Often it is said that the practice of mindfulness and meditation can lead to great clarity and insight. In cultivating stillness and presence there arises from within a deep knowing or understanding of what is true and good. Insight derived in this way - from a deep state of presence - can be of the highest benefit to ourselves and others. I had a moving personal experience of this type of insight about a year ago while attending a weekend-long mindfulness retreat.
After spending the first day of the retreat mostly in silence, we began the second day with some walking meditation. Outdoors in the sunshine, surrounded by beautiful northern California redwood forests, I practiced walking and breathing mindfully. Unbidden, what arose for me was an experience of spontaneous and deep joy coupled at the same time with a powerful flash of insight. The insight took expression as the words of a fully formed poem that appeared in my mind as follows:
The Feast of Joy
Life is a feast of joy.
Even in sorrow there is the seed of joy. You will see.
Find the joy in all you do.
And let what you do also bring you joy.
Sometimes you will have to work for it.
But not too much.
The insight for me in these words was a deep resonance about finding joy in every aspect of life. Importantly, finding joy did not involve working too hard at it. I began to see that deep and abiding joy was not something to be pursued but rather experienced from within. A simple letting go and letting be as a source of joy.
This was a powerful insight for me because I had been working too hard at finding joy, especially in my chosen vocation. It was now clear to me that I would have to leave my career path to follow a deeper, more joyful calling that would involve starting my own business. Choosing this path was complicated because I had recently taken on what I considered a "dream job" at a great company - Google. I was tasked with helping to lead efforts at enhancing employee wellbeing at the company. I had spent the better part of the previous two decades training as a psychologist and working in the field of organizational learning and development. In many ways, the new job was the pinnacle of what I had hoped to achieve. And yet this insight about connecting with and moving from a source of deep joy made me realize that it was time for a change.
What was really interesting about all of this was that none of it was entirely clear to me until I took time away from it all to reflect. I literally had to slow down, stop and take a period of dedicated time to be present with myself in order to gain clarity. Over that short period of time while I was on retreat, something fundamental shifted in me as I exercised the capacity to be in alert presence with my own lived experience. I experienced a calmness and clarity of mind that allowed me to sense within myself what was most important in terms of the work I wanted to do in the world.It is not necessary to have make large-scale changes as I did in order to harness change in your work or in other parts of your life. Here are a few recommendations for how to cultivate this process on a daily basis:
- Invite the emergent mind: Whenever you have a few moments of quiet, unstructured time (for example, when you first wake in the morning), notice where your mind goes. How and when do you transition from restful and easeful states of mind into more active, thinking states? Allow yourself to rest your mind in a way that is alert yet relaxed and simply notice what arises. Presence often happens when exercising this type of choiceless awareness.
- Set aside time each day for deliberate, quiet contemplation: Spend a little bit of time every day (between 1-20 minutes) doing absolutely nothing else other than being still and observing what arises. The capacity to be in stillness and presence is the foundation that allows awareness to arise.
- Create intentional moments of pause in your day: This will allow you to enter into an "observer" mode for a few moments. Use this as a check-in to notice what thoughts are occurring to you. Beware of filling every moment with information-rich activities or devices, and actively cultivate the time and space for meaningful pauses. A few practical ways to do this include taking a walk, getting up from where you are sitting, stretching and/or taking a few deep breaths.
- Retreat once in a while: There is value in the long-form practice of cultivating presence in a retreat-type setting. During a retreat, there is the time and space to intentionally set aside engagement with the outside world and free oneself of any distractions in order to cultivate stillness, awareness and presence. These are the optimal conditions in which great insight and awareness can arise. Consider taking some time at once a year for a retreat-type experience, and create time shorter versions of retreat throughout the year.
Rich Fernandez, PhD, is the co-founder of Wisdom Labs and former director of executive education at Google.