Last Friday, I was rushing to a yoga class in a studio a few blocks away. (If “rushing to a yoga class” raises a yellow flag, you get a gold star.) My mind raced during the walk. Would I arrive on time? What time would the class be over? What were the most important things to do with what was left of Friday afternoon? Should I respond to a few messages? Advance a work project? Complete a marketing campaign? When would I get to the grocery store? Did I get enough done this week? Should I even go to yoga at all?
My mental chatter was interrupted at an intersection. I walked up, in full yoga uniform with a bag slung over my back, next to middle-aged woman in a wheelchair and her companion. The wait for a walk light gave me the opportunity to overhear their conversation. The woman in the chair commented on the day. “ Isn’t it a beautiful day!” she observed. “ The sun feels great on my face! Look at that perfectly blue sky. It’s so nice to hear the birds again.”
Her observations stopped me. They were expressed in the present. No resentment that the able bodied stranger next to her had opportunities not available to her. No chatter about where she would rather be on an early spring day. No remorse about what got her dependent state. She expressed full appreciation of the current moment. Through this stranger, I witnessed the peace offered from mindfulness; taking full advantage of what was available to her in that moment.
Mindfulness Moves Into the Mainstream
The concept of mindfulness has been with us at least since the birth of Buddhism in the 5th century BC. My interpretation of mindfulness is the ability to bring one’s full attention to the present moment, with acknowledgement and non-judgmental acceptance. Mindfulness has long been associated with the New Age set, dismissed as hokey faux religion practiced by the crystal wearing, granola crunching set. This dismissal may be short sighted, because mindfulness shows up time and time again as a practice to improve lives.
A recently published research in the Journal of Applied Psychology (JAP) suggests the practice of mindfulness is helpful to employees who wish to reduce their levels of emotional exhaustion experienced at work and improve their job satisfaction. The fact a study on mindfulness at work was published by a serious, peer reviewed scientific journal is evidence alone that it’s moved beyond the woo-woo category. Hülsheger, Alberts, Alina and Lang conducted two studies with over 500 employees in customer facing roles. Participants had jobs in customer service, teaching, public service retail sales or in hospitals; jobs that brought them into frequent contact with people who were not having their best days. As a result of intense interactions, participants reported frequently feeling emotionally exhausted and dissatisfied with their jobs.
The study results suggest the value of mindfulness practices to anyone who wants to reduce job related stress and emotional exhaustion. Here is a sample of some of the research outcomes:
- Mindfulness practices may mediate the stress produced by surface acting. Surface acting is what we do when we’re feeling one way but must respond in another. It may be what you do when you think She’s acting like an idiot but job requirements suggest that you ask Tell me the problem. Mindfulness trains us to recognize what’s happening in the moment in a non-judgmental way that reduces the need to surface act. It might be something like: She’s very upset and I’ll try to help.
- Self-awareness meditation, or trait meditation, may help people in high stress situations regulate emotional responses. Recognizing biofeedback of tenseness and irritability helped participants recognize triggers that predicted an emotional response and allowed them to address, and thereby regulate, their emotions.
- The positive effects of mindfulness practices varied by individual disposition and even varied by time of day. Not all participants were emotionally predisposed for mindfulness practices, and thus had to work harder at them. (Like those who rush to yoga class, for example). In other occasions, personal energy states or circumstances affected the ability to stop and be mindful. (It’s hard not to be judgmental about the person yelling at you). If you are like me and find being mindful more of a challenge, my advice is to just keep trying. Even a little bit will make a difference. The non-judgmental principle relates to you, too
The beauty of the mindfulness practice shows up every day. It shows up when people end their workdays with energy instead of exhaustion. It shows up when you see the joy you’ve created for someone simply because you’ve paid attention. It shows up when you hear someone choose to overlook the past or forgo anxiety about the future through a simple appreciation that the sun is warm and the sky is blue. She knew this moment was perfect. And, it was.
Interested in building your mindfulness practice? Many resources are available. These are two of my favorites:
Eckhart Tolle (1999). The Power of Now.
Thich Nhat Hanh (1991). Peace is Every Step.
U. R. Hülsheger, H. J. E. M. Alberts, A. Feinholdt, J. W. B. Lang (2012). Benefits of mindfulness at work: The role of mindfulness in emotional regulation, emotional exhaustion and job satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology (2013), vol. 98, No. 2, 310-325.