In her latest book, “Real Happiness at Work,” meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg says workers can use mindfulness and meditation to improve their work lives.
Salzberg, who is also co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, has also written other books, including “Real Happiness” and “Love Your Enemies.” She said it’s possible to be fully present, committed without being consumed, and to manage reactions and emotions to counterbalance stress and frustration so people can do better, more productive work.
What led you to write this book?
I saw with my student body, people who come to learn meditation, that there are a tremendous number of livelihoods represented. And I heard from them that no matter what line of work they had, they were experiencing great challenges at work — challenges in bringing their values forward, of feeling authenticity, of having ways to recoup and be resilient. I became intrigued by the topic.
If you had to narrow it down to three things people who work in offices could do to relieve stress, what would they be?
No. 1 is to remember to breathe. There are times when we get caught up by the momentum around us and we lose sight of our values and our own priorities. If we can get in the habit of just taking three breaths before we respond to someone, that would be really wonderful. Occasionally, ‘uni-task’ rather than multitask. We may be used to drinking a cup of coffee while on a conference call while checking our email while having the TV on mute. Again, we’re going to get lost. Just do one thing at a time. Remember that a lot of other people need to do their jobs well for us to do our jobs well, that we’re really part of a network, whatever it is that we do, and to pay attention to and appreciate others.
What are some mistakes people make on the job that counteract mindfulness, creativity and their ability to accomplish better work?
We can forget to listen to one another. Maybe we’re carrying old assumptions around about somebody or really guided by what someone else said about them and not paying attention to decide for ourselves. We may not be getting as much valuable information in a particular conversation as we could.
We also all have a tendency to project into the future, not plan meaningfully, but just project: What if this happens? Then that will happen. And we get filled with anxiety about imagined scenarios, which just zaps our energy. We also have too limited a sense of what we’re capable of. We need to look at those voices inside our heads that say, ‘You can’t do this; you could never do anything like this.’ See if that’s [accurate] or if it’s just an old story that we tell ourselves.
And meditation is how to counteract some of those negative things?
Mindfulness is the way to go. Maybe we’re starting to get irritated and we don’t quite realize it. We go to the computer and type out that email, and we press send. Then two hours later we go, ‘Oops. I guess I said that with some hostility, didn’t I?’ If we practice mindfulness — and meditation is one great way to practice mindfulness — we learn to be in touch with ourselves.
We can recognize what we’re feeling early on. We can see we’re getting caught in some old habits and have enough space from it to say, ‘Oh, that’s an old habit.’ We have a sense of choice when a reactive response comes up: ‘Do I want to follow this out? Maybe I want to write out the email and not press send quite yet.’
Mindfulness is really the key. For many people, even a brief period of meditation each day —five to 10 minutes — is an ideal way of cultivating mindfulness, because you’re not responsible for anything else in that five- or 10-minute period.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness means a quality of awareness where we’re connected to what’s happening in the present moment without the intrusion of many habits of mind. You know, those kinds of anxious projections into the future. Maybe that’s our big habit. Something seems to not be going well and right away we catastrophize it. … It’s not done in a useful way, just in a stressed-out way. That’s the kind of habit that affects how we perceive what’s happening right now and distorts it.
Mindfulness is having enough space from all of those habits of mind so that we can perceive more directly what’s actually happening. If you’ve been told that a new person at work is really boring, maybe they come in the first day and you don’t really listen or pay attention to them because you’ve already dismissed them in your mind as really boring. Maybe you realize that and you think, ‘You know what, I don’t even know that for myself. It’s just what someone else said. Let me actually listen to them, and fully pay attention to them,’ and maybe at the end of the conversation you agree, ‘Oh, that person is really boring.’ But maybe not. Life is full of surprises when we pay attention.
How would you advise someone who doesn’t know how to meditate?
To start, if you’re going to do five minutes you can just sit comfortably, you don’t have to get into some pretzel-like pose. Close your eyes or not, however you feel most at ease, settle your attention on the feeling of the in-and-out breath, the natural breath at the nostrils or the abdomen. You don’t have to try to change the breath, just rest your attention gently there. Actually feel the breath, and then know that it’s totally natural. It’s not going to be 900 breaths before your mind wanders. It’s going to be one most likely. You’ll spin out somewhere else.
We say the most important moment in the whole process is the moment when you realize you’ve already gotten distracted or you’ve fallen asleep. That’s the moment we can practice letting go of the distraction and just beginning again. That’s the kind of training that we’re doing in a sneaky sort of way in meditation, is training in continually being able to begin again, which is why it’s a resiliency tool. You sit down, you feel the breath, your mind wanders, it’s OK. You gently let go, and you come back.