Let’s start with the obvious: many of us lead very busy lives. Usually more than we can realistically handle in the allotted time. Most of us, especially those of us in senior leadership roles, can feel like we’re in a constant rut of overwhelm. There is always more to do, remember, and achieve than hours in the day. And when we do one thing, our mind tends to remind us of the dozens of other things that require our attention, or that we believe can’t get done in time.
Our minds react to this with stress and often anxiety. The problem however is that our mind perceives this busyness as real. As if it was happening right now. To the mind, the future and past always happen right now. When we engage in memories from the past we relive the memory in the now, we can even re-feel the joy or pain of that moment. The same is true for our ideas of the future. When our mind creates thoughts about the future, of potentially negative consequences (catastrophizing) our mind experiences them as if they were happening right now.
And that is where mindfulness meditation comes in. Time is an illusion created by our minds. You can only live in the now. When we are thinking about the past or the future we really are just experiencing memories, ideas, and thoughts in the now. Mindfulness is a practice that allows us to step out of the conceptual into the experiential, or put another way, it allows us to “wake up” to what is real right now.
Thoughts are just thoughts (even at work)
I recently had this experience while being in one of the many Zoom meetings I attend these days: I felt distracted and worried about all the things that still would need to get done that day. A glance at my calendar revealed that I was booked up for most of the day. I had unanswered emails sitting in my inbox and I wondered when I would get to the many to-dos I had jotted down on my to-do list. As my mind was taking off in every direction, I took a moment to simply make space for all the emotions that had come up. Anxiety, a feeling of overwhelm, tension in my body, stress, a sudden loss of energy and joy, a feeling of strain.
As I noticed this, I took a moment to straighten my back, place my feet firmly on the ground and check in with my belly breath. As I was doing this I started to “re-awaken” to the meeting I was in. Re-grounding myself in my body and my breath, and moving my conscious awareness back from an anticipated future into the present reality, I felt an immediate sense of calm, energy, joy, and serenity return. What was here right now, was me breathing and attending a Zoom meeting. I realized I had allowed my mind to go off into a fantasy of what would happen in an imagined future. And then my body and mind felt anxious about that. By returning to the present moment, I was able to deal with what was actually here right now. Now, you can argue that none of the “re-awakening” to the present moment made the emails go away or the to-do list any shorter. And that is true. But I could approach each of those with presence, and energy, because my mind was present to them, as I tackled them. And I didn’t allow the fantasies of my mind to put unnecessary extra weight and strain on me.
Take it one thing at a time
There is a scene in Michael Ende’s beautiful book Momo that expresses this so well: The street sweeper Beppo is asked how he deals with sweeping a seemingly endless street in front of him without getting overwhelmed by the enormous task. He responds by saying: “Sometimes, when you’ve a very long street ahead of you, you think how terribly long it is and feel sure you’ll never get it swept […] That’s not the way to do it. You must never think of the whole street at once. You must only concentrate on the next step, the next breath, the next stroke of the broom, and the next, and the next. Nothing else.” That’s it. There always is just that one stroke, that one breath, that one word we say. Nothing else. When we live our life like that, not only will stress dissipate, we also are more efficient (after all, some studies indicate that we are distracted half the time), better listeners, more present partners, colleagues, and bosses.
Three ways to return to the present:
1. Daily re-awakening practice
Our minds are so busy hanging out in ideas, fantasies, and assumed future possibilities that it takes regular daily practice to “re-awaken” to the present moment. I do mine first thing in the morning and right before I go to bed. I sit down, set my timer and refocus my mind on my breath. Often when I start sitting down my mind feels like a highway of thoughts. Gradually, gradually I return to the present moment.
2. Stepping out of the narrative in the moment
Like many busy people I spend the bulk of my day in meetings (virtual these days). During most meetings my mind is often caught in some narrative: What point I need to convey, how I want to be perceived, what I want to get out of the meeting. When I notice that my mind has gotten lost in thoughts, I return to my breath right at this moment. By breathing and stepping out of the mental narrative it often feels like a veil is being lifted and I can actually be with the other person in the conversation (rather than with the thoughts in my head).
3. Having a reminder
A friend of mine, a busy CEO, has a Tibetan singing bowl on his desk that rings at random intervals. He says that whenever it rings it reminds him to let go of whatever he is working on for a moment and re-center. He says it allows him to let go of the “intensity” that he can fall into otherwise. It can be powerful to have a reminder that allows you to realize you got caught in your mind’s “intensity”.