When overworked — or workload is heavy — mindfulness is a tool

Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Grand Gallery Image

Gallery Attendant at work in the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Grand in Los Angeles, as seen on Dec. 28, 2015. Photo by P. Bouweraerts.

By Patricia Bouweraerts —

A movie that’s showing is the story of your work life — video and audio are out of sync — you can tell the plot line, but it’s more difficult than if they were synced together.

Alternatively, in real life, a sudden conflict comes up, but you’re centered — with mind and body working together — thought and senses teamed up to overcome the plot difficulty and discover a better resolution. One more happy ending in a series of small dissonances that happen in the days of most working people.

That syncing of mind and body is mindfulness, and experts from psychologists to monks to engineers at Google Inc. recommend the practice.

“It’s a quality of awareness or a way of paying attention,” said Holly Hazlett-Stevens, Ph.D., associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). “It’s being on purpose — a deliberate choice of being present in the moment. It is present-centered and non-judgmental — to be clear and able to discern what’s going on, not deciding if it’s good or bad.”

Hazlett-Stevens said that too quickly deciding how we feel about something can interfere with actually noticing everything we need to know for an effective response.

“We’re caught up in our preference, instead of responding in beneficial ways,” she said. “There’s (in mindfulness, though) a quality of acceptance, of accepting reality how it really is.”

Holly Hazlett-Stevens, Ph.D. Image

Holly Hazlett-Stevens, Ph.D.

Hazlett-Stevens lists four main qualities of mindfulness:

  1. Paying attention
  2. A sense of “on purpose”
  3. Being in the present moment
  4. Non-judgmental acceptance of reality

“It’s a quality of kindness, or friendliness, to what’s really happening and responding in a more useful or practical way,” she added.

Yvonne Stedham, Ph.D., management professor at UNR and teacher of mindfulness-based stress reduction at equilibrium-MBSR, agrees. She currently leads a once-a-month mindfulness session hosted by MidTown Mindfulness at 527 Plumas St. in Reno, Nevada. The workshops are open to anyone interested in the topic and are free.

Stedham said that humans have evolved from origins where all sensory information we experienced had meaning for our survival, and our cerebral cortex now sometimes may extend the impact of the information, causing us to ruminate and worry about what it means for the past and future.

She said that acknowledgement is noticing without wishing it were different, and this can help people manage a challenge by providing a clearer vision of the best course of action.

“It gives you a good point to go forward, when you know where you are,” Stedham said at the Feb. 17 session.

The focus of the workshop and 25-minute meditation was to notice and acknowledge the mind and body how it is, the sensations and experiences of the present moment. She also reviewed seven attributes of a mindful state that are cultivated through meditation.

  1. Beginner’s mind
  2. Acceptance
  3. Patience
  4. Trust
  5. Non-judging
  6. Non-striving
  7. Letting-be

In mindfulness, accepting means simple acknowledgement, the closest word translated from the original Pali language, she said.

Mindfulness has its roots in Nepal about 400-500 years B.C.

Hazlett-Stevens explains the practice of mindfulness originated in ancient Eastern traditions.

“It came from the time of the Buddha’s life and from the term Sati,” she said. “In the language Pali, Sati is the word for mindfulness. The original term is about knowing, feeling through the senses … knowing through direct sensory experience.”

Following practice in religious tradition, mindfulness was discovered to be helpful in medicine.

“It does seem to be effective in certain medical conditions, and that’s how it started to catch on after the traditional Buddhist practice – to the medical clinic,” she said.

It was adapted to treat mainstream medical conditions in America, such as hypertension, cancer, fibromyalgia and cardiovascular diseases.

“Now it has made it into my field for the treatment of anxiety and depression,” she said.

Hazlett-Stevens emphasizes that mindfulness is a way of living more than a set of steps based on handling specific situations. The following examples are described as general strategies that illustrate how the practice may be practically applied.

A way of being – not knowing what to do in a specific situation beforehand … mindfulness is going to support you whatever situation you find yourself.

Holly Hazlett-Stevens, Ph.D.

Examples of mindfulness when overworked, or workload is heavy

A person’s desk is full of jobs, they feel behind, and the boss walks up with an additional, special rush project. What next?

“To bring awareness to your own reaction in that moment; how your mind and body is reacting at that moment,” Hazlett-Stevens said. “It could be a flight or fight reaction to a threat. This can be a social threat. In our modern society, most of our threats are social threats.”

If a bus is about to hit you, that’s a physical threat, and flight is a useful reaction. But, for social threats, flight is not as worthwhile. She suggests that being aware of your response and deliberately deciding on a response that is more useful may be a preferred way to go.

“Sometimes that is being honest with the boss and asking him or her what they would like you to be concentrating on first,” she said. “This might be more skillful or productive for the situation. If we get caught up in the fight or flight reaction, we might not pick the most useful solution. The reaction can get in the way of responding in a way that’s more beneficial.”

A server during Sunday morning breakfast rush — their station is full, a tour bus pulls up and one customer gets very demanding for attention to have frequent coffee fill-ups.

“It’s being comfortable with reality, that more is being demanded that can be delivered — and how to work with that reality is the skillfulness, so maybe it’s about asking a coworker to help with the workload and then to communicate with the client or customer,” Hazlett-Stevens said.

She said mindfulness is getting honest with what you can and can’t do.

“They might not accept the present moment reality — they may get mad,” she added. “Mindfulness is not as much about knowing techniques; the best way. It is being aware of your body — each person finds the most effective way for the individual based on their own personality and the options available to the person. She or he will do that more skillfully if aware of her or his own reactions.”

