In a recent article in the New York Times, Mark Bertolini, the chief executive of Aetna, was interviewed for his unconventional decision to offer yoga and meditation classes to the 50,000 employees at the Aetna home office in Hartford Connecticut. So, what happened?
More than one-quarter of the company’s work force has participated in at least one class, and those who have report, on average, a 28% reduction in their stress levels, a 20% improvement in sleep quality and a 19% reduction in pain. They also have become more effective on the job, gaining an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity each, which Aetna estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year. Demand for the programs continues to rise; every class is overbooked.” (Read the full article here.
Pretty impressive for corporate America. According to the article, Bertolini’s change of heart in how to run his Fortune 100 company came after a near death experience changed the way he looked at his own life, and the lives of his employees. While it is often a crisis that brings us to the mat or the cushion, it doesn’t have to be anything quite that dramatic. Mindfulness is everywhere – in fact one writer coined the term “McMindfulness”, warning that the word is often overused and misinterpreted.
So why Mindfulness? Why is it so popular? What exactly is Mindfulness and what isn’t it?
In the same article, Bertolini said, “Meditation is not about thinking about nothing,” he said. “It’s about accepting what you think, giving reverence to it and letting it go. It’s losing the attachment to it. Same thing with pain.”
That’s a very true and pretty big statement. Meditation isn’t emptying the mind. It doesn’t make you into a zombie, or even make you more chill, relaxed, or blissed out. It might, but that’s a side effect, not a goal. In fact there are no goals in Mindfulness. That’s the point. As soon as you’re trying to feel some thing, pleasant or unpleasant, you just missed the point and jumped from being to doing.
Mindfulness is not an escape from the pain in your body, or your life. It’s not even necessarily relaxing. Sometimes being mindful is very uncomfortable, because what’s going on in your life (or in your body) may not be very pleasant – and it might just be down right horrible. Mindfulness is leaning into that discomfort, getting to know it, and instead of beating your head against the wall wishing it were different, you accept it, take a long look at it, and just maybe see another way to deal with it without becoming a victim, being mad, or reaching for a nice big shot of Jack Daniels.
Mindfulness does have its roots in Buddhist Practice, but it isn’t religious. A true Mindfulness Practice is secular. It doesn’t have any dogma, rules, or belief systems you need to buy in to. Anyone can practice it – even an atheist. It won’t get you into heaven, but it may get you out of your own hell.
One of the big buzz words in neuroscience these days is neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. At the ripe age of 58, I find this to be very good news. However, the fact is that many of our brains are programmed with a negative bias – meaning that we spend far more time thinking negative thoughts than positive ones. We are stuck in loops that are based on limiting beliefs like “I’m not good enough, (thin enough, smart enough…) Everybody’s out to get me, I’ll never feel any better…” These sticky thoughts are simply not true, but our mind is so used to them, and the pathway is so well worn, that we don’t even recognize them any more…until we sit mindfully and are brave enough to listen to the unkind things we say to ourselves, that we would never say out loud, to any one else. Period.
That’s why being mindful is so radical. It’s the ultimate rebellion. It’s revolutionary. And the biggest evolutionary challenge of modern man. We do have a choice. We can continue to run the same old dialog, over and over again. Eventually things will change, and life will go on, and we’ll probably make the same mistake all over again. Or…we can step up to the plate and say “Hello Thought. Goodbye Thought.” We can take the time to notice what we think and how we think – about ourselves and about the world – and CHOOSE which thoughts stick around and which ones we are ready to let go of. We can choose which neural pathways we’d like to develop, nurture, and cultivate and which pathways we are ready to abandon to the weed garden of the past.
Mindfulness is not for the faint of heart. It’s not easy and it does take practice. Daily practice with a well-trained teacher. Neural pathways don’t grow overnight. They need attention, care, and repetition. And if you’re into beating yourself up about your old worn out thoughts, forget about it, because the Mindful Path is all about kindness, compassion, and an abundance of patience – and all of that happens much more easily when you sit in a group.
And although its called MINDfulness, its not only about the mind. It’s about the body and creating a relationship with it. Most of us walk around without giving our body much thought. It’s not really our fault. When scientists started dissecting bodies during the Renaissance to figure out how they worked, they divided the body and the mind into separate territories. The mind was relegated to the spiritual world of the soul, and the body was dedicated to science. The mind could think ABOUT the body, but was definitely a separate entity.
That’s why embodiment is one of the first practices in Mindfulness. Reuniting the body and the mind. The mind and the heart. Remembering how it feels to be sensual – which means smelling, tasting, seeing, feeling, and hearing – those 5 skills that our bodies have always known how to do – even though we’ve allowed our 6th sense, thinking, to take over. When we get back into sensing mode, we realize how much we miss when we spend all of our time in the mind. We miss the smell of toothpaste, the feeling of the brush on our teeth, the sight of sparkly clean enamel, the great taste in our mouth when its clean and minty fresh… Choosing to act mindfully brings us back into the world, eyes wide open, with child like wonder and presence.
In addition to offering yoga and meditation classes at Aetna, Mr. Bertolini has also given his lowest-paid employees a 33% raise. “Mindfulness has made me question what I do and how I look at the world.” He is positive that the credit for his compassionate business decisions came from meditation – not because he’s trying to be a nicer guy, but because his brain has changed and he “knows” that it’s the right thing to do.
Right here in Wisconsin, The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the UW-Wisconsin has been studying the effect of meditation on compassion. Founder, Dr. Richard Davidson, found heightened electrical activity in brain areas associated with attention and emotion in his study group meditators. He also noted a spike in activity in the left prefrontal cortex—a brain region associated with emotions like altruism and compassion. The study also supported the idea that activities such as meditation might help to essentially “re-wire” a brain over time to elicit positive feelings more often than negative ones.
Starting at the end of April, I will be offering a 3 pack of classes at INVIVO Wellness entitled Introduction to Mindfulness. Each class will focus on one aspect of Mindfulness: Embodiment. Breath. Awareness of Thoughts. These classes are intended to be a starting point for developing a Mindfulness practice and will include education, technique and guided practice.
Reflective practice allows us to see around the corners of our minds, where its often a little murky and smelly and raw. Mindfulness takes time, repetition, patience and compassion. So “Why Mindfulness?” Why not? You certainly have nothing to lose, except your negative bias on life.
Tina Romenesko, PYT-500 has completed 100 hours of training in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and is also a certified .b educator. She has lead mindfulness workshops in both English and Spanish and is currently working with Growing Minds Today, a Milwaukee based non-profit devoted to empowering students and teachers through the use of mindful awareness skills to create kinder learning environments and more caring school communities.