Mindfulness training in the workplace has increased dramatically in popularity over the last few years. Many large and well-known companies offer mindfulness training to their employees to help them reduce stress, increase focus and productivity, and make more effective decisions.
While I’ve read my share of academic papers and studies that describe the mechanisms explaining how mindfulness helps in the workplace, I recently discovered a poem that explains the benefits more simply and creatively than anything I’ve ever read. The poem, written by Portia Nelson, is titled “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters.”
I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost… I am hopeless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I’m in the same place. But it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it there. I still fall in… It’s a habit… But, my eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
I walk down another street.
I love this poem because it uses a simple, concrete (no pun intended) analogy to describe the subtle, complex changes that occur through the practice of mindfulness. It reflects the transition we undergo from automatic, unconscious reactions to intentional thinking and decision making. It’s honest about the fact that old habits are hard to break and that in the process of cultivating new behaviors, we sometimes revert to our old comfort zone, even when we know it doesn’t serve our best interests. The poem ends with one of the greatest gifts of mindfulness—the ability to not only eventually avoid our old holes, but to create entirely new pathways where that particular hole doesn’t exist anymore.
I have been through this transformation in many aspects of my own life, one of the most significant being the gradual shift in my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors around food, exercise, and my body. And although my professional life focuses specifically on the application of mindfulness to eating, physical activity, and self-care, in my experience, the benefits of mindfulness exist regardless of the particular point of focus. Not only is mindfulness helpful in peeling back the many layers that usually exist beneath a surface level issue, it is also applicable across the spectrum of virtually all human struggles.
For example, many of the participants in our Am I Hungry? mindful eating programs come to us because they want to change their eating habits or weight. We meet them where they are and focus first on food. We help them cultivate nonjudgmental awareness about their eating patterns and make more intentional decisions about how to respond in ways that foster greater well-being and quality of life. Many participants quickly discover that their struggle with food isn’t really about food but about their underlying beliefs, thoughts, and feelings, and their unconscious or mindless reactions and habits. We guide them to uncover the layers through the use of mindfulness-based strategies that help them identify ineffective internal patterns and cultivate new ones. Not only does this provide relief from the surface level problems with food, it also allows them to identify and address issues that may be driving unconscious or mindless habits in other areas of their lives, including work and relationships.
As the poem illustrates, transformation is not a linear process. Both setbacks and leaps forward are part of the deal. Most of our mindful eating participants will tell you that they’ve seen their holes of overeating or restrictive eating ahead and have fallen in again anyway. But because their eyes were open, they knew where they were and how to get out quickly. With continued practice, they discover an entirely new street to walk down.