10 Tips for Reducing Stress in Workplace

How do you work with stress when it arises in your place of work? Do you just push on through it; drink more coffee and hope it will go away? Stress is very common today. We can learn to bring principles of a Zen-inspired life into our workplace by using some simple mindfulness techniques when stress arises. Here are 10 tips for reducing stress:

1. Be Proactive If you procrastinate and put off things that are pressing on you, they weigh on you and effect every thing else you do. Learn to recognize when something is pressing on you and remove the pressure by addressing it now.

2.  Listen to Your Body It's amazing how little we do this. We push through stress and we often treat our bodies as if we were simple mechanical machines. When you are feeling anxious, it will show up in the body. The simple practice of paying attention to the body, is a focusing technique we teach in our Corporate Wellness program.

3. Practice Deep, Empathic Listening This kind of listening is rare. But it can be learned and practiced. It can help reduce misunderstandings and clarify agreements. These kind of communication skills are taught as part of the Corporate Wellness program and the Core Curriculum of ZLMC.

4. Breath Awareness of the breath is really critical in helping us dampen down stress levels. How this works is that by taking deep breaths and particularly emphasizing the out breath, we are stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system which helps us regulate, balance and calm automatic nervous system.

5. Learn to Pause Learn to pause and be still. It might only be a minute. Even though you may be stressed because of lack of time, it's amazing how effective simply pausing and giving yourself a moment of stillness can be in helping to restore balance and calmness in yourself. When you return to your task, you will do so with a little bit more focus.

6. Take short breaks Learn to step back from your computer with short breaks. Shift your energy. Stand up, take a short walk. Breath. Stretch. Stay in touch with your body, especially during those times when you are inclined to push through an awareness of your body.

7. Get more sleep This is important. When we are anxious and stressed, it often begins to compromise our sleep patterns, so work on relaxing before you go to bed, and finding ways to get more sleep. It will dramatically improve your ability to handle stress the next day when it arises at work.

8. Drink plenty of water This sounds stupid and silly, but it's true. Water is the most under-appreciated way to flush out toxins from our body. So drink plenty of it. If you are used to drinking soft drinks, you may want to consider changing to simple water. It doesn't have all the sugar that soft drinks do, so it will be more restful and restorative for your body.

9. Don't sweat the small stuff If you have a perfectionist streak in you, learn to let it go when you are working with small things. Mindfulness meditation is a basic practice that can help you begin to re-program negative, reactive habits that no longer serve you into more pro-active, positive habits that help you work with more focus and less stress.

10. Set Boundaries Learn to say "no". When you are over loaded with things to do, it's important to acknowledge this to yourself, and no add to your stress by taking on more tasks that you do not have the time to complete well.

I Give You Back

I release you, my beautiful and terriblefear. I release you. You were my beloved and hated twin, but now, I don't know you as myself. I release you with all the pain I would know at the death of my daughters.

You are not my blood anymore.

I give you back to the white soldiers who burned down my home, beheaded my children raped and sodomized my brothers and sisters.

I give you back to those who stole the food from our plates when we were starving.

I release you, fear, because you hold these scenes in front of me and I was born with eyes that can never close.

I release you, fear, so you can no longer keep me naked and frozen in the winter. or smothered under blankets in the summer.

I release you I release you I release you I release you

I am not afraid to be angry. I am not afraid to rejoice. I am not afraid to be black. I am not afraid to be white. I am not afraid to be hungry. I am not afraid to be full. I am not afraid to be hated. I am not afraid to be loved, to be loved, to be loved, fear.

Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash. You have gutted me but I gave you the knife. You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.

I take myself back, fear. You are not my shadow any longer. I won't hold you in my hands. You can't live in my eyes, my ears, my voice my belly, or in my heart my heart my heart    my heart

But come here, fear I am alive and you are so afraid. of dying.

