Being Mindful

Mario Sikora
Oct 19, 2019

Flipping through a recent issue of a prominent business magazine, I came across yet another article on how organizations are flocking to “mindfulness” training based on traditional Eastern practices. In fact, according to the article some 22% of companies offer such mindfulness training for their employees.

There is a lot to be said for such practices, but there is more than one way to become mindful and I prefer the kind of mindfulness work that focuses on developing relaxed, deliberate, and purposeful thought rather than simply breathing and observing our thoughts and inner states.

The psychologist Ellen Langer has written about how to develop this kind of mindfulness in her book, “Mindfulness.”  Langer’s version of mindfulness has three fundamental qualities:

  • Creation of new categories (seeing beyond the traditional habitual and limited understanding of a situation),
  • Openness to new information, and
  • Awareness of more than one perspective.

In this article I’d like to talk about how we can better develop this kind of mindset. Because of the specific connotations that many have of “mindfulness” as a specific traditional eastern practice, I prefer to talk about “awareness,” which is perception of a situation or fact. For me, “awareness” involves actually seeing what is in front of us, reducing illusion, and accurately assessing our environment. It has the dual qualities of presence and thoughtfulness.

In order to develop this kind of awareness, we need three skills:

  • Being present–training ourselves to manage our attention and direct it where we need to direct it.
  • Noticing–skills for seeing what is happening to us and in front of us, especially things that we might otherwise overlook.
  • Processing–skillful contemplation and (when necessary) action based on what we notice.

Practices for Becoming Present:

It happens to us all the time—someone starts talking to us and before we know it we are thinking about lunch, the meeting after lunch, the ride home at the end of the day and the pothole that we hit this morning and that the tires need to be rotate, and, oh, I have to get the kids to baseball practice tonight but first pick up milk and… oh, wait, he’s still talking, I better listen…

Being present means the ability to set all those things aside and pay attention to what is happening now; awareness training involves extending the length of time we are able to do that.

A first step in being present can be quite simple: Tell yourself “Take a deep breath.” After you take the breath and exhale it, tell yourself, “OK, be here and pay attention.” Every time you find that you have drifted off, repeat the process. The key is to practice it; you’ll be amazed at the results.

If you want to really work on this skill, there is great value in learning how do perform a centering breath, a practice similar to what is typically thought of as Eastern-based mindfulness training and is very useful for relaxation and stress reduction. Here is a good description of how to perform a basic centering breath exercise.

I’ve never really had the patience for seated meditation exercises but I have found that deliberate physical activities to be very useful in helping one focus on the present. For me, martial-arts training was great for this. There is nothing like the prospect of being punched in the nose or hit with a bamboo sword sheathed in deer-skin leather to teach you to “be here now.” (There was a very good reason for the samurai to adopt the practice of zen.) However, there are many less-vivid ways to get this experience. Here is a list of some good moving meditations.

Practices for Noticing:

We can’t be “present” all the time. Some people strive for this, and some people claim to have achieved it, but I see nothing wrong with simply zoning out on occasion and letting the mind monkeys jump from branch to branch. The problem we must guard against is failing to pay attention when we need to pay attention.

The first application of “noticing,” therefore, is to notice signals from our bodies or our environment that we need to be present. Our emotions are the non-conscious mind’s way of signaling to us that we need to pay attention to something. Do you feel anger? Sorrow? Shame? These are signals that there is something happening around you or to you and that you need to pay attention and take corrective action.

A simple exercise is to practice monitoring our emotions. When we notice an emotional state we should practice naming it and exploring what it is pointing to. We can ask: What am I feeling? Why am I feeling this way? Is there a situation that needs to be resolved? How can I resolve it?

The objective of this simple activity is to, over time, reduce the amount of time that passes between when we feel an emotion and to recognize that we are feeling it. Often, we can walk around for hours being angry, obsessing over what someone did to us or over something we failed to do, but never truly realizing we are angry. Eventually, we may resolve the situation that made us angry, or we may not resolve it but the anger may dissipate on its own. But we have lost a lot of time and energy in the interim. By working to reduce the time between when we experience an emotion and when we recognize it and take corrective action, we reduce that loss. With time and practice we get better at recognizing our emotions as they arise and managing them in real time, allowing us to avoid the damage we do to ourselves and others while in the grips of the negative emotions.

Noticing also involves truly seeing and considering our surroundings. The brain has a tendency to minimize what we perceive–most of what is happening around us is lost to our awareness. This is an evolved pattern that allows us to, primarily, focus on threats to our well-being–if a predator is chasing us, the beautiful sunset is not very important. Likewise, blurring out most of our environment allowed our ancestors’ brains to reserve fuel and apply itself to more practical issues. Tunnel vision and mindlessness were adaptive qualities that helped our ancestors survive long enough to pass those qualities on to us.

We live in different times than our ancestors, however, and today we have the luxury of being more mindful and experience more than just the minimum necessary for survival. Such deeper noticing provides both a richer inner life and more effective interactions with our environment—noticing adds both enjoyment and efficacy to our lives.

