Mindfulness at Work

David Allan maintains that the best place to meditate is at work.  In part, this is because it is often in a work situation that you need to be calm and have a clear mind.  The cost of being frazzled at work is not only lost time through inability to focus but also lost creativity through inability to access the “spaciousness” of your mind.  You need to calm the busyness of your mind to access this creativity.

It is also very true that we spend so much of our time at work that a large part of our day (more than a third) is consumed with thinking and doing, not just being present.  This means, too, that we are not taking the opportunity to access the full benefits of our mindfulness practice developed elsewhere on a daily basis.

David Allan found that he was able to book a relatively underutilised room for 15 minutes a day to enable him to undertake some form of meditation at work on a daily basis.  He found that this short period of conscious mindfulness practice created real productivity benefits throughout his day and served to break the work stress cycle.

Ways to be mindful at work

In a comprehensive article, Shamash Alidina suggests ten ways to be more mindful at work.  I have identified four of these suggestions below that are readily implementable:

  1. Intent to be consciously present – this entails beginning your work day with the clear intent to be present as often as you can.  This intent extends to controlling your thoughts when on-task, maintaining focus even on mundane tasks, working a little slower when the opportunity presents (e.g. after a rush to meet a deadline) and reminding yourself of the very clear benefits for work and life offered by mindfulness.
  2. Use brief mindfulness exercises – there are many opportunities throughout the working day to engage in brief mindfulness exercises.  These could entail open awareness, awareness of our senses, mindful walking or a short compassion meditation.  Sometimes in the workplace we need to engage in a brief self-compassion meditation, instead of beating up on ourselves for a mistake or for unconsciously hurting someone else with our words  or actions.
  3. Overcome the temptation of multitasking – this means consciously avoiding distactions (such as checking social media or the news every few minutes), staying focused on a single task at a time and organising your day where possible so that you can do like tasks together.
  4. Use reminders of the need for mindfulness – Shamash has some detailed strategies here that are very helpful.  Some of these entail linking a work activity to a mindfulness practice, e.g. when the phone rings, taking a deep breath and reminding yourself to be fully present to the caller.   Gradually, with regular practice, these reminders can immediately elicit mindfulness.  Some people may find a mindfulness app an appropriate reminder or an aid to mindfulness at work.
Further ways to be mindful at work

Eckhart Tolle in his talk to Google staff suggested ways that they could be mindful at work, including mindful breathing at their workstation.  Another mindfulness practice that can be employed at your desk is to occasionally focus on physically grounding yourself by ensuring that your feet are flat on the floor and your legs and back are straight.   This can be combined with mindful breathing.  If you are facilitating a workshop you could practise mindfulness through a brief loving kindness meditation directed towards one individual who may be struggling or towards the whole participant group.

Grow in mindfulness at work

If we want to grow in mindfulness through our behaviour at work, we need the strong intent to make the most of the opportunities for mindfulness that work presents.  Regular practice of mindfulness elsewhere will help to build this intent as well as consciousness of the opportunities for mindfulness at work.  Starting small with a single mindfulness practice maintained over three weeks will mean that the practice, such as mindful walking, will become embedded in your daily routine.  You can progressively expand these focused practices so that you become unconsciously competent at utilising opportunities for mindfulness at work.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of FirmBee on Pixabay

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Compassion Meditation

Sometimes it is difficult to show compassion when we are suffering or in pain ourselves.  When we experience pain, particularly if it is intense and/or constant, we tend to become self-absorbed.  A lot of our attention, energy and focus go into managing the pain whether by distraction or different forms of alleviation such as painkillers, acupuncture or somatic meditation.

What we then tend to overlook is that there is “pain in the room”.  No matter what we are doing with or for others, such as sitting in a hospital waiting room or conducting a workshop, there are always people in the room who are suffering physically or otherwise.  We do not know what pain people are carrying – we can be fairly confident that suffering and pain exist in the room as it is part of the human condition.

Interestingly, neuroscience increasingly confirms that, with both animals and people, compassion for others is a basic, natural inclination.  In contrast, it seems that self-compassion does not come naturally.  This is explained, in part, by the fact that our brains have a negative bias as a self-protection mechanism.  This safety bias plays out through our amygdala, the most primitive part of our brain.  As we experience life, this negative bias gets reflected in our negative thoughts which means that we are often self-critical and “hard on ourselves”.

So self-absorption, because of our own pain and suffering or through dealing with negative thoughts,  means that our natural inclination to demonstrate compassion to others is suppressed or blocked out.

