Mindfulness Skills:
Finding the Spirit in our Lives

Here are a few proven strategies that will help you develop and hone your mindfulness skills.

In his novel Island, Aldous Huxley tells the story of an island utopia. Understanding the importance of mindfulness skills for building optimal human relations, the founder of the community had trained a flock of myna birds and then set them free. The myna birds would land on windowsills and fence posts and deliver their wake up call to anyone around. Their message was "Wake up! Wake up! Pay attention ... Attention ... Here and now, boys, here and now, girls! Wake up! Wake up!"

We've introduced the notion of the "myna birds of mindfulness" -- simple reminders to wake up and be present in your life -- in most of the organizations we've worked with. In some places, this has taken inspiring high-tech forms, such as in certain divisions of Hewlett-Packard where, after our training session, people created screensavers proclaiming in brilliant colors: "Wake up!" "Breathe... Smile.. . Relax ..." "Present. . . Open.. . Connected."

One employee had even found a sign saying "WHOA!" and placed it in the middle of a busy corridor to remind people to slow down, focus, and re-balance. Another woman had the ingenious idea of putting a can of beans on her desk. Whenever her eyes would fall on this anomalous item in the middle of her desk, it would remind her to take a mindful breath and return to the present moment. When she got used to having the can there, she would find something else anomalous to replace it with!

One simple myna bird strategy for honing your mindfulness skills is to wear your watch on the other wrist. Every time you check the time, you are reminded to breathe, smile, and return to the stillness at your center, even for just a moment. By interrupting a familiar and often unconscious way of doing something routine, like looking at your watch, you can create an opening to pause and check in on the level of your wakefulness at that moment.

Another strategy for developing mindfulness skills is to set your watch to beep at intervals throughout the day, and to anchor its beeping with a mindful breath and the thought, "Wake up." A variation on this method was suggested to us by one of our teachers from the Tibetan tradition, the venerable Gen Lamrimpa (Gen-la), when he first came to the West for a two-year research and training program on the mastery of attention that we helped to coordinate. Gen-la is a colleague of the Dalai Lama, and is revered as a national treasure for the Tibetan people in exile. He lived on a very modest stipend from the Tibetan government to be a professional meditator. In this way, he could keep the well-spring of their profound knowledge vital as a living stream of tradition, rather than allow it to decay into fantasies about the miraculous mental powers of the ancient Tibetan yogis.

Having lived alone in a tiny hermitage in the Himalayas for nearly seventeen years, he didn't have much in the way of material possessions, and soon after he arrived, he asked if we could get him a wrist watch. When Gen-la made his request, he was explicit that he wanted a watch that could be set to beep once an hour, explaining to us that this would be an important aid to his meditation practice. We looked at each other somewhat quizzically, not quite understanding what he meant by this.

Sensing our puzzlement, Gen-la explained to us that whenever he heard the beep, it would remind him that another precious hour of his life had just passed, and that his death was now an hour closer. Laughing, he explained that if he really took this to heart, he would stay more balanced and focused, be more loving and kind, and use every moment of his precious life to really make progress in his mental development and service to others. (In Tibetan, "mindfulness" means "not to forget the object of your meditation.")

In numerous organizations we have worked with, teams have adopted a bell or chime of mindfulness, rung at random times during the day as a reminder for people to take a moment to come back to themselves. Each day the bell is passed to another person in the office, and as the gently melodious sound of the bell echoes out through the floor, people are invited to take a deep breath, to focus their mind and let it shine.

This time-honored technique for practicing mindfulness skills actually stems from Southeast Asia where, for centuries, the villagers have kept alive the tradition of the "bell of mindfulness." In many ways, our workplaces have become our modern villages because we spend so much of our time there and have so many community and social interactions organized around our jobs. So what better place to ring the bell!

There's a mindfulness poem that accompanies this practice that we learned from our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. You can use it when you hear the bell or use any other "myna bird" to return to the present moment. It goes like this: "Listen, listen. This wonderful sound brings me back to my true Self."

When you hear the bell, stop talking and thinking and just focus on your breathing with awareness for about three breaths, and enjoy your breathing. It seems so simple; it is hard to see how three breaths can help you find balance in your life. But the first step in achieving balance is to begin to see where your mind goes. Until you have awareness of where your attention is focused, you have little Power to redirect your attention.

[Adapted from the book "Living in Balance" by Joel Levey
and Michelle Levey

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