Mindfulness: Is it just a phase?

Mindfulness–we see the word attached to many commercial and educational products.  It’s all the rage these days!   How long can this last?  Is there a risk that “mindfulness” will end up in a heap of passing fancies alongside lava lamps?

Mindfulness practices are anchored in 2,500 years of mostly Asian spiritual traditions.  Practices in mindful awareness and meditation have benefited people in reducing stress, in managing pain and chronic illnesses, in treating depression and anxiety, and in developing overall well-being and productivity.  Research in neuroscience over the last 20 years has shown the benefits of mindfulness practices in a range of applications from medicine to athletic performance to increased productivity in the workplace.

Jon Kabat Zinn, a leading researcher and founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at the University of Massachusetts writes, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”*

In my work with clients, I focus on mindfulness techniques that help us to pay attention to our bodies’ response patterns under stress or pressure.  It doesn’t take much stress for our bodies to activate “fight, flight, or freeze” responses and for our brain’s higher functioning capacities to shut down.  In less than a second stress activated responses hinder our abilities to process information and to access confidence and connection in communication.

A practice in mindful awareness can help us get ahead of the stress induced responses and recover our more creative, confident and compassionate selves in the moment.  We value leaders who can show up strong, compassionate and connected to the people and causes they lead, especially when under pressure.

Clients and workshop participants tell me that learning the aikido inspired centering practice of Leadership Embodiment has been a game changer for them in becoming more skillful communicators and problem solvers in their most challenging leadership moments.

Try this streamlined centering practice and re-connect throughout the day:

  • Find extension in your posture and lengthen your spine.
  • Inhale up. Imagine your breath going out the top of your head. And slowly exhale, down, softening your chest and bringing to mind something or someone that makes you smile.
  • Imagine the four corners of the room and expand into that space all around you.
  • Relax your jaw, relax your shoulders.

Repeat early and often!  You can never over-center!

*Kabat-Zinn, Jon.  Wherever You Go There You Are:  Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.

Facilitator's Corner: How do you begin meetings?

“How does your culture call out the best in you and your team so that you inspire excellence in each other?”

As an organizational consultant and meeting facilitator I notice how groups begin meetings.  What does the beginning look like?  When do the meeting participants know that the meeting has begun?  What signals or clues or rituals indicate:  “It’s time to stop chatting and talk about what care about.”
labirynthBeginnings set the tone and expectation of what we are going to talk about and how we are going to talk about it.
Sometimes meetings begin with an “ice breaker.”  And facilitators seem to have a number of those in their tool kit. When I think of ice, I think:  cold climate, ice skating, scraping my car, mittens.  It definitely creates the mood and tone of chilly!
I had the experience of facilitating two meetings last week where we didn’t begin with an “ice breaker.” There actually wasn’t any ice to break!  Each of the clients had requested to begin the meeting in the way that has meaning in their organizational culture.  In each case a meeting participant (not the boss) had been asked to start the meeting with a reflection, a moment of inspiration.  Inspiration contains the root of the word, “spirit”, and each of these beginnings invited the participants to reach for their best selves and for an aspiration that was bigger than themselves.
This moment was not about “breaking” but about “reaching and connecting” to bring out the best possible outcome.  The words chosen by the participants set the tone and set the expectation of shared ownership of excellence.
Time is a precious resource.  This has always been true.  Today’s experiences of buzzing and dinging mobile devices give us constant reminders of how little time there is to get to everything on our calendars.
So, how do you begin?  How does your culture call out the best in you and your team so that you inspire excellence in each other?

Seven Principles for Courageous Conversations

It’s an honor to hold the space for leaders to speak their truth in times of disagreement or conflict.  What seems to embolden and inspire courageous conversations is a shared higher purpose and vision for the work of the team.    Successful teams know that  without the courageous conversation their work will stall and stutter and lack authenticity.  They know they must traverse the choppy waters before they can get to the smooth sailing.
In the past couple of months I have facilitated courageous conversations with leadership teams.  And this is what I have learned as guidelines for having conversations that successfully move the team to solutions:

