Once found exclusively at New Age gatherings and hippie-dense ashrams, mindfulness is becoming an essential part of American corporate culture. So, just what is mindfulness, and why is it taking office towers by storm?
Forms of meditation have been practiced in Eastern religions for millennia, but their lessons didn’t find a secular home in America until Jon Kabat-Zinn, now an emeritus professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, created a formal, eight-week stress-reduction program in 1979. Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness practice — essentially, training oneself to deliberately and non-judgmentally pay attention to now — was soon found to sharpen concentration, improve recall and other cognitive skills, foster ethical decision-making and reduce anxiety.
Just as one bicep curl doesn’t suddenly make a person buff, mindfulness requires continual practice. To fit the techniques into already crammed schedules, NationSwell conferred with experts for tips on integrating mindfulness throughout the day. No Tibetan singing bowls, yoga mats or hour-long meditation sessions are required to follow along: only 15 minutes scattered here and there over a 24 hour time period. As your personal guru, we’re not promising enlightenment, but these tactics — if practiced daily — will reconnect you with the experience of living in the present, despite all the distractions around you.
After the morning alarm goes off, take a moment before you rush headfirst into the day for a mindfulness exercise. Before you check the inbox and calendar on your phone, focus on your breath as it moves in and out of the body for three to five minutes. (You can set a timer on your phone to keep track of time.)
Integrating mindfulness into the workday doesn’t mean you can’t tune out occasionally and let your mind wander into fantasies, possibilities or recollections, as long as those reveries don’t happen when you’re meditating. Mindfulness teaches “to try to notice the natural tendencies of the human mind,” so that we’re aware of how our mind instinctively reacts, says Brenda Fingold, manager of community and corporate program development at UMass Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness who adopted the practice as she received treatment for colon cancer at age 40. Fingold approaches her own thought process “with compassion and humor,” and she encourages others to daydream in the shower or while commuting via train.
As you arrive at your office desk, do two things. First, set two calendar reminders spaced out during the day to remind you when to practice mindfulness, and second, take a breath before you boot up your computer. “As much as I immediately want to start working, I just sit for one minute and breathe,” Fingold suggests. Examine what it feels like to sit in your chair, or for those new to the exercises, notice what’s going on around your desk — the sights and noises in your environment. Doing so insures “the whole body comes to work, not just a busy head,” Fingold explains.
When you’re stuck in a meeting, the temptation to be mindless is high. Instead of giving your full attention to whomever is speaking, you’re mentally questioning if the speaker approves of your work, for example, or wondering when you can get back to your emails. Be present to listen and communicate your points. If you can, close your laptop and put your phone on airplane mode so the vibrations of texts and emails don’t distract you.
Back at your desk, dive into one task at a time. Complete projects, rather than dividing your attention among email, phone, social media and other distractions.
Your first reminder pops up on your phone. During this meditation of at least one minute, re-focus on that grounding anchor: your breath. Close your eyes, and feel your chest rise and fall. One of the biggest pitfalls early on is that people think their mind needs to be entirely clear during this short exercise. That’s not the case; it’s perfectly normal for thoughts to come and go. “Mindfulness is not to make your thoughts go away. This is not a sophisticated, non-medical form of lobotomy,” says Michael Baime, founder and director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness at the Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia. During this exercise, if any thoughts arise, follow them to their conclusion, then circle back to your breathing — a way of training the brain’s concentration. “You’re not judging them and not getting tangled up in them. They don’t distract you in the same way,” Baime explains. This helps you “to learn how to hold attention in a balanced and open way,” creating the neural changes in your brain.
In some Buddhist monasteries, chopping vegetables is considered a form of meditation if it’s done with extreme care. During the lunch hour, practice mindfulness over your meal. Savor the textures and flavors of the food, and think about the process it underwent to arrive on your plate.
During an afternoon meeting, you discover your coworker constructed a Powerpoint presentation in a completely different way from how one is normally made. You can feel your stomach clench with nervousness that you don’t have time to fix it before tomorrow’s meeting. You notice your heart beat increasing as you get angry, realizing that you might lose a deal that you’ve worked so hard to land. In this moment, drop attention to your feet, recommends Christy Cassisa, director of University of California, San Diego Center for Mindfulness’s WorkLife Integration program. “It takes focus away from this reaction that’s happening and grounds you. It calms the nervous system and allows you to reengage the executive control centers of the brain.”
To inform your boss about the presentation’s problems, you write an email. Before you hit send, take a breath and distance yourself from your immediate emotional reaction. The experts recommend finding one touchpoint that’s common throughout your day — every time you’re about to click send in your inbox, every time you’re about to pick up the phone, every time you touch a door handle when you’re about to walk into a meeting — as a reminder to breathe. Collecting yourself with a breath will give you the wherewithal to communicate intentionally, rather than reacting instinctually.
You’re feeling scattered and keep replaying something your colleague told you in your head. Talk a walk — and do so in a deliberate manner. On your way to the bathroom, to a meeting or to the coffee pot, for instance, slow down — but “not so much that you look like a zombie,” Fingold cautions — and focus your attention on the mechanics of walking and how your body moves through space.
The second calendar alert dings, reminding you to take another mindfulness break for at least a minute. If you’re struggling to figure out what you’re gaining from focusing on your breath, you can try a short guided meditation on a smartphone. Headspace has several short, high-quality lessons; Stop Breathe Think assigns you a specific meditation that’s responsive to a short questionnaire on your emotions. And Insight Timer, Zenify or The Mindfulness App all automatically send text reminders throughout the day to turn on one of their recordings.
Day’s over: time to power down your computer. During the time it takes for all its windows to close and the screen to go dark, reflect on the day.
One last task: While you’re brushing your teeth before bed, do one final mindfulness exercise. For the two minutes you’re scrubbing your pearly whites, be attuned to the sensations involved in the task: the squeezing of the toothpaste out of the tube, the feel of the bristles on your gums, the minty taste, the way swishing, spitting and swallowing moves your lips and jaw. “See if you can stay present for the whole thing,” Fingold advises.
Close your eyes, take a deep breath and know that you successfully lived in every moment of the day.