Mindfulness at Work: Ram Dass and Pema Chödrön

Earlier today I was reading through Ram Dass’ blog (from a 1989 article) and a recent piece by Pema Chödrön and they both wrote about ideas regarding the workplace that spoke directly to me. I thought I would post snippets and discuss them a little in the context of mindfulness, acceptance, and letting go of old patterns in the workplace.

ram dass bw

Baba Ram Dass

If somebody is a problem for you, it’s not that they should change, it’s that you need to change. If they’re a problem for themselves that’s their karma, if they’re causing you trouble that’s your problem on yourself. So, in other words when Christ is crucified, he says “forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing”, they’re not a problem for him, he’s trying to get them out of being a problem for themselves, because he’s clear. Your job is to clear yourself. In ideal situations you would clear yourself within the situation, but very often it’s too thick and you can’t do that.

Now, what you do then is you pull back and you do the stuff you do in the morning or at night before you go to work, you do the stuff on weekends, you do the stuff that quiets you down and then each time you go into the situation to where you have to work, you lose it again. And then you go home and you see how you lost it, and you examine it, and then you go the next day and you lose it again, and you go home and you keep a little diary “how did I lose it today”, and you saw that, and then you go and you do it again, and after a while as you’re starting to lose it you don’t buy in so much. You start to watch the mechanics of what it is that makes you lose it all the time.

It’s you who needs to change. Personally, I have struggled with work scenarios in a variety of ways–with people, with focus, with ad hominem attacks on my person/ego. Most days are good, but no matter how hard I “try,” I tend to let old wiring/programing/habits (i.e., “stuff”) control my response to “the situation.” This happened the other day when someone I work with implied that I had done something wrong. In truth, I hadn’t, but that knowledge didn’t stop me from feeling attacked, anguished, and troubled. What Dass seems to be saying here is that the only thing I can control is your myself,  and that kind of clarity can help me “see” this. But these patterns of habit–the cycle of  Negative Stimulus > Negative Reaction > Post-Reaction Calm > Clarity > Negative Stimulus can be disrupted/transformed with observing “the mechanics of what it is that makes you lose it all the time”–another way of saying that developing mindfulness and clarity can actually change how I respond to negative situations.

at work: cycle of frustration

My interpretation of Ram Dass’s cycle of Negative Stimulus > Negative Reaction > Post-Reaction Calm > Clarity > Negative Stimulus

It’s not about pretending that the situation isn’t negative or that somehow everyone is really some sort of ray of light that leads to our happiness. Negative is real, just as positive is real. The point is more that we need to objectively observe the reality that we are in, without judgment, without malice. It just “is.” To expect feelings of love, validation, and acceptance to be given in the workplace is, simply put, unrealistic–but that’s the modern brain speaking. The ancient, survival brain wants one thing, and one thing only: protection against potential threats (of which there are many, real or imagined, in the workplace).

Easier said than done? Personally, I find it very difficult to “pull back” and observe a situation objectively when I feel that I’m being attacked. But that is exactly what Dass is suggesting that we do. That, in fact, our old patterns of the need for validation, acceptance, approval–are negative drivers that make us fall into patterns of behavior that don’t serve our interests and just perpetuate negativity and unhealthiness:

If I’m not appreciated, that’s your problem that you don’t appreciate me. Unless I need your love, then it’s my problem. So my needs are what are giving you the power over me. Those people’s power over you to take you out of your equanimity and love and consciousness has to do with your own attachments and clingings of mind. 

If I’m not appreciated, that’s your problem that you don’t appreciate me. Unless I need your love, then it’s my problem. Let’s say that there’s someone at work or in another part of your life who has been belittling you in front of others. Perhaps they’re bullying you, for one reason or another, and you feel attacked. Dass explains that it’s not really the “other” person or persons who are the problem–it’s not your job to fix them. And, in fact, you know that you cannot. The underlying assumption behind anger at someone we feel has wronged us is that they should behave according to a way that doesn’t, um, do that. But you cannot change another person through anger, reaction, recrimination, or any other way, typically, other than modeling acceptance, grace, and composure. There really are only two ways to go: You can only be negatively affected if you need his/her/their approval or validation or you can let go, break the old habit of reaction, and change your response to one that neither attacks nor encourages the negative behavior of the “other.” Otherwise, you’re simply allowing others to control your emotions and reactions through your need for their acceptance.

Pema Chödrön and Shenpa: How Our “Hooks” Pull Us Down. These “attachments and clingings of the mind” are what Pema Chödrön  refers to as hooks that drag you into spirals of old habits and ways of thinking:

pema chodron bw

Pema Chödrön

The Tibetan word for this is shenpa. It is usually translated “attachment,” but a more descriptive translation might be “hooked.” When shenpa hooks us, we’re likely to get stuck. We could call shenpa “that sticky feeling.” It’s an everyday experience. Even a spot on your new sweater can take you there. At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.

Shenpa thrives on the underlying insecurity of living in a world that is always changing. We experience this insecurity as a background of slight unease or restlessness. We all want some kind of relief from that unease, so we turn to what we enjoy—food, alcohol, drugs, sex, work or shopping. In moderation what we enjoy might be very delightful. We can appreciate its taste and its presence in our life. But when we empower it with the idea that it will bring us comfort, that it will remove our unease, we get hooked.