  1. Build trust by reaffirming common purpose.  What brings you to the conversation?  What do you care about in this conversation?
  2. Name the conversation, before you begin.  Agree on the topic of the conversation.  What is it we are speaking about?  Avoid euphemisms, jargon, or code words.  Give the conversation a direct name.  Begin with the phrase, “This is a conversation about….”
  3. Agree on norms or rules for the conversation. How will you be with one another in the conversation?  This usually involves statements about confidentiality.  It’s about owning one’s experience and using ”I statements” rather than being tempted to blame and point the finger.  This involves talking about civility and respect and how you as a group can protect these essential qualities.
  4. Write out your agreements for how you will be with one another so that everyone can see them and contribute to them.
  5. Allow everyone equal time to speak.  Sometimes not everyone will feel comfortable speaking.  Make sure even if people choose not to speak, they still have time for their voices to be heard.
  6. Leave silence in between statements.  There is such a temptation to fill the silence.  Yet this silence can serve as buffer and time to reflect so that people can reconnect to what they care about and stay present in the conversation.
  7. Check in periodically and invite people to take three deep breaths before continuing.  Again, it’s useful to pause and help people reassure the part of them that feels threatened so that they can access higher order thinking and problem solving.


Leadership Presence in a Lightning Speed World

earth as ally.cbachy2What is leadership exactly?  What does it mean to lead? To be a leader?  Who leads? Do you have to have a title to lead?  To have letters that begin with a C next to your name to lead? 

In the past few years I have had the opportunity to learn from Harvard Kennedy School Professor, Hugh O’Doherty about what leadership means in our times.  I paraphrase the definition that Dr. O’Doherty offered in a graduate seminar I took with him:

“Leadership is the capacity to mobilize others to face the repertoire of problems for which we don’t have enough information or the skills to solve.  Authority alone doesn’t cut it. 

The dilemma of leadership is that there are multiple interpretations of what the problem is and what we should be doing.”

I find this definition so refreshing in its “realness.”  There is no fluff or fanfare.  In my work with clients, I find that this definition most aligns with their experience of leadership.    

Our problems are complex.  At times we don’t agree on how to define the problems, let alone agree on what the solutions are.  When we look to our usual technical solutions, we don’t find a shelf full of tools for an easy fix.  The solutions we are looking for come from the ability to sit in the uncertainty and discomfort of the unknown, to form partnerships and alliances, to deal with conflict, and to adapt to new realities that we have yet to conceive.   These adaptive solutions call for deeper, inner capacities and strength to be steadfast and patient for the long run.  It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.  And yet we feel like we have to run faster than ever in this lightning speed information world.

So, how do we pace ourselves?  How do we find renewal in leadership?  Here is a primer gathered from a few areas that Hugh O’Doherty and other leaders in the field of adaptive leadership focus on:

1)     Connect to your purpose.  Why do you do what you do? Your fire, not the, polished mission statement of your organization.  What gets you out of bed in the morning?

2)     Get on the balcony to observe the dance floor.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the day to day activity of our worlds.  Be an observer once in a while. Step up on the balcony and get another view of what is happening on the dance floor.  What’s the music underneath the action?  Who is dancing? Who is not?  Who’s dancing with who and how?

3)     Find sanctuary:  space to know yourself, to be quiet, to come back to your center.  It would be great if we could go on more retreats up to the mountain tops and return the wise sage.  The reality is that these special “retreats” away are few and far between.  In the meantime,  how do we find sanctuary, inner space to come back to our center, to what we care about, to our purpose.

4)     Find and connect to confidants and allies.  “The days of the lone wolf are over,” say the Elders of the Hopi Nation.  Adaptive challenges call for new partnerships and alliances:  coaches, mentors, confidants to support and challenge us, to remind us of what really matters.

Mindfulness–Not just for Hermits!

steps to a goalOver the past few months I have noticed the practice of “mindfulness” showing up unexpectedly in professions that tend to the linear, analytical, and logical.  The Washington State Bar Association, for example, recently published an article entitled, Paying Attention: Integrating Mindfulness into Your Practice.

“Increased scientific research gives evidence of the positive effects of mindfulness on the brain, the nervous system, and the body as a whole—demonstrating that the mind and body are not separate,” report authors Sevilla Rhoads and Sherry Williams in the Washington State Bar News.

