Rewire Your Brain for Success: The Power of Mindfulness

Re-wire you brain, but don’t lose the fun

For real world stories, and real life guidance on the power of mindfulness, here is a webinar with Redwood Performance Group, on June 21, 2017.

Listen here  to the one hour webinar with Lydia Sani

Or read the  condensed transcript below.

Introduction and Objectives

Lydia Sani: Good morning everyone and thank you very much for attending today. Our topic is Rewire Your Brain for Success: The Power of Mindfulness. I’m Lydia Sani, one of the owners of Redwood Performance Group and we’re very excited about this topic and to be working with Meg. It’s something near and dear to our hearts. We’ve actually done a fair bit on the learning side with mindfulness and resilience. So, it’s a very exciting topic for us

Meg Salter is a very accomplished author. She helps leaders bring positive change through executive coaching and mindfulness coaching. An Integral Master Coach™, Meg supports her clients in overcoming hidden barriers, building new capacities and sustaining their desired change. She is the author of Mind Your Life: How Mindfulness Can Build Resilience and Reveal Your Extraordinary, which was actually the #1 New Release on Amazon’s Business, Health & Stress category (May 26, 2017). You can find the book on book on Amazon, or Chapters, or from links on Meg’s website. We’ll also give out three books at the end of the webinar, which Meg will sign before we send them out to you. A nice perk for attending!

The objectives today are:

  • The importance of mindfulness in today’s hyper-connected world.
  • What science tells us about mindfulness – and what it does not.
  • How mindfulness is less about the “ommm” and more about a dynamic awareness of whatever life throws at you.
  • Real life stories of what mindfulness has done for other, including Meg’s personal story
  • Simple strategies to get you started, that will ultimately lead to remarkable results in your daily life, which Meg can attest to because she’s seen them on a personal front.

We’ll do a poll now from you to get a feel for who’s in the audience and for what your exposure to mindfulness is.

Meg Salter: Good morning everybody and thank you very much Lydia for the opportunity to be here. Mindfulness is near and dear to my heart. I’ve been practicing for over 22 years personally, quite intensively, but also while pursuing my professional career, and raising my children. I can attest to the fact that you can do this in the midst of a daily professional life. I know how it can augment your professional and personal life. I’ve seen the transformations in myself and many of my clients.

Also as an executive coach, and Integral Master Coach, I get really interested in how to help people create actual sustainable behavior change, because that’s what mindfulness is. Practicing mindfulness is a behaviour change. I also work with people to develop a practice that works for them.

I see a number of folks on the webinar have tried mindfulness, know a little bit about it, and some of you have actually tried it. It certainly is becoming common in the lexicon, but it’s a new word so it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to everybody.

Why is mindfulness important now?

Let me just start by saying that in some ways it’s parallel to physical training. Back in the 60’s or 70’s, the only people who did physical training were athletes or military. If you went out for run, someone would have said, “Who’s chasing you?” Now everyone knows they’re supposed to train. Even if they don’t, they feel guilty!

My view is that attentional training – that’s what mindfulness is – training your attention and your intention – is at the same place now that physical training was in the 60’s and 70’s. Everyone will be doing it in the years to come, one way or another.Click To Tweet
  • First of all, any kind of natural downtime that we had is gone; 24/7availability, hyper connection. The natural time for the rest and regeneration cycle is gone. It used to be Sunday – or Friday or Saturday, depending on your religious background. That’s gone
  • Our political world is recalibrating very quickly, under our feet. So, we have a high need to tolerate ambiguity, to live in a world of ‘don’t know’. And to search for creative answers. Mindfulness can help with that.
  • 24/7 means we’re connected globally, with clients and colleagues all over the world. If you’re in banking, or any kind of major supply chain, you’re dealing with people from everywhere. So, we need to be sensitive to different cultures, we need to be aware of our assumptions, and learn to connect with different people, who we may not naturally ‘get’ or understand. Mindfulness can help with those kinds of connections.
  • In any kind or organization, we have multipole nodes of leadership. Knowing how you are when you walk into a room, the impact that you have – that’s important. Self-awareness therefore becomes critical.
  • Most of the clients I work with as an organizational consultant or executive coach feel they’re being asked to do too darn much. Everyone’s coming at them. There are conflicting demands that we all have to deal with. It’s not like you have one person telling you to do this series of things and no one else coming at you. So, we need to develop the ability to discern what’s critical and what’s not. Attentional focus can help you here.

