SEASON 2: EPISODE 5
The Author of “Mindfulness Without The Bells And Beads” On Building Resilience
If there is anything the pandemic has shown us all, it is that life can be demanding and change is inevitable. However, there is a way we can navigate with more resilience and less pressure. By improving our mindfulness, we can reduce our stress and become more focused. Most importantly, practicing mindfulness allows us to pay closer attention to our emotions and thoughts so that we can see them more clearly without making so many assumptions and judgements.
In this episode of Breaking the Bias, Consciously Unbiased founder Ashish Kaushal (virtually) sits down with Clif Smith, author of Mindfulness Without the Bells and Beads, for an unplugged conversation about mindfulness and how the practice can help us build stronger and healthier relationships, help us handle complex or rapidly-changing situations, and promote more inclusive workplaces. Clif also informs us about the relationship between mindfulness and meditation and specific techniques for practicing both.
Their conversation covers:
Learning how to focus our attention on the present moment
Becoming aware of our negative thoughts and judgements so that we can continue to strive for our goals
Breaking down the common misconceptions about mindfulness, and much more
Listen to the full conversation here, and read below for some key takeaways.
ASHISH: Can you tell us a little bit about your story and how you came to become a leader on mindfulness?
CLIF: “My first foray into mindfulness was when I was eleven years old. I was raised by a single mother of three. I grew up on welfare and lived in government subsidized housing for much of my childhood, and that’s really what got me connected to my excellence. My mom entered me into a contest for underprivileged kids to win access to a martial arts program in my hometown. I was one of the five lucky kids to be chosen. I learned three things in that program that were associated with mindfulness and learning to become more mindful of unhelpful internal dialogue.
First, focus on those internal thoughts that say: I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, I’m not rich enough, I’m not tall enough, whatever ‘not enough’ to even attempt to do the thing I’m interested in. Then, learn to become mindful of that internal dialogue and move forward, despite those thoughts.
Second, learn to become mindful of fear, recognize how fear shows up in your body, physiologically learn how it shows up in your mind, and then learn to move forward, despite the experience of fear.
Third, its about focus and concentration learning: where to keep my learning, how to keep my attention where I wanted it to be as opposed to where the distracting world wants it to be.”
ASHISH: Can you define mindfulness for us?
CLIF: “My definition is close to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s. Mindfulness is the innate human ability to keep our attention in the present moment, on purpose. And then it’s allowing that present moment to unfold without getting too caught up in our automatic thoughts and judgments.
My definition differs a little from Kabat-Zinn’s because his is present moment awareness without thought or judgment, but I think it’s okay for the judgment to be there. For me, it’s about what you do with that thought or judgment when it arises. You can just allow it to come and go and not have it impact you. So rather than not having any thoughts, it’s not being lost in your thoughts that I think is the key difference. By cultivating that skill, you’re able to respond with more poise even in high pressure, complex situations, or rapidly-changing situations. You can be more present to moments of your work life and home life and navigate the ups and downs of life with a bit more resilience and a bit less stress.”
ASHISH: What do you think are some big misconceptions people have about mindfulness?
CLIF: “I think one of them is that you have to be a spiritual person. You have to go out and get a yoga mat and you have to get a special cushion to do your meditations on, and you have to burn incense or get a special bell. But, you can reap the benefits of mindfulness by doing some very practical exercises, the core exercises of mindfulness that are not actually complex. They’re not necessarily easy, but they’re simple.
Another misconception is you have to spend a lot of time doing it. You don’t need to spend an hour a day doing it. You can start small with the smallest incremental step possible. Start with one minute awareness of breath, exercise, and then expand that to two minutes, to three minutes, to five minutes, to 12 minutes.
The third one is that you have to have an underlying condition. What I mean by that is, most of the prominent advocates from mindfulness have a story about how they hit rock bottom and mindfulness helped them out. For instance, I had debilitating self-esteem issues and I found mindfulness and it helped me out, or I have extreme anxiety and I had a breakdown on national television. But when it’s framed that way, it sort of gives off this vibe that you have to be broken in order to lean over and use mindfulness, and use it to benefit you. You can be doing just fine and you can bring mindfulness on board and take your leadership and your performance to the next level without sacrificing wellbeing.
