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IOM Interview with Dr. Ron Siegel

Organizational Mindfulness Podcast | December, 2021

About Dr. Ron Siegel

Dr. Ron Siegel has been an early and influential voice in the modern mindfulness movement. He is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, and is on the Board Directors and faculty at the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy. 


Dr. Siegel is co-editor of Mindfulness and Psychotherapy; author of The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems; coeditor of Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy; coauthor of the professional guide Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy; and coauthor of the self-treatment guide Back Sense. 


He is also a professor for The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being produced by The Great Courses; a regular contributor to other professional publications, and co-director of the annual Harvard Medical School Conference on Meditation and Psychotherapy.  


He’s currently at work on a new book called: The Extraordinary Gift of Being Ordinary: Finding Happiness Right Where You Are.


The Organization Mindfulness Podcast is presented by the Institute for Organizational Mindfulness and hosted by mindfulness coach Brett Hill.

The Transcript 

Brett: Hi, I'm your host, Bret Hill, and we're so excited today to welcome a very special guest to the show. If you've had any interest at all in mindfulness, there's no doubt that you've come across the great work of today's guest, Dr. Robert Siegel, truly one of the great names in modern mindfulness.

Dr. Siegel is an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and a longtime student of mindfulness meditation. He serves on the board of directors and faculty of the Institute of Mindfulness-excuse me, the Institute of Meditation and Psychotherapy, and the faculties of the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at the Cambridge Health Alliance, as well as the University of Massachusetts Medical School.


While he teaches internationally about mind-body medicine and the application of mindfulness and compassion practices and psychotherapy. In addition to that, he's a prolific author and has written books like ‘The Mindfulness Solution, ‘Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems. He's the co-author of ‘Back Since: A Revolutionary Approach to Halting the Cycle of Chronic Back Pain’ and ‘Sitting Together: Essential Skills for mindfulness-based Psychotherapy’ and is the co-editor of a book I'm reading now called ‘Mindfulness and Psychotherapy The Second Edition’. In addition, he's working on a new book which I'm excited to read when it comes out called ‘The Extraordinary Gift of Being Ordinary Finding Happiness Right Where You Are’. And here we are. And at this moment, I want to say welcome to the show, Ron. 

Ron: Thanks so much for inviting me. 

Brett: Oh, it's a pleasure to have you. Before we get started, there's so much to talk about, but I wanted to frame this conversation in just a little bit because the people in our audience are generally in the business world or business-related. And they're open to the idea of mindfulness providing some value in their personal and professional lives. But they may not have a structured practice yet. And they might be a little fuzzy on the idea of what mindfulness is about. And so I'd like to ask you, based on your long career and experience with mindfulness, what would you say these days that mindfulness is? And can you help us understand the science behind the practice? 

Ron: Sure. Mindfulness is actually an attitude toward experience. And that sounds kind of abstract. But what it really means is how are we going to relate to each new thing that happens in our life, each new moment of consciousness, each new internal feeling or thought, as well as external events. What's our relationship going to be toward these? And when we're practicing mindfulness, what we're cultivating is an attitude of awareness of this experience. So we're conscious. We're noticing what's happening in the here and now. And we're having an attitude of loving acceptance. And it's very interesting when you look at the fact that I've spent a long time working in the field of the interface between mindfulness practices and psychotherapy and particularly how mindfulness practices can help us with a wide range of psychological challenges. And it turns out that the paying attention part is probably less critical than the loving acceptance part. 

Brett: That's really interesting. 

Ron: Yeah, well, and it's interesting, too, if you look at the history of mindfulness practices as they've come to the West, because initially when they came here and many of them came out of Buddhist traditions, not because there's anything necessarily Buddhist about mindfulness practices, but of all the world's traditions that have cultivated them, certainly the Buddhist traditions have done it in the most detail. So we borrowed a lot of these when we're using them in the West. And initially, the focus was really on, you know, pay attention, pay attention, pay attention if you're following your breath or a sound or something else, really getting good at concentration but in the therapeutic arena. And I think that the ways that it works in the therapeutic arena are the ways that are going to be most critical in the organizational arena or in the business arena. In this arena, it's the capacity to have an attitude of loving acceptance toward whatever is arising, whether that be something pleasant or unpleasant, that seems to be most rapidly transformative of both how we feel and how we act in the world. 


Now, there's an interesting thing about this that, you know, usually when it's described this way, OK, awareness of your present experience with loving acceptance, most people who are relatively new to mindfulness practice say, yeah, oh, yeah, I can do that. And that's because mindfulness is subject to my favorite finding in social psychology. It's called the ‘Dunning Kruger Effect’, named after Duncan Kruger, a psychologist at Cornell. And the Dunning Kruger effect says that across a whole wide range of human endeavors, and you'll see this in the business world for sure, actual competence is inversely proportional to perceived competence. Yeah, you're not a smart person. I'll say it again. Confidence is inversely proportional to perceived competence. I think of it as the Homer Simpson effect, you know exactly where it supremely confident when he goes off on one of his misadventures, but the audience think it doesn't look good. 

Brett: Oh, yeah, it could be trouble. 