To summarize, mindfulness can help build personal resilience, can help create focus, can help create connection with other people. It can impact our stress levels and therefore affect our personal happiness and health.

The Science of Mindfulness

What do we know about the science of mindfulness?

The science started in the 1980’s with people like Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, a very successful program, started originally in hospitals with people who were close to palliative care. He thought, ‘what can I do to help people that’s not religious?’ Because it was an academic hospital setting, it spurred a huge explosion in the quantity and quality of scientific studies. Back in 1980 there was almost nothing in the way of scientific studies. Now, in 2015 and later, we have almost 700 studies (per year), many of them peer reviewed in high level academic journals. So, we’re beginning to get some scientific data that verifies what people have been doing for many generations.  In our society, we believe what science tells us.

 What is the science telling us?

  • It’s telling us that mindfulness practice produces measurable structural and functional change in the brain and physiological markers of stress. One of the main things that happens is that what I call in the book DAN—default attentional network—your natural mind wandering – You become aware of DAN, you become aware of the natural mind wandering. Which tends to lead to a slightly unhappy state of mind. That’s diminished. That mean your stress levels are down and your anxiety levels are less.
  • It also leads to cognitive control, to know what you’re actually thinking. Most of us think, but we don’t know what we’re thinking! So, being aware of what you’re thinking, and being able to question what you’re thinking; “does this make sense?” “Does he really mean that when he or she say so-and-so? That’s very helpful.
  • General positive mood, what’s called a default marker for mood, can be slightly enhanced. If you’re born with a slightly pessimistic point of view, you’re not necessarily stuck with that for the rest of your life.
  • Mindfulness produces positive effect on factors of physical well-being, which is why many people get started. They’re stressed out. Stress levels, physiological pain, negative mood and anxiety are all positively affected.
  • Lastly and importantly is relationships. It seems kind of weird that something you often do by yourself, possibly sitting in a cross legged position, would affect your relationships. But it does. The book goes into why that might be. But we know that mindfulness can foster empathy and enhance your relationships positively, both career and home. With the types of people we’re having to deal with, that’s a huge plus.

Polling Question and Results

There’s now a polling question. Given this data, what kind of questions are raised for you?

  • How to practice mindfulness?
  • How do you fit it in every day?
  • How often do you need to practice to see the effects?
  • Is this meditation?
  • How to integrate with corporate culture?

Meg: We could probably do a webinar on each of these questions!

I consider my book Mind Your Life to be part of a second generation of what’s coming out on mindfulness. I am very aware of over-selling and as a consultant and coach I try never to do that.

First let me say what we don’t know from the science.

The science is valid. It tells us that neuro-plasticity and brain and body changes are real. But it doesn’t tell us exactly how much we need to do – to an earlier point. We can’t prescribe it alike a pill. It’s not down to that level of precision.  We don’t know exactly what kind of mindfulness techniques to prescribe for what kind of situation. I think a very solid teacher and coach can do that, but that’s not scientifically validated.

Lydia: Would that be an individual thing as well?

Meg: Yes, it would.  Personally, and part of the reason behind this book, is that I think every mindfulness practice needs to be individually customized. With anyone I’m coaching, it’s never off the shelf, it’s always a customization. A personal trainer for the soul, if you will.  I do train in groups.  As in any group, there’s a group effect. But just because you do something in a group doesn’t mean that when you go home and practice, everyone does the same thing.

What we also don’t know – and any medical doctor will tell you this – is how to reliably foster behaviour change. So, whether that’s sticking to a diet, or an exercise plan, how to create behavior change is a personal issue and a leadership issue.

Lydia: a lot of the training that we do does focus on behaviour change.  The individual has to embrace that behavior for any kind of training or methodologies to work.

Poll: what does mindfulness mean to you?

Meg: I will answer one of the earlier questions; is mindfulness a kind of meditation? The short answer is yes, it is. But it does not have a religious orientation, although all mindfulness practices derive from centuries old contemplative techniques that were often created in a religious environment. A mindfulness practice per se should not have a religious orientation. If you have a religious background however, you can very easily integrate it into the theology of your choice.

