Mindfulness, Stress and the Role in Working Life
Transcribed and edited talk given at a hospital in Essen
I would like to explore the three themes of mindfulness, stress and the role in working life.
We often live in myth. A common and frequent one-line myth is: “My job is stressful. My role is stressful.” Other people will say to you: “Oh your profession, your work must be very stressful.”
Your head goes up and down like a yo-yo in full agreement. If the role is stressful, then there is no hope because the job IS stressful. If the role is truly stressful, then there could be no freedom from the stress because that is the nature of the role. This is not the case.
If we look into our being, then there are two important forces worthy of attention. These two forces are:
The force of wanting of things to be done, either by oneself, or by others, or both. Of course there is certain necessity for addressing tasks and completing them.
The second force is a reaction. It is the fear of not getting tasks done. There is a fear of the task not getting completed; not being of benefit to the patient, if it concerns him or her.
The wanting and the fear rub up against each other inside the mind of the human being. The impact of the two forces within produces stress. We get so used to working in this way that the assumption is made “My role is stressful.” The role is not the problem but the way these two forces move inside are the problem. Mindfulness means the application of a real interest to wanting and fearing. There are questions to ask.
Are there fresh ways to respond to a situation which show a wise intention, a clear action and does not feel to be under the pressure of desire and fear?
What is a wise action free from desire and fear?
What is mindful attitude to work that offers peace of mind?
If the temperature of desire, so to speak, is lowered, then the fear will be lowered as well. We will not be afraid of things not being done on time or of things not working out. With the reduction of desire and fear, there is more energy to bring work to completion. We must be clear and honest with ourselves; otherwise we will keep generating stress.
Once again, we ask ourselves: “What is a way to work which does not keep generating stress? What is a mindful attitude?”
Too Much Thinking
You must also consider here the inner life independently of the external life. Too much thinking about work and tasks confirm stress. With its bizarre logic, the mind thinks that if I keep thinking about this role or task, the self things the work is really important. This logic gives the mind a reason to keep on thinking about something in particular. The mythology in the mind shows itself in the belief that if I keep thinking about something, then I can work it out or I can come to the best conclusion.
If I keep thinking about it, then I will keep thinking about it!
When you put your head down on the pillow at night, you find yourself like those old cars (not German ones, of course). You go out for a long drive and you arrive home. You turn the engine off but the engine still keeps turning over. The car has overheated. Similarly, if you have engaged in excessive thinking during the day, it will affect your sleep. Your mind has overheated. It is a warning sign that there is more and more stress. It means that desire and fear have replaced clear and wise action. If there is too much thinking, then you have to ask yourselves very honestly:
“What was I ignoring that led up to the stress?”
“What was it that I did not notice and did not give attention to beforehand?””
Any kind of stress, or its support in terms of desire and fear, has a direct link to what was not previously seen and not given attention. The consequences of these blind-spots, through ignoring conditions or patterns, show as stress. Generally speaking, the longer we ignore the patterns of desire and fear, then the greater the stress.
Stress reveals itself in thoughts and feelings. We begin to feel unhappy and dissatisfied which infects the thoughts. That combination produces more stress. We find ourselves feeling rather unhappy at work. It is a loss of peace of mind and clarity in the role.
It is important to repeat the questions we need to ask ourselves.
What shows desire and fear?
Is there an excessive amount of thinking?
It is important to recognise the times when there is a temporary break from wanting, fear and too much thinking.
Can I recognise the times when I experience the importance of service to others?
Can I acknowledge within the happiness and the privilege of offering skills and knowledge to others?
Can I apply mindfulness so that there are clear intentions, with clear action, clear communications and clear seeing of results, whether welcome or unwelcome?
It is important to recognise the happiness of teamwork, the happiness of support for patients and the happiness of the quiet moments during the day. If I do not notice the breaks during the day, I might form a negative picture, and the picture forms the mythology, that this job is so stressful on a daily basis. That view enters into consciousness which we so easily identify with – to the point that we really believe our job, itself, is stressful. We believe what I mind tells us. Our own mind is not very reliable. Our mind is particularly unreliable when it is experiencing stress.
We need to explore the condition of the inner life. At times, there will be the experience of difficult feelings. There will be at times some agitation and some excessive thought. Yet, we still need to recognise in the workplace, the times of the absence of these unhealthy constructions. For example, your eyes are open so you can see the blue skies above. You look at the lovely trees and gardens that surround you and surround the hospital.The nature around the hospital is a huge blessing for all the staff and patients.
