Have you ever been in a situation with someone and noticed they were upset — angry, sad, or worried, for example — and yet they talked and interacted unaware of this emotion or mood (we might also call it a “mind state”) in themselves, or its impact upon their listeners, and the situation? For example, in that moment, a simple greeting like “how are you” if delivered with an angry tone of voice, or a sad one, will likely evoke an entirely different response than the same words delivered with a friendly or relaxed tone.
Because of the powerful impact of the mind state (or mood) “of the moment” upon our personal experience and relationships, learning to recognize and work with our present moment mind state becomes critical. Developing skills of recognizing and dis-identifying from difficult emotions like anger or fear, and learning to access and abide naturally in mind states that are more peaceful, and responsive, can be fundamental to cultivating happier relationships, a richer life, and more effective work outcomes, including the work of leadership.
The Buddha recognized the power of mind states. He considered awareness of one’s own mind state so critical to freedom from suffering that he named awareness of mind as one of the “four foundations of mindfulness” in the well-known Satipatthana sutta.
With mindfulness, we learn to shift from the ordinary way of experiencing mind states, moods, and emotions — a way marked by being unconsciously driven by the mind state into specific words and actions, or tending to make the mood or emotion itself into some kind of identity, enshrining it as a permanent aspect of who we think we are (as when someone describes themselves as “a worrier” or “a critical person”). Taking the position of mindfulness, we shift out of this ordinary way of experiencing mind states, and begin to recognize and consider these same internal events as mere objects to be observed without judgment, and with curiosity about their characteristics. The task of mindfulness is simply to recognize what is happening here and now — as when a particular state of mind (like sadness) underlies or drives a particular chain of thoughts (such as negative self-talk), or when a memory arises and evokes a mind state of intense emotion (as when a pleasant food smell recalls the memory of a joyful gathering of friends and loved ones).
I had an interesting experience with perception, mind states, and the power of mindfulness to guide a wise response during a recent medical visit. In my dermatologist’s waiting room, having come for my annual exam, I noticed an elderly man in a wheel chair who looked somehow familiar. He was accompanied by an elderly woman who sat beside him on a sofa. The man appeared somewhat unreactive to the noise and activity in the busy room, including the noisy play of two small boys, waiting with their young mother. When the nurse called the man’s wife for some additional information, and I heard the name, I recognized him as one of my former medical school professors. Although the thought occurred to say hello, for privacy reasons, I decided not to identify either of us by name and occupation in front of other people in the middle of a busy waiting room. Rather I simply watched and reflected on some teachings I had recently received at a workshop on contemplative practices for being with those who are ill and dying.
We had learned a Buddhist teaching called the Five Recollections, which can be found in the Anguttara Nikaya (5:57). In summary it says:
I am of the nature to grow old, to become ill, and to die. I cannot escape aging, illness, and death.
All that I hold dear and everyone I love is subject to change. I cannot escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
As I observed the scene, I quietly and mindfully repeated and reflected upon these views, noticing as I did that a sense of ease and peace settled over me. My attention sharpened and my awareness became brighter. Rather than become lost in a mind state of sadness or grief, or even anger, over aging and illness happening to my old teacher — or myself — I could see examples of the truth of those teachings about the process of birth, life, and death present right there in the room before me. And, I could feel that truth unfolding within my life and within me. When the nurse called him, he needed some help to rise, and I quickly stepped over and took one arm as his wife took the other. I just said “happy to help” when they said “thank-you,” and off they went.
In any moment, our minds are fabricating a story about the constant stream of input through our senses. The memories, views, and ideas we hold return to us continually, forming a potent ingredient in that story as it builds upon the constantly changing input. The mind states that arise in this stream can shape our thoughts, and in turn be shaped by thoughts, or memories. There are many possible stories and responses I could have manifested in that waiting room. Being mindfully aware of what was happening in and around me, and relying on a set of wise views about change, human vulnerability, and action helped me stay grounded, and respond more freely and generously when the need for help arose.
When you choose to practice mindfulness, try remembering you already have all you need. You might also experiment with forgetting about any instructions or methods of practice at times, and gently trust yourself simply to notice what is here, now. Noticing the sensation of the body just as it is. Noticing the thoughts or the absence of them, and noticing the subtler (perhaps!) mood or mind state that is present. Pay particular attention to more difficult emotions, for example noticing greed, anger, or confusion as mind states when they come to visit in this moment. You might also begin to notice when they are not present. You might quietly repeat “angry mind is NOT here now,” for example when you notice you are not feeling angry. Or, “worried mind is NOT here now,” and so on for different mind states. Over time, as you recognize in your own experience that these negative mind states, moods, and emotions are only temporary, are not you, and depend upon causes and conditions that you can identify, you can begin to transform them kindly and wisely into conditions that are more positive and freeing.
Jeffrey Brantley, MD, DLFAPA, is a physician, psychiatrist, mindfulness and meditation teacher, and author. He is an assistant consulting professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Duke University Medical Center and is a founding faculty member of Duke Integrative Medicine, where he started and directed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) for fifteen years. His most recent book, with Wendy Millstine, is Daily meditations for calming your angry mind: mindfulness practices to free yourself from anger. New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, California, 2015.
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