Ron: And the way this shows up in mindfulness is if you haven't tried these practices, it's easy to think, yeah, I'm aware of my present experience with acceptance, but if you've been doing it for a while, you get reports like this, you know, somebody who's been at it for several decades says, you know, I sat a three-week silent meditation retreat. All I was doing was focusing on paying attention to what's happening in consciousness moment by moment. And there was a period of sitting on a grassy hill and, you know, for maybe five seconds, maybe then I was actually aware of my present experience with acceptance and then that changed like everything else, you know. So the interesting thing when we practice mindfulness is we develop what the folks at Google-Google's very into promoting mindfulness practices for their workforce-what the folks at Google say is mindfulness developed, higher resolution consciousness, more pixels per square centimeter of awareness. Here we go. 


And it's that higher resolution consciousness that paradoxically helps us to see how unmindful we are the rest of the time. So mindfulness is very simple, but the more we develop it, the more we realize that it's also somewhat elusive because so often we're either distracted or we're harshly judging our experience. We're thinking,’ well, I don't want this to be as it is. I want it to be different’. And what we find is that it's that resistance to experience that causes all sorts of suffering and in fact, gets in the way of our optimal functioning in many, many different realms. 

Brett: I see. So that's really fascinating. And so how does it work then that you know, you have this effect that's going on where you imagine that things are... that you're really good at something and you're really not. How do you get someone from here to there, like, you know, people who are thinking, ‘well, this, you know, sounds doesn't sound so hard to be meditating and is it necessary to, you know, dove into like a three-week silent retreat in order to kind of get that reality level set?’ 

Ron: No, it's actually not necessary. Actually, all it takes is a little bit of formal practice to notice how challenging, really being mindful is. So when we talk about practice, we're trying to develop this attitude toward experience. And we could look at this with an analog, let's say, to physical fitness, if we wanted to become physically fit, to have more strength, endurance and flexibility. Well, there are different ways to do this. One is we could just take the stairs instead, the elevator sometimes or walk instead of hopping in our car to get somewhere. And we develop some fitness. But if we want to take it to the next level, well, we'd have to do something more deliberate. We'd have to go to the gym or start riding a bike to places or do something like that. If we really want to push this, well, then we'd start using our vacation time to do things like around here, you know, hike the Appalachian Trail or, you know, do something that it's really quite athletic. 


And we have the same options with mindfulness practice. We can simply decide to try to pay attention to things a little bit more as we're going through our day when when we walk from, you know, our home to the-I’m sorry- from one office to another, or we walk our dog or we take out the trash, decide instead of just spending that whole time planning and being in the thoughts stream. What if we actually stepped out of the thought stream, came to sensory reality and just kind of noticed our feet on the ground, noticed the sights and sounds around us, and that what we call informal mindfulness practice will work to develop a little bit of mindfulness, will become more aware of our present experience and with more acceptance.


But the next level, we have to actually take some time out of the day, the equivalent of going to the gym, if you will, and set aside some time to meditate. And almost all mindfulness practices, formal practices or meditation practices involve choosing a sensory object. The breath, for example, sounds or the sensations of the feet on the floor. Could be any sensory object and try gently to pay attention to that changing sensory experience. And then when the mind zips off into thought, which is so often does gently and lovingly bring it back. And this is like a process of puppy training, you know, the mind will scamper off. We bring it back, it scampers off somewhere else. We bring it back again. 


And in the process of doing this, a couple of things happen. One is we actually develop the capacity to notice what's happening, to actually notice what's happening in the mind and body. And that becomes enormously useful because one of the things we can start to notice is the. Patterns that cause us to suffer it, cause unnecessary psychological suffering, and we can notice our patterns of behavior that aren't so skillful that don't work so well. Many, many people going through their lives who are really either in psychological distress or doing things very skillfully in the world, are not really conscious of what's happening there. They're kind of bumbling through, if you will, not really aware. So just beginning to pay attention helps us to be more aware.


As we become more aware, we have more flexibility about changing things. And, you know, the history of studying mindfulness practice in the West, these graphs that show a number of published peer review articles per year, you know, they start in like the 1960s or so and they're pretty flat. And then they get up to current times and it just, you know, goes like the covid rates during the height of the. You know, exponential increase because there have been literally thousands of studies now looking at the neurobiology of mindfulness, looking at the effect on all sorts of human difficulties that we have, as well as looking at the effects of mindfulness on optimizing experience, you know, helping with athletics, helping with decision making, helping with attending to task, helping with academic learning. 


And we see across the board that substantive changes are happening here. Changes in brain function are happening. In other words, when we practice mindfulness, our brain is functioning in a different way. 

Different brain regions are activated and changes in brain structure that we really see that over time, if you practice mindfulness, certain structural areas of the brain become beefed up or stronger. This is because of a well known observation in neurobiology, which is that neurons that fire together wire together and we use a part of the brain a lot. It bulks up not unlike, you know, our biceps. We get both structural changes and functional changes that have now been very well documented for many years now. So this happens. 