You direct mindfulness to the small details, such as the flower, listen to a bird, and to the voices of humans. All of the small events must have the opportunity to come into the mindfulness every day without any exception – to remind you that there are breaks taking place with regard to the stress and to the role. You can also find time during the day to ask yourselves “Is there anything I am ignoring when I start to feel stress?”
Impact of stress on the body
I spoke to you yesterday about the power of the voice. I gave an example of going to a meeting and then carrying an impression about the meeting. The carrying of an impression can contribute to stress. Perhaps you leave a meeting and then talk negatively about the agreement, even though the meeting came to an agreement. Stress can come through the image of the meeting or its conclusion; whether you attended the meeting are not. It is those kinds of incidents at work, ignored or taken for granted, as well as being reinforced by others, that enables stress to develop.
When stress reaches a certain level, it will begin to impact on the body and inside the body. Feelings and thoughts exist in an intimate connection with the physical life. We can’t completely separate feelings, thoughts and the body from each other. There is very little distinction in the intimacy of mind and body. The thoughts/feelings and the stress begin to be felt upon the cells of the body. If you ignore the impact of stress upon the body, it will definitely lead eventually to exhaustion, burnout and physical health problems.
Sociological surveys in the EU show that more time is spent away from work, due to stress, than any other personal issue. Stress has the biggest impact upon our working lives. Mindfulness enables us to catch early any gradual build-up of stress. In the small groups before this talk, I asked you to explore with each other
“Where do I experience the biggest challenge working in this hospital?”
We can practice mindfulness of breathing to give us support when we know we feel under pressure. We need to find time at work for the quiet period.
Do I find I am spending too much time listening to another and talking to another and the thought arises: “I am listening and talking far too much?”
Do I have the confidence to take time away from all the talking to have a quiet break?
We give ourselves respect when we say to ourselves that we need a quiet time. I need to go for a walk. If you go into a meeting, whether a one to one or a group meeting, a memory can arise that says: “Oh my God, it is going to be a difficult kind of meeting.”
You cannot walk into a meeting unmindfully influenced by memories of previous meetings. It takes a clear intention to be fully present for the meeting. You may need to give yourself mindful reminders during the meeting itself, to relax the body, let it be rather still and upright. You may need to be mindful to keep your communications calm and clear, without interrupting others. There is no need to speed up your voice or become argumentative.
In the meeting you listen to others but you also listen to your body for any tension, pressure or stress. If you are confident, you can invite the quiet ones in the meeting to speak. It is far too easy for one, two or three people to dominate a meeting.
You need a mindful commitment: “I am not going to bring in to this meeting any past impressions.” You need to remember that this is not another meeting but a new meeting. Mindfulness will check the body regularly so that mindfulness includes the inner and the outer, namely the seeing and listening to others. You keep the body rather still, relaxed, while listening mindfully to what others have to say.
What are the sensations the body?
Is there anywhere in the body where I am contracting?
Are the shoulders hunching up?
Are the hands becoming clenched?
Is there any tightness in my stomach?
Am I moving a lot which shows pressure and stress?
We listen and also practice mindfulness. This will reduce any stress. When the meeting is over with the patient or with a group, you walk out of the door and you leave the impression behind as much as possible. There may be one or two points that are insightful and beneficial. You only take away with you those one or two points.
Zillions of times, the Buddha said to apply mindfulness to what arises, stays and passes. Mindfulness applies to arise to walk into a room. Mindfulness applies to what stays, namely the event in the room. Mindful applies on the departure, the closure of the meeting.
We can consider the totality of the day in much the same way. We arise, enter and stay and depart from any event. In a mindful way, we can see that cycle taking place all the time. We practice so that we do not carry lots of past stuff around that builds up stress in our roles. We cannot experience stress in life unless we grasp onto, hold onto and carry around images and stories. Thank you.
One of my teachers told us to stay in the moment. Is it that important to stay in the moment all the time?
No. Mindfulness is another way of staying being alert to whatever. We do not have to be in the moment all the time. We can be mindful and also mindfully interpret our experience or our perceptions of past, present and future.
Can we generalise that thinking leads to stress? There are problems that you can solve with thinking. There are problems that you cannot solve with thinking. There are other problems where it is beneficial to think about them.
I tried to get across about my concern about the excess of thinking. Mindfulness functions as a tool for seeing what is going on. At times, we need to apply the skilful use of thought. We have some thoughts about what we plan to do. We have thoughts about a difficulty that we need to resolve. Mindfulness serves as the agent for seeing clearly.