It doesn’t necessarily have to involve a substance; it can be saying mean things, or approaching everything with a critical mind. That’s a major hook. Something triggers an old pattern we’d rather not feel, and we tighten up and hook into criticizing or complaining. It gives us a puffed-up satisfaction and a feeling of control that provides short-term relief from uneasiness.We experience this insecurity as a background of slight unease or restlessness.

This very scenario happened to me the day before the holidays started. Despite my practice of mindfulness, my meditation, and my always working “intellectual” brain, I was hooked by shenpa. Or, I should say, I allowed myself to be hooked and indulged the feeling of being attacked by a co-worker. Afterward, I felt shame at the feeling, being pulled at once with the idea that I was being “wronged,” while at the same knowing that it was a feeling that I had, myself, indulged in. It’s not easy rewiring yourself or “interceding” in real time (AKA mindfulness), but the more I practice, the less I am “hooked” by old habits and patterns of behavior.

office headI’ve always felt that work situations, like many social situations, function at a very shallow level–and in all honesty, it’s hard to pretend that it is otherwise: the workplace is often comprised of “man-made” hierarchies of power and control; various attempts at one-upmanship; “ass-covering” required to avoid blame for when things don’t go as planned; and all manner of personal quasi “sacrifices” and compromises. All of these scenarios are well known. But Dass  and Chödrön appear to be saying that we can indulge in the toxic scenario only if we choose to. If one develops meditation and mindfulness as a practice, one can has the tools to stop, look, and really see what’s happening and that the struggle, whatever it is, cannot control your response if you do not allow it. If you practice at releasing or “letting go” of these old attachments and clingings of the mind through meditation and mindfulness, it’s much easier to respond–in real time–by observing what’s happening, rather than to be pulled into the vortex of old, angry habits that you (and your inner child), can easily and readily engage in.

It seems to me that these negative reactions also part of our “survival” trigger mechanisms–tapping into the brain’s negative bias for survival at all costs and preparation for fight or flight (or shutting down/freezing)–that are part of our response to negative social situations at work where we feel that we’re “the target.” The “real” work scenario, as Dass explains it, is about developing your practice to build up what’s commonly referred to these days as “inner resilience”:

That’s your work on yourself, that’s where you need to meditate more, it’s where you need to reflect more, it’s where you need a deeper philosophical framework, it’s where you need to cultivate the witness more, it’s where you need to work on practicing opening your heart more in circumstances that aren’t optimum. This is your work. You were given a heavy curriculum, that’s it. There’s no blame, it’s not even wrong, it’s just what you’re given. You hear what I’m saying? It’s interesting. Can you all hear that one?

Cultivating the Witness. Here, Dass refers to the non-judgmental, objective examination of life as it unfolds–the  moments that we can stop and marvel at, rather than “deal with” with the vein hope that these situations won’t recur; they most decidedly will. There is no “ahhhh, perfect, I’ve landed at self-actualization and nothing bothers me anymore.” There is, however, a point of acceptance and grace that can be achieved over time and with patience. The alternative? Allowing negative moments to conduct how we “are,” how we “feel,” and how we “see,” based on the actions and words of others whose validation and acceptance that our “old patterns” make us seek.

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Source: http://www.npr.org

The Ancient Brain and the Modern Workplace. Workplace triggers are, to me, simply animal, ancient brain responses to modern situations–with modern inner child, feelings of fear, and anxiety thrown in for good measure. In fact, the workplace tends to be bad for your brain, apparently. According to a British study by neurologist Dr Jack Lewis, office spaces are inherently distracting places that are unhealthy for your brain.The situations themselves don’t constitute “real threats” to our being, but our survival mechanisms are often engaged, as if they were. For some, it becomes a negative feedback loop created between the ancient brain and the modern prefrontal cortex. Ever notice that the same things  happen during panic attacks or times of stress/anxiety (shortness of breath, heart racing, increased blood pressure, reddening of the face, tensing up of muscles) as when someone “attacks” us at the workplace. These are triggers for feeding the wolf of hate, and recognizing when they’re happening is an excellent first step in mindfully preventing them from taking control. Pema Chödrön explains it thus:

Those of us with strong addictions know that working with habitual patterns begins with the willingness to fully acknowledge our urge, and then the willingness not to act on it. This business of not acting out is called refraining. Traditionally it’s called renunciation. What we renounce or refrain from isn’t food, sex, work or relationships per se. We renounce and refrain from the shenpa. When we talk about refraining from the shenpa, we’re not talking about trying to cast it out; we’re talking about trying to see the shenpa clearly and experiencing it. If we can see shenpa just as we’re starting to close down, when we feel the tightening, there’s the possibility of catching the urge to do the habitual thing, and not doing it.

Without meditation practice, this is almost impossible to do. Generally speaking, we don’t catch the tightening until we’ve indulged the urge to scratch our itch in some habitual way. And unless we equate refraining with loving-kindness and friendliness towards ourselves, refraining feels like putting on a straitjacket. We struggle against it.

Wise words.

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness

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