Helpful Buddhas Meditation

This mediatation is brilliant for the end of a frustrating day, and it can actually be quite entertaining as well, and reminds me of the lighter side of life. I first came across it in Jack Kornfield’s book “A Path with Heart”.

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Sit quietly and tune into your breathing. Imagine that the earth is filled with Buddhas (or whatever wise guides you prefer), and every person you have met today is one of these enlightened beings, there just to teach you a lesson. Each person exists entirely for your benefit and is acting to help you learn something new.

Your task in this meditation is to discern the lessons that have been offered to you today.

So, if you have just been to a job interview, and found they had a favoured internal candidate all along, perhaps there is some thing to learn about non-attachment or compassion.

If your boss has been piling the work on, the lesson could be around finding your wellspring of calm in the face of it all, or developing your assertiveness skills.

If you have been stuck in a heavy traffic jam on the way home, maybe all those drivers were there to teach you to accept your boredom and turn it to mindful acceptance.

A bullying colleague could be there to teach you to to find the inner strength to believe in yourself, ask for help or change your situation.

The more you use your imagination, the more you can see the ways all these wise beings are helping you. What I love about this meditation is that it can make difficult situations feel lighter and de-toxify difficult relationships.

If you have never meditated before, see my post onReally Simple Meditation to help you get started.

 

 

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Getting Comfortable with Discomfort

“One can choose to go back towards safety or forward towards growth. Growth must be chosen again and again, fear must be overcome again and again.” So said Abraham Maslow, and he did know a thing or two about personal growth, self-actualisation and the hierarchy of human needs.

Every day we are faced with the choice of whether to take the safe and comfortable option, the familiar path, or whether to do something new and challenging even though it makes us uncomfortable.  If we take the safe option, we know we will feel ok but it’s unlikely we will learn anything new about ourselves or the world. If we take the riskier option, we could fail, but even if we do we will be learning something new and growing our capabilities. To grow to our full potential we need to be challenged and exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking.

A good reflective activity is to think about what we have done in the last few weeks that has stretched us.  I’ve often sat down with clients and helped them map out their comfort zones, stretch zones and panic zones as a diagram.

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The comfort zone is those tasks that are easy, unchallenging and possibly relaxing. My comfort zone is the routine of dealing with my usual work tasks, working with my regular team, relaxing over a TV series with my family, curling up with a good book, catching up with my close friends, my drive to work, my regular yoga class. I enjoy most of these activities but they don’t challenge me.

The stretch zone is the activities which make us a little anxious, because they are challenging or unfamiliar.  My stretch zone currently includes delivering webinars, training managers on new areas of work, going to a new yoga teacher and travelling on my own.  I recently did a zip wire activity high up (with harnesses) with my kids and took my 94 year old grandmother shopping with her new buggy; the activities were challenging in quite different ways. Work activities that I haven’t done for a while often sit here (configuring the annual appraisal process, for example) as do new tasks for which I already have the skills (planning an assessment centre). Receiving critical feedback or complaints is also a stretch; it’s never entirely comfortable.  These activities made me nervous, but in the end I was really glad I had done them, and I felt more confident in my abilities as a result.

My yoga teacher has recently introduced Hanumanasana (monkey pose or the splits) to our yoga class. It is definitely not in our comfort zone but there is something exciting about it and it does create a buzz in the class.

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Every time we do these stretch activities we grow a little. We learn more about ourselves by seeing what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes we find we are capable of more than we thought. When we succeed it is a real achievement. If we get comfortable with these activities through repetition, they become part of our comfort zone and the comfort zone grows bigger.

The panic zone is the activities which are too much of a stretch and we aren’t ready for them so there is high chance of failure.  In the panic zone we can’t think straight so we may not learn so much. My panic zone includes sorting out certain technical problems with the computer, climbing without harnesses (I am a bit scared of heights), karaoke (based on a traumatic experience of auditioning for the school choir 30 years ago – I didn’t say it was rational!), picking up big spiders and dropping back into a back bend in yoga ( even with the teacher holding me, I just can’t do it).  The panic zone is generally not such a useful place for growth, and may even be downright dangerous. However, sometimes it’s possible to build up to these activities in small steps, (holding gradually bigger and bigger spiders, for example) so that what was previously in the panic zone becomes part of the stretch zone.