Meg: People are responding with things like; pay attention to the present moment, to physical and emotional cues, being present, recognizing behavior, creating self-awareness. Here’s one; stopping the voice in your head. I will tell you right now that you don’t really stop the voice in your head! You learn to deal with it differently and train it! Also, seeing responses like ‘notice what is going on internally and the impact on others” – which relates to empathy.

Mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean

Because mindfulness has been around and talked about for at least 20 years, there can be some misconceptions. That’s why I want to start off with what mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean. Some in the field are calling it ‘McMindfulness’ as if it were a pill, where you could in an instant be happy.

  • Mindfulness does not necessarily mean that you’re always going to feel calm, or chill. You’ll notice on the front cover of Mind Your Life I don’t have little balancing rocks. I have a process, outlined by an origami design. It doesn’t always mean that when you sit down to meditate, you will automatically feel great at that time. You may become aware of the storms you’ve been dealing with all day.
  • It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to sit still, in an uncomfortable or weird posture. This speaks to someone’s point earlier on how to integrate into your day. Mindfulness is training your attention and your attention is with you 18 hours out of 24, whenever you’re awake. So, you don’t necessarily have to be sitting still to do this.
  • A lot of people talk about not being judgmental. Well non-judgmental doesn’t mean you don’t take a position in life. Of course, you take a position! When you’re working, you need to take a position on things. The non-judgmental piece means not taking a position on what you are experiencing, your sensory experience. What you do as a result of that – absolutely you take a position.
  • It doesn’t mean that you just follow your breath. In Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, and other programs, ‘following your breath’ is one way of being present. The breath occurs in the present moment. If you’re alive, you’re breathing. It’s always there! So, it is one practice, but not the only practice. And as we’ll see from some of the stories in the book, it may not be the best practice for everybody.
  • And as I said earlier, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re always going to feel good. You’ll feel what’s there. If you’re feeling great, you’ll be aware of that. If you’re feeling stressed, you’ll be aware of that. But the very fact that you’re aware of what’s in your awareness is where the power comes in.

Mindfulness Does Mean

  • It does mean bringing a calm but very awake attention to all of what’s going on. This speaks to the earlier points; it’s an awareness of what’s happening in you physiologically, emotionally. In a meeting, it could be being aware of all that’s happening around you, the body language, the subtle signals, the messages sent and not sent, the sounds around you. So, your awareness of what is happening around actually dynamically expands. It’s like expanding your attentional bandwidth. You are literally aware of more. You can see the potential! How many of us have been blind-sided by something we didn’t quite hear?
  • It means a resilient ability to recover and adapt to threat or challenge. In the book, I go into the capacities that are involved in resilience, such as being aware of your negative emotions, being able to focus under stress. Those are capacities that mindfulness actually builds. Those two capacities (mindfulness and resilience) overlap.

Lydia: It doesn’t necessarily make the stress go away but help you in how to deal with the stress…?

Meg: It helps you in dealing with stress. It helps you become aware of subliminal stress you’re not necessarily aware of, it builds in a natural recovery and rest time, which we all need, and it gives you strategies for keeping stress in the background of your attention, not the foreground. It helps you become aware of your attention as something that you can consciously direct, rather than being yanked around. We’ll go into that in some of the practices later on.

