Easy as riding a bike

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Whenever I’m sitting at a leadership conference or a wellness seminar for professionals, as I was a couple of Fridays ago, I almost always have the same reaction. The suggestions and advice being offered are almost impossible to achieve without first cultivating a mindfulness practice. 

At recent leadership seminars, I’ve been advised to work on understanding both my motivation and the motivation of others, to listen carefully to others and imagine other possibilities, and to seek clarity. In a symposium titled Be Well, Do Well: Building a Healthy, Inclusive, and Innovative Profession sponsored by The Supreme Court of Ohio, the advice was straightforward, yet for me, elusive.

  • Establish and rely upon high-quality connections

  • Find meaning and purpose in what you do

  • Pursue authenticity and create your own professional identity

  • Cultivate flexible (optimistic) thinking

All sound advice, but I can’t help but notice the same thing I always notice whenever I hear this kind of instruction. What steps are required to master the pursuit of authenticity? How does one go about cultivating flexibility or achieving a more optimistic attitude? To me, these suggestions are like telling someone how enjoyable it is to take a spin on a bicycle through the countryside without ever bothering to find out whether this person has learned how to ride.

How can you teach someone to ride a bicycle without ever having them go through the exercise of hoisting themselves on to the actual bicycle and learning to balance on two wheels? No doubt you could get on a stationary bike in a spin class or I might try to explain various methods for how to learn how to ride a bike, but the only way you can actually learn to balance yourself on a bicycle is to get on the bicycle and find the peculiar sensation of balancing yourself on two wheels while in motion. Then, practice.  

So too, finding balance enough in your daily life to have the capacity to establish high-quality connections, find meaning and purpose in what you do, find your authentic self and cultivate flexible and optimistic thinking does not just happen by willing it to happen. All these objectives can happen, but first one must learn to balance all the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations constantly coursing through one’s body and mind. This sense of internal balance, or equanimity, is one that can be learned through the practice of mindfulness meditation. Once learned, the technique must be practiced again and again in order to maintain any semblance of balance.

The goals articulated at the symposium are not the kind of goals one can simply set one’s mind to and accomplish by trying hard enough. All of us have countless thoughts running through our brains, wild, untamed, incorrigible thoughts, that distract us from taking the time to actually find the meaning and purpose in what we’re doing. Distractions lure us into squandering our time and attention on unproductive and nonconstructive activities and frankly, more futile patterns of thinking.

Mindfulness meditation is simply the practice of sitting quietly and noticing the multitude of thoughts and emotions happening inside of you. It’s noticing without judgment and without trying to change a thing. Just this simple observation, when practiced, allows one to find purpose, authenticity and meaning simply from being aware of the constraints we place on ourselves by an ingrained legacy of thoughts and feelings we’ve long let smolder unchallenged. Simple quiet observation can create freedom to pursue meaning, purpose and even high-quality connections with others.