Mindfulness Matters

200px-The_No_Asshole_Rule.jpgI’m reading the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Business Week Bestseller, and provocatively titled, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t by Robert Sutton reveals some harrowing statistics of bullying and abuse in the workplace.

  • A 2000 study found 27% of Michigan workers had been mistreated at work with one in six reporting psychological abuse
  • A 2002 Department of Veterans Affair study found 36% of workers reporting persistent mistreatment from co-workers and supervisors
  • A 1997 study of nurses found that 90% reported verbal abuse by physicians in the previous year; a 2003 study found similarly that 91% of nurses had experienced verbal abuse in the past month
These statistic suggest that there are a lot of assholes out there, people who cannot control their tempers and treat people with respect. Many are successful in the financial aspects of their work but their behaviors costs companies a lot of money due to the damage they cause. Businesses are discovering that it’s too expensive to keep assholes employed and many are adopting the “No Asshole Rule.”

(Note: Sutton debated on whether to use the potentially offensive term asshole and considered other terms such as bully or jerk. He decided on the term asshole is being more authentic than the watered down version. The Harvard Business Review agreed with him when they published his article, “The No Asshole Rule.”)

    I had to call my local phone company with a billing inquiry. I’ll confess at the outset, I’ve probably been an asshole on the phone in the past on at least one occasion. In the wake of goodness that the No Asshole Rule suggests and also after sitting in mindfulness meditation for 45 minutes, I approached this call with my buddhanature shining. I could have taken an angry, defensive approach, after all they are ripping me off. And while it was the case that the charges in question appeared exorbitant ($100 for two of those little plastic phone jacks) that doesn’t have to dictate the tenor of the approach. I reminded myself that if I was not successful having some of the charges reversed that I could politely say that I was not satisfied and request to talk to a superior. Rancor would not be necessary.
    What followed surprised me. I had a very pleasant conversation with the customer service representative. When she saw the installation charges appearing on my bill 4 months after the work was done and, yes, $100 for two little phone jacks was exorbitant she credited all the charges without my having to ask. Of course our grandmothers knew this wisdom too: “You get more flies with honey than vinegar.”
    The Buddha taught the “No Asshole Rule” 2500 years ago without calling it precisely that. He cautioned against the three poisons: Greed-Hatred-Delusion. These are the forces that make people act like assholes, whether temporarily in the moment or in a more enduring “certified” way. Greed reinforces a sense of separation from others that somehow “I” deserve more. Hatred is self-explanatory. Anger, hostility, contempt are all qualities that are provided by nature for dealing with actual threats that then get conditioned to and recruited for dealing with threats to our self-image. A lack of mindfulness may correspond to a lack of modulation around anger, hostility, and contempt. Ignorance is a lack of wisdom, and in this case a lack of understanding of the destructive effects of asshole behavior.
    This is karma. When we behave a certain way it has effects on people, including ourselves. If we go the asshole route there are a lot of karmic ramifications of such actions. If we go the benevolent route another set of effects arise. The evidence suggests that being nice, cooperative, and respectful is better for the bottom line. Being an asshole is expensive.
    Sutton presents a case a highly profitable salesman who treated his subordinates with contempt. His company did an analysis of the costs associated with his behavior and came up with a tab of $160,000. They subsequently deducted this from his salary and bonuses. These costs included time spent by his manager, HR professional, executives, and outside counsel handling the fall-out of his behavior; the cost of recruiting and hiring a new administrative assistant, and anger management training. 
    No one can be empathicaly attuned 100% of the time. Most of us all fall victim, at times, to being an asshole. Mindfulness can help us move from greed, hatred, and delusion to generosity, loving friendliness, and wisdom. Mindfulness practice helps us to decondition angry ways of responding and be less reactive. It helps us to build a pause between stimulus and response and to be thoughtful in that pause.

    “I cook therefore I am” Watzke suggests.

    Did you know there are 500 million neurons in your gut. That pales in comparison to the brain (100 billion) but is certainly enough to qualify as a “second brain.” This fascinating talk enlightens us to the what is going on in our gut.

    Of course, mindfulness practice will help us to become intimate with the functioning of the gut and the rest of the body as we pay attention to the sensations occurring now. Armed with the information in this talk about how the gut functions in relationship to the brain we can, perhaps, better manage the signals produced by the gut leading to a more healthy relationship with food. 

    violin.jpgUrban legend has it that Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman once played through a violin concerto after having broken one of his strings. Perlman was afflicted by polio as a child so walking is difficult for him. The story goes that he made a decision to play on rather than to make the prodigious effort go back off stage to replace the string and come back again.

    For the complete text and a critical review of this story, read the Snopes analysis. There is no evidence to corroborate this story and it doesn’t make sense if you really think about it.  If his string had broken a handler would have brought the string out for him. There is documentation that after breaking a string at another concert and while waiting for repair he engaged the audience in a stand-up comedy routine. 
    Despite its apparent lack of veracity (if you were at this concert I’d love to hear from you!), this story still makes a good metaphor for the wisdom of acceptance. We are confronted with situations where we must decide what to do. Should I put effort into fixing this situation? Should I let it go and work with what I have?
    If you are cold and the window is open and readily closed, it makes sense to close the window. If it is not readily closed then what? How much effort should we expend? Of course if you are waiting at a bus stop you can’t close the window and acceptance is the wisdom choice.
    How do we know? First we must know ourselves. Mindfulness practice will help us to know at an intuitive level. This is the wisdom of our bodies in action. Next, we must perceive the situation accurately. Strong emotions may bias our view of things. Collecting ourselves through mindfulness practice can help us to see what is required in the situation. 
    This metaphor is also an example of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. 
    Do we ever have the perfect condition — all four of our strings? Perhaps sometimes we do, but often we are working with whatever we’ve got. We are tired and have to do something. This may not be the ideal conditions for creative work, but it is what is so in the moment. We can allow the story “less than ideal” prevail or we can move forward without that story, doing the best that we can. 
    I addressed this tendency in my book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness, in the metaphor “Perfectomy.” Perfectomy is using mindfulness as a non-surgical and safe way to address our perfectionistic tendencies. 
    Suzuki Roshi said, “Everything is perfect, but there’s always room for improvement.” This captures it nicely. Embody acceptance; work towards goodness (or whatever your goals are).
    When we’ve got all four strings intact, enjoy the beautiful sound. When we’ve got only three and we can’t get that fourth back just now, play with three and appreciate the sound you can make. Perhaps you’ll find strength and resources you didn’t know you had.


    It’s Stress Reduction Sunday. Read my weekly post in the Connecticut Watchdog, This week’s entry Working Ourselves to Death :: Mindfulness May Save Your Life

    ABC News did a recent feature on workplace stress and the increased mortality associated with chronic job stress and economic uncertainty. Here are seven work-related dangers and how we can use mindfulness to address them.

    1. Distracted Driving ::  Texting and talking on the phone is banned in many states and for good reason. Texting can be fatal. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told ABC News last month. “If you’re looking down at a cell phone for four seconds or a texting device for four seconds, you’re driving the length of a football field without looking at the road.”