Lessons for Life and Leadership from the Lawn

I wanted to name this series “Lessons from the Garden” because it sounds nice and gardens are beautiful. However, I kill plants inside and out on a regular basis so that seemed misleading. In truth, I spent much of the summer of 2016 weeding my front yard. It wasn’t glamorous and didn’t result in anything with splendid color. I toyed with the idea of “Lessons from the Yard,” but I thought that title made it sound like I was in prison. I decided on “lawn,” and whatever you call it, I learned a lot sitting in the grass for a summer.

Lesson 6: Inhabiting the Moment

One of the things that I liked about sitting in the grass and weeding over the summer was that it felt like a vacation for my brain. Sometimes my mind wandered and I thought about the future, past, current challenges, and what the neighbors were up to. However, other times I focused only on what was going on in that moment. I paid attention to the feel of the dirt on my fingers, the color of the weeds, the feel of a breeze, and the sounds of a suburban neighborhood. Being completely in the moment frees one from worry and expectation. If you give all of your attention to now, you take a break from the stress of the rest of life.

Living completely in the moment is called mindfulness. During the summer of weeding, I went to Nashville for a class on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) from the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt. I’d read about all the great benefits of MBSR and mindfulness in general.

Studies show that no matter what you are doing, you are happier if you do it mindfully. Mindfulness also can lead to improved performance, increased innovation, more charisma, and less judgment of self and others. The Marines learn mindfulness. Mindfulness is a great thing, but I found that I was confused about what it was.

I thought that mindfulness was a type of meditation. That’s not true. Although you can do a mindful meditation. We practiced them in my MBSR class. In a mindful meditation, you just pay attention to what is happening right now. You can do that in several different ways. One method is to scan your body to see how each body part feels right now. What are you feeling in your feet right now? Ha! You got mindful for a second when you checked in on your feet. In a body scan meditation, you start with your toes and work your way up to the top of your head, paying attention to what each body part is feeling.

You can do anything mindfully! Studies show that eating mindfully can help you lose weight. I ate a few mindful meals for homework. It’s odd to sit in a quiet room and pay attention only to the taste, smell, and texture of the food that you are eating. It might help with weight loss because it takes so much longer to eat that way! I have to say that I’m not a fan of mindful eating.

I like mindful walking. Paying attention to the feel of my feet on the ground, the swings of my arms, the sun on my shoulders, and breeze in my hair is very relaxing to me. It gives my brain a break from figuring stuff out all the time.

Another huge benefit of mindfulness is that it slows down knee-jerk reactions to things. If we pay attention to an event and observe it objectively, we can choose better reactions. Here is the normal model for a situation:

 Event > Appraisal > Urge to Act > Action

First, we think about an event that is happening or could happen. Then, we appraise that situation or event, and we decide if it’s good, bad, exhilarating, scary, or calming. Once we appraise the event and attach an emotion to it, we have an urge to act. If we are angry, we might want to yell. If we are sad, we might want to cry. The emotion and the urge to act are closely tied and happen very quickly. Sometimes, the action follows before we stop to think about it.

There are a couple of interesting points here. First, the event is just an event. It isn’t inherently good or bad. For example, let’s look at public speaking. It isn’t in and of itself scary or fun, but people attach those emotions to it. Isn’t it fascinating that one event can be appraised so differently? It’s important to remember that it’s just talking in front of people and the emotional charge is something we add to it.

We can get rid of a lot of stress if we can neutralize the emotional charge that we attach to things. For example, let’s say someone pulls out in front of me on the highway. It’s just an event – not good or bad. It happens. I get to appraise that event. I can get angry at the person’s carelessness, or I can accept that we all pull out in front of someone sometimes. It’s just a part of driving.

I get to decide whether or not to use emotional energy on the event by attaching a strong emotion to it. Stress isn’t caused by an event; stress is caused by our reaction to an event. Mindfulness helps us to neutralize our immediate appraisal of things. If we pay attention to the event in the moment, we are less likely to react strongly and quickly because we are more objective.

In the MBSR class, we learned the seven attitudes of mindfulness: nonjudging, non-striving, beginner’s mind, patience, trust, acceptance, and letting go. The more we incorporate these attitudes into our lives, the less stress we experience. Here is one of my favorite stories from the class:

There was a wise and peaceful woman who sat on the top of a mountain. Someone climbed up to ask her how she was able to maintain such a calm and peaceful state of mind. She leaned forward and whispered, “I don’t mind what happens.”

How great would our lives be if we could mind less about the inconsequential things that happen around us?

Mindfulness also can help us improve our self-control and Emotional Intelligence. We can control our reactions better if we observe ourselves and the situation before acting. We change the model for a situation when we choose our actions on purpose:

 Event > Appraisal > Urge to act > Observe and Choose > Action

Observing ourselves has an interesting effect. Our neocortex is our “adult brain.” It helps us make rational decisions, and it is directly responsible for our level of Emotional Intelligence. When we have a strong emotional reaction, our neocortex disengages and we run on our more primitive brains. Our reactions are emotional reactions, and they don’t always lead to the most useful or adult choices in the moment. When we pause and mindfully observe ourselves and the situation, we re-engage our neocortex and our self-control. We give ourselves the opportunity to choose our action on purpose.

It’s easy to practice being more mindful. Here is a list of mindful daily practices that I got in my MBSR class:

  • When you first wake up, take a moment to be fully calm and present. Check in on how your body is feeling. You set the tone for the day.
  • While you bathe, pay attention to the smell of the soap and feeling of the water on your body instead of thinking and planning.
  • Walk to and from your car in a mindful way. Slow down and pay attention to your feet, the surrounding noises, and the color of your car.
  • While driving, keep your mind on the feel of the steering wheel in your hands and the details of other cars. Holding a rushing attitude doesn’t help you get there any faster.
  • Arrive home and take a breath. Look for tense places in your body and focus on breathing into them. Don’t get stressed because you are tense! Just observe and accept the tension.

By practicing mindfulness, we can become more reliable and dependable leaders. We can choose wisely and control our emotions better. In an interview, Harvard Business Review asked Ellen Langer, a prominent researcher on mindfulness, this question: “What’s the one thing about Mindfulness you’d like every executive to remember?”

Here is her response:

“It’s going to sound corny, but I believe it fully: Life consists only of moments, nothing more than that. So if you make the moment matter, it all matters…So when you’re doing anything, be mindful, notice new things, make it meaningful to you, and you’ll prosper.”

 I can give a positive testimonial to the benefits of mindful weeding. It’s a fabulous way to stay centered – and get a great looking lawn.

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