Meet Leah Weiss, and read an excerpt from her book “How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind”
Interviewed by Aviva DeKornfield
“Mindfulness is so much more than meditation. We do a major disservice to ourselves and to the impact of mindfulness on our lives when we reduce it to meditation alone. Meditation is a tool at the service of a way of being, of a mindset. We carry the mindset with us everywhere.”
note from Susan
I met Leah last summer on the beach in Santa Monica. She was having breakfast with her kids and I was having breakfast with Jim Gimian, publisher of Mindful Magazine. Jim introduced us then, but it wasn't until months later that we reconnected and realized how much we have in common. Leah’s a working mom who has studied with many of the same teachers that I’ve studied with from the Tibetan Buddhist meditation tradition. Both of us share a strong interest in helping people understand the importance of self-awareness, self-care, and understanding through secular applications of mindfulness and compassion. Where my focus has been children and caregivers, hers has been the workplace offering a popular (and usually waitlisted) course at Stanford Business School and as a founding faculty member and later director of education for CCARE, a compassion cultivation and training program developed at Stanford by a team of educators and contemplatives spearheaded by Thupten Jinpa (the principal English translator for the Dalai Lama). In this shout-out profile, Leah talks with Aviva DeKornfeld about her work and shares an excerpt from her new book.
Tell me about your relationship with breath. When did you first start to notice the connection between mind and breath? Is there a particular moment that stands out?
Breath was something that I became aware of when I started meditating, but it took me a few years to really get the hang of integrating it into my 'off-cushion" life. When I began working as a social worker in an inpatient mental health unit in Quincy, MA, I started to understand how to use breath to regulate my attention and emotions, particularly when I was in stressful situations with clients. I had an extraordinary clinical supervisor who also supported my learning by offering me the opportunity to reflect on the role of modulating attention/emotion with breath with her.
You mention working with Vets and people suffering from PTSD. Is there one person you worked with who sticks out to you?
I had one student at the business school who was a vet and who had young children. He was having a hard time interacting with his kids as a result of moral injury and guilt over actions he had to take while serving in the military. He couldn't forget the violence against families that he was a part of while clearing houses in Iraq, and it haunted him. Mindfulness and compassion offered him a way to begin to identify symptoms upstream, so he was able to self-soothe. Mindfulness helped him recognize these symptoms as they began to move “up” his body. In other words, he became aware of his body’s unique reactions to symptoms, and this allowed him to self-soothe before his PTSD took over. His relationship with his family and children changed dramatically as a result. You can hear his story on NPR.
You discuss the role of breath in managing emotions. Do the breathing exercises alone work without mindfulness component?
Breathing exercises actually do have impact without mindfulness, as it is a physiological response. Deep breathing can result in instant calm. Research shows that when we take deep breaths, we are interrupting our natural breathing patterns, which automatically push our body’s reset button. Taking an intentional deep breath is an excellent coping mechanism. This is why deep breathing alone can effectively reduce stress. However, practicing mindfulness in addition to breathing can deepen the effects, as it brings awareness to our breath.
You talk about “knowing something in your gut.” Can you give a few examples of feeling something in your gut. Do we feel something in our literal stomach region? Or can we feel feelings in different parts of our bodies?
I write about this in the chapter on emotions in my book. We can take recognition of patterns in our somatic xperience to understand how they can be leveraged in decision making, work etc. The more aware you are of your body––and the more mindful you are––the better you can learn to recognize your body’s unique signals. Some of those “tells” might be tension in the shoulder or neck area, the sensation of heat in the face or cheeks or the clenching of the jaw. Once you are able to connect those patterns, you can use them as leverage to stop, pay attention, and learn what your body is trying to tell you.
There are examples of people using this practice in diverse contexts––from firefighters to investors. Everyone has these patterns, so it’s just a matter of figuring out what yours are.
There seems to be a disconnect between mind and body for many people. Why do you think that is?
We spend so much time in our heads and ignoring our bodies, particularly at work. We see our bodies as a problem, rather than as precious resources and part of our wisdom. The good news is that we can relearn to be in our bodies.
What’s something that most people don’t understand about your work?
mindfulness is so much more than meditation. We do a major disservice to ourselves and to the impact of mindfulness on our lives when we reduce it to meditation alone. Meditation is a tool at the service of a way of being, of a mindset. We carry the mindset with us everywhere.
If people took away one thing from your work, what would you want it to be?
You can make small changes, TODAY, that will have a large impact on the quality of your work, relationships, and well-being.
from “How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind”
by Leah Weiss, Ph.D. published by HarperWave
Emotions may seem like a liability much of the time, especially at work, but in fact, our emotions are an asset: they contain information and wisdom that can help us interpret and address when something is not right, in the workplace and elsewhere—if we are paying attention. When we pay attention to our bodies, we can catch emotional information as it heads upstream, before it hijacks our whole system. Once again, we’re flipping the dialogue. This is an extension of the idea of knowing something in your gut—and in fact, recent research has offered evidence that feelings can “begin” in the gut. Indeed, our referring to the gut as our “second brain” comes from the fact that it has more than two hundred million neurons and contains three-quarters of the body’s immune cells.
