As busy professionals, we usually can’t stop when we are feeling overwhelmed, provoked, or off-kilter to recenter ourselves and then re-engage with our colleagues cool, calm, and collected. It would be great if we could put the world on pause while we get ourselves together, but that is not a realistic expectation. So, given that we are constantly being pushed and pulled in all directions, what can we do to more effectively recenter ourselves and spend less time in unproductive states of mind?
Mindfulness practice offers us one path to accomplish this. Mindfulness practice helps us to return to the present moment, just as it is, without judgment. Returning to the present moment is a kind of remembering; remembering where we are, what we were intending to accomplish, what our commitments and aspirations are, and remembering how we want to be in a relationship with others.
Remembering to return to the present moment allows us to see what kind of mind states we have been in, where we are carrying stress, and to regain some perspective. Maybe we will stand up and walk away from the screen for a moment, or perhaps just take a couple of calming breaths. We may stretch a little to relieve stress or jot down a few notes about what we want to do next. We might rethink a course of action or something we were just about to say which would not have been skillful or helpful. In this way, we recenter ourselves.
An image from our childhood may be helpful. Think about the experience of learning to ride a bike. When you first were learning you likely wobbled wildly from side to side, even to the point where you would have fallen off the bike if it weren’t for a watchful parent running alongside you. Over time the wobble diminished until it felt as though you were riding straight ahead. In fact, if you stop to notice, even today you are making multiple micro-adjustments maintaining your balance as you pedal yourself forward. These micro-adjustments become unconscious over time and we have the experience of moving in a straight line. Learning to drive a car follows a similar pattern as we become unconsciously competent over time.
Learning to be more mindful also follows this pattern. When we first begin to practice and realize how our minds are veering from thought to thought and constantly pulling us off-track, we may be discouraged. The realization of just how chaotic our minds can be is often a difficult experience. But over time we can learn to reduce both the frequency and intensity of the mental wobble and experience our mind as moving more in a straight line. The wobble is still there, but it recedes into the background as we go through our day.
Now, having remembered the present moment, and having recentered, we can re-engage with the fresher, calmer energy that we are experiencing. When we re-engage in this way, we no longer feel at the mercy of our thoughts and emotions and are more likely to act in ways that demonstrate the natural caring and connection we all aspire to.
This is quite a different approach from what many people believe mindfulness to be. We are not asking you to push away, stop, suppress or avoid the stream of thoughts and emotions that are continually arising. There are meditation practices for quieting the mind, and while enormously helpful, this does not require that you have a regular meditation practice. Instead, the invitation is simply to notice the thoughts arising and to gently, kindly, and without judgment return to awareness of the present moment. This is done most effectively for many by becoming aware of the breath as it rises and falls. Don’t do anything with the breath; simply become aware of the breath in your nose, throat, and diaphragm, rising and falling. You can also bring your awareness to some part of your body, such as the sensation of the soles of your feet on the floor, or the experience of the palms of your hands as they rest on your lap.
Why is this effective? Because our thoughts often take us away to some memory or experience of the past, or a fear or fantasy about the future. Our bodies then experience the hurtful memories or the future anxieties as though they were happening right here, right now. Our minds are very skilled time travelers, but our bodies and breath stay right here in the present moment. Practicing remembering, recentering, and re-engagement over time, you may begin to notice, often after the fact, that your attention is steadier, you are less easily distracted or upset, and when you are thrown off-kilter you are able to find your way back to center more quickly, more easily, and with less judgment. The wobble is still happening, but it has receded into the background and you feel as if you are gliding on a straight path.
A colleague who studied the martial art Aikido with the man who developed the discipline tells this story: “Master”, he asked one day, “how do you stay centered all the time?” “Oh, I get off balance all the time” the master replied, “the difference is that I get back to center very quickly.”
This is the possibility that mindfulness practice offers us. We may not have a “Pause” button for the world around us, but we do have the ability to pause ourselves, if only for a few moments, and notice our thoughts, letting go of whatever we have been obsessing about or holding and take a breath. When we can remember to be in the present moment, we can more and more quickly and without judgment recenter ourselves and re-engage with more peace and clarity.
It only takes a moment, but it can be transformative. Try it and see.
Additional articles on mindfulness:
Mindfulness in the Midst of a Busy Day: Becoming Aware of First Responses
Jeremy Seligman is a Senior Partner at Brimstone Consulting Group. He is a former corporate executive with extensive background and experience as an organizational development specialist and executive coach. Jeremy is a longtime practitioner of mindfulness and meditation, and is a certified Mindfulness and Meditation Teacher, certified by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Sounds True, and the Awareness Training Institute.