Joy Harjo

Remember What It's All About

Robert AlthouseAt our Zen Life & Meditation Center, our mission is to empower you to live a Zen-inspired life of openness, empathy and clarity. We have built our practice upon a strong foundation of mindfulness meditation. Today mindfulness can be found every where. This is not really surprising because in our complicated culture, we are increasing imploding and burning out from stress, over-work, anxiety and depression. So mindfulness is a relevant practice which can help people cope with the stress. Mindfulness has become almost as broadly accepted in our culture as yoga. So it's important to remember that yoga, like mindfulness, was originally taught in the context of a spiritual practice. But in our culture where the cult of self and consumerism dominate, these important spiritual practices can easily be distorted. They are not meant to make you better consumers. They are meant to help you be a better human being.

What does that mean - "to be a better human being"? We could look to the leaders we cherish and love and remember such as Nelson Mandela who just passed away. We could look to Martin Luther King or Abraham Lincoln. What was it about these leaders that is important for us to remember today? They all had a large, magnanimous view of their world that included both their friends and their enemies in their considerations and their prayers.While they were often viewed with hostility by their enemies, they did not give in to small-mindedness in their responses. They remained open and committed to serving a larger collective that included their enemies.

So while mindfulness meditation can help you learn how to manage your stress and your anxiety, and we can teach you how to do that at our Zen Life & Meditation Center, please remember that we are teaching this in a larger spiritual context of living an awakened life. Such a life is not interested in winning and losing. It's not interested in punishing enemies or demonizing one's enemies. It's not interested in shopping and acquiring more things either. It's doesn't exhaust itself in busyness and endless activity. Waking up means to remember, to know without a doubt what is important. Our greatest spiritual teachers never tired of reminding us to love one another, to be kind and to serve our larger collective humanity in times when it was often easy to forget.

So this winter, please take time to rest, to be with your loved ones and to cherish all beings with a loving and open heart. Make friends with yourself. Mindfulness teachings can help you do that. But also make friends with your world. Spiritual teachings are here to help you remember how to do that as well.

We face complex problems and challenges in our world today. So the world needs you awake and sane. It needs you without pretense and without self-deception. Remember what it's all about.

Robert Althouse


The Wonder of 'You'

Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can't cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It's just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal. Cheryl Strayed

Peace During the Holidays

It's wonderful to have time to celebrate the holidays with family and friends. The holidays mean many things to different people. And sometimes, this can be a challenging time of year for some. So I'd like to say something about how we might approach this time of year in a way that would help us be at peace with ourselves and those around us. There is a Zen story about a student who is not at peace with himself. His mind is busy and restless. He's much like you or I, when we get stressed out, worried and anxious. I'm sure you are intimate with this condition. I hear this question from students all the time. "How can I have peace of mind?" So the story continues, and the student visits a Zen Master and sincerely and openly admits to the teacher that his mind is not at peace.

The teacher tells the student, "Bring me your mind, and I'll put it to rest." So perhaps at this point, the teacher tells the student to go practice meditation and in this deep silence with himself, inquire into the nature of mind itself and see what he finds. The student does so, and returns to the teacher and says, "I have searched for the mind, but I cannot find it."

If you, like this student, sit down in meditation and practice returning your attention to your breath, you will also discover that what seems like a very busy and hyper-active mind is by it's very nature, still and luminous, and cannot be located anywhere. We speak of this kind of intimacy as "touching the mind". You touch it breath by breath, moment by moment. When you slow down in this way, you will discover that it's possible to have this grounded, embodied awareness that is peaceful and still, no matter what the outward circumstances might be. Your conceptual mind cannot reach it.

Having searched and inquired the student comes up empty. The Diamond Sutra says, "Dwell nowhere and bring forth that mind." So now the teacher tells the student, "I have completely put it to rest for you." In other words, when you reach this place of intimacy and stillness within yourself, you will be at peace with yourself and the world.

Living a Zen-inspired life is to find this peace which passes all understanding and is beyond what our conceptual mind can grasp or control. We practice daily meditation in order to strengthen and cultivate this kind of awareness. This kind of awareness is always fresh and new. When we are able to live our lives in this way, we can deal with any obstacles or difficulties with more balance and clarity.

