Constancy

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I sense enduring familiarity as our minivan navigates down the dirt road through a young forest to a cluster of small cabins in Nisswa MN. For the past twenty-five years, I have traveled this same road with various combinations of family members who annually gather at this lovely small resort. The two wooden docks, like the rest of the resort, remain unchanged from year to year serving as markers to measure the changes in our own lives. 25 years ago we carried our infant daughter, Sari, on the boat dock. The next year, we held her hand tightly as she toddled. The following year, Sari walked on the dock wearing a life jacket as we carried her infant sister, Elana. Somewhere along this timeline the two of them began jumping off this dock into the shallow end of the lake.

The swimming dock marks another chronology -­ the kids clinging to our necks as we swam to the dock; a year or so later swimming with life jackets beside us and then graduating to swimming on their own under our watchful eye from the beach. How many years ago did we finally relax our vigilance and dare nap with the kids by the water?

Our grandchildren now traverse the lake rites of passage as I reflect on how much has changed in contrast to the enduring constancy of the docks.

Year to year, the resort changes a bit­ – a new picnic table here, a different hammock there. Yet overall, the changes seem insignificant. This constancy offers a perspective for viewing the changes in our own lives. During these years we have celebrated graduations, marriages, the birth of grandchildren, new jobs. We also have also mourned the loss of four dear loved ones who accompanied us to the resort.

Returning to a source of constancy helps to experience change as sweet poignant reality. What is the constancy in your life that provides perspective about change?

Time

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I am re-publishing the first blog because many of you subscribed after it was buried in the archive.

I retired a year ago after attending 19 years of school and working for 38. I feel grateful for these years and have no regrets. However, sometimes I reflect on what I would have done differently had I known then what I know now.

These 57 years involved a specific structure related to time. Every weekday I arose to the sound of an alarm clock and went to school or work where I focused on accomplishing tasks. During the weekends and vacations that punctuated this weekday routine, I pressured myself to relax while simultaneously squeezing in the other parts of my life – exercise, “me time,” family, friends, etc. On weekends and vacations I fretted about school or work, and on weekdays I imagined weekends and vacations.

While engaged in one task, I churned about other items on my “to do” list and hurried the present activity in order to move on to the next. As an example, while seeing a morning patient, I might think about an upcoming patient scheduled for that afternoon, and while seeing the afternoon patient, I would ruminate about the morning patient. Consequently, while seeing one patient I would often be thinking about another.

I became fueled by the illusion that by moving fast enough I could outrun the clock and aging. As a result, I felt I was constantly swimming upstream in time. Occasionally, I glimpsed the possibility of a different relationship with time. In 2012, as my wife recovered from cancer surgery I blogged the following passage:

My wife’s recent stay in the hospital brought back the sense of  “patient time.” Watching her rhythmic breathing as she slept in a cloud of medications, I felt a rare burning clarity about what was important at that moment – to be at her bedside together with close friends and family. During her two days in the hospital, my endless task list disappeared into the background of the non-urgent. I felt still as time gently ebbed and flowed around me. Conversations, punctuated by comfortable quiet, seemed unrushed and important. I was present.

Work and school revolve around scheduled activities and tasks to be accomplished on time. But after my transient ischemic attack (TIA, or “mini-stroke”) in 2013, I learned I had a choice about my relationship with time as I performed these necessary activities. I found I could “float in stillness” in the midst of urgency.

If I knew during my many years of school and work what I know now after the TIA and retirement, I would have more intentionally cultivated curiosity about my relationship with time. As I planned and accomplished tasks, I would have practiced floating in time rather than struggling to swim upstream. I would have invited stillness and spaciousness into my days filled with movement and urgency, and opened my heart to gratitude.

We need urgency to fulfill the “head” aspects of improving health and well-being. Stillness is required for the “heart” of our work when we when apply our compassion and empathy to patients, members and colleagues.

What is your relationship with time?  How do you combine urgency with stillness?

What Does Mindful Leadership Feel Like Part II

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The post What does Mindful Leadership Feel Like Part I? addresses the difficulty in describing the nuances,shades, hues, tinges and tone of leading with mindfulness.

This post uses vignettes to convey subtle internal dialogue shifts in 3 dimensions: applied insight, “multi-modal” decision-making and open heartedness.

