In 2019 I began a two-year program to become a certified mindfulness meditation teacher. I had used mindfulness with clients and their teams for many years. I started a meditation practice when I was 20. I hadn’t studied with teachers in a while. But I have always committed to my own development and it seemed a good time to focus on building greater “internal capacity”. With COVID lockdowns starting in the second year of the program, little did I know how important building greater internal capacity would become! It was a great program. It was long. A lot of work. At times it was really difficult to keep up. And it profoundly changed not only my meditation practice, but how I work.
Clients, even when they don’t necessarily like it (especially at first), will often tell me how much they appreciate a moment to stand back from the drama, from all the meetings and constant activity. I am intentional about sharing these practices with clients, almost all senior level leaders. Now more than ever, leaders and their workplaces need reflection time. Responding with greater clarity and equanimity is more important than ever. Our gut reactions aren’t always skillful. They don’t create the outcomes we intended. When clients take a moment to stand back and breathe, take care of themselves and their own needs, they can respond with greater choice and skill.
When I ask clients to practice reflection or some other form of meditation, they often tell me that it is very difficult. I understand this. There were times I dropped my meditation practice when things were really busy or difficult (or both) in my life. Of course, these were the exact moments where meditation would have been even more helpful than normal. And I was aware that part of the constant activity, the fear of standing still, was that I might really feel what was going on and I didn’t want to do that.
This is why mediation can be so hard at times for me and so many of us. If we sit or stand, or walk with the intention of sustaining moment to moment awareness, we open our attention to whatever is there. The thoughts, emotions and body states that we notice may be familiar. They can be pleasant. They may also be very uncomfortable. Paying attention, on purpose, can open the door to the cognition, the feelings, and memories they spark that we would prefer to ignore, deny or actively push away. Yet whatever is there, is still there, sometimes roiling just below the surface of our awareness and often doesn’t go away until we “sit still” with it, acknowledge and accept it, just as it is.
Jon Kabat-Zin, Professor Emeritus of the University of Massachusetts’s Medical School defines mindfulness as:
“Awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
This last part, “nonjudgmentally” has been the game changer for me. For most of us, what makes meditation difficult is that we often have a judgement of what we think and feel. “Good, bad, weak strong”, we add a constant stream of opinions about our own experience. Learning to simply accept what we observe and notice, can be fraught with danger or at the least, discomfort. Especially if we think of these judgments as the truth, backed up by years of repeating them and then acting on them (whether we know it or not). They create a kind of “neural groove” constructed from what we have made up about the world. And this can limit choice in how we respond.
Letting go of the judgment of what I notice, letting it be, just as it is, I am able to recognize that none of this internal data is inherently good or bad. But I don’t know this until I allow it more fully into my awareness.
The thoughts and emotions are often linked to memories or stories I tell about myself and my life. And when I become more fully aware of these I can finally decide if replaying them is useful or if they are or were ever true. And if my clinging to them, is supporting my life and work or not. If not, I can finally let them go. I have a choice. And with life and work, especially the work of leadership, choice is key. This is even more important when you are responsible for running a city, a corporation, or a country.
This is why I say each time I meditate, I die a little. But what dies, what I let go of, is flawed thinking based upon old, worn-out ideas about myself, my relationships and my work. I am letting go of the belief that I have to have all the answers, that I might be less worthy, or not smart enough or the fear that I really don’t belong. This realization allows me to be more intentional about how I behave. To act more aligned with my values, goals and the creative spark that lives in me and all of us. Even as some belief or idea I held about myself is dying, some more effective, skillful, compassionate and generative notion is being born.
Moira Clarke founded Leadership Consulting Partners 21 years ago to collaborate with leaders, teams and organizations to create more productive, effective, and human people systems and practices. If you are reading this to the end, and you find value, please say so and share with others on LinkedIn and Twitter. Thank you!
Welcome to Moira's blog. I write a (mostly) monthly post about the work of building better work places: people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.