So during these holidays, I encourage you to enjoy being with your family and friends and with children. But also make time to reflect and be still. It's winter after all, so it's also a time to slow down and take the full measure of what it means to be alive and how much we can appreciate and express our gratitude for the mystery and wonder of it all.

by Robert Althouse

Embodied and Connected

My parents lived in an America that won World War II and was brimming with confidence and a can-do-spirit. The America you and I live in today is a different country. Beset by economic, political and cultural grid lock, we struggle to find our footing in a country that seems adrift on the shoals of uncertainty and change. It's not surprising we experience increased stress and anxiety. Yet it has been my experience that living a Zen-inspired life rooted in mindfulness can help you deal more skillfully with stress by helping you to be more at home with change and uncertainty.

Stress is simply your body's way of giving you a message to pay attention. When you listen to your body and mind with the respect they deserve, you can begin to work more effectively with stressful situations.

I'm sure there are many reasons why we are experiencing a great deal of stress today. But one of the reasons is that our body and mind have a difficult time keeping up with the level of technological change we are experiencing. We have evolved defense mechanisms in our bodies that took thousands of years of evolution to develop. Compared to evolutionary time, the technological changes occurring in our lives are happening at warp speed.

We are increasingly disembodied. We don't really spend time in our bodies. We spend time thinking about our bodies. We have thoughts about our bodies which range from apprehensive, judgmental, critical, self-destructive to self-congratulatory.

People go to the gym and that helps reduce stress in the body. In the gym I used to belong to, almost everyone exercised on the treadmills while watching TV. We treat our bodies like machines. We have to keep them well tuned so we can continue living a life style on steroids. We're always rushing. We never seem to have enough time.

When we are disembodied in this way, we are ungrounded and disconnected from the earth and people around us. And this experience of disembodiment contributes to our increased levels of anxiety, stress and fear.

Mindfulness helps you return your attention to your body/mind. I often speak of mindfulness as a way of keeping company with yourself. You have to slow down and learn to be still with yourself. And I see many people who are really scared to be with themselves in this way.

I developed a core curriculum at the Zen Life & Meditation Center of Chicago to help teach people how to live a Zen-inspired life rooted in mindfulness. This is an awareness which is embodied, intentional and nonjudgmental. The second tier of this curriculum builds on the foundation of mindfulness by introducing skill sets such as "Focusing" and "Nonviolent Communication" which help integrate and apply mindfulness in your personal life and your relationships.

Meditation is an organic process. It takes time. It takes time to heal and integrate. There is no magic bullet. This is why I believe this kind of teaching is so relevant to our time, because it helps you effectively address a complex and stressful world. In order to find balance you need to slow down and find a source of wisdom and richness in yourself that has nothing to do with external information. When you do this you will be less reactive. You will begin to touch that in yourself which is unconditionally sane and awake. And from this place of trust and confidence you will be able to offer your unique gifts to making a difference in this suffering and mixed up world of ours.

by Robert Althouse

Time Stress

"Inner peace exists outside of time. If you commit yourself to spending some time each day in inner stillness, even if it is for two minutes, or five, or ten, for those moments you are stepping out of the flow of time altogether. The calmness, relaxation, and centering that come from letting go of time transform your experience of time when you go back into it. Then it becomes possible to flow along with time during your day rather than constantly fighting against it or feeling driven by it, simply by bringing awareness to present-moment experience." from Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat_Zinn, Ph.D

Overcoming Stress, Worry, Anxiety and Anger

These are trying times. We are living through the worst recession since the Great Depression. You probably know someone who has lost their job or lost their house. It's easy for each of us to experience stress and anxiety. So first, perhaps you should appreciate that stress is actually a complex experience. The term itself was coined by Dr. Hans Selye in the 1950's as part of a study of animals that were injured or placed under extreme conditions. Stress is complex because it can have causes that are both external and internal. But how you approach these challenges can have a big impact on the level of stress you experience.

Understanding the Mechanics of Stress It's helpful and empowering when you understand how stress arises in your body and mind. Your body has a built in negative bias for danger and pain. Parts of your brain and nervous system are easily triggered by perceived signs of danger or threat, real or imagined. This means that you can easily be aroused and flooded by this state of hyper-vigilance and it will take some time, perhaps 30 or 40 minutes, before this state has dissipated within yourself.