Applied Insight

Background

Like most novice mediators, my first insight flowed from experiencing “monkey mind,” the incessant, staccato rush of thoughts, feelings and stories that emerge as we attempt to still. I observed my own narrative: that person offended me, better watch out for this person, I will be happy when …,I’m becoming a meditator, they don’t get it, they don’t think I’m competent and so on.

Frequently, a lone thought initiated a cascading story creating powerful emotions including anger and fear. In time, I learned to recognize story telling, bring myself back to breathing and simply watching a thought or emotion float up and away without attaching a story line.

I realized mind’s nature is to create stories with myself as a hero or victim. And if I’m telling myself stories, so are others. Narratives lead to judgment. Emotions emerge from stories.

Soon, I applied these insights to leadership. I did not need to be in a tranquil, “open-hearted” state to hear story telling everywhere, suspend judgment and feel compassion for those caught in their own narrative webs.

Vignette without applied insight during a meeting with organization A after merger of organizations A and B.

“They don’t get it.! Everywhere I go, I hear from A that B wants to take over and from B that A wants to take over. Makes me mad! Why can’t they see it’s not true? They’re just being petty and stubborn. Oh, now they’re attacking me. That makes me really mad!

Vignette with applied insight during a meeting with organization A after merger of organizations of A and B.

Everywhere I go, I hear from A that B wants to take over and from B that A wants to take over They don’t get it. Wait David, now your telling yourself a story about others not getting it. I am simply hearing stories from people who are proud and frightened. You know David, everyone, including you, create narratives. Except more often than not you catch yourself weaving a yarn. Ahhh. I feel compassion for the proud yet frightened people in this room as we all hurt ourselves with the stories we tell.

 

Multi-modal decision-making

Background

Seasoned leaders do not solve problems; they work them, leaning this way or that while navigating unintended consequences and unanticipated changes. Today’s “solutions” become tomorrow’s problems. Decision-making entails action in the face of unknowns and unknowable’s. These decisions involve dilemmas (deciding between two almost good options or the lesser of two evils) and “polarities”, not problems, that can be elegantly analyzed. Polarities- part and whole, team and individual, standardization and customization, integration and differentiation, centralizing and decentralizing, planning and doing, doing and being- permeate decision requiring that one constantly tunes the balance.

Making decisions within dilemmas or polarities involves selecting which set of ongoing problems to manage. Leaning in one direction offers benefits as well as a set of problems. Leaning in the other direction offers different benefits and problems to manage.

Data driven analysis is necessary but insufficient for these kinds of unsolvable problems, dilemmas and polarities. Contemplative practices offer another mode of clarity and decision-making, an intuitive “gut check,” once the limits of data-driven analysis are reached.

The next 2 vignettes occur at while I am at home sipping coffee prior to beginning a workday. A large decision looms about whether to merge with another organization.

Vignette of decision-making without mindfulness

Wonder what’s in the paper this morning. Good coffee. Maybe I’ll check email. Should we merge? That last analysis didn’t add much. The team is divided. I’ll check the weather. If we merge, what if, what if, what if? I’ll check the local news now. We could merge but, but, but. Oh, another a new email for me to read.

Vignette of multi-modal decision-making with mindfulness

Ahhhh. Good coffee… Stillness….Sip…David, you have confidence that your whole body and mind will know the answer. The right decision will announce itself with a melting relaxed feeling like when you first get into bed after a long day and your entire body quietly sinks into the mattress and you feel that “ahh” of soft release…Stillness…Sip…And with one direction you will feel openness in your chest muscles and brightness in your mind…Stillness…Sip…And the other direction will cause a tight chest and fuzzy, cloudy heaviness in the mind… Stillness…

 

Openhearted awareness

Background

Meditation provided glimpses of an alternative to being “lost in the thoughts in my head.” Even when interacting with others , too often I was lost in thought rehearsing what I would say, wondering what people were thinking about me or considering how I felt about them.

I discovered a still spaciousness in the midst of movement and how to shift from being aware of spaciousness to being aware from spaciousness. Similarly, I could move from being aware of the heart space in my chest to being aware from the heart.

In time, I learned how to intentionally shift “being aware from” my head to being aware from my heart space, abdomen, perineum, feet or from space itself. The shift tinged spaciousness with an earthy, rooted tone of gentleness, warmth, friendliness, wonder and compassion. I practiced shifting while engaged in daily activities including walking, listening and speaking. Some contemplative practices call this “embodied awareness.”

