By Saki F. Santorelli
I have had the good fortune of working with and training several hundred patients/participants per year in the use of mindfulness meditation. In the context of preventive and behavioral medicine, mindfulness practice is a vehicle for stress reduction that assists people in learning to replenish their internal resources and increase psychosocial hardiness.
In addition, many participants report positive changes in their sense of self, including a deepened sense of self-esteem, an increased ability to care for themselves and understand their fellow human beings, and for some, a finer appreciation for the preciousness of everyday life. In addition to the ongoing clinical work, I act as a consultant and staff development trainer. These programs are tailored to individual, corporate, and institutional needs with an underlying emphasis on the cultivation and implementation of mindfulness and mastery in the workplace. Out of one such program evolved; “21 Ways to Reduce Stress During the Workday."
During a training program for secretarial staff, I was struck by their struggle to ground and integrate the stability and connectedness they sometimes felt during the sitting meditation practice into their "non-sitting" time. In response to their need, "21 Ways" came into print. I proceeded by simply asking myself "How do I attempt to handle ongoing stress while at work?" --actually from the time I awaken in the morning until I return home at the end of the workday. In what ways do I attempt to infuse mindfulness into the fabric of my everyday life? What helps me to awaken when I become intoxicated by the sheer momentum and urgency of living?
In all honesty, the awareness cultivated through meditation training has been my saving grace. Mindfulness harnesses our capacity to be aware of what is going on in our bodies, minds and hearts in the world-and the workplace. One thing we discover as we pay closer attention to what is going on in and around us is that stressors, the continual and constantly changing flow of events, are ever-present and tend to draw us away from the awareness of our true self. Meditation is the practice of returning to our true self. What the secretaries were struggling with is the gap between that awareness (sometimes) realized while sitting, and the dissonance experienced in their workday environment and their "workday mind." What they wanted was a vehicle for integrating "formal practice" into everyday life.
Although this need for integration is familiar to all of us, notions about how to do this remain largely conceptual unless we find concrete ways of practicing that transform theory into living reality. This is exactly what the participants wanted. They got enthusiastic about this as it provided them something solid to work with while attempting to be mindful in everyday situations-particularly while on the job. Since then, I've shared these with many workshop participants and continue to receive phone calls and letters from people who have either added to the list or posted them, as convenient reminders, in strategic locations such as office doorways, restroom mirrors, dashboards or lunch-rooms. I've been gladdened to hear from them and am happy that, by its very nature, the list is incomplete and therefore full of possibility.
Each of the "21 Ways" can be seen as preventive--a kind of pre-stress immunity factor or as recuperative--a means of recovering balance following a difficult experience. In addition, they are tools for modifying our reactions in the midst of adversity. As you begin to work with these, you'll notice that this includes pre, during and post work suggestions. Incorporating this 14 awareness into your life will necessitate a skillful effort that includes commitment, patience and consistence. It may be helpful to think of yourself as entering a training program, a training that is primarily self-educative and necessitates a willingness to view yourself as a learner, a beginner. Please allow yourself the room to experiment without self-criticism. Treat yourself kindly and enjoy the journey.
At the heart of workday practice is the intention to be aware of and connected with whatever is happening inside and around us (mindfulness) as well as the determination to initiate change when appropriate (mastery). A wonderful example of this process is revealed in the following story told to me some years ago by a physician friend.
"Little Green Dots"
My friend told me that as his practice grew busier and more demanding, he began to have minor, transient symptoms that included increased neck and shoulder tension, fatigue, and irritability. Initially, the symptoms were benign, disappearing after a good night's rest or a relaxing weekend. But as his medical practice continued to grow, the symptoms became persistent and much to his own chagrin, he noticed he was becoming "a chronic clock-watcher."
One day, while attending to his normal clinical duties, he had a revelation. He walked over to his secretary's supply cabinet and pulled out a package of "little green dots" used for color coding the files. He placed one on his watch and decided that since he couldn't stop watching the clock, he'd use the dot as a visual cue that served as a reminder to center himself by taking one conscious breath and dropping his shoulders.
The next day he placed a dot on the wall clock, for he realized, "If I'm not looking at the one on my wrist, I'm looking at the one on the wall." He continued this practice and by the end of the week had placed a green dot on each exam room door. A few weeks after initiating this workday practice, he said that, much to his own surprise, he had stopped, breathed, and relaxed 100 times in a single day. This simple, persistent decision to be mindful had been transformative. He felt much better, and most importantly, patients told him that he was "much more like himself." For him, that was icing on the cake.
The story is simple and direct. Using what is constantly around us as a reminder of our innate capacity to be calm and centered is essential if we wish to thrive in the midst of our cultural busyness. Years ago, while working with harried receptionists, I suggested that they use the first ring of the telephone as a reminder to breathe and relax. For many, this became a powerful agent of change. People they had spoken with on the phone for years didn't recognize their voices; they spoke more slowly and their voices settled into the lower ranges. The telephone no longer elicited a Pavlovian reaction. They had learned to respond rather than react.