In yoga there is a similar concept to the stretch zone, sometimes referred to as the edge. Stretching to your full extent is definitely uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful. We are always looking for this point of challenge in yoga, and then using the breath to find steadiness and ease at the edge of our current ability.  We bring mindful awareness to all the physical sensations, recognising when to keep stretching and when to back off. We also notice thoughts and feelings that arise (“when can we stop?”, “I think I’m doing quite well”, “why am I so stiff?”, “I used to be able to this better”) and learn to let them go, bringing focus back to the breath and body. The impulse might be to come out of the pose but we learn not to mindlessly follow the impulse but to notice it and then decide what to do for the best.

This can be a great bit of yoga learning to take off the mat and into real life. In our working lives and in making career changes we often need to put ourselves in the uncomfortable stretch zone area to achieve our goals. A young person might need to pluck up courage to travel on their own to an open day. A career changer might need to approach a potential employer to find out about opportunities. A competitive job interview is rarely in the comfort zone.  A new manager will be in the stretch zone as they work out how to relate to colleagues in different way. A manager might need to have a difficult conversation with a team member or introduce changes to their area of work. Organisational change always brings a level of discomfort to everyone involved.  Uncomfortable situations provoke anxiety, and our anxiety can impact on those around us if we are not aware enough to manage it.

This is where mindful awareness of reactions to stretching activities can be so helpful. When asked to do a challenging activity, one impulse might be to make an excuse for why it can’t be done. However, by noticing that impulse as it arises, we can chose whether to respond in that way, or choose another response. In approaching a difficult conversation, mindful awareness of bodily reactions and facial expressions can serve as a reminder to ground ourselves first with some deep breaths and compassionate thoughts before tackling the conversation. We can spot a self-critical inner voice that only serves to make us feel anxious about a high stakes event, and choose whether to believe it or not.

By learning to pay attention to our reactions in uncomfortable situations we can learn to feel our way through them mindfully. We can learn the difference between uncomfortable stretch and the sort of pain or panic that means we should back off. We can learn to notice our thoughts and know that they are just temporary mental events rather than reality. By being more aware of impulses, we can take control of them rather than mindlessly responding to them. Self awareness helps us to find a level of comfort in discomfort.  It is ok to be uncomfortable!

 

 

 

Self Compassion as a Career Management Skill

Self-compassion is a skill that is often lacking in the workplace. We often drive ourselves very hard to achieve or simply to keep up, even when it damages our health. We don’t always cut ourselves a lot of slack when we struggle to balance our work life and family life or cope with challenging problems. Many people are dogged by a self-critical voice that pipes up every time a mistake is made with variations on the theme of “you just aren’t good enough” or “you should be ashamed to have made that mistake”. When faced with a new challenge, the inner critic reminds us that we probably won’t succeed and may just end up making a fool of ourselves.  Moreover, we often believe that we are the only people who suffer in this way.

Self-compassion is our ability to be kind, forgiving and accepting of ourselves.  It is our ability to care for ourselves in the same way we would care for a child or dear friend: with tolerance, warmth and nurturing. We can  be self-compassionate whilst recognising that we make mistakes and have many imperfections and limitations.

In that sense, it is different to self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence, which all invoke more evaluation of how good or bad a person we are (often in relation to others) or how good or bad at doing something we will be. There is a judgement involved and the positive evaluation of ourselves is often dependent on us achieving certain things.

Self-compassion is a warmth towards our selves simply based on the fact that we are human. We don’t need to be good at anything or successful at anything to be self-compassionate; we care for ourselves just as we are. In this respect, it is rather like Carl Roger’s concept of unconditional positive regard except it is directed towards ourselves instead of others.

There are many meditation practices that help people to develop self-compassion. One example consists of visualising a wise being who sees our inner most thoughts and secret actions and offers us warmth and acceptance just as we are.  You could also try this guided Befriending Meditation by Danny Penman.

In yoga, we learn to cultivate steadiness and ease in our bodies rather than strain, and learn to accept our physical limitations with kindness. It is a good lesson that can be taken off the mat and into our lives.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapists help their clients to be more aware of how their inner critic may be sabotaging them and teach their client to replace this voice with a more positive and encouraging voice. The client can learn to recognise where their internal narrative is critical, unkind or even abusive, and learn to challenge it. So if the inner voice says, “you are going to mess up this presentation” they can become aware of this thought, and consîder what evidence there is that the thought is actually true. There may in fact be evidence, perhaps previous successful presentations, that can be use during to challenge the inner critic.

So, why is self-compassion an important career management skill?  Self compassion helps us to be more accepting of difficult emotions, including fear, shame and anxiety. Most career changes involve some level of fear and anxiety, as we may worry that we could be making the wrong decision, that we might not be up to the job, that we might not be able to make a living, or that we will find it hard to adjust to a new environment. Self-compassion helps us to accept these difficult emotions as a normal part of life, rather than something to be avoided or hidden. If we accept them we can explore what they feel like rather than try to repress them or mask them as something else (possibly resentment, apathy, irritation or stuckness).