An occasional arousal state like this is natural, but if you are in this state much of the time, it's unhealthy and you need to take steps to manage and regulate this. Mindful awareness can help you short-circuit the time you are flooded by grounding your awareness in your body. There is a lot of wisdom in your body. Unfortunately, our culture is increasingly fragmented and disembodied, so this kind of wisdom is seldom acknowledged or honored.

The Power of Mindfulness There are many reason why mindful awareness can help you overcome stress or work more effectively with worry, anxiety or anger. First, let's start with a definition. Mindfulness is an intentional, embodied awareness that is without judgement. Mindfulness meditation strengthens a hub of awareness within yourself that allows you to watch your thoughts, emotions and experiences instead of totally identifying with them. This allows you to notice how these experiences arise in yourself. So for instance, if you are caught up in some very harsh and negative inner critical voice, mindfulness can help you notice how you are doing this. If you are constantly worrying about the future, mindfulness can help you observe how your mind is anticipating the worst case scenarios. There is great power in this kind of reflective awareness because you can learn to drop these negative inner voices altogether. And that can greatly facilitate a change in your disposition, attitude and stress level.

Regulating Your Autonomic Nervous System Your autonomic nervous system consists of two parts, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nerves. These two large nervous systems work together. When one is active the other is not. The sympathetic nervous system helps you get aroused and activated. Working together with the thalamus, the pituitary and the adrenals in your brain it produces many of the chemicals in the body that lead to stress. So if this part of your nervous system is constantly aroused, you will be in a state of reactivity much of the time. Fortunately, your body also has what's called the parasympathetic nervous system which helps calm and cool down this arousal. So to regulate stress you want to active the parasympathetic nervous system in your body. So how do you do this? You begin by bringing your awareness to your breathing, and in particular, your out breath.

Your breathing is connected to these two nervous systems. Your in breath helps to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. This makes sense, because when your body is preparing for a fight-flight reaction, it needs more oxygen to pump into muscles. When people are caught up in a state of anxiety, they often hyper-ventilate. The quality of their breathing becomes short and quick, and they often talk very rapidly without pausing. Because their attention is focused on the in-breath, they actually heighten, increase and aggravate the anxiety they are experiencing.

Your out-breath is connected to your para-sympathetic nervous system. So when you focus on a long, slow outbreath, you are lighting up your sympathetic nervous system. So taking some long, slow out-breathes can help you calm down, cooling the fires of the reactive part of your nervous system. Your lips are also connected to your parasympathetic nervous system so if you touch your fingers to your lips, you are helping to soothe and calm yourself down.

Keeping Yourself Company Increasingly I see people coming to our Zen Life & Meditation Center who are experiencing a kind of free-floating anxiety that has no clear object. The most effective practice I know for addressing this is the practice of loving-kindness, in which you learn how to attune with yourself in a way that is kind, gentle and loving.

Many people think meditation is just a technique, but it is so much more than that. Meditation is a way you learn to be with yourself and slow down. But many people are afraid to be still or to be alone with themselves in this way. So I teach people to work with their resistance, because I think this is the key to learning to be more mindful. Mindfulness is a shift of awareness that requires no effort. In fact, effort gets in the way. Once you know what this awareness is like, you can generate the intention to make this shift in yourself quite simply and easily. And that is the nature of mindful awareness.

So I encourage you to take up a daily practice of mindfulness meditation. Think of it as a kind of brain fitness. You are strengthening parts of your brain that will help you integrate many of your experiences. And when you strengthen this hub of awareness in yourself you will have greater resilience and stability in the face of change and uncertainty.

