Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Translator: Tanya Cushman Reviewer: Peter van de Ven As a social-work educator and former practitioner, I'm interested in building and maintaining the emotional and mental capacity of those who do the hard work of helping others. Take, for instance, a day in the life of a social worker. I'll call her Kerry. A typical day for Kerry may start like this. In the morning, she checks her emails, and she's quickly interrupted because a client is in need of emergency shelter. She handles the client situation and begins the application process for a grant that will fund more beds for her agency. More beds means more veterans off the streets, more single moms and their children in a safe place to stay for the night. By midafternoon, she transitions and settles into group therapy, where she hears the emotional content and the stories of trauma and abuse of the women, who survived domestic violence. She offers the skills and interventions of a social worker, and she provides comfort and empowerment to the women in order to get them back up on their feet again. By the end of the day, she has seen many clients, she has heard many stories, and she's spent. She's emptied of herself. She's given over her skills and interventions, time and resources, the best that she could give. It's a busy day. It's stressful. And many days are like this for Kerry and for social workers in general. In fact, social workers suffer from burnout quite often. And though I realize that not all of you are social workers - and I can't fathom why - (Laughter) but you often, probably, experience intense periods of stress in your own life as well. So today, I want to talk to you about an ancient practice that you can use to further extend your capacity to deal with stress. It's called mindfulness. Mindfulness, in a short definition, is the ability to stay in the present moment. In fact, it is the ability to so focus your attention on the present that you're able to evaluate your thoughts nonjudgmentally. I also want to share with you three reasons why I believe mindfulness can extend and build your capacity to take on pressures, especially as you do the hard work of helping others. It can expand your ability to take on stresses in a more healthy way. I came into mindfulness practice because I experienced an intense period of stress in my life. I did not like the way I felt when I had this stress, I did not like the way I sounded to others, and I didn't like the way I reacted. Mindfulness gave me the tools to be able to calm and be present and be able to evaluate how I was acting, how I was feeling, how I was thinking. Take, for instance, this picture. It is a blurry something. This is how we feel when we 're under a lot of stress: a blurry mess. Our thoughts jump from thought to thought, and we're out of focus. Our life feels chaotic and unclear. What mindfulness does is it helps us to step out and zoom out of that blurry mess. Our life becomes more focused. Our thoughts start to come together. We're able to form a picture of our lives more clearly again. The first reason why mindfulness can extend and build your capacity to be able to help others, taking on their stress, is because it helps us experience our stress differently. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is a researcher from Massachusetts, and he was the first to westernize and secularize the practice of mindfulness, as it comes originally from Buddhist religious thought. Over eight weeks, he had patients who dealt with chronic pain due to medical conditions practice mindfulness. And after the eight weeks, these patients reported a decrease in pain and a decrease in intensity of that chronicity of pain; that pain, in general, was not so front and center anymore. Now, nothing changed in their medical condition, but their experience of pain did. In this ongoing study I'm a part of, I have created a six-week program that draws from Christian-based mindfulness practices. I've asked these students to listen to these modules that I've created, on their cellphones or their laptops, and report their levels of stress before and after this mindfulness program. They reported lower levels of stress as well as increased levels of mindfulness state. Their thoughts were more centered and focused as a result of the mindfulness practice. Mindfulness allows us to experience our stress differently. Things do not change. These students' lives were still impacted by the academic pressures and their personal lives, but yet their experience of pain differed. This leads me to my second reason why mindfulness can help you deal with stress: it helps you make better decisions. When we're assaulted with big situations where we need to carry the responsibilities of crises or we need to just simply make a step in the right direction, mindfulness can clarify our thoughts. Instead of a jumbled mess, we can prioritize our values, we can integrate whole parts of ourselves and act in a way that is congruent with who we are. Congressman Tim Ryan from Ohio understands this very well. As a policy maker, he understands good policy requires a sharp mind and a warm heart. And in his work, he actually leads mindfulness practices on Capitol Hill. Now just take a second and imagine that for a moment: Republicans and Democrats in the same room together in mindfulness bliss. It's a neat picture and so needed in our