  • Because mindfulness is learning how to direct your attention—it’s like directing a cue ball into the right pocket. Where do you want it to go? —you can practice anywhere, anytime. Initially (you may not be able to do this well), because like anything else you have to practice to get good at it, but once a reasonable level of skill is developed – and mindfulness IS a skill—you should be able to practice anywhere, anytime. This speaks to the point raised about integrating mindfulness into your life. Part of what I do as a coach is to help people design a strategy to do that; integrate practice into your life and your schedule.
  • Because you’re more resilient, because you’re more awake, I find, for myself and many of my clients, that you’re more engaged in your life. Yes, you might take 10, 15, 20 minutes away from your schedule to practice, but the rest of your life, you’re more actively present and actively engaged. There’s more of you there.
  • There are many ways to practice. Mindfulness is all about sensory awareness, moment-by-moment awareness. You can be aware of your body, you can be aware of your emotions, you can be aware of the talking voice in your head. My sister calls it a committee, there’s so many voices in there! You can be aware of where the emotions are in your body; that’s a very powerful practice. There are lots and lots of ways of practicing. If someone said to you, “Do you do exercise?” You could say yes. But you might be doing a whole variety of different exercises; weight training or stretch, or cardio. It’s the same thing for mindfulness. There are a great variety of practices. Finding one that works for you is the key to maintaining and getting it going.
  • Lastly – and here’s my counter-intuitive—it doesn’t necessarily feel better the first time you sit down. You’re training your brain; it might squeak back at you! When you first go to a stretch class, or an exercise class, you might walk out thinking, “oh man, I ache everywhere!” But after a week or two, you’re feeling good. So just because it doesn’t feel great the first time doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.

Real Life Stories

Let me tell you about some real-life stories. In the book, Mind Your Life, I wanted to interview people who I considered to be positive role models. People who had maintained a mindfulness practice for at least three years. Some of what the data is telling us is that people who do take a mindfulness course—they invest a significant amount of time and money in say a mindfulness based stress reduction course—6 months to one year later only on in ten people are practicing. So, the take up rate is tough. You’re rewiring the brain; the brain may have something to say about that. I wanted to interview people who had been able to keep at it for some time. The minimum cut-off was three years and for some lifelong practitioners it was up to 40 years. I asked the things like, “Why did you start? How did you keep it up? What was the impact on your life?” There are 18 such stories in the book. Let’s talk about a few of them now.

  • One is Barbara, who had to navigate a critical lawsuit and business setback. Barbara was the CEO of a health based organization. One of her employees left and took a lot of the intellectual property and customer base with them, so she was fighting to retain her business. Because the employees also had a share in the business, she was fighting to retain the well-being of her employees too. Barbara’s situation was initiated by a huge (shock). She went in at the deep end. She was advised, “If you’re going to come through this unscathed, you need to do something so you’re not over-railed by stress. She took mindfulness training, she would sit downstairs in her basement, trying to calm her mind for 30, 40 minutes, an hour a day. By her own admission, Barbara’s also pretty high on the attention deficit disorder scale. She says now, “I would never start off with breath practice.” For someone like me – and here’s the customization piece—who is a very hyper, active person, I would start off with something in daily life. I would start off by washing my hands and paying attention to the feeling of washing my hands.” For someone like her, sitting still fro fifteen minutes was advanced practice! She needed to start off in motion. She did make it through the lawsuit. One of the things that touched me most was when she said, “I never ended up hating. I never ended up having negative feelings in me. I got us through. I was able to navigate the business back to profitability I was able to protect the employees’ interests, and I didn’t carry that bitterness inside me. That’s a beautiful story.
  • Barbara would have been in her 50’s. Laura, by contrast, would be in her late 20’s, based in the Toronto area (Barbara was US based). She’d been to teachers’ college and couldn’t find a job as a teacher. She was doing contract work, which was barely paying the rent. And she regressed a bit to negative body behaviours. In contrast to Barbara who went to her basement, what really helped Laura was finding a group of people. She found a congenial group, went once a week and after several months, she started to practice on her own. For some people the group support is essential. Some of us are groupies – some of us are solo types. Laura now is getting steady work as a teacher, and is teaching mindfulness to her kids
  • James is a different story. Dr. James Maskalyk has recently published his second book, Life on the Ground Floor. He’s an emergency doctor as St. Michaels Hospital. Shortly after graduating medical school, he went with Doctors Without Borders to Sudan. His first book was about that experience. James relates how when he went back for his second posting, he knew he had to respond differently to what had been essentially vicarious trauma from the first posting. Watching people being murdered. Trying to help patients with virtually no equipment. He was suffering from compassion fatigue. He had been exposed to meditation as a young guy, and tried it a bit. But if you’re a medical resident, there is no time for breathing, let alone meditation. He went back caring passionately about people, but knowing he had to cope differently. So, he would do a bit of yoga and meditation in the morning, before it got too hot. Now James will say, “I will do 30 seconds as I’m walking down the hall, knowing I’m going to have a difficult conversation with a patient or their family.” James will say, “I have not been burnt out, and in emergency medicine so many are. Lydia: I believe emergency medicine has one of the highest rates of burnout. Meg: James is not only practicing emergency medicine in Toronto, he’s helping to set up the first emergency medicine practice in Ethiopia. He’s able to carry out his life’s passion, and not fry.
  • Now for myself. This is in the first chapter of the book. This was 22 years ago, when I had young school aged children. The mortgage is paid off, the marriage is pretty good, the kids are doing OK. But looking back I felt I was skating on the surface of life. I was coping how I usually tended to cope. In my case – lean in, and button up the feelings. Unfortunately, there was a suicide in my family. My younger brother shot himself. Maybe 6 – 8 weeks after that, a little voice in my head said, “Meg, you should meditate. Or you could end up like John.” I’m an MBA, I’m a coach and consultant, I don’t hear voices in my head! This is not schizophrenia. This is a deeper part of me saying, you need to get real. You need to deal with what’s going on. People in the resiliency or trauma field say we all cope, sorta. We have an adequate way of coping, but we don’t necessarily go to the bottom. So, this was my call to go to the bottom. I started off with Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, following the breath. And I hated it, actually. I felt like pins and needles all over my whole body. Ugh – why am I doing this? But I stuck with it, probably because of the depth of calling in myself. I’ve tried all different kinds of practices. In the book, I go over these. Now I work intensively with the Unified Mindfulness framework, which is a very robust approach to mindfulness training.

