For most of us, working is an unavoidable fact of life, and with jobs comes stress. Even if we’re self-employed or have a flexible schedule, stress is an inevitable part of our workday. Most of us spend most of our time at work. So, how can we work with our stress?
Typically we begin a new job or project with gusto, filled with hope and enthusiasm about the newness and possibility ahead. Promises of a perfect impression or the potential to advance motivate us to perform well and maintain a positive attitude. Eventually, however, smiles may begin to fade, and once-promising prospects become burdensome, when expectations are not met, or old patterns of thinking, feeling, or behavior creep in. The same phenomenon can happen with promotions, management changes, or new spaces; enthusiasm wears off once “reality” sets in. This scenario is so common that we seem doomed to repeat it at work. Fortunately, through mindfulness practice, we can be proactive and reclaim the optimistic mindset we thought we’d lost.
In order to undo patterns of negativity, let’s take a look at how they work. While we start a job or project on the right foot, intending to carry that energy throughout the length of our career, the brain has other priorities. It is wired for survival, and part of the brain constantly scans for threats and stresses in our environment. Its job is to identify patterns and categorize events in order to protect us from actual physical threats to our survival. We need this protection, but if we aren’t careful, we can easily become run by over-learned patterns of perceived danger and conflict which are much more symbolic than physical. This autopilot mode of fixating on stressors has become a modern hindrance. If we let it, it will cloud our perception and block creativity. By employing mindfulness at work, we can become aware of how the body and mind are “reacting” to a stressor, and we can see our automatic reactive patterns as they emerge. And here is the critical thing: we do this without judging ourselves. We become a neutral observer of the situation, and this helps us to see it more clearly. Even just a moment of presence gives us an opportunity to respond with skill rather than react automatically. To echo the late Tibetan meditation teacher Chogyam Trungpa, there is no problem in the present moment.
The beauty of mindfulness practice is that it allows us to choose accountability. Instead of being victimized by thoughts and circumstances, we can choose not to buy into them. Instead of being run by repetition, we can bring a freshness and new life to our work and attitude. Here are three ways to bring mindfulness into your work:
1. Watch Your Mind
When you start to notice your chest tightening in a heated meeting or your palms beginning to sweat during a presentation, turn inward and notice your thoughts. Is there an internal dialogue going on about how the situation should have gone but isn’t? Are old mental patterns dictating your response before you even have a chance to consider whether they still hold true for you? By bringing awareness to our thoughts, we begin to unravel their hold on our perception.
Do you find yourself formulating a response to a statement from a colleague before she’s even finished talking? This is hearing, but not listening. Try this: before entering into what may be a difficult communication with someone, make a decision not to talk. It can be for 1 minute, 5 minutes, whatever feels appropriate. By spending a meeting just listening, you may discover that there’s a wealth of information you’ve been missing because you were too busy coming up with a response or a defense.
A good way to de-escalate an automatic reaction, or unplug a negative thought pattern, is to bring attention to the breath. By shifting your focus from the mind’s chatter to the sensations of your breathing, you instantly bring attention to the what’s actually happening rather than rerunning stories and scenarios through the mind.
How can you begin to bring mindfulness into the workplace? What techniques do you already employ?