My Journey Into Mindfulness
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President Nathan Long, Ed.D., reflects on how mindfulness practices have changed his life for the better since joining the Saybrook University community.
Over the last few years, the theory and practice of mindfulness has been catching on with individuals and has increasingly worked its way into greater consciousness across various sectors from telecommunications to technology and from healthcare to higher education.
My own journey into mindfulness as well as meditation began when I arrived at Saybrook University in 2014. Initially a skeptic (some would say due to my “Midwestern sensibilities”), I at first struggled to understand the benefits of mind-body practices that seemed grounded in more California/West Coast “woo.” However, I eventually found myself on a journey seeking greater exposure to the science of mindfulness, along with deeper immersion into its practice.
As a result, I have found a renewed way of being in the world that permeates my personal and professional life. The journey is far from complete but one that I have found has had tremendous benefits. Moreover, I have discovered what many alumni, students, and faculty alike attest: Saybrook has transformed them from the inside out.
Here is the story of my journey into mindfulness.
The journey begins: A transformative moment
My memory remains somewhat fuzzy about my early days at Saybrook. There was little time for reflection on what could only be described as both an exciting and chaotic time personally and professionally. We had just moved from our Front Street location in San Francisco to the Downtown Oakland City Center campus.
While I was getting up to speed on the institution, Saybrook had recently partnered with TCS Education System. Our partnership necessitated the integration of various systems, in addition to numerous policy and procedural revisions. My calendar soon filled up with myriad other events, including several different residential conference experiences; an accreditor site visit; travels to our Seattle campus; and meetings with community members, faculty, staff, alumni, and students. All of this was exciting, and in general, par for the course for university presidents. Having served in such a position for four years previously, I felt prepared to handle the rigors of the job.
Still, there was a looming sense of unsettledness. My family was several thousand miles away. My kids had to leave their beloved schools. My wife was in the throes of a final professional theatre gig, faced with the prospect of restarting her acting career on the West Coast. Life was happening at a pace I had not quite anticipated.
Sometime in mid- to-late August, a seed was planted. I attended several sessions at the various Saybrook residential conferences. Making my way to the School of Mind-Body Medicine conference in Seattle, I attended a session in which Dr. Luann Fortune began with a moment of mindfulness. The sound emanating from her Tibetan singing bowl resonated throughout the room, calling each of us to focus our attention. From there, we went through a mindfulness exercise. I can’t remember precisely what the exercise entailed, but the intention was clear: try to be in the moment--this moment--be present.
The sound emanating from her Tibetan singing bowl resonated throughout the room, calling each of us to focus our attention.
Such a request was initially jarring yet immediately eye-opening. In just a few short weeks since starting the role, I found this one moment incredibly clarifying. Fidgeting, uncomfortable, I realized I had not been present at all. Instead my mind was jumping from one thing to the next, ignoring each request to be present with thoughts of my ever-growing to-do list.
Later during the conference, she and Dr. Rockefeller both mentioned the importance of ritual as a mechanism to establish even greater awareness, being more present in the here and now. Such rituals could serve as anchors. Again, for me this seemed all well and good. But life was happening, and work had to be done.
Despite what seemed like annoyed interest, I was intrigued enough, writing both of these ideas down in my journal chronicling events of those early days. Tucked away into my rolling backpack, these ideas would eventually resurface, offering the opportunity for personal and professional growth.
The path toward mindfulness: Personal rituals and mission
By the time the holidays rolled around in 2014, I realized I was emotionally and physically exhausted. Looking back on the previous 4.5 months, we were joyful about accomplishing so much personally and professionally. We had made the move across the country without losing each other or a single part of our dish collection. Our kids were enrolled in school, having made the transition without too much trouble and even making a few friends in short time. We had also wrapped up the initial phase of our strategic planning process with well over 100 hours of interviews and focus groups. The process was neither easy nor a slam dunk as far as processes go, but the university was positioning itself for a turnaround.
Concurrently, I was reading articles online about the importance of crafting a personal mission statement as a device to remaining centered.