Brett: And so the notion then is, you know, we're sitting in this neurological state where we're not really that well refined in a certain way, trying to figure out what's going on in the world. And like you said, it's kind of a low res picture for people in some ways. And then through this practice of mindfulness, we can get more resolution and therefore become more aware of the circumstances that we're actually in and as a result, be able to take more effectively, make better decisions and be more active. You mentioned some very interesting things. That's sort of like the practice not only seems to help you kind of get clearer, but also improves many aspects of your life. So it's like, yeah. And so I'm interested in two aspects of that. One is like how much gym time do you have to put in to kind of see some, you know, muscle building in the mind, so to speak, you know, like the build to change that great matter? 

Ron: Well, it's what we do know is that practice is very dose-related. So if you do a little bit of mindfulness practice, you'll develop a little bit of mindfulness and you'll see little bits of changes in brain structure and function. But if you do a lot, you see a lot of changes. And, you know, everybody's going to decide for themselves what the optimal balance is for them. You know, most folks listening to this or watching this are probably not going to run off to the monastery and start, you know, meditating most of the day except for the time that they're, you know, chopping wood and carrying water, carrying water, you know. 


So I'll tell you where the science lies with this. We actually don't know how small a dose creates measurable effects. There have certainly been studies showing that 20 minutes, a few times a day, a few times a week can create some measurable effects. Most of the studies, the vast majority of studies have used as the what we call the independent variable, the thing that you manipulate to see what its results are on, in this case on human psyche and the human brain, have used an eight-week course of something called “mindfulness based stress reduction”, which is simply a packaging of mindfulness that John Kabat-Zin started back in the 1970s, which consists of meeting in a class about two, two and a half hours a week for eight weeks and being asked to do about 45 minutes of practice each day, six days a week during those eight weeks. So that's been the dose, if you will, that has been most highly measured, most frequently measured. 


And that dose creates very significant change. We can see changes, the most dramatic of which are simply people reporting higher levels of well-being, people feel happier, they feel like their lives are more enriched. You see, one of the things that happens from developing this high resolution consciousness is most of the time when we're seeking good feeling, we do it by raising the amplitude of the external stimulus and, well, like talking like a scientist, in very practical terms. 

Brett: You go to the party, 

Ron: You go to the party. Oh, you really want something yummy. You have a triple fudge sundae with them, you know, with whipped cream and a cherry on top. Right. You know, like, you know, let's amp this up. What happens with mindfulness practice is we become far more sensitized to much lower levels of stimulation. So that and this is actually true. Just mindfully eating the charity starts to feel as fulfilling as wolfing down the whole sun used to feel. And that's pretty radical because that means we can have a lot less and feel a lot more fulfilled by having a lot less. You know, a simple walk in the park becomes a Technicolor experience rather than needing to have, you know, a light show with burning guitars and, you know, and flashing strobe lights. So one of the things that happens with mindfulness is as we develop this high-resolution consciousness, we need less to feel fulfilled. 


Now, that's going to have all sorts of implications, including the capacity to deal with other people and to deal with disappointment in a much more fluid way to be knocked off of our game a lot less, because we're not going to be as desperately dependent on things going our way in order for us to feel OK. We can talk about this, if you like. There are all sorts of ways that mindfulness practices help us to work with difficult emotions and make us far more effective. 

Brett: And yeah, by all means, I'd love to hear you talk about that because like in a work environment, you know, you have to deal with not only your difficult emotions, but other people's difficult emotions, which can cause difficult emotions in you. Right. And so how can mindfulness help these challenging conversations and stressful, you know, work environments where people have to deal kind of, you know, they get to choose necessarily who you work with or who your boss is even, who knows? It can be very anxiety provoking relationships. 

Ron: Well, so that's a great question. And there are three main ways that this works. And I think to introduce it I'd like to share a little teaching story that comes out of the Zen shore. Is said that in medieval Japan, there was this really sadistic, marauding general who came to town with his troops and they were awful. They were raping women. They were killing the able bodied boys and men, burning crops, destroying buildings. It was horrible. And this general really wanted to vanquish the townsfolk. And he caught wind that they most revered their Zen master. So the general gets on his horse and he rides his horse up the hillside and rides his horse right into the main hall of the Zen temple. And they're sitting on his meditation cushion is this little old guy, the Zen master. And then the general takes his bloody sword and he raises it above the head of the Zen master, and he says, ‘Don't you realize I can run you through with the sword without blinking an eye?’ And the Zen master looks up and he says, ‘yes. And I, sir, can be run through with the sword without blinking an eye’. And at that moment, it’s said that the general became flustered and left town. 


Now, I don't think the point is that this will always work as a military strategy, but it's speaking to something interesting. What is this quality of. Yes, and I, sir, can be run through with the sword without blinking an eye. What is this kind of fearlessness or for the rest of us, reduction and fear and courage, really, to be able to face adversity that these practices cultivate. And yeah, and we can look at how they cultivate it. The first way they cultivate it is when we're doing formal practice, when we sit and we do meditation. One of the instructions that's widely given is should you feel physical discomfort, an itch or an ache or, you know, you feel like shifting your posture before just doing what we normally would do, which would be to scratch or to, you know, change our position before doing that. Just begin to let the feeling of unpleasant sensation be the object of your awareness for a little bit, just turn your attention to that and see if you can turn your attention to that with awareness of this present experience with loving acceptance. 


And what we learned doing this is that very often initially, the discomfort amplifies because we pay attention, we get that high resolution experience. But if we stick with it for a little while, what happens is it starts to change. Like all things change, because one of the insights that we get from this practice is, oh, gosh, everything is completely fluid and is constantly changing. 

Brett: Yes. 

Ron: And when it changes, we discover that. Oh, so I can just hang out with discomfort and ride it out, and very often it will change by itself. So what's the relevance of this for the emotional challenges that you talked about? Let me invite you and our viewers to take a moment and close your eyes just briefly. If you're driving or something, don't do this. And take a breath or two, just. Similar to your body. And then generate, if you will, a little bit of sadness, not the saddest thing ever in your life, I don't want you to be overwhelmed, but just something that brings up a little bit of sadness for you. And I want you to notice it if you feel that sadness, it's actually a sensation in your body. And you might be able to actually, I invite you if you feel comfortable doing this, put your hand over the part of your body where you feel the sadness. 


Where is that body sensation happening? And just noticed that, oh, it's a bodily sensation, isn't it? And next, generate a little bit of fear or anxiety, again, not the scariest thing ever, but just a bit. And notice that that, too, is a bodily sensation. And see if you might put your hand on the part of your body where you feel that just to identify it more clearly. Feel that for a moment. And now let's move on to anger or annoyance. Again, not the biggest thing ever, but if you're a really nice person who never feels anger or annoyance, just think of somebody in the other political party, whoever that is, for you, and you'll feel it just a little bit of anger or annoyance. And feel where that is in the body and maybe put your hand where you feel that. And you can open your eyes again, and we could do that for joy. We could do that for frustration. We could do that for excitement. We could do it for all sorts of emotions. And what we discover is that it's very interesting. And emotion is essentially a bodily sensation. I know that you've done a lot of work in this area. 


So you know this well, essentially a bodily sensation accompanied by a thought or perhaps an image, and that's what it is. So if we develop this capacity in our mindfulness practice to be with discomfort in the body without feeling a compulsion to do something to fix it, well, we can apply that to feelings. And then when are subordinate or our superior says or does something that really activates us or scares us or makes us feel defeated or makes us angry, hey, we can hang out with that for a moment. And that's going to give us the flexibility to not just react to it, because as we all know, anybody who's worked in any organization from family on up knows that when things go off the rails, it's almost always because we're reacting compulsively, because we're overwhelmed by some feeling and we're trying to make the feeling go away. And our reaction is to try to get the feeling to go away. So one of the very powerful things that mindfulness practices can do for us is allow us to be with feelings. And that gives us both to notice that they'll change by themselves and gives us the space to maybe think a little clearly about this. 


What is activating me here? What makes me feel so threatened? How come I'm taking this so personally? And to get a little bit of perspective, that's going to allow us to respond in a far more skillful way. And the other component of this, if I may go on just to just please take what you hear, is that our feelings? Well, here's a question for you. I don't know if you know the answer for this. This is a bit of a trope passing around meditation circles. And I don't mean to put you on the spot, but maybe that so this trope asks this question, ‘how long does a feeling last if it's not reinforced by a thought’, you know, the thought like, you know, he was such a jerk or I deserve better or or or why are you being so mean to me? How long do you imagine a feeling lasts, if not reinforced by a thought? 

Brett: Well, that's a fabulous question. My intuition just wants to say it's like a transient thought that just passes by if you don't attach any weight to it. And so maybe two or three seconds. 

Ron: Yeah, it's a little longer than that. The answer is something like 90 seconds, but it's still pretty short. So pretty short. And for quite some time, I tried to figure out how we did that trope come from because I had heard it from many people teaching in this realm. And I finally found out it came from Jean Bolte Taylor, who wrote... she was a neuropsychologist who wrote a book called “Stroke of Insight” based on her own experience of having a left hemisphere stroke personally. And when you have a left hemisphere stroke, one of things that can happen is you can lose the ability to think. You can lose words, but you can still... 

Brett: But you're still alive. You're still losing your workers. 

Ron: You have emotional reactions. And she noticed that without being able to think about it, it only lasted about 90 seconds, which is very interesting. So there's this arousal rate that takes about 90 seconds for the body to settle down and go back to baseline. But of course, most of the time, what happens to us is we're reinforcing the feeling over and over and over, 


Brett: Eating it, feeding the cycle. So just organically, it just goes away without reinforcing it. 

Ron: If we're not feeding the cycle. Absolutely. And we know about this, let's say where a subordinate in some situation or our boss does something which feels like it demeans us and is elevated the you know, the person next door and where we're all agitated and it's you know, I can't believe you did that after all the good work I've done for you. I can't believe what you have done. You did that after the way I supported you when you were having your project and stuff. And every time we have that thought, we're going to have an arousal state of anger. And every time we have that arousal state of anger in the body, it's going to generate more thoughts. And, you know, yeah, this can go on for a few minutes, a few hours. A few years. Exactly. In some circumstances. 


So the other fascinating thing that mindfulness practices are doing in addition to helping us tolerate the bodily sensations, is they are helping us to see thoughts, his thoughts, this person, this process where I mention, you know, the puppy training, a little puppy mind goes off into a thought and we gently bring it back to the breath or another sensation. If we keep doing that, we start to see it's often given in mind from the instructions that, you know, thoughts come and go like clouds in the sky, right? There's another one. Oh, God, there's another one. Oh, it's gone. And we gain. Psychologists call this metacognitive awareness. The ability to see that a thought is actually a thought, not a reality. And to the degree to which we can see that all sorts of freedom opens up because it means we're not going to get caught in the cycles that are going to create the feeling that it can keep us stuck in the thought that are going to make us miserable and that are going to make us act on skillfully. 


So I said there's a third component. So the first one is being able to sit with feelings and notice that feelings are essentially bodily sensations so that we can tolerate and be like the Zen master, not get so caught in our thoughts so that we can gain some perspective on them. And the third, interestingly, is how mindfulness practices change our sense of ‘me’ or ‘I am’ because when we look at what goes wrong and organizations almost all of it involves somebody's ego getting bruised or somebody doing something to inflate themselves or I want credit for that or I want recognition and there are practical elements to this. You know, I want the promotion so that I can earn more money so I can feed myself and my family. But there's a lot of symbolic aspects to this. There's a lot of it that, you know, why did you pick him or her or not me? You know, why aren't I getting more respect or recognition or or, you know, doing things in order to get respect or recognition. 


You know, when you think of what goes wrong in organizations and this is, you know, whether you're the big cheese or bottom person on the totem pole. Mm hmm. It's almost always what gets wrong. What keeps everybody from rowing in the same direction and working together cooperatively is somebody's ego getting bruised or somebody working really hard to try to build their ego up. 


And and one of the things that mindfulness practices do over time is they help us to see they help us to see that pattern and they help us to see that our whole sense of who I am is off that that we develop this sense of who we are that had built up over years and years of narrative's years and years of people praising us for this or putting us down for that. All the moments in which you were picked first or last for that team in gym all the moment, which you scored high or low on your you know, your SATs or wherever you are around the world, whatever your entrance exams were for college-

Brett: You know, just through your experience. Right. Just through engaging life, 

Ron: All these ups and downs. And we notice that we create so many stories about ourselves and then work so hard to try to defend the ones that make us feel good about ourselves and all of these processes which make a terrible mess in intimate relationships. They make a terrible mess in families and they make a terrible mess in organizations. The more we practice mindfulness, the more we can learn how to let go of needing to be so special. That's the title of the book I'm just finishing, you know, “the gift of being ordinary”, you know, finding happiness right where you are, like, wow, what if I wasn't trying so hard to be special or to avoid the feeling of being specially especially inadequate, the feeling of being less than others? What if I were just like working with connecting with other people as though we were somehow part of the same family and not jockeying for position in the primary troop? How would that be different? And it transforms everything. It doesn't mean we're not motivated to succeed, but the whole thing becomes ‘let us succeed as a team’ rather than, ‘hey, look at me’. And that can be transformative for organizations. 

Brett: Wow. There's a lot to unpack in that. And that's incredible. Run out. I wanted to step back for a moment into the you know, you've got the boss coming in the room and you've been doing your mindfulness work and so he's or he or she is like, you know, seeing some things that are kind of hard to hear. And so rather than being reactive, you notice, oh, and everything in me wants to just snap back. Right. And now you've got this capacity to just kind of take a breath and go. I could step back, but I'm going to do something else instead. So what kinds of things then become possible now that you've got this moment that you've built? Are there specific sort of practices that people could use in, you know, in the real world, in these challenging relationships and encounters where they can say something that might be more effective rather than just being reactive? What kinds of capacities come on line at that point? 

Ron: Other words, that's a great question. And let me start with the very last thing you said, because when one of the things that we know from studying neurobiology is when our fight or flight system is activated, what goes offline is our capacity for clear analytical thinking that fight or flight by its very nature is about emergency response. And we evolved in such a way. The human brain evolved in such a way so that we don't take the time to think it through. We just react. And you can see the enormous survival value for that on the African savanna. Or if we step up the curve off the curb and a bus is bearing down on us, you don't want to think, gee, I wonder what the velocity is of the bus and ride, whether the driver sees me and is going to where you want to instinctively jump. 

Brett: I wonder just how intense that fire is over there? 

Ron: Exactly. So we evolved actually for the... Frontal lobes are part of the brain, which is involved in this kind of reasoned analytical thinking to shut down and go offline in moments of threat. Now, the problem for us as humans, of course, is that we feel threat as though it's a lion or it's the bus when it's really our self image that's being threatened. It's the story we like to tell about who I am and what I deserve. That's actually what's being threatened. So it's this situation, this very basic instinct does not serve us well. So we can practice. I actually encourage psychotherapists to use this as an acronym. Wait, wait. And from psychotherapist, it stands for Why Am I Talking? Right. 


I’d love to take a moment, to take a moment and just think for a second what you're about to say. Where's this coming from? You know, is this going to be helpful or not? And as we practice mindfulness, we just instinctively become much more accustomed to feeling a rush of intense feeling and just staying with it in the body so we don't feel compelled to get rid of it. And that opens the space to wait and then to think, OK, you know, my boss is pissed here or my boss has just put me down. What's going on here? And if we have that gap, we might even be so creative as to think to ask our boss. Gosh, from what you said, it sounds like it sounds like, you know, you're under a lot of pressure here, you know? You know, give me an idea what you know, what's what's going on in the organization, because it sounds like 

Brett: You're describing their experience. Yeah. Rather than referencing your own. 

Ron: Yeah, exactly. It sounds like, you know, my sending that report, you know. You know, I've created a big problem. Help me understand what the problem is. I want to understand, you know, how you're thinking about it and what your you know, what the pressures are on you. So I can, you know, figure out how to do this better. Right. I am pretty confident that with most bosses, if we respond with oh, well, help me understand the problem and the pressures you're under here, you're going to have a very different path forward than if it's I did not or you told me to do that or you know, or I'm doing the best I can, you know, how come you never recognize me? You always recognize them over there, right. 

Brett: The storyline. Right. Right. 

Ron: Exactly right. Simply a you know, a small example of how when it's less about me and it's less compulsive and our response is less compulsive and reactive and we can breathe the moment and let the frontal lobes come online so that we can actually think about things. We can find a far more skillful, you know, way to move forward. 

Brett: That's amazing. So I wonder, do you have any thoughts about how those kinds of practices could become part of, like the corporate culture you have been involved in? 


Ron: Yeah, and it's very interesting, you know, I haven't been involved in large projects, but I have actually done a lot of my consultation in working as a therapist for bosses, employees and work and coaching them along with that. And absolutely. You know, the you can put out this story, you know, to the workforce and say, as a general rule of thumb, if your boss is doing something that is hurting your feelings and disturbing you and getting you getting you going in some way, you know, there's a few possibilities here that we that we should consider. One of them is that they're touching on a vulnerability. Mm hmm. I grew up with a younger brother who seemed to get all of the attention. I wasn't actually... I was the younger brother. But, you know, they seem to get all the attention and, you know, all of these privileges that I didn't get. And here I am in the office. And this new person who's come on board seems to be getting all the attention and the boss just does something that favors this new person. 


I'm noticing myself ready to start screaming. If I have a moment to take a breath. I can also think, gee, what's this vulnerability? What's touching in me? Is this a familiar feeling? Is this a feeling I felt elsewhere at other times in my life? And then, bingo, there's the kid brother again. And the moment we see that the whole thing is transformed, we're no longer the boss, no longer our parent and quite the same thing. We're no longer so activated and we can step back and think, OK, I wonder what's going on in the boss, why he may or she made this decision. You know, one example. The other example is putting ourselves in our bosses shoes.


What's going on? If our boss is starting to yell or, you know, be demeaning or critical, they must be freaked out. What's happening was freaking them out. What's their boss doing to them? What just happened to our market share? What if something's happened here? That's why they're doing this or even I mean, I'm not saying we all have to become psychologists, although I can help or  even I'm reminding my boss of his kid brother. We're talking tough here. You know, how can I, you know, not get all reactive and, you know, reconnect in some ways so you can work on this at the organizational level of. 


Basically, when we're reacting to symbolic threats, we all start to understand that the threats are symbolic and all look for ways to understand ourselves better and understand the other person better. And, of course, each culture is going to be different. And in some, you could actually talk about these things. In others, perhaps not. But we can all do that inner work of not doing this and, you know, double benefit. We wind up happier because we're not, like, destroyed by the thing that the other person did. And we wind up more skillful. We wind up having a way to reconnect with the other person, which ultimately brings us the benefit of working cooperatively, which, you know, sooner or later and maybe this is naive, but I do think in most organizations, if we, whoever we are, are willing to work hard, have some reasonable set of talents and manage not to get caught in a lot of overreactions, but instead look for ways to make connections with the people we work with, we do OK. In fact, we advance. If we do that, you know, how many organizations have you seen? People who are brilliant with amazing technical skills but either didn't know how to connect with other people were reactive in a way that made other people not not trust them so well and their careers don't go well. 

Brett: Right. Yeah. That's so, so important. And I'm glad you highlighted that. And so, you know what, regarding this aspect of connection, because the ability to create connections, it seems so imperative to our well-being and also, I believe, can help businesses be better businesses as well. So I wanted to ask you, like, is there some because I mean, in your role as a therapist and a therapist, instructor, psychiatrist, instructors, it's like, what kinds of skills do people need in order to be able to help them connect? particularly for people to whom it is not necessarily the strength that they lean into. Right. 

