The Zen of meetings: Remembering to listen

Sometimes being in the moment means being bored. That is the uncomfortable reality of attending meetings.

I’m not a big fan of meetings. If they go on too long, and what meeting doesn’t, they release the squirmy preteen who lives in my head.

bored looking preteen girl
My inner squirmy preteen

She flicks her gaze back and forth between the clock and whoever is speaking. She scribbles nonsense in the margins of her legal pad. When she has exhausted all socially acceptable diversions, she resorts to that middle-school favorite, criticism.

“Let’s think outside the box,” she fumes silently. “Really?!”

Of course she’s not the only person who finds that cliché, or any cliché, distasteful. After all, clichés indicate a certain laziness in the speaker, right, so it’s okay to heap scorn and mockery on their heads, right?

Simmer down, I tell my inner brat. It isn’t that simple.

Sometimes using clichés is a mistake. But sometimes using them indicates a code, a common language indicating common goals, a way to get to the point faster. In those instances, a cliché can be an effective communication tool. So what’s really going on here, I ask my inner tweenster. Why the eye roll?

The ugly truth

The truth, it turns out, is very unflattering. To me. The truth is that when I’m bored and fidgety, it’s often because I’m not truly listening. I’m using boredom as an excuse to disengage and think snarky thoughts. Rather than tuning out, I need to tune in.

Listening is a skill. It’s an active process requiring not just my attention but thoughtful consideration of the message. It requires setting aside my own impatience and extending the courtesy of my full attention to the speaker. In short, it requires mindfulness.

Coming home to mindfulness

It all starts with the breath. I begin silently counting my breaths, from one to four. Inhale slowly, exhale slowly, and count one. Inhale slowly, exhale slowly, and count two. When I get to four, I start again.

Four Leaf Clover
I count to four and start again

This return to mindfulness helps me engage my listening skills. And once I do,  the meeting transforms. Or rather, my experience of it transforms.

I feel more connected to the others in the room. I start to understand what it is they’re saying, or trying to say. I’m more actively involved. This sense of connection is a good clue that I’ve tuned in again.

Do I still get fidgety? Of course. And I still think no meeting should last more than 20 minutes. But I’m getting better at reminding myself to listen. One meeting at a time.

zen garden
Zen garden

Mindfulness: Can I squeeze meditation into my hectic schedule?

The short answer is — yes!

Even if you only have a few minutes, you can practice meditation and reap the benefits.

In fact, some experts say it’s more beneficial to practice for only 10 minutes each and every day than to practice for an hour once a week. I’ve found this to be true. Although I would love to sit in quiet contemplation for an hour every day, that isn’t realistic right now. I take whatever serenity I can get!

lady in meditation
My  ideal meditation: An hour every day

Meditation provides many benefits and strengthens the mind-body connection. One benefit I’m especially grateful for is that meditation also improves mindfulness.

So how do we find the time? How do we practice? And what the heck do I mean by mindfulness?

Mindfulness

What I mean by mindfulness is a state of relaxed awareness in which we relax control of our conscious mind. We let our thoughts drift through our consciousness like fluffy clouds drifting across the sky.

Clouds drifting across the sky
Let your thoughts drift like clouds across the sky

We don’t hold on to them. We don’t try to change them. We just let them go. In this way, we still both our bodies and our minds. Not perfectly, of course, but enough that some of our tension, anxiety, and distractedness drift away, at least for a while. Over time we can learn to apply mindfulness to situations that occur outside of our meditation. When I do this I feel more centered and less prone to distractions.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness. But first we need to find the time.

Finding the time to meditate

I was surprised by how easily I found openings in my day, once I decided to do so. It turns out there were many moments waiting to be filled with a little bit of serenity and calm:

  • in line at the grocery store;
  • at my desk between tasks;
  • washing the dishes.

I find longer stretches in these kinds of moments:

  • on walks in the park;
  • in the early morning when everything is still quiet;
  • when I turn off the TV and computer.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness. I’m going to describe how I do it, but if this doesn’t work for you there are many other methods and a wealth of information online. I provide links to some free online resources below.

7 steps to practicing mindfulness

  1. Start by taking several deep breaths. If you’re feeling tense, roll your shoulders or clench and unclench your fists a few times.
  2. Decide how long you’re going to meditate, whether it’s 2 minutes, 10 minutes, or longer. (Some people set a timer. I just peek at my watch from time to time.)
  3. If you’re comfortable doing so, close your eyes. If not, find something to look at and soften your gaze so you’re not staring. Some people like to gaze at a candle flame.

