Mindfulness: More than a State of Mind

These days it seems I can’t avoid the topic of mindfulness: a CLE program on Mindfulness and the Law, Harvard Business Review articles on mindful living for busy people, and in the age of complexity, a continuing education class to reduce stress through mindful eating. Standing in line at my Coop, I glanced at a magazine called Mindful that features Ariana Huffington on the cover touting metrics for success that go beyond power and money, what she calls the Third Metric: well-being, wonder, giving and wisdom.

But mindfulness is not a panacea.

What is mindfulness? It is an ancient Buddhist practice that attempts to focus the practitioner on the present moment, without judgment or attachment. It’s not designed to get the practitioner anywhere –to reduce stress, to sleep better, to become more successful. Not even to attain enlightenment, although the theory is that by practicing meditation (and becoming more awake) you can more easily achieve it. Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book, Wherever You Go There You Are, puts it simply: “mindfulness…has everything to do with waking up and living in harmony with oneself and with the world.” [p.3]

What makes us mindless? Increasingly, the demands of our technological society leave us distracted, fractured, and exhausted. We are surrounded by devices that never stop –calls, texts, videos, streams, tweets, and instagrams– and we prize the ability to handle several tasks at once (multitasking). Yet one Stanford University study [1] found that students who were heavy multitaskers had more trouble filtering out irrelevant information from their environment, were less able to focus, and had more difficulty switching tasks. In the older brain, the effects on memory and subsequent recall are even more pronounced.

How do you become more awake? The first time I embodied mindfulness was at a week-long silent meditation retreat at Vallecitos Ranch in Northern New Mexico. We sat meditation three to five times daily, we ate communally in the grand hall, we chopped vegetables and washed dishes, and took slow, contemplative walks. All in silence. Only when we had one-on-one meetings (dokusan) with the teachers were we allowed to speak. This practice breaks you. By the middle of day three, it broke me wide open.

I was sitting zazen on a meditation cushion, eyes half open, staring out the window. My knees and back ached, but I tried to breathe through it. The bell rang and thoughts about my paternal grandmother came up; I started quietly sobbing because I hadn’t been as close to her as I was to my maternal grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. I sat with the pain of that heartbreak. And then a nut-eating squirrel entered my visual field. Shifting to ease my discomfort, I experienced darkness, and tiny bits of the food passing through its digestive track. In that moment, I had touched another being’s consciousness; Michèle did not exist.

It’s that sense of connectedness that is the pinnacle of mindful practice for me. It’s a state of being/no being that requires focus and concentration on the present moment. Everything else drops away. And you can do it whether you meditate or engage in any other activity that connects you to universal energy.

When you bring that state of being to negotiating, you’re more open to connections, the cornerstone of transformative negotiation. You are an active listener. You know how to clearly articulate your wants and needs. You’re well-prepared for the negotiation. You understand the context –cultural, linguistic, social–of the negotiation. You have a broad perspective, and see leverage and options. And with that, you are able to successfully achieve your goals and your partner’s goals, without doing harm. My Third Metric.

 

[1] Wallis, C. (2010). The impacts of media multitasking on children’s learning and development: Report from a research seminar, New York, NY: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

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