You’re at your desk and the phone rings. The hairs stand up on back of your neck when the number flashes on the phone’s face: it’s your boss’ admin and you do not have anything scheduled with your boss. Now you do. You have an inbox that’s doubled since you started your day an hour ago. You also have yesterday’s late-day entries sitting on your desk that you pulled with great intentions from the inbox as you walked into your office. Oh, yes, and there’s also email. And post-its from phone-calls on your monitor. In short, you’re sitting in what feels like a minefield and you do it every day.
But it’s not the only way. No, I don’t mean you should keep on top of your inbox. I don’t prescribe “inbox zero”. I’m not going to tell you that you should always be at every meeting five minutes early. This is not about the pomodoro method or getting things done. I want you to take the time it takes to read this blog post – which will ideally be the shortest I’ve written – to consider that maybe, just maybe, you already have all the time you need to change your life: one transaction at a time. Our problems begin with perception, right at the point of perception, and then flow from there based on our thinking.
I know. That last sentence is teetering on the brink of pointless but look closer. You have a busy office: ok. There’s lots of clutter – physical clutter like post-its and emails and non-physical clutter like meetings with bosses – and that leads to feeling like you’re cramped into a minefield and that danger lurks around every step. But, look again: it’s really just a lot of stuff. None of the post-its or bosses or calendar reminders are inherently stressful. Your mind brings the stress.
Trained for millions of years to seek stressors around every corner, our minds turn everyday nuisances into a freakshow of terrorizing threats: other drivers swerving slightly, coiled hoses where we didn’t expect them, someone raises their voice at someone else in our vicinity. And then we put those minds into little boxes at work and tell them twenty new things an hour need to be done. I’m not suggesting that the things we encounter at work are not stressful or that your mind does not encounter real stress and discomfort when faced with them. What I’m suggesting is that there may be a different story possible from you than the one causing you to suffer. Maybe there’s another way to walk through the minefield.
Remember that meeting? Start walking to your boss’s office. Time your in-breath and out-breath to your footfall. Breathe in. One. Two. Three. Four. Breathe out. One. Two. Three. Four. Let your breathing pace your steps, not the other way around. If you have to, slow down. You were walking faster than necessary anyway: there’s no tiger behind you. One. Two. Three. Four. Breathe out. How are you feeling? Are you nervous? Are you stressed? It’s ok that you are, just notice it. And keep moving.
Slow down some more. Breathe in. One. Two. Three. Four. Breathe out. Can you feel your breath moving in through your nose? Out through your mouth? The other way around? In and out your mouth? Your nose? Whatever way, trust me, breath is going in and coming out. (If it’s not, you’ve got much larger problems.) Just notice. Just know this sensation: your breath goes in, goes out. And connect it with your feet. This is how you take your body back from the office chair and start to regain some of your humanity. It is very simple and it is absolutely essential.
When you get to your boss’s office, stop before going in. Stop before knocking. Just stop. Count backwards from three and with each count, breathe out How slow can you go? This is another moment where you can find yourself and lift yourself from the minefield. If you inhabit your body at this moment, who will your boss find when you open the door? Someone present, someone whole.
These two exercises are not special. Your stress-clutter is not special. None of what I’ve described here is special. But it is all very important and it all goes on all the time. Here is my main point with the exercises: you have all need at any given point, even at work, to reclaim your presence and rewrite the story of your stress, your trauma. Mindfulness is about striking a balance between calmness and awareness. You can step over your fear and into calm awareness at any point by simply slowing down and breathing in and out. It won’t be that simple the first time – nothing ever is – but with practice, it will. Please try.