There are many exercises for learning to practice noticing. The idea behind all of them is to train ourselves to see things we might not ordinarily see. Here are a few:

The ‘Trane Technique:

The sublime jazz musician John Coltrane recommended listening to a song this way: First, listen to the whole song without paying particular attention to anything; just let it wash over you. Second, listen to it for one instrument at a time. Play the song and focus on the saxophone. Play it again and listen to the drums. Play it again and listen to the piano, etc. Finally, play it again and just let it wash over you and pay attention to how it affects you physically and emotionally. You’ll be surprised by what you find out. Here’s a Coltrane song to get you started.

Reacquaint with the Everyday:

It is easy to take for granted our everyday environments and the people we encounter therein. For this practice, go to a place you go every day, whether it be your own kitchen or the local coffee shop. Take a moment to truly notice the place. Look at the individual items in it. Pay attention to the texture and shapes. Notice the smells. Listen to the sounds. Consciously identify something you never paid attention to before. At the coffee shop, notice the barista: What color are his eyes? Is he wearing a name badge? If so, what is his name? Does he seem happy in what he does? What kind of shoes is he wearing? Are his laces tied? Does he have any visible tattoos? The questions are endless.

Do not judge the barista! The objective is to notice without judgment. It is only by training ourselves to notice without judgment that we can be truly open to new information as Langer suggests rather than starting the comfortable slide into habitual judgments and mindlessness. When we judge we see what we expect to see rather than what is.

Observe cues and clues:

My wife would be the first to say that I can be oblivious to some of the everyday things that happen around me, and I agree. I can go a very long time without noticing a new piece of furniture, that the furniture has been moved, etc. Most of us, to our detriment, take our home environment as an “attention-free” zone where we take things for granted until something becomes an inconvenience. Noticing can bring our most mundane experiences alive again.

Despite my frequent obliviousness at home, I think that the most important skill a coach like me can have is the ability to notice, and I find my clients’ offices to be an important place to practice these skills. What pictures hang on the wall or are framed on the desk? Are they placed where the client can see them or where visitors can see them? What memorabilia is on their shelves? What kind of cell phone do they carry? Where do they keep it when they are not using it? What kinds of words do they use–big words, small words, jargon? Do they speak fast or slow? Do they seem rooted in their body or uncomfortable? Do they look tired or well-rested; distracted or focused? All of these things are cues and clues, not to necessarily make an assessment of the person, but to help identify what kind of questions to ask to find out what is really important for me to know. Again, examples of things we can notice are almost countless and bounded only by the limits of your curiosity, but if the pictures face the visitor it would be interesting to know if it signals particular pride in the family or is it just happenstance? We can ask, “What a nice looking family, can you tell me about them?” to better understand the client’s personal values. A professional award tucked on a bookcase is an opportunity to ask about what the client values as career accomplishments. Recently, I saw a boxing glove peeking out of a gym bag on the client’s office floor; my asking about it led to a conversation first about health and mixed-martial arts and eventually to a conversation about aging and finding comfort in your own place in life as you reach your mid-40s (and beyond, in my case…). I learned far more about my client in that conversation than I did from reading his impressive CV.

Anyone can use these same techniques as a way of practicing noticing, and the things one learns from noticing can be invaluable for leaders.

The key is not to judge the other person, but to notice–to be open, receptive, and curious–so you can find out what is really important to them and what they really need. This is the root of true compassion–experiencing people as they are rather than as we expect them to be or want them to be. We only truly understand people when we truly see them, and we only truly see them when we take the time to notice.

Practices for Processing:

While we shouldn’t judge what we notice, we do need to learn to analyze it; judgment implies assessing subjective value but analysis implies methodical examination so we can better understand something. It is crucial to develop tools for analyzing those things we notice, the stories others tell us, or the stories we tell ourselves. Without tools for critical thinking–skepticism, an understanding of cognitive biases, skilled use of logic and the ability to identify logical fallacies, education in how to tell good information from bad–all the noticing and attention in the world will be of limited value. It is these skills that equip us to cut through our own nonsense, to challenge our internal narratives, to hold ourselves to a standard of integrity. They are crucial in effectively working with others for the same reasons; we can’t help our clients or our coworkers or our customers if we let them hoodwink us.

Tools for developing those skills are abundant, and I will list some at the end of this article. That said, I have found that the most important qualities to have are a skeptical attitude–expecting the evidence to match a person’s claim–and the willingness to relentlessly ask yourself two questions every time you recognize yourself stating an opinion: How do I know I know that to be true? and Is there any evidence that points to me being wrong? No one likes to be wrong, but everyone wants to learn new things; the truly mindful person understands that each time we realize we were wrong about something we have learned something new.

I’ll close by saying that I can’t emphasize enough how important these critical-thinking skills are. Without them we may think we are being mindful, but easily end up trapped in deceptions and illusion unless we have skills for seeing through them.

Resources for Critical Thinking:

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