Handling a heavy workload across the long term

If a person finds that their company or institution has downsized staff and perceives that a laid-off colleague’s workload is given totally to them, how do they better react?

“Mindfulness is about a way of being,” she said. “It’s that same opportunity. ‘How realistic are the demands of me taking on the extra work, and is it affecting my health and well-being?’ Be realistic about what’s going on. Be aware of what’s really happening and not my perception of what’s happening.”

Hazlett-Stevens said that a person may watch for what happens during the next months and decide how to respond.

“See if you need to look at a difficult reality you might not want to face,” she said.

The considered response might then be to decide to leave the job, or downsize, or take other actions, if needed.

She said that practicing a mindful approach gives you more and better options for a decision.

“A way of being – not knowing what to do in a specific situation beforehand … mindfulness is going to support you whatever situation you find yourself,” she said.

Mindfulness is being there for yourself and others

“The better people are at listening and being willing to heed that awareness of their own bodies and emotional life, the more we will be able to know what is best for our own health and well-being,” Hazlett-Stevens said.

She added that noticing what is going on outside of oneself may be called “skillful response.”

“It is part of it — relationship mindfulness,” Hazlett-Stevens said. “Part of it is being aware of what’s going on in our external world. Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes about mindfulness when engaging with another person. It’s having an awareness of another person — the non-verbal cues and facial expressions, tone of voice. Then you can better sense their emotional state. Then you’re in a better position to respond, if it’s helping them or not reacting whether or not it’s helpful.”

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen master, teacher and author, who presented a half-day workshop at the Google Inc. campus in Mountain View, Calif. in September 2011. The talk may be seen on YouTube.com.

“When you begin to see the suffering in someone and when you see that person is helpless — he does not know how to handle the suffering inside of him — he suffer, he is victim of his suffering and he makes the people around him suffer, including you,” he said. “The big, the moment when you begin to see that truth, and understand the suffering in that person, compassion arise in you. … And when you have compassion, you don’t want to punish him anymore. Before that, you suffer, you are angry. But now because you have seen the suffering, you have understood the suffering, you are motivated by the desire to help him to suffer less.

At the Google workshop, one question asked was whether mindfulness is time-efficient.

“Our thinking is sometimes very productive … but not always productive,” Thich Nhat Hanh said. “And our thinking may lead us away. … And many scientists, famous scientists have reported that their insight came when they do not think. When they did not think.”

The Google Inc. connection

About 2,000 Google Inc. employees have taken the Search Inside Yourself course by Chade-Meng Tan, who has trained as a software engineer and now is the company’s head of mindfulness training, as reported in TheGuardian.com. His official job title? Jolly Good Fellow.

“I am the author of the New York Times bestseller, Search Inside Yourself, a book endorsed by the Dalai Lama and President Jimmy Carter,” the Singapore-born author writes on his website.

Mindfulness workshops at Google Inc. are led by two teachers, an instructor specializing in neuroscience research and a meditation practitioner, according to a Google spokesperson on BusinessInsider.com.

Tan began his Nov. 2010 TED Talks presentation with an example from science.

“So what does the happiest man in the world look like?” Tan asked. “His name is Matthieu Ricard. So how do you get to be the happiest man in the world? Well, it turns out there is a way to measure happiness in the brain. And you do that by measuring the relative activation of the left prefrontal cortex in the fMRI, versus the right prefrontal cortex. And Matthieu’s happiness measure is off the charts. He’s by far the happiest man ever measured by science.”

So what was Ricard thinking about when scientists measured this high happiness?

“Actually, he was meditating on compassion,” Tan said. “Matthieu’s own experience is that compassion is the happiest state ever.”

Tan said that Ricard’s scan demonstrates compassion is more fun than work.

“But fun is not enough,” he said. “What if compassion is also profitable? What if compassion is also good for business? … Fortunately, I didn’t have to look very far. Because what I was looking for was right in front of my eyes — in Google, my company.”

His teaching includes advice about how staff members work together.

“Imagine whenever you meet any other person, any time you meet a person, your habitual, instinctive first thought is, ‘I want you to be happy. I want you to be happy,’” he said. “Imagine you can do that. Having this habit, this mental habit, changes everything at work. Because this good will is unconsciously picked up by other people, and it creates trust, and trust creates a lot of good working relationships.”

Our thinking is sometimes very productive … but not always productive. And our thinking may lead us away. … And many scientists, famous scientists have reported that their insight came when they do not think. When they did not think.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and teacher

Other resources

Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley publishes articles about the neuroscience and psychology of well-being, including an online magazine, “Greater Good.” It posts a free online course called “The Science of Happiness,” compiles a clearinghouse of studies on happiness and resilience entitled “Greater Good in Action” and hosts fellowships for undergraduate and graduate students.

Wisdom 2.0 is another organization involved in mindful thinking, Hazlett-Stevens said. It holds an annual conference that focuses on using technology while still connecting to our own humanity.

“It is becoming increasingly clear to more people that integrating wisdom into our modern, digital lives — learning to focus, to truly connect, to empathize – is not a nice extra, but an absolute necessity to a vibrant and sustainable society,” according to wisdom2summit.com. “Wisdom 2.0 is dedicated to providing a platform for this exploration and supporting the movement from the information age to the wisdom age.”

In The Guardian article by Jo Confino, Tan is quoted as seeing mindfulness as a growing trend for the future.

“Through the development of apps and other software, tech companies such as Google will have a major part to play in mainstreaming mindfulness, he (Tan) predicts,” writes Confino. “In the same way that the pedometer has influenced exercise, these apps could similarly popularize mindfulness, Tan says.”

6 comments

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