What I wanted to do with the stories is give a sense that real people do this. It can be done by anybody. And it makes a real -life impact.

Q&A (abbreviated)

Did Barbara sustain her practice?

Yes, she did. Being a lean-in type, she powered on through, has over time adjusted her mode of practice and is now teaching mindfulness to others.

I try practicing mindfulness, but keep falling off.

You know, that’s how it goes!! You learn in mindfulness to pay attention and you realize that your mind is like a monkey mind, or like the hamsters or gerbils my kids used to keep. That IS the training. Selective focus of attention (on the breath, or anything else) and your mind will fall off. So, you bring it back. Every time you bring it back is a ‘rep’ – like a repetition in weight training. You will try, and you will fall off. The key thing is don’t beat yourself up! Be nice to yourself. Think of it like a puppy, you try again.  If you recognize that you will try and fall off, over and over again, just start again. It’s that simple, but simple isn’t necessarily easy.

Lydia; It’s discipline as well.

Meg: You are building a discipline and like any discipline at first, it’s awkward. In the book, I call it a J curve. Learning how to navigate that J curve, and the initial awkwardness – if you know that it might feel awkward at first and that’s normal, then you’ll be easy on yourself. Don’t get sucked in by people who may appear totally blissful!

How to practice mindfulness in the workplace?

LOTS OF opportunities here. I have practiced mindfulness in a toilet stall, when I’m really worried about a meeting that’s coming up! Taking a few minute breathers whenever you need to. With clients, I practice a very deep active listening, so I’m totally present with my client. (At work), there’s always minutes of downtime, as you’re walking down the hall, as you’re waiting for your computer to re-load.

Is there a situation where you recognize you need to put mindfulness into practice?

Your stress levels are a good indicator. For some people, it’s their physical health. In the book, there is one story of a cancer survivor, (who started as a result of her illness).

How to integrate with corporate culture?

I think of mindfulness as a capacity building exercise, a facet of leadership culture. The demands on all leaders are higher and therefore our mental cognitive and emotional intelligence capacities need to be higher. What used to work doesn’t always work anymore.

How often do you need to practice to see effects?

It does vary. I recommend people start with 10 minutes a day minimum, then add in what I call Practice in Life. When you know how to do this and work smart, you can quite easily be practicing 30 minutes a day. You should be seeing results within a couple of months. Part of this is (due to) how long it takes to change the brain, and how long it takes to establish a practice habit. But there’s not a precision, like a pill, like a Tylenol – it’s variable and you need to cut yourself some slack.

Simple Strategies for Mindfulness Practice

Listen to the link at the 39.23-minute mark for guided meditations on:

  • 30 second pause
  • deep listening
  • mind the music

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