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Enjoy the Cup of Tea

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On a rainy October day, I sat in a meeting with a woman who, while I sat across from her, was responding to emails on her desktop, troubleshooting texts from her son’s teacher, answering the phone calls that her assistant put through all while scarfing down a poor excuse for a salad. If I did not see it with my own eyes, I would not believe this is how she conducted a meeting. The crazy part is that when later that day I told a friend about the experience, there was no shock or surprise. As if this has become normal accepted behavior.   

It is no surprise that people report it is hard to stay focused. With the constant barrage of information from devices, work and the continuous news cycle, we are distracted. Our minds wander. We tend to spend time in the past, lamenting a mistake or failure, or worrying about the future. Also, our compulsion to check our devices does not help.  

When asked what is the biggest pain point for most leaders, the answer is often “staying focused”. A recent study by Matt Killlingsworth found that nearly 50% of people surveyed reported that they are not mentally present in the room they are in and mind wandering is responsible for much of the reported unhappiness. The sad part is that only 2% said that they had the skills to do something about it.   

So what can we do about it? Well, first we have to notice that our mind has wandered. Then we have to bring ourselves back into the present moment on purpose and without judgement. We have to practice paying attention. Yes, this is a practice. Like playing an instrument or sport, with practice you get better over time. 

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention. It is noticing when our thoughts have gone off into that other place of memories, plans, fantasies. The good news is that we can practice paying attention and bring ourselves back when our thoughts have wandered. Adopting an attitude of gentleness and curiosity is important when we notice we’ve become distracted. This kindness enables us to begin again and not give up.   

A few ways to practice paying attention are as follows: 

  1. Notice your feet on the floor – grounding in place reduces mind wandering

  2. Practice looking people in the eye when you or they are speaking. Pay attention to the quality of listening we give and get.

  3. Notice emotions in our body – heart racing, cheeks getting hot, sweaty palms. Emotions provide useful information when we pay attention to them.

  4. Naming emotions helps to diffuse them (think “I am experiencing anger in my body” rather than “I am angry”)

  5. Breathing or counting stimulates the executive brain and helps refocus us out of “fight or flight” mode

  6. Resist the compulsion to check social media

  7. Meditate, which is the high intensity practice of paying attention 

“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future—and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.” 
― Thich Nhat Hahn, author of The Miracle of Mindfulness 

Special thanks to our guest blogger, Tracy Fink, Founder, The Tortoise Institute: Creating emotionally intelligent workplaces