The gut and the brain communicate in both directions—brain to gut but also gut to brain. These two regions have multiple systems for this communication—the endocrine, neuronal, and immune pathways—so if the text is missed, a fax or phone call can make its way without interruption.10 The gut has a strong influence on the emotions we experience. For example, taking courses of probiotics can alter anxiety and depression. Serotonin, the neurotransmitter that allows nerves to communicate with one another and is involved in mood regulation, is far more predominant in the gut and digestive tract than in the brain (between 80 and 90 percent more).
If we let them, our bodies can also connect us to other people, since the human body is a major part of what we have in common with other human beings. Our bodies and the pleasure and pain that come with them—their attendant aches and illnesses, their needs and indignities, the impossibility of having the body we want, the fear of losing it someday, our vulnerability in the day-to-day, the kindnesses we have received to make it this far and that we’ll need again when we are sick and dying, and the very ways we fight our bodies or pretend they don’t exist—as human beings, we share all this.
Finally, when we are out of our bodies at work, we miss out on a source of pleasure. It’s human nature to notice the pain more, but with reminders and practice, we can take joy throughout the day in the simple, reliable pleasures of having a body. Mindfulness through embodiment gives us the power, in effect, to magnify the little things that we may be in the habit of overlooking because we believe they’re insignificant.
Embodying pleasures such as sitting when we’ve been standing for too long, or standing up and stretching when we’ve been sitting; holding a new pen with a particularly comfortable ergonomic grip; laughing hard when something’s funny; eating when we’re hungry; drinking when we’re thirsty; perking up with caffeine when we’re drowsy; the relative quiet of the office after a morning with screaming kids; slipping out of uncomfortable shoes under our desk or not wearing uncomfortable shoes in the first place—every day, no matter how lousy it is otherwise, affords us countless opportunities like these to feel good, and the body is where we feel it. In fact, as we’ve all experienced when we finally feel better after an illness, every part of our body that does not hurt is a cause for celebration and a source of joy waiting to be accessed at any time.
This is the purpose of physical rituals in any religious tradition, from bowing or chanting to the smell of incense or a sprinkle of water: repeated, embodied actions that move us beyond our limited, head centric perspective and thus expand our sense of self and experience. You may not be allowed to light a candle in your office, and you may not want to, but both science and tradition are replete with rituals you can adapt to the workplace.
The act of hanging our coat and emptying our bag when we arrive in the morning, of laying out our materials on a conference room desk, of docking and silencing our cellphone, of adjusting from a seated to a standing desk—we can use all these behavioral routines we insert into our day to recalibrate mentally, to take a moment to anchor our attention in our body.
Returning Attention to the Body
To help ground ourselves in our body, we can set up prompts to direct our attention where we want it to go. One of my students changed the password on her computer and phone to “BREATHE.” When she took a breath upon logging in, she explained, it allowed her to touch base with her intention, so that rather than compulsively checking her e-mail, she could choose to work on projects that mattered to her. A prompt tied to a habitual event (logging into your computer, taking your seat in a meeting, answering the phone) can remind you to be in your body at a critical moment.
Here are three simple techniques.
- Take a breath. You’ll never forget to breathe, but you will forget to notice that you’re breathing. Whole days go by without our paying attention to, let alone appreciating, the pleasure of a single breath. So, wherever you are, whether sitting or standing, stop for a moment and take a full breath, feeling the air go through your nostrils and into your lungs, contracting your diaphragm, and then hold it for a few moments, letting your stomach puff out. Then exhale fully, visualizing that as you breathe out the air, you are also breathing out any stress, anxiety, anger, and feelings of being overwhelmed. Feel whatever you are carrying inside you exit your body, making space for a new full breath. Do this three times, and take your time.
- Breath Meditation. A step beyond just taking three deep breaths is to intentionally focus on your breath as a sort of miniature meditation. As you breathe in and out, put your attention on your breath, on the sensation of breathing. Feel the air go in and out of your body, and when your mind wanders— and it will—shift your attention back to your breath. Don’t filter any thoughts or manipulate the experience. Just let the thoughts settle on their own as you continue to focus on the simple act of breathing slowly in and out.
- Do a Body Scan. Bring your attention to the top of your head. Slowly move it down your body—through your face, neck, torso, legs, and to your feet. Then move back up. Repeat. When your mind wanders—and it will—return your attention to feeling the sensations in the various parts of your body through which you are sweeping your attention.
The purpose of this exercise is not only to help you get back into your body, but also to collect information and get curious about what you usually avoid. If there is pain, can you look into it? What are the sensations made of? Notice your aversion to discomfort. Can you accept the discomfort? How might your awareness of discomfort inform your experience of work? When you ignore or avoid these sensations, are you more likely to express the pain in the wrong context (e.g., by making bad decisions, by snapping at someone)?
by Leah Weiss, Ph.D. HarperWave Publisher, 2018. Reprinted with Permission.