Self-compassion can also help us to take responsibility for mistakes,  be willing to listen to feedback and be more accountable for our actions. Instead of beating ourselves up for getting something wrong, we accept that mistakes are part of being human and we learn from them rather than hide them. This willingness to learn and develop helps us to cultivate the growth mindset which has been shown to be an important element for success. Wouldn’t any employer want to employ or develop the person who asks for feedback, takes responsibility for the outcomes of their work, and owns up to their mistakes whilst trying to put them right?

Self-compassion is also closely linked to compassion for others. Warmth towards ourselves is likely to increase feelings of warmth for others too, as we realise we are all on the same journey, experiencing the same range of feelings. Being able to form warm relationships with others is an important skill for networking, management and customer relationships. Warm and genuine relationships can help to generate opportunities, as others are more likely to approach us if they feel there’s is a genuine connection.

Imagine approaching a job interview with a genuine sense of both self compassion and compassion for others. We would accept that we were nervous and understand that everyone else probably is too. Maybe we could even extend that sense of compassion so that instead of despearately hoping that we’ll get the job, we offer the wish to the interviewers that they have the wisdom to pick the  best candidate for their organisation, and we offer the wish to both ourselves and the other candidates that we can all give our best performances. Sounds hard to do but it would probably lower the stakes and reduce our sense of desperation. And even when we make mistakes and don’t achieve our potential, self compassion allows us to forgive ourselves, learn from our mistakes and wish the successful candidate well. With self compassion the experience is less bruising, so we will be less likely to give up.

Self compassion can help us to be more resilient, more able to bounce back from setbacks and more able to ride out difficult challenges.

Gratitude and Attachment

Anyone who has been working in the public sector over the last five years will be familiar with those difficult periods of adjusting to budget cuts, dealing with job losses and restructuring. At these times, our resilience is tested. Can we still find it in ourselves to come to work with a positive mindset, support our teams and colleagues, get on with business as usual and plan for the future, even though we don’t know if we will be part of that future?

To support myself in maintaining a positive frame of mind I decided to keep a gratitude diary. I have done this before, and it is surprisingly powerful. Cognitive behavioural therapists tell us that the triad of thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations are intricately linked. If we change a thought, we also change our emotions and physical reactions.  Getting caught up in negative thoughts or having a good moaning session will produce corresponding negative emotions. Contrary to popular belief, punching a pillow will make us feel more angry. And introducing more positive thoughts will produce more positive emotions and physical sensations. That’s how a gratitude diary works.

This time, I thought I would try a work focused gratitude diary.  I focused on my job exactly as it is right now, not how it was a year ago or how it might be next year. There are many good things about my workplace, which are easily forgotten. So here goes:

  • Lovely colleagues who are passionate about what they do, and also really nice, funny people
  • Great people to manage; they are creative, autonomous and care about the quality of their work (and they are really lovely people)
  • A boss who asks for my opinion and listens
  • The chance to make a difference to people’s lives
  • Great leave and flexitime
  • Decent pay
  • Autonomy – no one micromanages me
  • The opportunity to go to CPD events or spend time researching ideas
  • A decent computer with two screens
  • The chance to get to know some talented and inspirational external trainers

When I started thinking about it, it was not that hard to come up with ten items. But a lot of these things I usually take for granted.  Herzburg would call many of these (particularly the leave, flexitime, computer, pay and colleagues) hygiene factors. By this he means, if they are not present, we focus on them and become demotivated. But when they are present, we soon take them for granted.  They don’t motivate us in a positive way or create job satisfaction.

Doing a daily gratitude diary can help to bring these hygiene factors back into our thoughts, help us to have more positive thoughts, with corresponding emotions and physical feelings, and break up mild depression or work blues. Yogis aim to cultivate “santosha” or contentment, and this is a practical way of doing so.

However, the Buddhist teachings warn us about the dangers of attachment. Attachment to the things we value is a cause of suffering, because then we fear loosing them. If I feel attached to my computer with two screens, and then find someone else using it, I might feel little bit annoyed. If I feel attached to my work colleagues, and they decide to move on, I will mourn their passing. If I feel attached to getting praise or recognition, I will suffer when I don’t get it. Attachment to status, money or power may cause someone to move away from roles in which they would have been more creatively fulfilled.