Over the next two weeks, I unplugged from work with the hope of rebalancing in preparation for what I knew would be a difficult year ahead. In between time with the family, I began reflecting on my notes from the previous semester. I came across the two concepts of mindfulness and ritual. Concurrently, I was reading articles online about the importance of crafting a personal mission statement as a device to remaining centered. The mindfulness piece was a bit much, I thought. Still, in the interest of self-improvement, I decided to take some time to develop a personal mission and rituals, which ideally might ground me a bit more. I took to the task and found it immensely clarifying, even satisfying. These rituals and development of a personal mission provided me anchors, as Dr. Fortune had noted in her presentation. These anchors would be critical during a time of immense change.
The creation of rituals came first. Guiding questions informed my process: What did I need to do to center myself? What was needed for me to connect to my family given the pace of the job? How could I more effectively manage my daily workload? How could I ensure space in my day for the things that would help me grow intellectually, creatively, and professionally? In those early days, I created three rituals, which remain to this day though each has been modified over the last few years, conforming to my personal evolution.
How could I ensure space in my day for the things that would help me grow intellectually, creatively, and professionally?
My morning ritual consisted of working out, journal writing, reading while drinking coffee, and making connections with my wife and kids before the day began. This simple ritual was a crucial stabilizing force in my day. Working out, reflecting on the previous day, taking time to read the latest news, drinking my coffee out of my favorite mug, and making time to connect with the family were actions that helped me feel better about my world and the world around me.
The second daily ritual I created centered on professional, routine activities: daily emails, engaging on social media, and connecting with the Saybrook team. Email has become―for good or ill―the instrument of choice where communication is concerned. Given Saybrook’s largely virtual place in the world, I found myself becoming increasingly anxious looking at my inbox expand to three and four times the size of what I was used to managing. Thus, ritualizing the practice of email enabled me to address that anxiety head-on, ensuring that dedicated time was planned for this important communication. Creating space and time for social media and connection with the team also helped prioritize my time and the people critical to our success.
My last ritual of the day focused on personal enrichment and family time. Particularly, this ritual involved making dinner/spending time with family, reading, and engaging in creative endeavors (e.g. music and poetry). This ritual often was, and continues to be, the most difficult to achieve due to time demands from my position, my wife’s acting career, and our kids’ activities. Nevertheless, clearly stating the intention improved my attentiveness to making the time for myself and my family.
I agreed with the idea that if organizations require missions that guide their work, individuals should too.
The development of a personal mission came soon after. I agreed with the idea that if organizations require missions that guide their work, individuals should too. I commenced drafting my personal statement with the following questions in mind: What do I expect from myself? What personal attributes matter most to me? What do I aspire to become as a person, husband, father, and leader? Why? At last, I landed on the following, which has undergone some minor revisions over the years for clarity:
To achieve my fullest human potential, I will live my life each and every day with consistent, determined focus; boundless love, unyielding compassion, and deep sincerity; impeccable integrity, holding myself and others accountable to the highest personal and professional standards; dedication to balanced, healthy living that prioritizes self- and family care; and immersion in intellectual and creative pursuits that add more beauty, joy, and truth to this amazing, chaotic world.
A moment of clarity and the path toward sustained mindfulness meditation
After a few months of practicing these rituals and putting into practice my personal mission, I was talking with a colleague about how impactful these had been for me. Admittedly, I still felt un-centered at times, occasionally (or perhaps more often than not) allowing my calendar to overrun my rituals. I also remarked that while the whole mindfulness piece didn’t make sense to me, this approach did and it was making a difference albeit in fits and starts.
My colleague laughed, and then made the point that I was in fact engaging in a form of mindfulness practice through the implementation of these rituals. Mindfulness as a practice, I was reminded, is being present in the moment and making space for being present. Still, my colleague noted, there is the ability to go further, leveraging the benefits of mindfulness meditation in combination with my daily rituals as an opportunity for deeper emotional and physical growth.