times. Congressman Ryan uses mindfulness, and he spoke to Anderson Cooper about this in a 60 Minutes episode and said it has helped him prevent himself from burning out, that the stress and the pace of policy making is intense, and it's given him the ability to reach across the aisle and extend a hand to people that he doesn't agree with in order to craft good policy, anticipating how those policies will play out in the day to day lives of people it will affect. You see, mindfulness allows us to be more compassionate, to, instead of react, be more empathetic; instead of be in conflict, be more collaborative; instead of be self-centered, we're more self-aware. These are the gifts of mindfulness. And mindfulness builds compassion for others, and as we anticipate the needs of others, our decisions are not as focused on reaction, but we're able to anticipate how those decisions play out, how they help or hinder the healing process for society or organization or for relationships. So do me a favor and do this exercise with me for just a few moments so you can experience what I'm talking about. Close your eyes and take three deep breaths in with me. Take your first breath in and fill your lungs to capacity. Imagine that this air is very clean and good and pure, and allow it to nourish your body, and exhale. Take your second deep breath in, and allow that breath to travel through those tight parts of your body, maybe your gut or your shoulders or your neck areas, where it's often tight. And relax. And exhale. And on your third breath, do the same and assign your breath a color of purity. Allow that breath, again, to travel to those tight places, soothe those sore spots, take in that relaxation. Exhale. Continue to breathe in this way as I talk to you. There's nothing you need to do right now except to breathe. There's nothing that is asked of you. There's no task to be completed, except for you to simply just sit and breathe. You can put all the to-do lists away. You can let go of the worries of the day. Just sit and breathe. Thank you. You can open your eyes. I hope what this exercise showed you is just a little taste of what a mindfulness exercise could do for you, especially as you confront conflict or big situations or organizational places where you need to make big decisions. You can take a step back and breathe just for a moment and be present and be able to then renourish, rejuvenate yourself before you confront that situation or before you need to make that decision. Because what happens in mindfulness, as you sit in awareness, is the truth of reality that starts to come to fruition, which is this: The past cannot be changed. The future cannot be forced. All we have is the present moment. And in that present moment, we can make the best decisions we can in order to better the lives of others, but it takes some thought and it takes some congruence. It takes our ability to connect with our values and the things that we hold dear. So you, hopefully, have experienced that breath is a foundation of a mindfulness practice, which leads me to the third and final reason why mindfulness can extend and expand your ability to take on stress, especially as you help others, which is mindfulness fosters wellness. And what I mean by wellness is this ability to cope with stressors in our lives and bounce back. In fact, mindfulness is a tool of self-care. When we give of ourselves to a cause or we provide skills and interventions that will make a change in healing, we need to rejuvenate and we need to refresh the wells. Mindfulness allows us that space and time to refresh, to connect and to be able to access all different parts of ourselves. In a 2014 study by Shonin, Gordon and Griffiths, these researchers used a more religiously oriented mindfulness-based practice - it was more faithful to its Buddhist roots - and these researchers asked the participants how they felt after this six-week program. One participant said that they felt "cradled in comfort." In a study I conducted last year, I asked Christian psychotherapists who used mindfulness-based therapies questions like, How did you feel using this mindfulness-based therapy with your client? What worked? What didn't work? But they responded in a very interesting way, and they said that they felt a presence of the divine with them in that room as they work with their clients. In fact, that divine presence assisted them; it was a source outside of themselves that helped them in discernment, that helped them extend the healing process. It helped further the work that they did in healing their clients. These therapists understood that they could access a part of themselves, a spiritual side that was accessed through the practice of mindfulness. And when we can use spirituality, our body responds. And when our body responds, our mind responds. And when our mind responds, our spiritual selves respond again, so forth and so on in a virtuous cycle. Mindfulness allows us to extend the limits of our human capabilities by accessing all parts of ourselves. We don't have to compartmentalize those different aspects; we can all work in unison to confront a situation or to help us determine what the next step is. Mindfulness fosters wellness because we're caring for ourselves as we care for others. We use all spheres of our lives to attack the problem. So if you're interested in building a mindfulness practice, first start with your breath.