Noticing

I learned about a beautiful approach to the skill of mindfulness that does not involve meditation through an On Being conversation with Ellen Langer. She is a social psychologist who defines mindfulness as “the simple act of actively noticing things.”

I really like this conception of mindfulness because it does not require any special training or meditation practice. It is something that is accessible to all of us. It also helps us understand what it means to “be in the moment” when so many of us have practiced being in our heads and thinking rather than truly noticing.

Last March I was on a trip for work in which I accidentally packed my phone in my carry-on luggage. Leaving from the airport at MSP, I had my coat on, but once I was in airport, I decided to pack the coat in order to keep my hands more free while in the airport. Immediately through security I realized I was missing a phone, and I searched frantically for it, fearing the disconnection of not having it with me for a trip to Mexico.

I typically use my phone to consume podcasts, read emails and occupy myself with other things make the trip pass by faster. One of my fears has always been getting bored. On long car trips with my family I used to pack a bag full of books, confident that would get me through the hours of travel.

This time though, I had no distractions to take with me on the trip. It seemed like the universe’ way to show me what I typically miss while I travel: interactions with actual people, and the many things I can learn when I notice, when I pay attention. What I first noticed was that so few people make eye contact with one another anymore while they are rushing through the airport. So many are looking down at the phones rather than engaging with people around them. I get this. I am an introvert, and contact with all these people can be a little overwhelming.

I sat myself down for a little people-watching, something I always enjoyed when young.  It is a wonderful practice of noticing. One flight had just arrived, people were departing the gate, looking determined and hurrying along. An older gentleman in an old-fashioned cap was moving a little more slowly than some of the passengers. He looked around, feeling a bit lost perhaps, and overwhelmed at the number of people all gathered around the terminal, the passengers rushing to their next destination.\

As I noticed his bright blue eyes we made eye contact. I allowed my eyes to stay with his for a couple of moments, instead of averting them as we Minnesotans are politely taught to do. And of course I could not resist a smile for him, as I felt empathy for his search for connection, for people to simply notice he was there. I was rewarded by a smile by him as well. Other people looking down at their phones or preoccupied by other things on their travel had not noticed him, but I did, and he returned the acknowledgement.

During that flight I ended up having a marvelous conversation with a woman who was an author, just returning from a speaking tour. She told me she rarely talks with people on a plane, but she said there was something different about me. She decided not to put her headphones on (as usual) but to instead have a conversation. As it turns out, I found out she had been a speaker for an event attended by my massage therapist. It is a small world.

After that incident, in which I ended up feeling so peaceful and present without my phone, I resolved to spend more time in airports like this. Instead of looking down and disengaging with the people around me, I take time to make eye contact, to smile and to be present. Many people seem to find it startling when I make sustained eye contact. I notice many of them look away at first, and then look back. When they realize I am still looking at them and give them a smile, they often return the smile.

It is a small gesture, to notice the people around us. But I believe we have a deep hunger for connection as humans. We may think we get this by staying connected, by having our phone in hand and instant communication at the push of a button. But what is sacrificed by disconnecting with the people around us and directly in front of us? 

I encourage you to do little experiments in noticing, at home, in the halls at work, in the airports when you travel. See what you discover. I promise you, it will be fascinating.

 

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Sunday haiku on cats – 3 verses

To our cats we are

Merely furniture, really.

Warm, soft and snuggly.

cat furniture

Husband of mexi-minnesotana with Calvin, our fat cat and snuggle buddy

Then there is the food!

Mom, you need to feed me NOW!

I will starve to death…

***

Yes, we do love them.

Despite their spoiled brat status.

And they love us too.

 

Exercising my writing muscles

There are benefits to exercising our writing muscles!

On Friday I worked on a first draft of a 2-page case study proposal for an application to the “Entrepreneur-in-Residence” program in my company’s business incubator division. I am totally jazzed about the opportunity, 2-3 positions open for this 12-18 month commitment. It is a chance to work with teams using human-centered design in order to solve health care problems in under-served and under-resourced areas of the world.

This gig is designed as a program manager role that will eventually continue with a project at the end of the period if it has potential for commercial development, or move onto another leadership role within the company upon completion. With the networks and contacts I would have following such an opportunity, even though there are no guarantees, I am all in!