This is why loving kindness and compassion meditation has a role to play in our lives.  In presenting a series of loving kindness and compassion meditations during the Mindfulness and Meditation Summit, Sharon Salzberg offered a series of meditations, each with a different focus.  The  meditations included loving kindness for a struggling friend, a difficult person, a benefactor and for a group.  These are all designed to take us outside of ourselves and sensitize us to the thoughts and feelings of others.

Daniel Goleman, in his recent co-authored book, identifies compassion as an “altered trait” – a sustained trait resulting from loving kindness and compassion meditation.  The authors contend that neuroscience consistently confirms that compassion meditation results in increased kindness and generosity, even with beginner meditators.

As we grow in mindfulness through compassion meditation, we are more able to move beyond self-centred preoccupation in our thoughts and actions, and manifest real kindness and compassion towards others.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of jia3ep on Pixabay

Compassion and Neuroscience

In her presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, Kelly McGonigal discussed The Neuroscience of Compassion.  Kelly is the author of The Science of Compassion and The Upside of Stress.

Kelly maintains that for compassion to be realised and sustained, the following six conditions must be present:

  1. awareness and recognition of suffering
  2. feeling of concern for, and connection to, the one who is suffering
  3. desire to relieve suffering
  4. belief that you can make a difference
  5. willingness to respond or take action
  6. warm glow/sense of satisfaction

She spoke about how compassion unfolds in the body, a mind-body state that has been verified by neuroscience.  Throughout her presentation she drew heavily on a neuroscience model of compassion developed by Ashar, Andrews-Hanna, Dimidjian & Wager (2016).  This systems-based model of the brain shows how the core functions of compassion are manifest in different parts of the brain, and each function can activate multiple parts of the brain simultaneously.

The three core functions identified in the neuroscience model of compassion are:

  1. Social cognition
  2. Visceral/emotional empathy
  3. Reward motivation

Social cognition has to do with the cognitive aspect of our social interactions – in other words, “how people process, store, and apply information about other people and social situations”.  Visceral/emotional empathy, on the other hand, is the emotional response generated in us when we connect with, or feel concern for, someone who is suffering.  Reward motivation relates to the personal, intrinsic satisfaction – warm inner glow – experienced when we are compassionate (which serves as a motivator of compassion).

Kelly maintains that all three brain functions have to be present, and effective, for sustainable compassion towards others and they need to be in balance.

For example, what potentially impedes effective social cognition is “dehumanization” of the observed individuals as a result of “unconscious bias” influencing our perception of others who differ in race, age or gender, or even in the sporting team they support.  Kelly reports, as did Dr. Richie Davidson, that meditation practices – such as loving-kindness and compassion meditation – can reduce such implicit bias and provide a more balanced social cognition that is not blind to the suffering and needs of a particular group.

Visceral/emotional empathy has to be balanced with reward motivation that can occur with compassionate action.  Kelly reports research that shows that if people are trained in empathetic meditation, without experiencing the reward component of compassion, they can potentially experience “empathetic distress”- a form of emotional overload resulting, in part, from too close an identification with the sufferer without the reward relief experienced through compassionate action.

This last imbalance resulting in “empathetic distress” has been observed in people in helping roles in difficult situations, e.g. war arenas.  Where helpers do not experience, or stop experiencing, the intrinsic rewards of compassionate action, they are prone to “burnout”.  Burnout occurs when we exhaust our reserve energies as a result of trying to close the gap between effort and intrinsic reward, in other words, we start working harder and harder for less and less positive outcome – we perceive that we are ceasing to make a difference.  Research has been shown that for sustainable compassionate action in these difficult arenas, helpers need to experience “reward motivation” – the intrinsic satisfaction sometimes experienced as  a warm inner glow.

Another important insight from neuroscience mentioned by Kelly is that we do not need to have self-compassion to be compassionate towards others.  Increasingly, compassion towards others is seen as an innate human capacity.  On the other hand, we seem to create all kinds of barriers to self-compassion such as fear, anxiety or anger.   Kelly maintains that the biggest barrier to self-compassion is the absence of the reward satisfaction when people feel the suffering of others, but do not experience the warm glow from taking action that makes a difference to someone’s suffering.

In summary, as we grow in mindfulness through loving-kindness and compassionate meditation, we can reduce our unconscious biases, free ourselves from the inertia of “empathetic distress” and open our minds and bodies to compassionate action resulting in reward motivation that will sustain that compassion over time.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: Courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay