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IOM Interview with Sharon Salzberg

Organizational Mindfulness Podcast

About Sharon Salzberg

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned mindfulness teacher, a bestselling author, and an early and important voice for Western mindfulness practices that have become part of our culture and consciousness. 


Sharon is co-founder of The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, and the author of eleven books, including the New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness, now in its second edition, her seminal work, Lovingkindness, and her newest book, Real Change: Mindfulness To Heal Ourselves and the World, from Flatiron Books. Sharon's secular, modern approach to Buddhist teachings is sought after at schools, conferences, and retreat centers worldwide. 


Her podcast, The Metta Hour, has amassed over 3 million downloads and features interviews with the top leaders and thinkers of the mindfulness movement and beyond. Sharon's writing can be found on Medium, On Being, the Maria Shriver blog, and Huffington Post.


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

The Transcript 

Brett: We're really excited to welcome to the show today, Sharon Salzberg, none other than meditation pioneer and industry leader, a world-renowned teacher, and New York Times bestselling author, as one of the very first to bring meditation and mindfulness to the mainstream American culture over 45 years ago. Her relatable demystifying approach has inspired generations of meditation teachers and wellness influencers. Sharon is the co-founder of the “Insight Meditation Society”, and the author of 11 books, including the New York Times bestseller “Real happiness”, her seminal work, “Loving kindness”, and her newest book, “Real change: mindfulness to heal ourselves and the world”. And I should add another one of her books of interest to us today, “Real happiness at work”, which we're going to be talking about. Sharon is also the host of her own podcast called “The meta hour”, which I suggest you check out because it's fabulous. And you're gonna find her just about everywhere, including on “beingmedium”. Sounds true, there was even an interview with Russell Brandt and more out there. So Sharon, welcome to the show. We're really big fans of your work.


Sharon: Well, thank you so much for inviting me.


Brett: You're so welcome. And thank you for saying yes. We know you, and one of the reasons we invited you is because our audience is a mix of corporate people who are interested in bringing mindfulness to the world and into their organizations, more specifically, and also our audiences, mindfulness teachers, and coaches who want to be able to help organizations very effectively. And we thought, who better to talk to this than you. And so keeping that orientation in mind, we'll be having that life throughout the conversation. But before we kind of dive into it, I just wanted to kind of check-in with you, like, you know, what's been going on these days, it's like, there's a pandemic that's been happening and, you know, what do you see out there now, how is all this affecting you?


Sharon: Well, I'm speaking to you from New York City, I also have a retreat center and a home in Barre, Massachusetts, and I came back to my rental apartment, which I've been paying rent on all this time, without occupying, you know, for like, over a year. And I'm gonna go back to Massachusetts, and in a little while, it's really amazing, you know, just kind of seeing the cycles on. You know, I think we started out with tremendous anxiety. And then that moved to, for many people quite a bit of grief and anger, and then exhaustion and being… Yeah, you feel the anxiety building again. And I really feel for people, you know, it's like, we're so tired. And there's a lot to confront, and, on an organizational level. You know, my Retreat Center was planning on opening in October, and I think we still will, hopefully, but that's the insight. 


That's the Insight Meditation Society, which I co-founded in 1976, with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. And you know, it was we went online, pretty much immediately when we had to close down and that was really interesting and important, and I think it's something we will definitely try to maintain as kind of an online teaching presence but at the same time, It is a residential retreat center and very much wanted to reopen. And, you know, we put it all together and now we have to put it all together again and think about what that's going to look like, and hopefully, you can still happen in time.

Brett: And what was your experience with the transition, you kind of the sudden urgent transition to online, and particularly in the, the context of the practice is like, what did you discover or learn that might be transferable to others who were involved with, you know, trying to be effective online as well.


Sharon: One of the first things I figured out was that we could have an unlimited scholarship policy, because, in fact, it cost us nothing to add other people, you know, you know, it's not a situation like in the retreat center, where you have beds, and if every single breath is taken by somebody who's not paying, you can't function, you know, you can't, you can't sustain that. But here we have that openness. And that's been a beautiful feature. Because I think it's also served to introduce a lot of people to meditation and to various aspects of, of kind of the contextual philosophy around ethics, and so on. We have a lot of students coming up. And so the accessibility has been really broadened. And also clearly it's an international medium, you know, so are my favorite things. And a chat in the beginning of any session is to ask people, where are you signing in from, and all of a sudden, it's not just New York City and New England, it's, you know, Abu Dhabi and Australia, Europe, and I think you're staying up for this, it's amazing, you know, and, you know, so it's been really expansive, and I appreciate that tremendously. People are, it seems, really longing to be able to come together again in a room and feel that support, and I hope that can happen as well. But for me, one of the most inspiring features is teaching online.

Brett: And how has the participation been? Have you found that you know, have you had more people be exposed to the teachings of the practice? Or has it been, you know, down? Or what, what's the uptake?

Sharon: I mean, in the beginning, it was massive, you know, as time went on, and people kind of adjusted to, oh, you know, I can go out as long as I wear a mask or, you know, whatever. And then by the time of the summer, you know, there was like, a pretty strong downward trend, because it was like, I can go to the beach. I can go visit my family or whatever. But it's also been a place where I've, I've really seen kind of the poignancy of people's situations. It's like, I read those chats and, you know, I read things like, I'm a resident in a nursing home, I haven't had a visitor in a year, and more, I'm a school teacher, and my kids cannot learn online. It's not working for them. And, you know, they are in despair, and I am in despair. And, you know, so I think we've all learned about one another's situation. In a deeper and clearer way, which has been really good.

Brett: Hmm, well, yeah, that's a lot of learning and all of that. And, you know, this anxiety, it's, you know, this is an imaginary. This is, there's real stuff going on, this stuff matters, you know, so it's, I think, affected all of us in ways that we couldn't anticipate. So let's pivot a little bit to the, if you don't mind, to the notion of like the businesses and the impact of mindfulness and business, I guess, one of the things I want to just start with or I just had a question about was, you know, I think mindfulness from my take on it is fairly widely an often misunderstood, particularly in the business world. And I'd like to get your thoughts on what you would say like, do you encounter or some of the most common misconceptions that businesses have about mindfulness?

Sharon: I tend to think of them not so much as misconceptions, but more incomplete understandings. Because the aspects of mindfulness that might be most appealing are particular aspects but the implications are actually broader than that. So you know, mindfulness, I think, in general, in kind of the popularization of it tends to be about focus, and concentration and these are clearly attributes of developing more For mindfulness, but there are also layers of mindfulness that have to do with, let's say, insight or understanding, you might see that, you know, you're going into a meeting with a very fixed idea of a resolution. And that's not going to serve, you know, you can loosen the grip of that attachment a bit, and see if maybe there are other resolutions to the issue, or there are ways that mindfulness helps us have a more spacious understanding. 


So I think a lot of creativity is born in that spaciousness, you know, we may see, originally very few options or, you know, we may be very attached to our thoughts in a certain way and feel the burden of that. But if we could get a little bit of space, and that doesn't mean annihilate our thoughts by any means. But just have a little bit of space. Then in that, in that spaciousness, maybe whole other options will arise that we hadn't considered things like that. So it's not just focus, and concentration that I think there are a lot of other implications for developing mindfulness.


Brett: I see so. So you're talking about, you know, what, like you said, walking into a meeting and someone being focused on like, here's the right way to do this. And so they wind up resisting an experience and maybe reacting to what even could be better ideas, but how would you help someone kind of disentangle that attachment?

Sharon: Well, that's actually the skill. I mean, it's like training. You know, I mean, mindfulness really needs to be practiced, it's not just an idea. And there are a lot of consequences to practicing it. You know, neuroscientists tell me that doesn't have to be practiced like 18 hours a day to have any result, you know, like, one very prominent neuroscientist in the fields of that kind of research, told me, this was a couple of years ago, he told me seven to “nine minutes a day will actually change your brain”. Nine, seven to nine minutes a day will change your brain in measurable ways that can be picked up by an MRI. So I was not too long ago on a zoom panel. And there was another neuroscientist friend of mine on the panel, and I quoted that other person, and I could see from her face, she was not that pleased. So I said to her, ‘okay, what do you think?’ And she said, ‘Well, my lab found 12 minutes a day won't change’. Okay-


Brett: Seven to 12. So let's somewhere in the range.


Sharon: Yeah. So I usually say, first of all, I don't know if it's that healthy to go for the bare minimum. But it's very intriguing to me that no one is saying six hours a day, minimum or… Yeah, such an intolerable burden, it's really not that much. But it's really through the practice of it, that the benefits are acquired, you know, and that it's often difficult for us, I think many of us are trained to be kind of abstract thinkers, and to not feel acutely the difference between knowing something, being able to recite a long list of its benefits, appreciating someone else doing it, and actually sitting down and doing it ourselves.

Brett: I think it's really important to amplify, that it doesn't take that much time to realize the benefits because we're also busy and we're also scattered at times. And they're such a productivity and achievement mindset in business. And the notion of ‘I'm just going to take time to sit down and do nothing is kind of antithetical and what do you say to people that are like, ‘well, I just don't have time to focus on not doing anything? How is that going to help me be more effective?’

Sharon: Well, I think it's an experiment. You know, it doesn't work if it feels coercive. But it is really an experiment if you want to undertake the experiment. It's not such a huge investment in time. And you know, if you want to look at the researcher, or you want to talk to people about their personal experience that can be really useful as well, because another benefit, which I didn't mention before, which is the kind of thing that happens is a very different sense of connection, not only to ourselves but to others. And one of my favorite questions going into a business or an organization to teach is how many other people need to be doing their job well, for you to be able to do your job well. Yeah, I love that quote. Because really, we live in an interconnected universe and we can be oblivious. To that, and I mean, I was talking to a physician, the head of a very large medical practice in a hospital not too long ago, and, you know, in the midst of the pandemic, and he said to me, you know, whom do I have an increased appreciation for? Is the cleaning staff. And I thought, ‘Well, yeah, you know', and I, you know, I've, I've asked that question, sometimes people don't feel resonant with it. 


And so I said, ‘Okay if you're working outside your home, how'd you get there?’ You know, like, are you dependent on people performing well in transporting you? Or did you eat today? You know, how did that food appear? It doesn't just appear. You know, we live in this interdependent system. And I think that becomes such a powerful sensibility that we kind of work differently, you know, that there's a very different spirit.

Brett: So when you say we ‘kind of work differently’, you mean, we work differently when we realize this interdependence? 

Sharon: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Brett: And mindfulness helps… to practice mindfulness helps us to recognize that we're kind of all connected. It changes the way you connect to things. 

Sharon: Yeah. I mean, it's, it's a very, it changes our worldview, which is why it's something natural, you know, it's not like, you have to give yourself a lecture, you know, or ‘I did my 12 minutes today, why am I still feeling this?’ It's like that our whole sense of who we are and our degree of connection with others, it actually shifts.


Brett: Hmm. And so how do you know if a business is interested in adopting a mindfulness practice? Like, what's that look like? What would you say to businesses that are interested in exploring this?

Sharon: Well, there are lots of different forms. And of course, they've all been adapted for our current situation, you know, of course, right? You can bring in a teacher or a coach who might teach, you know, I've gone into businesses and taught eight classes or four classes, or a lot of that exists online now, you know, with, like, manuals and coaching, and I think a really key component is, is questions and answers or questions or responses, you know, to have people to have the opportunity to really asked questions, because we, you know, we tend to bring so much conditioning into this activity like we do to other activities, like if you are hypercritical. Or if you have some idea that the goal of meditation is to have a completely blank mind, which never happens, you know, then you're obviously working at a disadvantage. And it would be better to have the opportunity to have a kind of clarity of context and goal setting and things like that so that you really can get the most out of it.


Brett: Hmm. And so they might bring in a teacher that organizes some classes or some kind of group processing. Obviously, some of this might be online. Yeah. And then people get involved in. Do you find that there are people who divide... that the people who participate in this report back that, you know, changes that are like helping them in their jobs, and that the companies appreciate those changes?

Sharon: I think that's very much the case. You know, like, I think, honestly, for employees, you know, it's not necessarily their primary goal, they're more like, you know, I can't sleep because I'm so stressed, or I'm worried about my kid or something like that, you know, but the consequence, in the end, is that the whole company, though, the culture of the company, can be shifted.


Brett: And so what do you think is important when it comes to the whole culture change? Because I'm interested in that, organizationally, because you know, this institute for organizational mindfulness is like, what, what are the hallmarks for success? What needs to be set up in an organization so that a mindfulness culture can actually begin to be implemented throughout the organization? Do you have any insight into that?

Sharon: Well, you know, I've worked a lot in the nonprofit world and these days, frontline medical personnel, you know, people who are really on the frontlines of suffering and in a lot of ways and when I did a program for Beth for years for domestic violence, shelter workers, and then directors and supervisors of shelters, they themselves came up with a phrase which they called a culture of wellness that they Want to institute work? Remember a culture might mean your own body and mind might mean your desk, it might mean your team, it might mean your classroom might mean the whole organization. And people have different ideas about what that might include everybody, and this, of course, is different. Now, perhaps if people are not working together, physically, you know, everybody said, some physical space would be useful, where people can just go and chill, you know, you feel overwhelmed, you just need to take a few breaths, you need to pause before you make your next call, or whatever. That was an important thing. And I'll never forget this one woman who was the director of a shelter. And first of all, she said, I have to learn the difference between something that's urgent, and something that's an emergency, which I thought was very interesting. And then she said, for me to be able to go on and perform well and guide people well, I realized I'm gonna have to start taking a lunch break. And everyone in the room who did not work in a shelter was completely aghast. And we said you don't take a lunch break isn't in your contract. And she said, ‘Oh, yeah, it's in my contract where there's never enough time. And there's so much to do. And suffering is overwhelming, and there's so many crises, but I should realize I can't go on unless I start taking care of myself’. 


So because we were meeting intermittently, in the course of this program, we got to hear her progress. So the first time she came in, she said, it didn't work. I closed the door, and someone crouched down and looked through the keyhole. And they saw, so I didn't get a break. And maybe three weeks later, she came in and she said, it worked. I closed the door and turned off the lights, and I got a ring. And I realized that most likely the most difficult element of that whole narrative was realizing she needed it, and she was gonna go for it. You know, so there's some kind of forgiveness or allowance, or even from leaders, you know, on the part of leaders, that we need to find a sort of balance, that there's a certain amount of pausing or taking care of oneself or just resting, you know, that seems to be really critical. And then creativity can arise and a different sense of being a team can arise and, you know, we're not so frazzled, we're not feeling so completely overwhelmed. And so that might look different, you know, in every context, but I think that's the essence of it.

Brett: Hmm. So physical space and some persistence. And the other thing was that she was committed to… Oh, yeah, we talked about, you know, somewhere between seven and 15 minutes, but then there's also like, how, how long like, okay, so she didn't want to work. Three weeks later, she's reporting some success. So there's something about, you know, persistent application, you know, like trying to learn anything, right. I wanted to ask you about, in your book, real happiness at work, you had this very interesting idea, what you called stealth meditations. And I was wondering if you could help us understand what stealth-meditation is and how that might work in a work environment?


Sharon: Yeah, we tend to divide meditation practice into two compartments. One is what might be called a dedicated period, that's the seven to 12 minutes a day when you edit three minutes to make it 15. Some chunks of time, posture doesn't matter. You might be lying down, you might be sitting, you might be walking. But the intention we have during that dedicated period is to deepen awareness and kindness toward ourselves and others and you know, it's not a time we sit down, say all of a sudden figure out our strategic plan that may come up for sure. But that's not the intention. It's just to develop those qualities. And then we have the rest of the day, you know, where one meditation teacher, high up in the Himalayas once described it to me as ‘short moments many times’. So that's what I call stealth meditations in the book, an activity very brief, maybe something you do many times a day, where you can have that degree of rest and pause. See what emerges. 


So probably the most famous example these days comes from the Vietnamese teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, who suggested ‘don't pick up the phone on the first ring, let it ring three times in brief, and then you pick it up’. And one of the things I love about these kinds of meditations is that they're totally private, it's like, nobody has to know you're doing it. You don't have to sit down with your eyes closed, cross-legged, look weird, you know, stealth part. Yeah, that's the stealth part, you're just using your breath as a way to return to yourself, return to the moment. And what happens when we do that is that we return to our values, we return to what we really want to see the outcome be, say, of the meeting or the encounter. So it's just using some activity as a way to like, take a breath, or come back to yourself. So I once made that suggestion, don't pick up your phone on the first ring, let it ring three times, and brief in a financial firm in New York. And I saw the complete panic on everyone's face. And I said, ‘Well, for you maybe just let it ring twice, you know, then you can’. Or people tell me, ‘I've learned all this stuff, meditations from people working, out in all kinds of different arenas’. And it's you know, I don't press send on the email relevant. Actually, this is something I've taken up myself in these pandemic times, you know, I don't press send on the email right away. I finish it, I take a few breaths, I read it again. And then I decide if I actually want to say it and I felt, for myself, there were a lot of things I saw in those written communications that I thought ‘oh, you know’, that might get misinterpreted pretty easily. Or maybe they will take that in a less kind way than I had intended, you know, let me rephrase it. 


So it's things like that, it's just like not hurtling ahead, you know, interactivity, I know, people in the corporate world, who will actually write in their calendars one minute, before a major meeting, or a phone call or resume, I guess, these days, you know, just to sit and be, and then go into the meeting, and they fund these activities, you know, like, every once in a while, don't multitask, like, Don't drink your cup of tea, while you're checking your email, while you're on a conference call while you're watching the TV, unmute, you know, like, just drink a cup of tea, and it's nothing that's going to take a long, long period of time, that's gonna explode your to-do list, very brief, short moments, many times, and it really changes the day. And there's even some research these days, on the efficacy of just those moments, without the dedicated period of 10 or 15 minutes a day, just introducing some mindfulness into your day. And showing that makes a difference for me, in all honesty, I find that if I have that intention, say to not pick up my phone on the first ring, I will more likely forget if I have not also sat that morning for 10 minutes. And so it's that dedicated period that helps me have those other periods be real, you know, and not just like theoretical.

Brett: Right, I hear what you're saying is like, you know, the dedicated period helps kind of establish a ground from which these other practices can have a little bit more impact. And I really liked that idea, because it's the kind of thing that's exceptionally practical in today's business world because things are back to back and on fire all the time. And, particularly in the work that you've been doing with very high-stress contexts and people you know, there's emergencies, literally, emergencies happening all day long. And like, how do you regulate yourself in that kind of environment? Now, that's a little different than like an IIT, or some other example where an emergency might be the email server went down, you know, and that's a legitimate business emergency. But it's not often the same. As you know, there are people in the emergency room that can't get a ventilator kind of scenario, but still, the impact on our nervous systems are, are significant. 


And I love this idea of these little moments throughout the day. So you give some examples about the… Oh no, I want to before I ask that question. I wanted to extend this concept that you said about just pausing before you send an email and asking yourself the question, ‘Does this really need to be sent?’ And ‘Is this going to be misinterpreted?’ And I wondered, well, how powerful would that be in a team meeting? To have the same kind of notions going on about what we say to each other? Do you have any thoughts or reserve training around that? Even?


Sharon: Yeah, well, there is training around that, because there are sort of a complex of practices and techniques that we, in general, call mindfulness. But there are practices of, of what are traditionally called loving-kindness, where you might look at somebody and silently think, you know, maybe happy, maybe peaceful, or our reminder that we're all seeking happiness, we just have very different ideas about where it's to be found. And we have a lot of conditioning around all of that. And so people tell me something like, well, these days with zoom, they look at all the little boxes, you know, and all the houses and one by one, they think, well, may you be happy, and maybe peaceful and silent. You know, and then it changes the whole feeling of the meeting. Because, in truth, we are interdependent. And that sense of we can only further the goals of, of the company of the endeavor. 


Look, I have a friend named George Mumford, a very old friend who's been the mindfulness coach for the Chicago Bulls, the LA Lakers, and less gloriously, perhaps, for the New York Knicks, and different sports teams. And he was sort of Phil Jackson's person, you know, that he brought into all these different teams and, and Phil Jackson's philosophy was very much about being a team. So George wrote a book called ‘The mindful athlete’, and he and I did a number of presentations together. When his book came out, somebody in the room would always ask him, like, ‘how do you get like a superstar, brilliant, brilliant player, you know, you talk Kobe Bryant?’ All you know, all these people, and how do you get like a superstar to think, like, they're part of a team, and George's response would always be, ‘cuz that's how you win’. You know, and so that kind of feeling is very onward leading, you know, it is how we win. Actually, whatever the endeavor is, whatever the, you know, goal of the company is, and, and so being able to look at people on that little screen, you know, and just take a moment to think maybe happy, can really change things.

Brett: So that just the… just sort of this, I would call it almost a blessing in a way you know, that you're dealing with people just and that changes your orientation and the words that you say next and changes the vibe of the group, which causes different things to happen. Nice. So what do you say to people, though, that are like in jobs where the people, I mean, they might wish their co-workers well, but sometimes people are not so pleasant to work with. And people can be antagonistic and demanding and even mean to each other. And you know, you're in a situation where you're stressed out about your angry boss. How does mindfulness help a person who's in a situation like that?


Sharon: Well, I think it's, it's on many different levels, there's a mental habit, we all tend to have proliferation, where something is uncomfortable, something as painful. But on top of that, we add, this could never ever change, or next week, they'll be even worse, and I'll look like this, or this is all my fault. You know, ‘Why do I always seek these terrible jobs?’ You know, and so we add future projection, we add a lot of blame, we add all kinds of stuff. And so one of the ways mindfulness works is it helps us see those add ons and choose, you know, is that like, true? Or is that just the habit of mind? And so we're still left with a difficult boss, you know, in your scenario, but it's not a difficult boss plus.


Brett: Plus ever your layover of all the anxiety and the rumination and what if I said, and what should I do and

Sharon: Yeah, and so with that kind of direct experience of Oh, this is what's actually happening. Sometimes there are options, you know, for different means of communication or even somebody once said to me once, you know my boss's is being terrible, and she didn't used to be like this, but this is unbearable, and she's become a terrible person. And I said, Well, maybe she's got something difficult going on in her life. And so you know,


Brett: Yeah, all right. Exactly. I you know, relating to this is a notion in your book. And it goes something like, this is like, when we're blue and thinking lots of sorrowful thoughts, we say to ourselves, quote, I am sad. But if we hit our funny bone, we don't usually say to ourselves, I'm a sore elbow, right? And so there's a message and this is related to what we're talking about. Can you help us understand what that might be?

Sharon: Yeah, I mean, I think even beyond saying, I am sad, we say I'm a sad person. Right? Right. depressed, I will be forever, I'll never have a friend or you know, whatever. We again, that's a perfect example of the add ons. You know, it's not easy to feel sadness. But if we are feeling sadness, plus, I'll be alone for the rest of my life. And you know, that's a significant difference. Yeah, yeah. You know, and in fact, back to neuroscience for a second, this was a study done on physical pain, but it's resonant, I think we use the same tools. And it's the same lesson wonder has to do with the emotional pain of, you know, heartache, disappointment, whatever it might be. And this was a study done by Richie Davidson at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, about physical pain, where he had got permission to induce some physical pain and people and everyone's an fMRI machine because he's a neuroscientist. And he had a group of people who've been meditating for eight weeks, and he had a group of people who'd never meditated at all. 


And the most striking difference, there were several differences. But the most striking difference was actually, between the two groups was actually when the pain was withdrawn. Because of the non-meditators, the pain would go away, and they would flip immediately into a cycle of anticipation. When's it going to come back? How bad is it going to be, maybe it'll be even worse? So whatever was happening in their brains, they never got any rest, they never got any respite, they never got a break, they never got a new piece. Whereas the meditators would have a reaction to the pain because we're human beings and their own pain hurts, right? But when the pain was withdrawn, they could relax. And that relaxation is not just good in itself, but it's what restores us to face the next challenge. You know, and so it was that habit of flipping into anticipation. That was the most damaging of all.

Brett: The anticipation of what might be happening.

Sharon: Maybe it'll happen soon. What will it feel like, you know, maybe it'll be worse. And, you know, and so, we really take that as a lesson about the emotional difficulty about stress, about disappointment. Again, it's like the add ons. Take something that's already challenging. It's genuinely challenging. When I tried to cover that over, you know, and so-

Brett: Yeah, exactly, right. It's like, you know, I see it all the time. And I do it myself all the time. It's like, you know, I'm driving down the street, somebody pulls out in front of me, and it's kind of like, that guy is, uh, you know, he blocked me, you know, I have to see this light. And it's kind of like, well, maybe he's in a hurry, you know, or maybe they're just barely driven and, and then again, maybe they're just a bad driver. But in any event, do I really want to let it, you know, ruin my day, and you know, some process like that going through my head, because I used to get really, really mad at in traffic, and I'm better, not perfect, but I'm definitely better. And I attribute that a lot to mindfulness practice. I think, though, if we're talking about like, how does mindfulness help someone not do these add ons? What would you say is the core mindfulness practice that actually helps create the capacity to see these add ons as add ons and not actually happening right now?

Sharon: Yeah, I mean, that is that it's kind of foundational mindfulness practice is that we get enough space, not icy distance, but just enough space for what's going on in our minds. So that we can see the beginning of the emergence of, you know, all that projection. We see it as its starting. We get the chance to ask ourselves, ‘I want to go there?, or I just want to let this go?’. And letting go means gently letting go, not haranguing yourself for, you know what you started thinking or being down on yourself. It’s learning how to let go and just come back. 

Brett: And just come back. So that’s like just noticing your thoughts, ‘I'm having this thought’ and I’m not going into it just noticing it. Seems so simple.

Sharon: It’s simple. It's not easy. but I think we can understand it. And a kind of appreciative question is ‘do we actually want to practice it or not?’

Brett: Yeah, exactly. One of the other things related to mindfulness is the notion of ‘emotional intelligence’. And you see a lot of adoption of emotional intelligence courses in businesses. I'm wondering if you can help us understand the relationship between mindfulness and emotional intelligence.

Sharon: I’m smiling because Dan Goldman who wrote the book that kind of popularized the notion of emotional intelligence is the person who first... in a way brought me to my first meditation retreat in India in 1971. We met in 1970 in India and he was giving a talk at a yoga conference, he was a graduate student studying meditation as part of his psychology program. And he mentioned he was on his way to this intensive ten days retreat where was kind of getting known for being a very kind of direct transmission on how to practice and not a lot of philosophical overlays and no need to belong to anything like that. And I thought ‘Oh maybe that’s what I’m looking for’. So I would credit him for that. 


Brett: id that have a formal name for that kind of meditation? 

Sharon: It's insight meditation.

Brett: So that was your introduction to insight meditation.

Sharon:That was my introduction to any kind of meditation.


Brett: You said ‘yes I'm about that’ and brought it to the United States.

Sharon: Later on, yes. Anyway, emotional intelligence has many components, there are levels of just being more in touch with our intuition, not being so scattered, not being so distracted. And this in a conversation with somebody, as an example, opens a door to empathy to really feeling into what is likely the situation of somebody else. It’s all the same kind of principles of being more centered, more aware, being able to let go. In a way, it is almost like being able to discern the differences between the signals and the noise. You know of so much that arises in our heads. And we don’t want to climb onto everything and be bound to it. And so it’s more consciously and skillfully letting go of what is not serving us or serving the situation. Having a greater sense of connection. It’s all kind of embedded in the actual practice. 

Brett: In the practice of mindfulness. So would you say that mindfulness is a necessary skill to be emotionally intelligent? 

Sharon: Yeah, I think that you see everywhere it's not called mindfulness by all. You know you are aware of visceral reactions for example which may be happening long before the cognitive understanding of something like that. We learn to read those signals, we learn to read the feelings, we learn to have a more balanced relationship with our feelings. Probably one of my favorite definitions of mindfulness came from this article in the New York Times many years ago about one of the early pilot programs bringing mindfulness into the classroom and this was a fourth-grade classroom in Oakland California. And they asked one of the kids ‘what is mindfulness?’ and he’s in fourth grade so he’s like nine or ten years old and he responded by saying ‘mindfulness means not hitting someone on the mouth, that’s what mindfulness means. And I thought ‘that is a great definition of mindfulness’. Because what it implies is that you know you’re feeling angry when you’re starting to feel angry, not after it’s built and escalated and you sent that email. 


So you get in touch with yourself, you can feel things beginning to arise. It also implies a kind of balanced relationship to anger because if you’re totally swamped and overwhelmed by all of these changing emotions you’re likely to hit a lot of people in the mouth because you’re extremely frustrated. But at the same time, if you can’t stand your feeling, and you try to repress it and try to deny it, you get tired and tired until you explode. So we should call mindfulness the place in the middle, where you’re connected, totally aware of what’s going on but there’s enough space so you are immersed in it. You’re not fighting it, you’re not immersed in it. And in that space is where creativity can arise, where options can arise. I like to think of that kid thinking ‘I hit someone in the mouth last week, didn’t work out that well. Let me try this instead. One of the biggest misunderstandings of mindfulness, also, is that it needs you to be very passive and complacent like you never take action and never do anything. And that’s not true. But we don’t want to be driven into action because it’s an old habit.


Brett: Yeah, you just don’t want to be reactive. In your book, the one on work we were talking about, you actually have a section on boundaries. And it was highlighting how...  The practice of mindfulness can make you aware that you are in an abusive work environment and you can do so much to just sort of be in a relationship where ‘I can keep doing my work or maybe I don't’. You give some examples of that in the book.

Sharon: Yeah, not a lot of people are in a situation where they can leave a job very readily, but I think it should be acknowledged. But at the same time, there are important distinctions to be made and I think mindfulness helps us. I have a friend who describes herself as the kind of person who can’t say no. She would get asked to do things not appropriate to her job description. So what she did on her meditation was that she would kind of bring those kinds of scenarios, the very kind of time where she would really do better saying no but couldn’t. And she learned what was happening to her body because this visceral reaction might be earlier than the cognitive understanding like this is tricky. And so she felt this kind of panic in her stomach. Like ‘maybe they won't like me anymore. And that became her feedback system. She was back at work and she was in exactly that kind of scene and someone would ask her that very question and she would feel that kind of panic coming up in her stomach, that would be the signal to say “I’ll have to get back to you’.    

Brett: And now she has that space where she can look at different choices. Beautiful. 

Sharon: Yeah and you know she couldn’t find herself saying no right away. But in that space, exactly, she found that she could come back later and say ‘sorry, I can’t do that’.

Brett: And that’s a great example of how you become aware of your early warning system and you can only do that by paying attention. So what about teachers and coaches who want to practice mindfulness in organizations, what should they be thinking about kinda get organized around not just doing one on one but one on organizational mindfulness, do you have any advice for people who are looking at that path?

Sharon:I think it’s, uh… I have actually an online program which I haven’t utilized since the beginning of the pandemic but there was a company that I was teaching in person and then we switched to online. But it exists. And I think it’s the kind of example of first the core of the first components which are things like being centering and becoming aware, different emotional states, being aware of thoughts patterns. Opening up that sense of space. And then there's all the manifestations of that. How does that look in communications with colleagues, with clients. How does that manifest in trying to establish cultural wellness at work? What might be options around that? Ways of not exactly work-life balance, because I think that’s a little elusive, but finding a sense of meaning in your work. So sometimes that meaning is not gonna come from the job description but from your personal commitment like ‘I'm gonna try to inject some compassion on every conversation I have today’, ‘I'm gonna try to help people have a better day even if I can't help them fulfill their goal’.

Brett: Because it’s a vehicle of your personal expression. That's great advice as well. Helping people to bring more of themselves into their moments as they go throughout the day, that can really help transform kinda a task focus thing to make it more relational. So what’s next for you, where are you going with all this incredible amount of work you’ve been doing in the mindfulness world, is there something surfacing that’s new and interesting and seems to be getting your attention right now? 

Sharon: Well, I'm working on another book. Number twelve. Eleven was not the best number, so I decided not to... It’s called ‘Real life’. But I’m intrigued even just now, talking about companies, talking about the people who I've been working with who tend to be caregivers. It's been very meaningful to me. Now that we are in this other phase of life and adjustments I think I'll be working more… It's just that the work I do is either individuals show up and I don't know who they are and what they do or it’s more targeted toward a more particular audience. And I do a little of each. But I have a feeling it’s going to be more and more targeted work.

Brett: Fabulous. So if people want to find more about you, where do they go?

Sharon:My website is just so there I am. 

Brett: And to the audience, by all means, you should check it out. This stuff is really, really well done. The thing I like about your work is that it is exceptionally relatable and practical. You keep things in real direct relationships with real life. And I appreciate that about you and your work. So thank you and thank you for joining us on the podcast today. 

Sharon: Well thank you so much.

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