So, if gratitude is a good thing, and attachment is a bad thing, how do we square that? What is the difference? Gratitude is a warm, thankful feeling, an appreciation of things as they are in the present moment without any expectations that they will endure, whereas attachment is a more needy feeling, a feeling that we cannot be whole without something else to complete us. Gratitude can be a general sense if thankfulness and contentment, a sense of having plenty, while attachment is always for something specific and is rooted in the fear of not having enough. Attachment can trap us, whereas simple gratitude does not.

However, I wonder if spending too much time focusing on gratitude might lead us to stay too long in jobs that really we should just move on from. We could could too zen to make a move!  I suspect that is probably not likely to happen. Being in a positive and open frame of mind has been shown to improve the chances of a person coming across a “lucky break” and it is certainly easier to do a job interview when you feel positive about your current job. Loosening the bonds of attachment can help us find the courage for change.

So, to maintain wellbeing in work, develop the gratitude, but beware attachment!

 

 

Tree Pose

DSC_0328This felt surprisingly high up and a bit scary! I can do tree pose (vrikshasana) easily on the floor, but add some height and uneven ground, and it was a whole different ball game! I like balances, because you have to focus and concentrate, and if your mind is as scattered as mine seems to be at the moment, that is a good thing.  I had to focus on a tree at my eye line and NOT LOOK DOWN because I am not all that good with heights and I do get a bit of vertigo.

It’s good to do things that a little bit scary from time to time, things that push you out of your comfort zone, where you need to trust yourself and your ability to meet the challenge. It’s what keeps your comfort zone growing, as things that were once scary become less so.

For tree pose, you need to be really firmly rooted down into ground, but not too rigid. You need to be able to wobble and come back to balance. A tree is firmly rooted into the ground, but can sway and bend with the breeze without breaking. The yogi needs the same qualities.

It was lovely to feel a bit of mud under my bare feet and squidge down into it, and then feel the leaves rustling around me, and be held by the strength of the tree.

Yoga isn’t just what you do on your yoga mat. Every pose can teach you something about life.  For me, tree pose is about learning to be grounded in your own values, having integrity and doing the right thing, but also being flexible enough to meet the changes and challenges that life constantly throws at you.

Happy spring, and let’s all enjoy this sunshine!

Childhood Dramas At Work

A story about my meditation journey

Meditation can bring up a whole host of negative emotions – anger, sadness, frustration, hurt – and sometimes all that seems to happen is you sit there with them.  You try to make the difficult feelings welcome, accept them, and experience them fully.  You notice that your throat is tight, your stomach is churning, your chest is squeezing, there are tears in your eyes and you try not to back away from these uncomfortable sensations.  When this happens over and over again, you wonder what the point is – nothing seems to be getting better. But then sometimes you have an amazing moment of clarity that is felt on a very different level to the moments of clarity that you might experience through more logical analysis.

So, here is a part of my meditation journey and my moment of clarity.

A situation arose at work where, due to a re-organisation, my position within my work team shifted.  I had been occupying what was really my dream job, and a very central position in the team.  Because of my role, I was often the first to be consulted by my senior managers and I had a lot of influence with them.  We would have little meetings without the rest of the team.  I also got on very well with them and they felt like friends as well as managers. They made it clear that they valued my work and my inputs. But with the re-organisation, a more senior manager was parachuted into that central role, and my role was changed, so that, although on the same grade, I was now on the periphery of the team working at much more of a distance from my senior managers and with no special relationships.  Suddenly, they were having little meetings, and I wasn’t invited.  Emotionally, it felt like a real kick in the teeth and I took it really hard, much harder than I should have done.

Every time I sat down to meditate, I felt overwhelmed with negative feelings of hurt, anger and sadness.  It felt like a really personal rejection, although logically I knew that there was no rejection intended.  I had been usurped and my position had been taken by this new manager.  Logically, it was hard to blame anyone – no-one had particularly chosen this situation, least of all the new manager.  But emotionally, I was in bits.  I just couldn’t get past it.  I found myself turning into a person I didn’t really like very much, full of negativity and bitterness.

Every time I sat to meditate, all these feeling arose, and all I could do was notice them.  They didn’t go away.  I began to feel a bit disillusioned with meditation since it didn’t seem to be turning me into the wise and compassionate person I wanted to be.  Sometimes I did loving kindness meditation, and tried to extend loving kindness to my work colleagues, but I couldn’t really feel compassion at a deep level – it was all my head rather than my heart.

But one day, as I sat to meditate, an image came to me that was so powerful it did transform how I felt.  I was suddenly a little girl again, on the periphery of my family.  My Mum and Dad and my younger sister (by six years) were close together and I was on the outskirts.