Meanwhile at Emory University in Atlanta, Professors of the Sciences are partnering with Tibetan Monks to bridge Western Science and contemplative traditions practiced by the monks.  Monks can be seen studying science and developing new vocabulary to add to the Tibetan language that would explain scientific concepts to their colleagues back home.  And Professors of Sciences at Emory “have been contemplating the science of the heart and the mind in new ways,” writes Kim Severson in her Seattle Times article on this topic.

So what do we mean by mindfulness?  Jon Kabat-Zinn (founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School—wow, wasn’t that a mouthful!) says “mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way on purpose, non-judgmentally, in the present moment.”

How can we begin or deepen practices of mindfulness in our daily lives so that we can experience benefits of greater awareness, better listening, and more healthful abilities to manage stress?

Here are three practices to integrate into your day: 

1)  Take pauses of intentional silences in between meetings—begin with two minutes and aim for five as a goal.  During these silences, discipline your mind to focus on the present moment: your breath, the sounds around you, the feel of the air on your skin.  Two minutes!
2)  Eat an almond without biting into it first.  Let it soften in your mouth. Notice the tastes and sensations in your mouth.  Savor this almond.  Explore how you can make that almond last for two minutes. Eventually bite into it but not right away.  This practice also helps us to develop consciousness and appreciation of our food.    In a world where lunches are skipped or hurriedly inhaled at our desk while responding to email, this practice offers a moment to remember how to nourish ourselves with the food we eat. ·        
3)  Walk at half speed.  For a short distance and for about ten minutes, consciously slow down your walking pace to half speed.  Notice the ground under your feet.  Be aware of the articulation of your ankles, toes, and knees.  Pay attention to your spine, your legs, your hips, your shoulders, your head.  How are you breathing? Pay attention to the expression on your face: is there a frown, a smile, tension? Just notice. No judgment.

To make this fun and successful here are a few tips:

  • Adopt a mood of experimentation!  This sounds like:  “What if I just tried one of these for a week and see what happens?” 
  •  Set realistic and achievable goals. 
  •  Attach the practice to a routine in your day that you already do.  For example if you take a dog for a walk, you can try walking at half speed for part of that walk.  If you like to have almonds for a protein snack, try savoring one for two minutes.


Claiming the Empty Spaces – The Importance of Idle Time in a Fast-Forward World

rose the gift of timeThe importance of downtime cannot be overstated. We see more clearly, we hear more keenly, we’re more inspired, we discover what makes us feel alive. 


Recent studies in neuroscience (from Harvard Professors Daniel Gilbert and Randy Buckner) show us that when we appear to be doing nothing, a whole network of our brain lights up.  While we are engaged in tasks and look busy, this same vibrant network goes dark.  That dark network, when awakened, provides us with our deepest learning and reflection as well as powerful imagining of our future.


Claiming time to ourselves—time that is often labeled “unproductive”—and sticking to it can be difficult. Here are a few practices to try as you give yourself the gift of time:

  • If you ride public transit or are a passenger in a vehicle on your commute, keep your cell phone in your pocket or bag.  Instead stare out the window; give your brain a chance to light up those areas that go dark in the busyness of our lives.


  •  Instead of grabbing a left over piece of Halloween candy, take a five minute daydream break.  Stare out the window or at a piece of art in your office.
  • When you hear yourself saying things like, “I need more time to myself,” consider getting specific and dedicating a block of time for yourself in the day.  You might say, “I’d like to spend 20 minutes by myself in the morning before everyone gets up.” Or, “I would like twenty minutes for me before I open my office door or respond to others’ requests.
  •  Be on the lookout for unexpected gifts of time, that can feel like “playing hooky”. Use that time to take a walk around the block; sit on a park bench; look at the trees or watch the pigeons.
  •  Practice doing nothing. Begin with short periods at first.  You can build up to thirty minutes or maybe even an hour with practice. “Doing nothing” is an art, and like all art you need to practice it to reach your highest potential.


 My daughter tells me her fourth grade art teacher, Ms. T., begins class with five minutes of “daydreaming time” where the students are invited to simply do nothing.  What a radical idea!  I think, Ms. T., is on to something. She is encouraging healthy brain habits for these young minds.


We can all benefit from Ms. T’s invitation for daydreaming time.  Our idle time can be like a beautiful rose. It’s magnificently just there. And yet, it refreshes and inspires by its simplicity and beauty.


It’s stunning, how simple it really is.