When opportunities like this have come along in the past, I typically read the materials and then spent weeks agonizing about what to write, putting it off until only a few days before the due date. This time around, I took a couple of hours without distractions and just banged out a first draft of my thoughts. Yep, I put down some “B minus work” to get my initial thoughts out of my head.

I am sure when I go back in a couple of days to look at it, I will have different insight. I will likely revise quite a bit of the first draft. Plus I started in the afternoon and I am sharper in the morning, so I know I can rework and possibly re-organize the writing. Since I was not familiar with the disease state or the country where the issue was identified, I had to do some initial research on the web. Once I have a chance to fully explore the questions that I footnoted for myself, I am sure I will enhance the draft.

I am proud of myself, since I stepped outside my usual habit of obsession and worry, and just got down to work right away. I am sure there will be SOME obsessing and worrying as I complete the first application (I cannot simply be someone ELSE). But it is progress to me that I started early this time, so there is plenty of time to polish and reconsider in the next couple of weeks. I plan to turn this one in at least a week in advance and to ask a peer to read through the draft.

So this daily blog “exercise” is proving to help me in an unexpected way. I am getting used to getting the words down on paper first, so I can have adequate time also to “marinate” my thoughts while my subconscious goes to work in the background on creative approaches to the problem presented. Writing can always be revised. Indeed, for professional writing that is probably a good idea. Given past habits of procrastination on writing projects, this is good progress for me.

To me, that is worth celebrating. Hope you take action today on a project that has meaning for you! Cheers!

Thank you

I often sit in the morning drinking my coffee while I watch the sunrise, along with my cat (Willy) who watches and seems to love it too. Or maybe he is just watching for the neighborhood dogs, I am not sure.

We have a really well-positioned large window in the living room. This photo does not do it justice, but the flaming orange, red, purple and pink colors make me breathless with wonder.

sunrise-jan-19-2018.jpg

It is these intense moments of gratitude when I feel myself losing the need to worry, and coming back to the present, where I have all I need in this moment. Such a simple concept, and yet we are drawn away from the present so often. It can be hard to live right here and now. So many distractions and enticements can take us away from the simplest joys.

Our habits of mind, well-practiced and reinforced by generations, have not placed value on being, just breathing and sensing. But that is okay, it is still possible to learn and practice this new skill. The practice of mindful gratitude, focusing awareness on our breath or just watching the thoughts come and go, is a foundation for joy.

Last night during yin yoga class I noticed my tendency to escape into my mind when I was in a more challenging pose. But I kept bringing myself back, breathing into some slight discomfort but allowing myself to stay with the sensations. This is good practice for sitting with difficult emotions as well.

Life will never be 100% positive, and that is okay. To be fully human is to feel good sometimes and bad other times. The range of emotion is a gift to us as humans, and the less we fight and resist the harder emotions, the more joy we can access. It is okay to feel sad and to grieve losses. It is necessary and good, and allows empathy for others.

Joy comes at moments when we are able to notice all the good within us and around us. It can also be practiced, and cultivated with thoughts of compassion and love. Saying thank you to the universe, to the spirit, to a family member, or to whatever moves us, helps us to access that joy more readily. Thank you, friends. I hope you enjoy your weekend.

 

Bias in human evolution

project implicitA friend of mine recently posted a very personal story of his pain at the discovery of his own implicit bias despite having married a woman of color. The Implicit Bias Test is something you can take if you want to explore bias in yourself. I was touched by his admission but it made me realize that people still have a lot of unnecessary guilt about bias. I wanted to write about it because I realize so many probably suffer shame on this front.

Dr. Heidi Grant, a psychologist who presented to our Women’s Leadership annual conference last August, explained to us that bias is human. It is a part of our brains that is wired for us to be able to make decisions quickly and have shortcuts to protect our safety. So to feel guilty about it not necessary. Neuroscience has showed that there is a biological basis for bias.

So the idea that we can somehow get rid of bias is not practical. What we need to do is develop awareness of the biases that we have, so we can take action making decisions more fairly. One method that worked for orchestras, that traditionally hired men due to implicit bias, was to put up a screen so that the performer could not be seen during the audition. This played a role in getting many more women into competitive orchestras.

