got it this attention in the first place), and what is passing or unfounded fluff. You also have to decide if you’re going to engage with it, and if you choose to, how you’ll do that.
I’ve got my own past with “Mindfulness.” I wouldn’t say I was ever skeptical of it, it just wasn’t something I was interested in. When I heard about it I equated it with meditation, which is something I’ve tried briefly a few times but never connected with. I thought it was a practice for other people, people who liked meditation, did yoga (which I didn’t do), and had a more innately spiritual way of being in this world. Once I got into my current role at Vestalia and started poking around into different ways of shaping and sustaining well-being for leaders and teams (aka “people”), I realized I had found my way into a mindfulness practice without even knowing it.
I called this practice “quieting my mind,” which is how it was explained to me.* The exercise is to simply find a way to focus on something – an object, a color, a picture in my mind, whatever (turns out I focus on my breath, which is a form of meditation, ha ha) – so that all of your disparate thoughts fall away and you are left in a sort of calming white noise. It takes a lot of diligence and practice, I can get there pretty easily now. I’ve found I usually turn to it when I’m feeling a lot of stress or anxiety. I think of that space as a bubble, once I’m in it I’m safe inside from my own voices of doubt, fear, worry, excitement, planning, anticipating, assessing, etc. It’s not perfectly quiet in there, the volume on some thoughts do get turned up. When that happens I acknowledge the thought, listen to what is being said (without engaging in how I’m feeling about it), then I turn the volume of that thought down and recommit to focusing on my breath.
When I come out of it I’m not necessarily where I was, the bubble has interrupted the signal so I start thinking again from an ever-so-slightly new perspective. This rarely produces an immediate, mind-blowing impact on my life, though it does help me see where I’m at through a fresh set of eyes. It brings me back to the present which has a way of deflating the weight and volume of whatever stress or anxiety I was caught up in before. The cumulative effect of all of these little moments has ultimately had a measurable and positive affect on me (e.g., I’m calmer in traffic, I’m more patient with my kids, I quiet my inner critic more quickly and effectively…).
I’ve been doing it long enough now that it’s starting to point me in new directions. “Quieting my mind” still gives me my calm bubble, it now is also a way of stepping outside of myself, allowing me to see what is going on internally from an objective point of view so I can act intentionally.
From this external vantage point I can notice what I’m doing and feeling without attaching value or judgement to it. From there I can investigate or assess what I’m sensing – am I experiencing an emotion or am I becoming that emotion? Am I stuck in a story I’m telling about what’s going on, or am I seeking to understand it from a bigger perspective? This creates choices for me, and reminds me that I am in control of how I am feeling and responding in any situation. Do I want to continue on the path I’m on (it might be doing something for me that I need), or do I intervene to change my course?
For example, if someone does something that makes me mad, I quiet my mind and ask myself: Do I want to hold onto this feeling of anger and respond angrily, or acknowledge it and move through it so I can respond with something else like compassion?
Depending on the circumstances, sometimes I choose option A, sometimes I choose option B. I’m less and less focused on “getting it right,” and more focused on making decisions from this place of better understanding. My brand of mindfulness helps me get there, and I actively use it in this way almost every day.
Mindfulness is a big, hairy deal right now. There are staunch advocates of it and equally staunch critics (it’s worth your while to read the counterpoint, simply search the internet for “mindfulness criticism” and start clicking on articles). It may be for you, it may not be. There is no one way or right way to practice it, and it always is what you make of it. For me, I found my own little corner of mindfulness. It’s helping me and I plan to stick with it.
*My practice is four years in the making, and it’s still evolving. It’s important to me to note that I didn’t come to my current practice and what it does for me on my own! My coaches at Growing Edge Facilitation, Patrick O’Brien and Carl Blanz, introduced me to the idea of quieting my mind. What those two taught me about mindsight and what I absorbed from a talk by Search Inside Yourself’s creator Chade-Meng Tan helped me weave in the part where I step outside of my situation and make a mindful choice about how I want to respond. I will always be grateful to them for helping me see the world in a new way.