I think that this was a powerful emotion of my childhood.  I remembered photos of myself as a toddler, my Mum and my Dad together, so close before my sister was born.  Even when she was a baby, she was just a super-doll for us all to play with.  But as she grew older, she seemed in some way to replace me.  She was easy-going, compliant, cheerful and seemed to navigate her social life with ease.  I was awkward, spiky, shy and moody.  The more that my Mum seemed to prefer my sister, the more I did things calculated to annoy my Mum.  I felt uncomfortable in my skin, and different to every one else.  I never quite fitted in.

The image that came to me so powerfully in meditation was the three of them, posed as in the photos of my early childhood, but I am now on the periphery and she is at the centre.  I wanted to take my younger self in my arms, give that little girl a big hug and say, you know what, actually you are great just as you are.  You don’t need to change to fit in, you don’t need to pretend to be anything other than yourself, and you are of value.  You are lovable.  I sat for longer focusing all my compassion on my childhood self.  Other feelings seemed to soften and dissolve.

Later I extended that compassion to my sister who never asked for that role in the family. This wasn’t hard as my sister and I have always got on well and I always cared for her.

I also tried to extend that compassion to my parents, which was a little harder.  Now I am a parent myself, I know how frustrating children’s moods and behaviour can be, and that a parent can love a child and be frustrated by them at the same time.  I try to empathize with my mother who was probably doing the best she could.

I was also able to extend this compassion to my work colleagues in a way that felt more genuine than it ever had done previously.

I realised that in every job I have had, I have made great efforts to occupy a central position in my manager’s heart, by working hard, being excellent at my job, being helpful and being emphatic to my manager’s stresses.  It’s a pattern that I have repeated over and over with new managers – get my good work noticed, be super-helpful, then make friends.  It’s generally worked – my managers have rewarded me with challenging projects, praise, recognition, support and friendship.  But when my relationships with managers don’t work out like this, I take it hard.  It’s like they have reneged on their side of the deal.  That is not the ending I am looking for.

I began to wonder what it would be like to be different at work – less dependent on others for validation.  Less willing to please.

Transactional Analysis has a lot to say about how parent and child relationships get repeated in adult relationships.  The classic book, which I would recommend to anyone who is interested, is “Games People Play” by Eric Berne.  I read it a long time ago and I studied it again on my counselling diploma.  So maybe I already knew these things about myself and my relationships in an intellectual, analytical way. I probably did some kind of exercise in class about it.  But in meditation, I really felt them deeply for the first time.

I wonder how many difficult work relationships between managers and the people they manage are really the result of people bringing their childhood stories into work and re-enacting them, possibly hoping to achieve a different outcome.

Thinking of the people I have managed, some do really like to please.  One spent the first few months of our relationship greeting me with “what have I done?” as if she expected to be told off by the teacher.  Some like to make friends, whilst others expect a more hierarchical relationship.  They are probably all, to some extend, either repeating a comfortable pattern or looking for a happier ending.

 

Yoga and Career Development – an odd mix?

I have been a career development practitioner for 21 years and a yogi for 27 years, yet it is only in the last few years that I have started to see the connections between the two, and how yoga and meditation can really support career development and help people to make decisions and find fulfilment in their careers and working lives.  Meditation and mindfulness practices can clear the mind of clutter, making it easier break through barriers and make decisions that just feel right.  Yoga asanas (poses) can generate the positive energy and focus required to see things through to completion.

I am not a yoga or mindfulness teacher, but do try to practice yoga and meditation every day. I am on my own journey, and my practice has helped me to be more compassionate, more positive, more resilient, and less stressed and anxious.  Yoga has helped me face many workplace dramas from a calmer and stronger place.  More recently, I have added mindfulness into the mix.  It has helped me to focus on what I really want from my career and my life.  Yoga has always been for my own personal development, but the more I practice, the more sure I feel that it can be used to help others with their career development.

My career has always been in the career development of others.  I have worked with young people and adults, all struggling to make decisions and take control of their careers.  More recently, I have also worked in training and development, and organisational development.

Over the years I have studied counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, coaching, motivational interviewing, solution focused approaches, and borrowed from all of these approaches to help my clients and colleagues to take control of their work and their careers. Often the biggest barriers to career development are finding the motivation to get started and see things through, and the courage to make a change.  Now it feels like time to borrow some techniques from yoga and mindfulness to see whether they can help others to move forward in taking control of their careers.

This blog is the sweet spot then, between three of my passions – career development, yoga and writing.  I will tell you more about how I identified my passions in another post.  For now, I hope you find something useful in this blog.  If it gives just one person a great idea or some inspiration, then I’m happy.