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Friday, January 31, 2014

Real Happiness Week 1: Meditation in the maelstrom

I am already pretty happy at work. I like what I do, and I like the people I do it with. I know exactly what I'll be doing, but I never know what I'll be doing. (I'm a newspaper editor, and the schedule is the same every day but the content is different.) Nevertheless, I experience stress at work. I'd like to experience it less.

So of course I clicked on a link that offered seven ways to reduce stress at work. Unfortunately, most of the tips weren't applicable. And one that suggested reducing interruptions made me laugh.

I shared that with a co-worker, who comment, "But interruptions are our business." That and multi-tasking.

Which makes concentration, the first week in Sharon Salzberg's 28-day guide to "Real Happiness at Work," a challenge. At any given moment, I may be editing a story, talking to a reporter who has an update on another story, waiting to have a page proofread, and wondering if I can hold a story for a day. And in the next moment, I'm checking email, checking the wire services for breaking news, looking at faxes dropped on my desk, and answering a colleague's question about grammar or word use (what we call "style").

Sharon notes that "human beings seem to be cognitively unable to multi-task." When we think we're tracking several things at once, we're actually switching our focus rapidly from thing to thing. Multi-tasking, she says, can "stimulate us into mindlessness, giving the illusion of productivity while stealing our focus and harming performance."

I don't need a study to tell me that. I know that I do a better job when I'm not interrupted, when I can focus on one thing. But that's not the reality of life in a newsroom.

So I've been working with one of Sharon's "stealth meditations." I can't exactly find a quiet place to meditate in the maelstrom, but I can do this: "Feel your hands. See if you can make the switch from the more conceptual thought 'These are my fingers' to the world of direct sensation -- pulsing, throbbing, pressure. You don't have to name the sensations, just feel them."

I tried that this week, in those short breaks between tasks (frantic multi-tasking is interspersed with brief no-tasking) -- just feel my hands. And it brought me out of the swirl of thoughts, into the present moment, into my body. It let me come back with more clarity, less brain fog.

During February, Sharon Salzberg runs a 28-day meditation challenge based on her books Real Happiness and Real Happiness at Work. People who are taking part post abut their experiences here. Read, comment, take the pledge, or just lurk.