Ron: Well, first, let me just say something to reinforce the importance of this. A friend of mine, Bob Waldinger, is unusual in that he is a Harvard psychiatrist. He is a Zen priest, and he is the head and he is the head of the longest running longitudinal study on human well-being, which is called the ‘Harvard Health Development Study’ which has been following a group of men (because it started in 1938 and Harvard was all male back then), has been following them ever since 1938. And a number of them are still alive. And they've basically been asking the question, ‘what allows for human flourishing and what causes people to to get sick, to die, to have bad life courses?’ And I will say and you can get a TED course talk that he's given if you want to listen to it. He says the jury is in. It's the nature of our relationships if we have relationships where we feel connected to other people and they don't have to be super harmonious, we can bicker, we can disagree, but we have to fundamentally trust each other and feel a sense of connection with one another. That is the golden ingredient in wellbeing. And it's actually more important generally than lipid levels and all sorts of other things that we know that even for physical longevity. So how do we get there? Which is your question? The most important way to get there is by actually focusing on other people more than ourselves, by going. 

Brett: Back to your new book. Right. 

Ron: It's by being interested in others' experiences. Now, I want to say something about this because. There are some of us, and it's always very tricky to talk about gender and gender, you can be binary and there are plenty of biological men who have more feminine traits, archetypal feminine traits or traditionally feminine traits and the other way around. But gender-wise, it has not been unusual in ‘Western cultures for there to be some women in particular who kind of grow up with an attitude of I'm not allowed to think of my own thoughts and feelings’, I have to focus on the other. So I don't want to say this can't go awry in that direction. Folks like that may actually need to think, how do I stand up for myself and how do I take care of myself a little bit, because obviously, I must take care of others. But for many of us and certainly for me, learning to be with another human being and starting any interaction by taking interest in the other and trying as best as possible to understand what the other's experience is, is probably the most reliable road we have toward connection. It's because other people, they lower their guard and they feel safe when we seem to be genuinely interested in them and interested in knowing their experience. That's the example with the boss. What's your experience here? 

Brett: So, excuse me, go a step further than active listening. It's not just listening. It's like what's it like to be this person? 

Ron: Yeah. What's it like to be you? And of course you again, within the context of whatever the corporate culture is or the small business culture it is, or the nonprofit culture it is. You know, I don't want to suggest that people wind up, you know, suddenly getting all personal and circumstances where that would be off-putting or uncomfortable for people. But within the culture you're in. Hmm. Look for ways to do that. And the other huge thing and this is this is important for so, so many of us. Every interaction has both a relational aspect to it and an executive functioning aspect to it. And here by executive functioning, I mean, what do we need to do to get the task done in so many interactions that happen in the work world when things go awry is because somebody was anxious about getting the task done. Moved into contact, and it could be by an email, slack text or voice communication and just said, ‘what about this thing or why didn't you do that?’ Or this could be done by tonight or where they moved in exclusively on this executive functioning level without any attention to the relational level. What happens? The other person is reacting emotionally like an emotional human being, as we all are. And because the relational level isn't working, they're not even hearing you or their or their brisling or their or they're feeling demeaned and they don't have you know, they don't have their sources online because of that. 


Another huge component in this, this takes a long time to establish as organizational culture, is how can we make the relational level also matter? So we're also paying attention to that. And if people are practicing mindfulness, their chances of being able to notice the relational level are going to be way, way higher. And because, again, if we can shift from “me” versus “you” to feeling like “we” are working together on something, everything is transformed. I mean, think of it, you know, in your experience or our viewers' experiences when, you know, let's say we're feeling down on ourselves, which is but half the time right now, we're thinking of not doing well enough or I didn't handle that so well. You're right. I wish I had done better or why didn't she or he like me more on and on. Let's say we're feeling down on ourselves and we're with a friend who's like a good friend and who we've got a history with and who we trust. And we tell them about our troubles and they say, ‘oh, you know, I totally get that’. You know, I had an analogous experience. I felt similarly and we connect this way in that moment of connecting and becoming all these self evaluative feelings, these judgments about me start to soften. Right. And I feel like I'm part of this larger whole and all my narratives about how I'm doing and my success and failure. They start to soften. 


Connection is such a powerful antidote to self preoccupation. It's an antidote to all these anxieties about how am I doing today? And as such, it's got tremendous benefits. Not only does it allow the organization to function better, but it makes it so that we're not going to suffer so much. And if we're feeling connected and held, if you will, by that, well, then we're going to be less reactive. And that means we're going to create fewer of these problems. So you can see how these things are synergistic, how, yes, it's working on all these different aspects of it is actually going to make our lives better and our organizational life function better.

Brett: Which speaks to, you know, productivity and it speaks to longevity and it speaks to, you know, retention and so many aspects of organizational health that that matter that seem to be directly influenced by the capacity of the people in the organization to be more present and with each other and have more skill in these kinds of stressful environments. And I just… I just it's been a fabulous conversation. I wanted to ask you, what about your new work, your new book and the focus that you have now? I know you know, you preface at the very beginning of the conversation with it. It seems to be more about loving acceptance than the attention. And that is so important in a certain way. It's not. So there's the aspect of putting yourself in the shoes, of wanting to understand what somebody else is doing. And then there's an orientation towards that that I'm guessing from what you said earlier that that orientation also matters. 

