“Stop thinking,” the petite Vietnamese nun instructed the small group of retreatants. We sat cross-legged in a circle on the floor in the enormous meditation hall at Magnolia Grove Monastery in Batesville, Mississippi. Our minds are always running, running, running, she explained. We can feel consumed by the endless chatter of our thoughts.
Her words resonated with me. Early in my first term as department head, and later in times of intense challenges, I noticed my mind replaying, reviewing, and processing work issues even while I was doing something completely different. This happened during the workday, and it also happened on my time, in the evenings or on weekends. I needed rest. I took action to reclaim my mind and my life while continuing to be productive at work. In this article, I share several approaches that were useful to me.
Meditation and mindfulness practice can help bring relaxation and peace. During meditation practice at Magnolia Grove, we sat in silence for extended periods, tasked with emptying our minds. Again and again, I had to engage conscious effort to stop my “monkey mind,” to rein in the mind that drifts and even runs off on this topic or that. And return to no thinking. The schedule at the monastery also engaged participants in mindful eating, walking, and working. We were asked to focus fully on what we were doing at any one moment. Mindfulness at mealtimes meant that I sensed and appreciated more fully the color, texture, and flavors of my food. The practice of mindfulness at the monastery gave me a skill I could carry back into my everyday life.
As human beings, we are meaning-making machines. We take in information constantly and our animal brains use it to navigate the world and help keep us safe. But problems can arise. We might make assumptions or cling to beliefs that are no longer true or never were. Some meaning making occurred in the past; however, we might continue to use it as a lens through which we experience the world. Through conscious work, we can choose to become aware of our meaning making and shift it to be more truthful and constructive. The forum offered by Landmark Education was a useful tool for doing this work. I was able to become more accurate in my perception of present events and exercise greater self-determination over my world view.
There are more ways you can take charge of your thoughts to shift your experience to the positive and own your life more fully. Perhaps you find yourself rehashing a decision or encounter. It may feel compulsive and distract you from the work you want to accomplish. Resolve to spend a limited and focused amount of time with an analysis of what worked well and what you would change next time. Then reassure yourself that you made the best decision with the information you had. And let it go. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you it’s OK. Decide that for yourself.
Have you ever noticed yourself falling victim to “paralysis by analysis?” Perhaps you are overthinking an upcoming decision or meeting or conversation. And all the thinking occupies you so intensively that you postpone the required decision or neglect other important work you need to get done. This is a great time to take a short walk or use a meditation app to refresh your mind. Then decide to spend a limited amount of time on the issue. Take action and move on. Here again reassure yourself that you have developed the best plan you can in the time you have available.
What else happens in the office that can have you thinking in ways that are unproductive? Perhaps someone exhibited odd behavior or said something that puzzles or upsets you. You keep finding your mind drifting off to make meaning about it. Instead of working yourself up over time, speak to the person sooner rather than later. Ask in an open-ended way what they meant. Or tell them how their actions or words made you feel. Do this in person, not by email. The tête-à-tête can help you let go of the concern without undue emotion and move on to what’s important to you and your unit.
In addition to these strategies for managing what’s in your mind, use the clock to help make this shift. Determine an end to your day and don’t think about work after that. Link this intention to habits that help you mark the beginning of personal time. When a friend of mine left the office each day, he turned on favorite music when he started his car. For him, that was the beginning of “his” time. My habit was to change out of work clothes when I got home. I put on comfortable clothes that were my signal for “recreation time” and began to relax right away. What habits will you create?
Back at the monastery, the light faded outside the large glass windows of the elegant hall. As the nun answered questions and provided encouragement, I already felt more at peace. There was “nowhere to go, nothing to do,” as one of the songs sung in the network of Thích Nhất Hạnh’s monasteries says. It was my task simply to be fully in the moment. This, too, was practice. By the end of the weekend, I felt refreshed and renewed. I was ready to return to focused work, having been fully away mentally.
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Learn more about mindfulness practice, download the free app, and find a meditation retreat center near you in the network created by Buddhist spiritual leader Thích Nhất Hạnh: https://plumvillage.org.
Learn more about Landmark Education and explore the forum syllabus to see whether this seminar is a good fit for you: https://www.landmarkworldwide.com.
Laura G. McGee, PhD, served most recently as head of the Department of Modern Languages at Western Kentucky University. Under her leadership, the department nearly doubled the number of its languages, programs, and majors. She now conducts program reviews and consults for LifeStories Matter LLC Intercultural Training and Coaching.