May you be happy. May you be free of stress, worry, anxiety and anger. May you be free of danger. May you be at ease and at peace with yourself and all things.

by Robert Althouse

5 Mindfulness Tips for Reducing Stress at Work

A 2000 Gallup Poll found that 80% of workers feel stress on the job and nearly half of them say they need help in learning how to manage their stress. A 1992 UN report called Job Stress the 20th Century Epidemic. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that stress is fast becoming the most prevalent reason for worker disability. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that "neurotic reaction to stress" is the 4th disabling workplace injury and over 25 days in 1993 were lost on average by each person suffering from job stress. While most businesses have no idea what the cost of stress is to their overall operations, a 1990 study by Foster Higgins & Co. found that health benefits cost the average company 45% of its after-tax profits with research implicating stress in 60% to 90% of medical problems. Given what is currently happening in our culture politically and economically, it doesn't seem like our jobs will be stress-free any time soon. Chronic stress has serious health risks associated with it such as heart disease. The five tips I offer here, are part of what we teach in our Corporate Wellness program, and can help you use mindfulness awareness to reduce your stress at work. If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness, we offer a ten week series of Foundations of Mindfulness classes at the Zen Life & Meditation Center of Chicago that can help you learn and practice mindfulness meditation.

1. Be Proactive

There are many external circumstances over which you have no control. For instance, you can't control the weather. Many people spend a great deal of emotional energy worrying and ruminating over external events for which they have no control. When you do this continually, these things begin to consume you. Mindfulness can help you shift your awareness back to the present. When you are present in this way, you can then learn to direct your energy towards those areas of your life where you can have a positive impact. When you spend more of your emotional energy on these things you can control, you will experience less stress, more satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. Stephen Covey calls this working in your "circle of influence". When you spend more time here, you begin to live a more effective, Zen-inspired life of openness, empathy and clarity.

2. Listen to Your Body The world we presently live in is changing rapidly and is very complex. Everyday you are subjected to stimulation from media, T.V., radio, computers, cell phones, bill boards, and advertisements. This over-stimulation can easily lead to a dis-embodied experience that produces stress, anxiety and constant worry, because when you are suffering, you tend to spin off in your head. When you try to fix the problem by thinking about it you often aggravate the existing condition and make the level of stress worse. Mindfulness can help you relax and approach your suffering through an embodied awareness that is sensitive to your body's sensations and messages. The body is a source of much wisdom and healing, so when you learn to be more sensitive to your own body, you can receive valuable information and feedback about your stress. Staying connected to your body through mindful awareness can help you short-circuit many of the mechanisms which, if left unchecked, lead to run-away chronic stress.

3. Breath You can easily become lost in the complexity and speed of the world around you. Through mindfulness, you can again begin to reclaim your whole self, first by acknowledging and honoring the needs of your body for good nutrition, exercise, rest, sleep and the deep restorative silence of meditation. When you are feeling anxious or stressed-out, try taking some deep breathes. Breathing deeply actually bring more oxygen to your brain. If you gently focus on your out-breath you are also lighting up a part of your autonomic nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system that helps you calm down and be more grounded and at peace with yourself.

4. Slow Down with a "Mindfulness Bell" You can easily be carried away by the speed of your work environment. There are always deadlines to meet. But if you get caught up in always working in a "crisis" mode, this obsessive, driven energy can lead to burn-out. It's alright to do this sometimes, like a runner sprinting at the end of a race, but not all the time. Mindfulness can help you bring some balance by regulating your energy flow. Use any signals from your environment, such as the ringing of a telephone, or the beep of an incoming email, as an opportunity to pause. When you hear this sound, just pause for a few seconds or a minute. This is simple and easy to do. You just need to have the intention to do it. If you do this regularly throughout the day, you are introducing a powerful reminder to pause and rest, which can bring order, balance and stability to your busy, complex and speedy workplace environment.

5. Listen Deeply Much of the time, we don't listen well to others. When we are attached to our agenda and a particular outcome, it is very difficult to listen to others. If a disagreement arises, we tend to rehearse what we are going to say as the other person is talking. This means we really don't listen well to them at all, and this often leads to misunderstandings. Ask any person who works in human resources what is one of the major causes of stress on the job and they'll tell you, it's interpersonal disagreements. Learning to listen deeply and empathically to those we work with can reduce stress significantly. It can also nurture trust that helps us work together more effectively and efficiently. Mindfulness can help us learn how to do this by increasing our awareness of the present and opening us to the process of how we communicate with others. When empathy is present in our awareness and in our listening, safety and stability increase in our working environment and this can be a major source for enhancing and enriching our working experience for ourselves and others.