Ron: Yeah, absolutely matters. And there's an interesting thing for many of us, there's an interesting correlation between how we treat ourselves and our own. Struggles and difficulties and how we treat others, that if we go through life being constantly self-critical, you jerk. Why did you say that? I can't believe you forgot to do that, etc.. We talk to ourselves in ways we would often never talk to another person. We wouldn't have to do that. But if we do, if we are harsh with ourselves that way, we are going to tend to have critical judgments of others, even if we don't say them out loud. In the same way we say to ourselves. I say by the same token, if we can find a way to love them, lovingly upset, lovingly accept our foibles, lovingly accept we all make mistakes, lovingly accept that we all get derailed, we all get caught up in egos. You know, this is the human condition. We can lovingly accept that. Then when we're with another person who messes up, we're much more likely to see them as, ‘oh, I know I messed up too’ that way. 

Brett: We write-

Ron: I see this throughout the world in religious and philosophical traditions. You know, ‘let he who is without blame can write this kind of…’ Yeah. You know, this is not the first time this has been noticed. Right. That it's so this attitude of loving acceptance as we can increasingly accept ourselves with our foibles, we're much less likely to be super judgmental of others. And as we go through the world, less judgmental of others, we're going to have a very different relational response. Now, none of this is to say I don't want, you know, those of our viewers who are, you know, in positions where, you know, you've really got to get production going. You've really got to show results. You know, you're in a measurement oriented organization. None of this is to say to not do that. 


It's just to say, as you're doing that also consider these other factors. Also consider this other channel and see if there's a way to do it. A little bit more like a game, a little bit more like I'm absolutely playing the game of being the most successful company we can be. Man, I'm not. I'm not taking it quite as personally, and I'm not going to be as reactive about it and I'm not going to be as individualistic about it. I'm going to say, how can we play this game together the way that good teammates do in athletic events where they're absolutely trying to win and they're very much trying to support one another and connect with one another in the process. And when they stop doing that, the team doesn't function as well. 

Brett: Right. So it's like the success of your project or your company isn't about you, right? It's not. It's what you were saying earlier about the story. It's kind of like, well, I am successful. My company was successful. And when you have some separation there, these external events, successful or not, don't change who you are or your own self-worth. 

Ron: Right. And it's a hard one for us. I mean, you know, when I wrote the most recent book, it was in part a self treatment project. You know, here I am, like 60s, having spent decades doing psychotherapy, having been in psychotherapy in the past, doing these mindfulness practices, because I started doing this when I was a kid. I've been at this for some time and I was still noticing my self-esteem going up and down during the day based on my successes and failures. Oh, I got invited to a conference by a world renowned psychologist. Yeah. Oh, I didn't get invited to a conference. You know, I'm yesterday's... I'm slipping. 



Brett: Yeah. 

Ron: It's like ‘what really? is this, after all this work?. What's up with that?’ And really trying to dig into how come success doesn't work?. How come we keep needing more or needing constant reassurance or needing to, to know that you know that we won't slip from the wrong we're on and how come our system of measurement is constantly changing? You know, if any of us thinks about what we earn today compared to our first job, I don't know. But for many, many people, it's like, well, I have moved up in the world. But is that sufficient? Absolutely not. We're comparing ourselves to a whole new echelon of people, and we constantly, constantly recount 

Brett: The ceiling just keeps going up, right? 

Ron: Exactly. So what's going on here and how come so many of us... because I noticed it wasn't just me, it was, you know, my patients, too, and my colleagues that, you know, this fantasy that other people are somehow secure and other people have somehow arrived at a point where they know that they're, you know, successful in all their realms of life. It's just me who's inadequate because I'm struggling. I guess you're right. That was one of my hypotheses. But as I've you know, I've come to see that man. I'm participating in something broader than that. And it's actually baked into our neurobiology and our evolution. And then what can we do about it? Because mindfulness practice helps. And many things that flow from mindfulness practice, some of which we've been talking about here, are actually really good antidotes to this kind of preoccupation and can free us to be not only more effective, but happier. 

Brett: And that's the key right there. I think there's a great place to draw close to the opportunity to be not only more effective in your personal and professional life and running a business as well as participating in a business. But, you know, being happier people and being more, more engaged and satisfied with what we're doing so that, you know, we're not at risk every moment, depending on the whims of the day sort of speak. And I just seem so, so grateful for you showing this has been an amazing conversation. I've really loved exploring this territory with you. If people want to find out what you're doing and how to connect with you, where do you send them? How do you tell? 

Ron: The easiest thing is go to 

Brett: We can-we’ll put that in

Ron: Up to people so people can see the spelling. But it's as it looks in the announcement for the program, no doubt it's just And you'll see books and writings and programs and things like that if you'd like to take a look, as well as a lot of meditation practices that are just for you, you can just download them or stream them and experiment whenever you like. 

Brett: Well, thank you so much. It's been a privilege and a pleasure to have you on the show. 

Ron: Well, thank you for having me and thank you for your good work. You know, because people live in organizations and you're doing the work to bring these insights and to bring mindfulness practice into organizations, you know, really has the potential to benefit a lot of folks. So thank you for that. 

Brett: Well, that's our mission in life at the Institute of Organizational Mindfulness. So we thank you for helping us with that. Best to you.

Ron: To you too.

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