As a manager, one way to reduce bias is in hiring from a pool of candidates, and have only one candidate of a diverse origin, and say three other candidates you are interviewing, you are very unlikely to hire the diverse candidate. If you have just one other person of that minority (be in gender, race, etc) the likelihood that you will give everyone a fair shot increases substantially. Another way to reduce bias is to have a structured list of questions, and to ask the same questions to all candidates.

A number of studies have shown us how diversity drives innovation. And innovation is what drives economic growth. From a perspective of someone who has lost their job due to increased automation, that may not provide much comfort. Indeed, part of our problem is that our “free market” rewards the innovators much more than workers. That unfortunately leads to further polarization of resources, and exacerbates the distance between “haves” and have-nots” in our country.

While there is a systemic good arising from a more diverse society, recognized at many levels of corporate and government leadership (though not by the U.S. President, unfortunately), there are challenges as well. In order to address these challenges, we are required to evolve our own consciousness, as humans, to be able to fully use all the talents and capabilities we have. This is no easy task.

I often worry if the behavior in this country will degrade substantially while we have rhetoric that devalues whole categories or nations of people. We have seen some evidence that this may be true. But it also forces us to have some honest discussions about our future, and about what kind of society we want to build. I am reminded that a majority of the country does not agree with the President, and is working for positive change.

I am reminded that those of us who have privilege in this very digital economy need to pay attention to the people who have been left out since the 1980’s when the gap in the middle class began to widen substantially. We have many examples in history when this has led to disaster. This has led to scapegoating and devaluation of human life at many points in human history.

This awareness and consciousness of bias and privilege must be at the forefront of our thinking about solutions to this “great divide.” We can no longer ignore the suffering of so many people, and build ourselves into little cul-de-sacs of isolated individuals and families. Our well-being depends on a social fabric which must hold us together.

We must talk with people with whom we do not agree, learn from them, strive to understand their perspectives. I believe this is the only way to repair the rifts that have grown in our political life. We cannot afford to remain in our little echo chambers, in dialogue only with people with whom we agree.

I am beginning to look for those opportunities to engage with people that may hold different opinions from mine. Not just online, but in person and face to face. They are not easy to find, but I am fairly certain our survival as a species on this earth depends on realizing we are in this together.

 

 

 

Learning to dance

I don’t dance. I am trying to remember when I last danced. I guess it might the time I drank a couple of strong aguardientes in Colombia and danced for a few minutes at Andres Carne de Res with a couple colleagues. Now that I have given up alcohol, I can’t see myself repeating that. I needed to be a bit sauced for it. I danced a bit in high school, to those stupid pop songs where people just move around to the music. I guess that really cannot be called dancing. I certainly never thought of myself as good as it. And I was way too self-conscious about my body to do more of it.

Latin danceHow’s that for defying a Latina stereotype?

I have rhythm, so that’s not the problem. When I was a little girl my Dad would put earphones on my head and I would start swaying my head. He thought it was adorable. My family is very musical, as I discovered when I went back to Mexico 3.5 years ago to visit.

I played the flute in middle and high school, and the saxophone in high school. I was also in the choir for all of high school. I know music, and I certainly love music. But I don’t dance.

One of my favorite songs by Lady Gaga is the tune Just Dance. Ironic, no? I am a runner, and it is part of my running mix. When I hear it, I think of my run as a “dance” – just move, just keep going, even though things are hard (or so my interpretation goes…).

My favorite yoga teacher also teaches a Zumba dance class. She is a former professional dancer, and she is always so graceful in the way she moves. I keep wishing I were brave enough to go to her Zumba class. But I am not there yet.

Half fanaticsMy husband and I have this aspect of our lives in common. We met while we were pursuing relatively crazy running goals nearly 8 years ago. He was trying to become a “marathon maniac” and that year (2010) I became a “half fanatic.” To become a maniac, you need to run 2 marathons within 16 days or 3 marathons within 90 days. The fanatics had similar qualifiers.

I have always been more comfortable with numbers and measurable goals rather than artistic pursuits. It is why I went into the sciences rather than the humanities, perhaps.

