Here at Idealist Careers, we are big advocates of using a mindfulness practice to ease burnout while cultivating focus. I’ve written pieces on applying mindfulness to your job search, how to work with stress instead of working against it, and how to get some perspective. Mindfulness is a key component of each of these approaches to your career. In the coming months we’ll be exploring mindfulness in more depth. This introduction is part of a four-part series that will help you become more acquainted with the practice behind the buzzword and how you might be able to make it a part of your life.
What is mindfulness?
By now you’ve probably at least heard the term, and might know that places like Google and Facebook have their own in-house mindfulness programs for employees. It’s possible you’ve also seen images of people sitting on the floor cross-legged and serene. But what exactly is mindfulness, and why would someone practice it?
Mindfulness is both a quality of awareness and a way to pay attention to something. Jon-Kabat Zinn is a biologist and Buddhist meditation practitioner who first brought the practice into a clinical setting in order to study the mechanics behind it, and to see how mindfulness could be used to cultivate health and wellbeing. What resulted from his studies is a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which is a secular set of therapeutic tools that emerged out of an Eastern context.
Dr. Kabat-Zinn distills mindfulness down to its essence in describing it as paying attention to the present moment on purpose, and in a nonjudgmental way. A mindfulness practice, which can include meditation, is the act of practicing this sort of attention in order to build your capacity to be in the present moment.
The benefits of regularly training your attention in this way are numerous. There are the immediate benefits of being less “mindless” or habitual. By acknowledging the uncertainty and change occurring in the present, we can respond and adapt to what is actually happening, rather than to our assumptions. Mindfulness has some concrete health benefits, too. Mindfulness has been linked with lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and also helps lower blood pressure. It has been linked to an increase in protective tissue in the brain. People who practiced mindfulness slept better than those who didn’t in one study, and it might even help you live longer!
What mindfulness is not.
It’s probably helpful to talk about some of the things that mindfulness is not. It’s not about stopping your thoughts. As an intelligent, caring, and passionate person, it’s good that you have thoughts! We don’t want you to shut that part of your mind off. The practice is about noticing thoughts, and changing your relationship to them, rather than struggling to stop them. Sure, you might have an internal critic that you wish would just be quiet. But part of a mindfulness practice is the recognition that trying to shut out particular thoughts by brute force of will tends to just bring more attention to them.
It’s also not a practice of sitting and willing yourself to relax. That doesn’t even sound relaxing! Instead of approaching relaxation and equanimity like a goal, mindfulness looks at these qualities as something to tend to, like one would cultivate a garden. We plant the seeds by sitting in silence and using the breath to come into the present moment, and then we tend to them- not by clinging, but by noticing- when relaxation and a sense of connection happens in our lives.
How to train your attention, resolve, and perspective.
So, what to do instead? Sit on a cushion or a chair. Rest your attention on the breath. When your attention wanders to a sound or a thought, you’ll just see if you can notice that it happened, and then guide your awareness back to the breath. You don’t need to try to make relaxation happen, or force yourself to clear your mind. All manner of things might pop into your head during a ten minute sit. From grocery lists to a pop song, the mind often has a lot going on once we’re willing to sit and check in. Part of the practice of mindfulness is noticing that and not letting the various machinations of the mind pull us away from our intention. And we do that by letting the mind do its thing so that we can familiarize ourselves with what that looks like.
What would mindful resume writing look like?
How might you apply mindfulness to your job search in a very practical way? Consider your resume. You can pay attention to it in different ways. You might attend to your resume in a way that is fraught with frustration, letting your mind project into the future, being critical of yourself for not taking that one spreadsheet workshop that you imagine would have made your resume look perfect.
What would the mindful approach be? Bring your mind back to the present moment, taking small steps necessary to move forward without judging yourself. Notice when your mind starts to spin yarns about some future catastrophe and gently guide your attention back to the resume.
One formal way to practice is to use the breath as an object of attention. This just means becoming aware of the way your breath feels in your body. When your mind wanders, which it will, just notice that it has wandered. Then bring your attention back to the physical feeling of the breath.
This back and forth helps the mind develop its capacity for mindfulness. By practicing an intentional, nonjudgemental approach to being in the present moment using the breath as our guide, we are training ourselves to apply this perspective to every area of our lives.
We all think we’re on pretty good terms with our internal states. But I tend to think of it like living with roommates. We’re actually just slipping notes under the door. Mindfulness means being brave enough to open the door to turn the light on and say “hey! What’s going on in here?” With genuine curiosity and an approach that treats situations as workable, a mindfulness practice is a form of befriending your experience and changing your relationship to your life, while also cultivating some health benefits.
This month we’ve looked at what mindfulness is and how one can practice cultivating this type of awareness. Next up is a look at multitasking and how it might be training our attention to be more fractured and distractible. We’ll also look at how mindfulness practice can be used to handle our many demands in a different way.
If your interest is piqued and you’re interested in learning more, check out this video. Author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg gives a talk about her book ‘Real Happiness at Work,’ with tips on finding meaning and avoiding burnout.
If you’re interested in a book that unpacks the mechanics and benefits of mindful awareness, psychologist Ellen Langer has a great book called, simply, ‘Mindfulness.’