I think sometimes people think that mindfulness is going to dull your edge, and make you complacent or not want to be a go-getter. Mindfulness is not going to radically change your personality, it’s going to change what you notice in your life and how to respond more wisely to life as opposed to reacting to it.”
ASHISH: In your book, Mindfulness Without the Bells and Beads, talks about the “Catch and Release” technique. Can you tell us more about this and the impact it can have?
CLIF: “My first use of “Catch and Release” was when I was in the army. I signed up for four years and by the time of my third year, it was time for me to decide either to reenlist or get out. I went to see the reenlistment officer and she printed out a list of jobs that the army had a need for at the time and one of those jobs was a Chinese linguist. It stood out to me as being super interesting, but the first thought that I had in that moment was that I barely graduated high school. The next thing that came up was a thought that said, ‘Hey buddy, don’t you remember? You failed high school English, your native language. You really think you can learn one of the most difficult languages on the planet?’
Thankfully I caught the fact that I was having these thoughts. As soon as I caught the fact that I was having it, I was no longer lost in it and was able to release it. I was essentially released from its power and I was able to attempt to do the thing that I wanted to do. So, I reenlisted and went to Chinese language school. I realized that it wasn’t about telling myself anything. I didn’t have to replace it with anything.
For example, you’ve probably heard of the phrase, ‘name it to tame it’ when it comes to challenging emotions. If you can name an emotion, like anger, while it’s happening, you’re immediately not lost in it and are not automatically habitually operating from it. If you catch the ruminating mind in the moment, you’re no longer lost in the rumination and no longer captivated by that rumination; therefore, you’re released from it and you can make the wiser choice.
You’ll see it show up in your relationships with your parents, relationships with your spouse or partner, or relationships at work where you’re about ready to say something. You catch it, release it, and then you realize you didn’t get into a huge drag-out fight with the other person because you did less. You start to notice more and more of your internal mental patterns. Many of these thought patterns are hovering below the level of your conscious awareness, but they have a huge impact on your behavior and the things that you think are available to you in this life. As you gain more attention or control, as you gain more awareness of your internal thought patterns, you’re able to catch more and more. You see where you have these patterns that have been unhelpful for you, patterns that may have been extremely useful when you were a kid, but aren’t you useful today as an adult. All of this becomes grist for the mill to notice your inner world as much as you’re noticing your external world as well.”
ASHISH: How can mindfulness create a more inclusive workplace?
CLIF: “In my book, I outline exercises that are designed to increase your empathy and designed to increase your levels of compassion. While those aren’t mindfulness exercises in and of themselves, they are often accompanied or are part of mindfulness programs. They are one of the ways that can help with inclusion. These meditations are designed to help us see common humanity: both of us have a body and a mind, both of us have thoughts and emotions, both of us have had physical and emotional pain and suffering, both of us want to be happy. These meditations allow us to notice these things about people we are close to and even people that we are averse to or people that we know we don’t agree with. Strengthening our empathy and compassion allows us to recognize the similarity between ourselves and somebody on the other side of the aisle or somebody in another country.
And by practicing mindfulness, we begin to notice how our mind works and how we create stories that aren’t in service to our goals or happiness. Then, there’s the point where you start to realize that the same thing is happening to the other person too. Maybe that’s why they’re reacting to me in a certain way? And then when you start to see how much you’ve maybe created some suffering for yourself. Automatically compassion can arise from that and empathy can arise from that.”
ASHISH: At Consciously Unbiased, we talk about microprogressions, or positive ways to address aggressions within your workplace. So what is one microprogression that comes to mind for you that we could apply in the workplace?
CLIF: “There is a listening exercise we do in our internal class. You get two people together, one person speaks for two minutes about a particular prompt and the other person listens. The person listening is not allowed to talk. This helps because they are swinging in the pendulum so far that they actually can see their impulse to speak come up, but they know they cannot act on it. Then they switch and the other person has to do it too. The point is to see how often you have an automatic impulse to come in and give your point before you have even listened to the other person. You can cultivate this practice by doing it in the field, in your conversations, and in your meetings. By doing so, you are able to notice what the listening practice does to your relationships when you give your own divided attention to somebody for two minutes or three minutes, and what it does for the other side as well.”