For those coming to mindfulness for the first time, there is often a sense of uncertainty.
For tangible results – calm, productivity, resilience – we want tangible tools. Something as simple as being aware of our breathing for three or four minutes doesn’t (seemingly) hold much promise.
Beginner or not, I believe it’s important to continuously challenge this assumption. We can’t fully bring something into our lives without trusting its efficacy.
So how do we build this trust?
I think we need to create an environment that encourages the practice.
Even if it’s only for a short time, even if we’re initially only going on faith, this will allow us to see the benefits. Doing so can be difficult.
Especially at work, where we often don’t control our space.
Achieving Mindfulness at Work
In this post, I want to suggest that beneficially changing our surroundings is simple. I believe that computers can be potent tools for prompting us towards awareness. After all, most of our day is usually spent sitting in front of a computer.
1. One Thing At A Time
Multi-tasking is one of our most nonsensical habits. I say “nonsensical” because it’s rooted in a misplaced idea that we’ll get more done. Research suggests that attempting to focus on several tasks at once can increase the time taken to complete them by 50%.
How many tabs have you got open in your browser?
How many could you close?
As I’m writing this I’ve got nine. I’ve just closed six without any detriment whatsoever.
The internet provides us with an unusual opportunity to spread our attention across multiple activities.
We’ll be reading an article (or two) whilst checking our emails whilst listening to music whilst chatting on Facebook whilst searching for something on Google whilst filling in a spreadsheet. It’s endless.
Our productivity, and by extension our happiness, is dependent on our being able to focus on one thing.
When stressed out over a dozen different tasks we can “be” with what we’re doing. Which leads me on to point two.
2. Mindful Reminders
I’m a big advocate of micro-meditations. The idea is that we drop little moments of mindfulness into our day.
You might simply “come back” and immediately return to your work or you might use the prompt to do a little mindfulness-based exercise for a minute or two.
One way of doing this is to associate certain mundane tasks with mindfulness. With time, the response of returning to awareness whenever we do them will become habitual.
As far as your computer is concerned this is where things get fun. There are so many potential triggers:
1. When you switch between a tab in your browser.
2. When you start a new paragraph.
3. When you switch between documents.
4. When you check your emails.
These are great techniques for achieving mindfulness at work, conferences and during long training sessions. I like to use these techniques to incorporate more mindfulness exercises into my day.
We can also, of course, use technology to set ourselves mindfulness reminders. There are many apps and browser extensions that will sound a bell at pre-set intervals.
Plum Village, where Thich Nhat Hanh is the abbot, has developed a range of “mindfulness software.” I use the Chrome extension.
These are great ways of cultivating mindfulness in the course of your day, not just when your bum is on a meditation cushion. For more details read Bodhipaksa’s article on developing mindfulness triggers.
3. Mindful Email
Micro-meditations can also help us deal with situations more skilfully, in a way that brings compassion and perspective to them.
We can develop, for instance, the habit of re-energizing with our breathing when we’re bored or becoming mindful of our emotions and intentions when having a difficult conversation.
By training ourselves to be present whenever we’re reading or writing an email we’re better able to empathize with the recipient.
We can ask, “How will this tone or these words make them feel?” An otherwise mundane activity can become an opportunity to craft something meaningful.
Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace
Sharon Salzberg (writer of Real Happiness at Work) recommends sending a copy to yourself first. You’ll be surprised.
Given the amount of time we spend working, this seems like a reasonable wish. According to one study, the figure stands at 99,000 hours during a lifetime. That’s over eleven years.
But is happiness possible?
Should we try to be happy even in a job that we don’t enjoy?
These are the questions that Sharon Salzberg asks in her book Real Happiness At Work.
Contained within are practical steps to cultivating the qualities (eight in total) that she believes will lead to happiness. It’s these qualities, Sharon says, that shape our ability to relate to our working environment in a healthy, vitality-giving way.
The premise at the heart of the book is simple: whatever work we do, we can always foster more joy.
The advice is just as applicable to those who are self-employed as it is to those working for a big organization. Our desk and the clamors of day-to-day life provide a perfect opportunity for spiritual growth.
Here are five steps that struck me as being the most salient.
1. Practice “Stealth Meditations.”
A central piece of advice is to foster small but frequent moments of awareness throughout the day referred to as “stealth meditations.”
Amongst my favorites were “labeling,” a technique in which you name your painful emotions (research has been done into this practice) and “sending mindful email,” which simply involves using the writing and sending of an email as a mindfulness trigger.
Offering loving-kindness to people with whom you’re struggling is another great suggestion. Sharon also gives a nod to “coherent breathing.”
2. Cultivate Meaning.
A common attitude nowadays is that meaning is only possible when we love what we do.
Citing a 1997 study, Sharon outlines three different ways that people tend to view their work: as a job, as a career or as a calling. In each case, she argues, a true sense of purpose is possible.
Do we work for the love of the activity, as a means to support ourselves and our family or simply to have a life outside of the office? Any motivation is valid.
When we view meaning as coming from the relationship we have to our work, rather than something inherent in the work itself, we can return to our sense of “why” whenever we feel apathetic.
3. Act Compassionately.
A sentiment that crops up frequently in the book is that all human beings are essentially the same.
That is, struggling with their own demons and acting in accordance with what they believe will bring them happiness.
When we take this attitude, rather than the hyper-competitive, each-for their own mentality that’s very common, we enter into a shared sense of humanity. This is deeply healing. Not only for ourselves but equally for the people we’re surrounded by.
Whenever you’re feeling angry or bitter, ask yourself, “Who is this emotion benefiting?”
You’ll find that the only person being hurt is you. With a regular meditation practice, awareness will become a more prominent feature of your day, meaning you can be more open to opportunities for kindness when they arise.
4. Mindfully Welcome Difficult Situations.
When we get into the habit of dealing with our emotions mindfully, rather than distracting ourselves away from them, we loosen their hold over us. This is one of the key things I learned from the book. Next time you’re in pain, name the emotion and stay with it, allowing it to pass.
Research suggests that giving our full attention to a task improves our sense of well-being. In the chapter on concentration, Sharon explains how mindfulness can improve our ability to hold our attention on a single task.
Whilst decrying the pitfalls of multi-tasking, she suggests that increased awareness allows us to notice the pull towards a distraction without reacting to it.
Before beginning your next task, set the intention to do it mindfully, to return whenever you notice you’ve become distracted.