Two Truths and a Lie (Myth) About Mindfulness

In a team environment, have you ever played the game “Two Truths and a Lie” to get to know each other better?  Let’s try that with Mindfulness, though I won’t make you guess which one is the lie (myth). What is Mindfulness?  Simply put, it’s being aware of the present moment in a non-judgmental way.

While we’re at it, we’re sponsoring a Mindful Workplace Month (the artist formerly known as the 30-Day Mindfulness Challenge) to help support individuals that want to build a healthy mind-fitness practice.  You can follow along by coming back to this page, where we’ll have weekly updates during October or get daily updates from @MindfulWorkMove on Twitter.

Truth:  The science backs up the benefits

There are now over 6000 scientific studies about how mindfulness affects us, like reducing stress, increasing our ability to focus, and increasing our emotional intelligence.  Here’s a simple way to think about what’s happening to our bodies and why meditation or breathing consciously helps…

We have two nervous systems that control our bodies.  The sympathetic system, often called the “fight or flight response” has been finely tuned over time to keep us alive during danger.  During our caveman days if we heard a stick snap in the dark, we’d better assume it’s a saber tooth tiger. We instantly get a burst of energy - our pulse increases, and the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol flood our body. This is great if we need to run or fight.  It’s not so great when our bodies are constantly responding to perceived threats in our everyday life. Traffic. Email. Meetings. Stress at work or home often trigger this same response from our bodies.

Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Research suggests that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. More preliminary research suggests that chronic stress may also contribute to obesity, both through direct mechanisms (causing people to eat more) or indirectly (decreasing sleep and exercise).

The parasympathetic system, often called “rest and digest”, acts as a counter.  The two systems are binary, meaning only one is activated at a time.  In the forest after the stick snaps and we realize it’s our cousin, not a tiger, it takes our bodies a long time to calm down. The opposite physical experience takes place.  Our bodies, and our minds, start to relax.

We naturally activate the parasympathetic system when we sleep, take a leisurely walk around the neighborhood, or engage in a hobby that is pleasing and relaxing to us.  And…those things are often not available to us when we’re at work. We can, however, take a few deep breaths and learn to actively calm the body, which helps us calm the mind, getting back into a state where we can be at our best.

Truth:  At work we’re talking about mindfulness in a secular way

I sometimes get the question about mindfulness and its origins with eastern religion.  At work we’re not talking about religion, though we’re respectful about everyone’s personal path and journey.  We’re breathing, we’re spending some time looking inward, taking a short break from the outer world so that when we enter it fully again we are more and better prepared to be healthy and successful.  Think of it like the gym and the exercise equipment there. We work out, so our bodies are well prepared for the rest of our lives. When we meditate, it’s like a gym for our minds.

For what it’s worth, I’ve found that nearly every spiritual tradition has a practice of meditation.  They may call it something else, but the practice of going within is as old as time. What’s new is that we’re finding a way to have a dialogue about it in the workplace that is neutral and accepting of all belief systems.  We’re keeping it secular and inclusive.

Myth: To be successful, I need to “remove all thoughts from my mind”

One time, after a meditation session, I asked a newer participant what his experience was like.  He said, “It didn’t work.” “Oh” I said, curious and a bit surprised “Tell me about it.” “Well, I wasn’t able to completely clear my mind of all thoughts.  I still found my mind to be very active.” He looked a bit frustrated and concerned. “OK” I said, “And how do you feel now compared to when we started?” He said “Oh, I feel great.  I feel so relaxed. I haven’t felt this relaxed in years!” We all laughed together.

Yep.

It worked.

We sometimes have funny ideas about what success looks like.  I like to keep things simple. For me, if I feel better after practice than I did before I started…it worked!  Also, it's totally normal if there are times that you don't feel better or more relaxed. Having a busy mind and practicing bringing your attention back to your breath is actually a good mind fitness workout, like resistance strength training at the gym. Just practicing this "bring back muscle"  is a successful meditation. You are never failing at trying to still your mind, which is basically impossible. It's called practice for a good reason, and you can't really do it wrong.

Here’s a deep secret.  Very advanced. Do you want to know the type of meditation or practice that is the most powerful?

It’s the one you’ll actually do.

In other words, try different things.  Find what works for you. Customize it to fit your lifestyle and belief system.  Do it. Make the practice fit you, not the other way around.

Have a great day.

Scott Shute
Head of Mindfulness and Compassion Programs - LinkedIn