These are five tips for reducing stress in the workplace. I hope they are helpful. I welcome you comments and feedback. I would be very interested in knowing what helps you reduce stress on your job. If you currently do not have a mindfulness meditation practice, consider taking class at our Zen Center, or having us present our Corporate Wellness program at your place of work.

Robert Althouse

Change Your Life Style: Reduce Your Stress

Who among us doesn't experience stress from time to time? Papers stack up on your desk. Projects are awaiting your attention and deadlines keep coming at you. You feel overwhelmed. You've already had several cups of coffee, but now that doesn't seem to help. You just feel nervous and jittery. You can feel aches and pain in your body. You missed lunch yesterday and the night before you didn't sleep well. You're exhausted. There's no gas left in the tank. And you know when you get home, you're not going to have any energy for anything or anyone. Sound familiar? If it does, you might want to consider carving out some time in your day to take care of yourself and practice some simple mindfulness meditation. "How am I supposed to do that?" you say, "when there is so much to be done!" It doesn't seem possible. "I'm too nervous to sit still and my monkey mind is driving me nuts!"

So even though you've heard that meditation can help you, it doesn't seem possible. How are you going to slow down and actually do it? Getting started is not easy. So let's look at a few things mindfulness can do to address your stress, and then let's take a frank look at what it may take to actually make it a part of your life.

  • Learn to Relax. Rumination and negative self talk are very common in depression and anxiety disorders. Mindfulness practice can help reduce this harsh self-talk by helping you be more aware of it, and then gently letting it go by returning your attention to your breath. You find that this simple body-based awareness allows you to relax because your mind is not so actively occupied in constant evaluations and judgments. It's surprising that when you relax the mind in this way, you also relax the body and many of the aches and pains that come with being so wound up and constricted begin to ease and dissipate.
  • Learn to balance emotions. Mindfulness affects specific areas in the brain that help you regulate extreme emotions. When you are given to extreme emotional swings you become more reactive. Your perceptions become clouded by your moods, and you are likely to say and do things that upset people around you causing further stress. Mindfulness can help you balance your emotions and hold them with more softness and spaciousness. This helps you become more responsive to yourself and others, and contributes to a significant reduction in your stress.
  • Learn to Sleep Well. It's surprising how common it is for people to not get a good night's sleep, and how important this is in contributing to significant levels of stress and anxiety. When we do not sleep well, we feel exhausted and depleted the next day. Mindfulness meditation contributes to helping you sleep better and more soundly. Following an 8 week MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) program, cancer patients reported reductions in sleep disturbance and increased sleep quality.

Can you see how these areas of relaxation, mental balance and sleep quality might help you address some of the stress in your life? If you are in agreement with me, at this point, you need to find a way to bring this kind of practice into your life. And there's the rub. You need to take a frank look at your life style and make some changes.

We live in a culture that is accustomed to quick fixes and pharmaceutical magic pills. These are fine if you want to apply a band aid, but if you want to address the root causes of your suffering, you're going to need to take a hard look at how you are living your life, and you're going to need to make some changes.

If your present life style doesn't include taking time for a relaxing lunch break, then you need to change that. If your present life style doesn't include getting a good nights sleep, then you need to change your life style. If your present life style doesn't include the possibility of being still in meditation on a regular basis,  you need to change that too. Changing your life style is not easy. We are all creatures of habit. We are surprising stubborn and resistant to changing our ways, even when we know they are contributing to our current stress and anxiety.

At the Zen Life & Meditation Center of Chicago, you'll find a step-by-step core curriculum, designed to teach you how to practice mindfulness and how to make it a part of your daily life. You'll find a teaching of practices and principles that you can apply that will help you gradually change your life style. You'll learn how to live a Zen-inspired life style that takes time to be with yourself in a way that is restorative, relaxing and surprisingly satisfying on more levels than you can imagine.

I know this is not easy. That's why we have created this entry-level curriculum to take you step-by-step in gradually learning and mastering the practice of mindfulness meditation. Many who have already taken our course report remarkable changes in their levels of stress and anxiety. If they can do it, so can you!

Robert Althouse