There needs to be a point in the thinking where there is a knowing that too much thinking is going on. We know the thoughts have gone too far. That thought may arise that it is time to cut the thinking. But that thought may not have the power to cut the stream of thinking to give the mind rest. It could be that just another thought.
The thought may say “I am thinking too much about this issue. It is becoming stressful for me.” This is a valid thought. If this thought cuts the thought, then it has some power to it. This will lead to a change in the thinking or ending it. One might have to use a clear intention to change the posture, take a walk or intentionally use our eyes and ears to let in colour and sound or experience the nature to make a break from the thinking. It means that the mindfulness with clear intention has freed up the mind from stressful thinking.
Sometimes, the deep resolution of an issue cannot be found in the continuity of thinking about the issue. The resolution can be found in the absence of thinking. Some of the deep realisations o may have to come to us. Yes, we apply thought but we also recognise that we need some inner space so that thought does not always occupy consciousness. It can be that there is a sudden insight realisation “Ah, now I know what to do.” A creative resolution can emerge out of our being. Excessive thought can hide the resolution.
I understand that we can let go of past experience of our impressions of a meeting. If somebody really hurts or harms me, and gives me a bad experience, then I may have to protect myself. I think this is also important. I cannot bring together bring together the letting go of past experience and the need to protect myself.
I referred in my talk to mindfulness so that we take care with regard to the carrying of impressions that feed stress. We certainly need clarity about what took place and the insights from the event. By not carrying a single impression from the meeting, we have the capacity to look back to know what the insights actually are. “What do I need to understand?” This is an important aspect of mindfulness. It must refer to the past as well is to the present.
There are situations, and some of them are important ones, where another person has inflicted hurt or harm in one or more of a variety of ways that people hurt and harm others or another. If you are hurt or harmed by another, you have a responsibility to step out of that situation. There are situations where you ensure that you hold him or responsible and accountable for what they say and do and take appropriate steps. This might require clear and direct action to give support to another person who has been harmed or suffering under some kind of abuse.
A person may feel incredibly hurt or traumatised through what took place. What are the necessary steps? What do you do to hold a person accountable? If you leave with just very painful impressions, these impressions can weigh very heavily on the person. An abused person may feel very distressed, unhappy and depressed. The person may lose intention to do anything.
It would be necessary then to reflect on what the hurt was about and what action I can take. I don’t want to react and keep the pain in my mind and body until I see the person the next time. The pain will then stay in the connection with the other and in the relationship.
Yes. My daughter’s mother is a manager in a ‘safe house’ in Britain. The government makes these houses available for women who have suffered domestic abuse. The women have had to flee their homes and move from another part of the country and also, quite often, from another part of the EU. These safe houses are set up for women and the kids. These are the steps the some women to take. In the workplace, it may not be violence but certain people are nasty and engage in verbal abuse. This kind of abuse challenges people. It is not easy to deal with such abusive language. It is not easy to be mindful, calm and clear. There needs to be the willingness to bring up such painful issues for resolution.
I find mostly that it is not that extreme one has to go to a safe house. I think it is helpful that you remind us to leave things behind.
We live in a dynamic that we cannot always protect ourselves from what other people say. We do not always know when the unkind voices come to us. The unkind person may not realise that we are sensitive or in a sensitive period in our day or in our life. Their unkind words and behaviour then has an impact upon us. The feeling of hurt, whether expressed to our face or behind our back, is one of the very difficult feelings to deal with.
When we find it difficult to work with the feeling of being hurt, it easily triggers a subsequent reaction from ourselves. The subsequent reaction is often revenge. We react with negativity and anger towards the other. That means that we are doing much the same thing, namely making negative comments to the person or talking behind their back. It is all too human. Our angry reaction shows that we are not handling well the feeling of being hurt.
We become even more vulnerable, if in the personal life away from work, we also feel hurt by the words and behaviour of people at home, family and friends. When we walk into work we can carry the feeling of being hurt from difficulties at home. Then somebody at work says something cruel, negative and dismissive to us. It lands on that hurt which we carried into work. That doubles the feeling of hurt or any unresolved hurt from events earlier in our life. That starts the reaction. That reaction is the stress.
I don’t think we can completely protect ourselves from the feeling of being hurt by another or others. Can we sit with this feeling? Can we allow ourselves just to feel this feeling? Can we stay steady with it? Can we breathe through it? Can we share the feelings with others who can listen with empathy?
In such a contact with the feeling, it will not lead to reactivity. This is a challenge for us. Thank you.
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