U2

Taken at U2 concert – September 2017

Lately I have been noticing a desire to learn to dance. It is just the hint of a desire, not a compelling desire. My husband likes to tease me about my lack of dancing ability, my “white girl dance”, even though he is as self-conscious about dancing as I am. He took me to a U-2 concert last September and I moved to the music, but I wouldn’t call it dancing.

About 5 years ago, one of the team-building events my team did together was in Argentina. They took a tango lesson together, but I managed to get out of it. That was before I was the leader of the group, so I did not choose the activity. I was pretty determined not to humiliate myself in front of my colleagues.

I realize that my mental dialogue about dance is very much a product of my own insecurities. It is about how I silly I feel moving my hips in a way that probably is not “loose” and comfortable, like so many women. It is about how I think people expect me to be, as a Latina. Surely I cannot be a “beginner” at age 43?!?

Why is it that the beginner’s mindset in yoga or meditation is so much easier for me? I guess because others do not judge my meditation or yoga. I think my desire to dance is related to a desire for freedom. It is about not caring what other people think, and I want to get there someday. I realize I still harbor body shame, after many years of trying to lose weight, and not being okay with my body size or shape.

Dance is play. To dance is to be vulnerable. To dance is to use our bodies to express something that cannot be said in words. This is what dance represents to me. I am not sure yet when or how I will explore this desire. But in 2018, I will learn to dance.

 

 

 

 

 

Sweeping mental clutter

I am amazed sometimes when I go quiet and meditate at the thoughts and mental chatter that run through my head. It reminds me that while I aim to clear physical clutter in my life to help me with less external distractions, the mental clutter is also worth sweeping out.

We all have thoughts and beliefs that run though our minds like old tapes, playing the stories we learned over time. They are a product of what we learned as young people, explicitly or implicitly by what we observed around us. Many of us do not question these thoughts and beliefs. They become part of us, and influence how we live our lives.

But I have been questioning my thoughts and beliefs much more regularly these days. Why is it we believe “there is never enough time” to do the things we love to do? Is that really true? What if that is a convenient excuse for not taking the risks in our lives that would allow us to live more fully in our joy?

What if we turned those thoughts around or tried on different thoughts than the worn-out ideas that make us feel tired and defeated? One of the amazing things about meditation practice is to realize that we have much more choice over our thoughts than I had realized was possible.

Our thoughts drive our feelings, and our feelings influence our actions and therefore determine our results. When we realize we are not our thoughts, but can decide consciously whether to think certain thoughts, we take back control of our lives. We realize our circumstances do not determine our reality. It is our thoughts about those circumstances that have substantially more power.

Human beings are wired for story, as Brene Brown tells us. We strive to make sense of the world so our minds develop stories to explain and interpret circumstances. We all do this, and it is an adaptive phenomenon for human evolution. But sometimes these stories do not give us a complete picture, and need revision. The challenge is that we have told ourselves these stories for so long, they seem like truth.

It is worthwhile to examine personal narratives and long-held beliefs that no longer serve us. I write a daily journal in which I often do a “thought download” when I feel agitated about something, since I realize that is usually an indicator that I am “spinning” thoughts that do not serve me. That is often enough for me to become conscious of some thought causing pain and to question that thought.

Byron Katie teaches a practice of inquiry, in which you question a thought or belief and ask yourself 4 questions:

Is it true? 

Can I absolutely know that it is true? 

How do I react, what happens, when I believe this thought?

Who would I be without the thought? 

Then she encourages one to try some “turnarounds” of the thought if we realize we cannot absolutely know that thought it true, or we realize it causes us suffering. This is worth practicing if you suspect some of your thoughts may need sweeping out or cleaning up.

What is beautiful about this practice and these realizations is that we begin to understand that changing our thoughts is easier than changing our circumstances. We do not have to find happiness and contentment “out there” somewhere. It is within our grasp, and can be realized inside of ourselves.

Also, when we change our thoughts, and therefore our feelings, we act and behave differently. We act with more love and generosity, and we begin to attract these qualities around us as well. We begin to see that grasping onto things makes us close down, while opening and sharing allow us to tap a well of resilience within us.

As you consider sweeping out the clutter of your physical life, take some time also to sweep the clutter that may be residing in your mind. See how much benefit this can have in your relationships and in living a more joyful life. I know you will not be disappointed.