Meditation taught me to discern when my heart is open compared to when it feels closed. I sense openness as a spacious, tender softening in my chest. When open, I stand in patient readiness to receive the gifts of the moment. In contrast, “closed” feels like a nagging tightening in my chest muscles accompanied by either a subtle leaning forward if I am anticipating what is next or a slight leaning back if I want to protect myself.

Vignette of closed heartedness in a tense meeting

Be careful, David. Lots of emotion in the room. I better do something, its all up to me to manage the tension in the room- after all, I’m the leader here. But they will be mad at me. It feels tricky and dangerous. Start practicing what you are going to say when you take the floor. Haven’t checked my email for awhile. I know I should model being present in the meeting but maybe just a quick glance at my phone.

Vignette of open heartedness in a tense meeting

David, notice you are “in your head” with that familiar feeling of fuzzy airiness rather than rootedness. Your pectoral muscles are tight. Move your awareness down to your abdomen and chest. Ahh. I feel gravity gently holding me to the ground…I feel the tingly, aliveness of my body. I sense the safe, warm and friendly tinge of spaciousness. I feel my heart open. I hear resonant words arising without rehearsal from deep in my abdomen rather than rasps from my throat. Gratitude and compassion arise for the good people in the room. Oh… the room is settling…I know others sense my engagement and openness.

How does it feel to lead mindfully? About the same as leading without mindfulness. But between the same and about the same lie spacious tinges, hues, tones and textures of applied insight, multi-modal decision-making and open-heartedness.

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What Does Mindful Leadership Feel Like?

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What does it feel like to lead a large health care organization while engaging in a meditative contemplative practice? This post, part 1 of a 2 part series, addresses the difficulty in describing the experience of leading with mindfulness and my core barrier to incorporating a contemplative practice within leadership. The subsequent post applies vignettes to attempt to convey the internal experience of mindfulness.

Describe the smell of fresh rain. Difficult? How about the fragrance of lilacs on a crisp spring morning? Also difficult? Similarly, leading mindfully, like the smell of fresh rain, is a somatic experience; descriptions approximate but fail to capture the feeling tone. The body begets language but is inarticulate in describing its own felt sense. Descriptive language employs similes–this is kind of like that. The smell of fresh rain is kind of like combining the smells of ozone, chocolate chip cookies and wet moss.

Poetry comes closer with evocative images that create experience. Consider the poem, Smell of Rain by K.N. Sheldon

The fresh smell of rain,
So thick, and so sweet,
I feel the rain on my face,
And the wind on my skin,
The fat drops are chilling,
And send shivers down my spine,
I close my eyes and raise my head toward the clouds,
So young and so restless, and so full of life,
So calm and collected, as the wind speaks to me,
Telling me of life, and of sorrow, of love, and of joy,
Of many things, both amazing and sad,
Of so many answers, I wish I had had,
Of hopefulness, and of uncertainty,
The wind goes away,
But I still hear its voice,
And the fresh smell of rain,
So thick and so sweet,
Leaves my world once again,
To help someone else.

Did the poem evoke an image? A memory? A feeling? A tone? An experience? How does the evoked response compare to your attempt to describe the smell of fresh rain?

I am not a poet. Rather, I will approximate the experience of leading mindfully through the use of vignettes that juxtapose inner dialogue, the narrative chatter of our minds, with and without glimpses of mindfulness. Note the word “glimpses.” Like most of us with a contemplative practice, I do not continuously abide in mindfulness. Instead, I glimpse a moment here, a minute there. My meditative practice welcomes more frequent and longer glimpses as I open to the insights derived from this experience.

In order to incorporate mindfulness into leadership, I needed to change how I viewed experiences. I spent most of life involved with vigorous physical exertion and did not feel I had “worked out” until I approached nausea. As a result, I was unaware of feeling tone until it was as strong as a punch in the face.

I initially transferred this mentality to meditation and eagerly waited loud trumpeting to herald the heavens opening with mindfulness. Of course, it never happened. Instead, I learned to open to nuance and subtlety and find what was always there if I was just still enough. I discovered shifts and shades and hues and tinges and tones.

Contemplative practice shifts leadership in at least 3 dimensions: applied insight, “multimodal” decision-making and openheartedness.

The next blog post will use vignettes to explore what these dimensions feel like “on the inside.”