Mindfulness in the midst of a busy day: becoming aware of first responses

By Jeremy Seligman

How can a busy leader incorporate mindfulness into their day?

Attention is one critical aspect of mindfulness. Most of our attention is actually involuntary, being pushed and pulled in all directions by the overwhelming number of distractions and anxieties we confront on a daily basis.

There are many practices that can give us the gift of a moment of quiet attention.  We can learn to bring the attention to the body, or more specifically to the breath.  We may bring our attention to feelings and emotions, and even bring our attention to the thoughts themselves that seem to be at the root of all our attention deficit problems.  We will return to each of these practices in turn.

But first, let’s look at how mindfulness can help you as a leader.

The following is something I often hear:

Mindfulness sounds like a great idea, especially the idea of just paying attention to one thing at a time.  But in reality, my job requires me to pay attention to many things in quick succession, especially since we’ve all been online. In order to do my job, I have to watch everyone on the screen, read the Chat stream, check my back-channel text group, refer to documents on my desk and on my desktop, all while monitoring the kids’ at-home schooling, the soup on the stove, and the dogs wanting to be let out or in.  I guess mindfulness just isn’t for me.

I get it.  This more or less describes the way most engaged professionals are spending their days.  They are always on, always monitoring multiple inputs, and it is just exhausting.  It can seem as though mindfulness, if available at all, can only occur away from the workplace and the Zoom screen, while sitting quietly in a darkened room. How is it possible to apply these practices to the reality of how our lives are these days?

There’s a story about the meditation teacher who was giving a talk and said to the assembled group, “Bring your mindful attention to one thing at a time.  When washing the dishes, just wash the dishes.  When drinking tea, just drink tea.”  Later that day, a student happened upon the teacher in the kitchen.  He was drinking tea and had the NY Times open on the table and was engrossed in an article.  “I’m confused,” said the student to the teacher, “I thought you said when drinking tea to just drink tea.” “Yes,” replied the teacher, “that’s true.” “And when you’re drinking tea and reading the NY Times, just drink tea and read the NY Times.

It’s a fact that busy professionals rarely have the luxury of stopping during their day to re-center quietly.  So, what can we do in midst of everything that can bring mindfulness in a way that is relevant to our reality?  In addition to the quiet, more meditative practices away from the busy-ness of the day, what can we do right here, right now?

One practical and very effective thing we can do is to take note of a stream of reactions going on constantly just below the surface, which most of us go through the day almost entirely unaware of.  Like the single-celled organisms we are evolved from, we are sampling every sensory input and deciding whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or not much of either.  Understandably, we generally like pleasant things and move towards them, dislike things we deem to be unpleasant and move away from them, and then pretty much ignore the rest.  These “first responses” are not something we’ve been trained to notice, and they run on automatic in the background pretty much all the time we are conscious.

Thoughts can be understood as just another sensory input, akin to hearing, seeing, taste, touch, or smell.  Thoughts arise without volition and we experience them as pleasant, unpleasant, or neither without ever being aware.  We might dwell on the pleasant thoughts and lapse into fantasy, or dwell on the negative ones and begin to obsess on others’ faults or our own perceived inadequacies.  This adds tremendous additional weight to the already challenging stream of inputs from the Zoom call and the news feed and the kids and perpetuates the cycle of being pushed and pulled by involuntary attention.

So here is an invitation:  As you go through your day, see if you can notice the constant stream of first responses.  You may wish to start with one of the five senses and add others in as you become more aware of the responses. You can add the sixth sensory input of thoughts after practicing for a while. Let’s start with the sense of hearing.  If you hear a car horn outside note “unpleasant” to yourself if you find it unpleasant.  If you hear a birdsong and it is pleasant to you, note “pleasant.”  That’s the whole exercise.  Practice not doing anything about the sensory input; watch for judgments or comparisons, or the urge to fix or do anything. Simply note the first response and then let it go.

When you are ready to include thoughts, continue with this practice of not doing anything about the first response of pleasant, unpleasant, or neither.  You may begin to discover the extent to which you have been pushed around by first responses.  By the time we’re usually aware, we’ve already done or said something that, on examination, we didn’t ever choose consciously to do. Simply becoming aware of first responses can be a major step in developing your mindfulness practice.

Work with this for a few days and see what happens.  When we can simply observe the steady stream of first responses and how they move us to action before we are even aware, we begin to feel less out of control, less overwhelmed, and begin to cultivate a dispassionate observer of all that is streaming at us constantly.

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.


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