    A candle flame
    Gazing at a candle flame can help with meditation
  4. Focus on the physical sensation of breathing. Follow each breath in and out, from the very beginning all the way to the end.
  5. Scan your body for tension, and where you find it, relax your muscles.
  6. When thoughts pop into your head (and they will!), just let them go (you might visualize those big fluffy clouds drifting by), and gently bring your attention back to the breath.
  7. When the time is up, slowly bring your mind back to the present, and take several deep breaths.

That’s it. That doesn’t seem too hard, does it? You could even try it out right now.

Free online meditation Resources

UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center offers free guided meditations on their website.

The Free Mindfulness Project offers mindfulness meditation exercises you can download free of charge.

For beginner’s, here’s a video on YouTube produced by AudioEntrainment that offers 5 easy steps to meditation.

When I can, I sit in mediation for longer stretches. Sometimes for 20 minutes twice a day, sometimes for a longer period once a day. It all depends on what else I have to fit into my schedule. With all the other things I have to worry about, finding time to meditate doesn’t have to stress me out. Remember, even small doses of meditation are helpful.

I’d love to hear from you. Do you meditate? How do you find time? How do you practice?

The Oregon coast at sunset
Sunset and serenity on the Oregon coast

Stress is good for me?

The answer is yes, stress can be good for us. It all depends on how we respond to it. In fact, we can learn to respond in a way that’s actually good for our hearts (and our souls).

First we need to learn to look at our body’s response to stress as helpful. Second, we need to learn to reach out to others instead of keeping our stress all bottled up. In other words, we need to listen to the wisdom of our bodies.

Stress can be helpful

When I’m stressed, my heart races, my breath get shallow and fast, and my palms sweat. In my mind, I look like the person depicted in Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

Edvard Munch's painting of a person on a bridge screaming
Edvard Munch’s The Scream

I always assumed this physical reaction was a bad thing. Turns out I was wrong. This response can actually be heart healthy, depending on how we look at it. If we can regard our body’s physical response to stress as positive, it can actually be good for us.

In addition to the physical symptoms of stress, we also feel a need for support and connection. Following that impulse is key. When we tell someone else how we feel, our body starts to respond differently to the stress.

I learned this in an excellent TED Talk by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist. It’s only 15 minutes long, but if you’re pressed for time, scroll down for a summary.

You can watch the 15-minute talk here:

Summary of TED Talk on stress

Ms. McGonigal describes a study done at Harvard in which participants were given tests under stressful situations. Before the test, they were taught that the physical sensations of stress were helpful, that their bodies were preparing them to perform well on the tests.

Because they now viewed the stress response as helpful, participants felt less stress and more confidence. And rather than constricting, their blood vessels relaxed, which is much healthier for the heart. In fact, this cardiovascular profile is similar to that of moments of bravery and joy.

(6:51) “And when you view stress in that way, your body believes you, and your stress response becomes healthier.”

The second way to make stress work for us is to follow our social impulse. The stress hormone oxytocin makes us feel a need for connection. It also protects our hearts. When we talk over our problems and stressors with our friends and family, our body releases more oxytocin, also known as “the cuddle hormone,” which helps the heart heal and recover from stress.

(9:32) “I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.” 

Making stress work for us

A friend of mine who knew I was stressed suggested I watch this talk. I was skeptical, but also desperate. I tried out the first strategy of changing my view of stress. I was working on a presentation for grad school and feeling panicky and overwhelmed. Every time I sat at the computer to work on it my heart raced and I felt jittery. I kept telling myself that this was a good thing, that I could channel this nervous energy into my work. It took some persistence, but finally I started feeling different. Energized, but not stressed out. Focused, but not obsessive. I got the presentation done on time and received positive feedback on it. Now I find it much easier to trust that my body knows what it’s doing.

I employed the second strategy just yesterday, and not for the first time. I was facing a difficult conversation, one I felt was necessary but might permanently alter a relationship. So I called my friend Sue. We’ve know each other since junior high, and I know I can count on her to listen and to respond with compassion and honesty. And sure enough, during our talk I began to feel lighter, more relaxed, less freaked out.

Eastern medicine has long understood the power and importance of the mind-body connection. I’m glad that researchers in the West are finally honoring this connection and exploring it in depth.

I would love to know your reaction to Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk.

What about you? What are your strategies for dealing with stress?