I admit I felt a bit ridiculous at the obviousness of it all. But then, I was new to all of this and was thrust into being reminded that I didn’t know what I thought I knew. I then began reading and inquiring more about mindfulness meditation as a practice (my first book was by Dr. Ian Gawler and Paul Bedson titled “Meditation: An In-Depth Guide”). I started trying several techniques, downloaded several meditation apps, all-the-while learning from others about their own mindfulness journey. Over the span of a year and a half, I moved from sporadic mindfulness meditation to incorporating the practice as part of my daily morning ritual. I went in gently with no prescribed amount of time. Even if I spent five minutes, I found the time was incredibly valuable for its effects on my emotional well-being.
A brief view inside my approach
I have created an approach or practice that works for me. Each person’s approach to mindfulness meditation is unique, while certain techniques are fairly common. In addition to my own mantras, I use the aid of an iPhone app called Calm. Each day, the app updates with a “Daily Calm,” usually a 10-minute meditation that typically starts with about seven to eight minutes of breathing and then two minutes of observations from the narrator. Coming out of the practice, there are usually a few moments where I sit in silence, focusing on the breath with the goal of being as present as possible, allowing the flurry of thoughts to pass without judging those thoughts or engaging them. I merely observe them.
Specifically, the meditations emphasize two important aspects of being present: the breath and “calming” that flurry of thoughts that the mind produces (both intended and unintended). What I have learned in this process is that by recognizing and observing these thoughts, I am able to mentally create the conditions for quieting my mind more effectively, bringing my attention back to the present. The focal point or anchor for the “present” in most of my practice is the breath. Ultimately, the results are both powerful and ongoing.
Observed results and the next part of the journey
By actively being present, I have observed several noticeable results, including but not limited to slowing down my words and actions, being more deliberative in decision-making, letting go of past mistakes, focusing more intently on present interactions with family members and colleagues, and being more at peace with who I am.
There are moments when I find that my thoughts begin spinning, sometimes wildly, in directions I cannot explain.
I have also been able to take this practice with me into my day. There are moments when I find that my thoughts begin spinning, sometimes wildly, in directions I cannot explain. Many people experience this as the brain produces mental images and thoughts that can be welcome but sometimes, like that iconic uncle who spouts off unwelcomed views about religion or politics at Thanksgiving, random thoughts enter uninvited.
When this happens, the work I have done thus far has enabled me to implement a technique called S.T.O.P. Various versions of this exist. My mnemonic is similar and stands for Stop (what I’m doing); Take a breath; Observe my thoughts (and then let them go); and Proceed with my day. This technique has enabled me to be less reactive to events―especially those out of my control or that just pop into my brain―and instead help me become more centered, more present, and allowing for increased ability to manage whatever is at hand.
The next part of my mindfulness-meditation journey is to expand these concepts more deeply into my leadership. As mentioned in the introduction, mindfulness (and meditation) practice is no longer a fringe technique. Incorporating mindfulness more authentically and deliberately into my work as president of Saybrook University has the potential for additional grounding in the humanistic values that make us who we are as an institution.
My hope is that my continuously evolving mindfulness practice coupled with a stronger connection to my personal mission will lead to further blossoming spirit of collaboration, innovation, and transparency in all that I do, while helping advance our fine institution forward to its next stage as a progressive institution of higher learning. The aforementioned are lofty aspirations, but in my view worthy ones for which to strive.
Transformation from the inside-out
Many of our students and faculty say that Saybrook University has transformed them from the inside-out. Indeed, like my fellow university travelers, Saybrook has had this effect on me. From that series of interactions in 2014 to today, I am a different―hopefully better―person, better father and husband, and better leader. I also know I have much to learn and even more personal-professional work to do in becoming the best version of myself. Indeed, the present-day results of my rituals and mindfulness meditation practice on who I am are not fixed or static. With each day, I discover more about me, about who I am and how I can become better with each practice, with each breath. And for me this is one key part of what being humanistic is all about: enabling each individual to achieve her or his greatest potential.
The journey has been and continues to be amazing.