Modern Etiquette: Time to take time out

Fri Feb 21, 2014 3:00am EST

(Reuters) - My lodgings backed against the grand mosque at KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) in Saudi Arabia. The calls to prayer that rang through campus began and ended my days there, and punctuated them every few hours in between.

I was in the Middle East to provide workshops on social savvy for scientists. Although thrilled to be working with such accomplished individuals from all over the globe, I knew that my perspective and expertise would be welcome. They might even be my contribution to modern science, since, heaven knows, I have no rightful place in a laboratory.

Yet the call to prayer stopped me in my tracks, and was indeed the most compelling contribution that KAUST made to me. There I was, processing what I was going to say to my audiences, fussing over my materials, making myriad mental notes to take it all in and not forget a single moment of that extraordinary experience. Hearing the call reminded me to stop, to get unplugged, to connect with a silent teacher who would bring out the best I had to give.

Albert Einstein stated that "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift." When we forget that gift, we cannot expect the way we treat others - or ourselves - to be as constructive a force as it should.

We shoulder unreasonable deadlines, put in 14-hour days, and routinely skip lunch. We can't sleep. Our necks hurt, our eyes hurt, our hands hurt, our shoulders hurt. We run out of physical, intellectual, and emotional energy. As glorious as our technology is, it has become a leash that makes it impossible to separate what we do from who we are.

Yet it need not be so.

Meditation is like flossing our teeth. We all know it's good for us and that we should floss daily. Usually, though, we tell ourselves we just do not have time for it. And what, if anything, does meditation have to do with interpersonal skills and manners, much less business success?

The goal is to live in the moment, which is the only reality we know. That means clearing our heads of the noise, confusion, and clutter that sends us back ruminating over our past or into the fantasy that is the future.

Athletes call it visualization, which is simply a positive mental rehearsal of what they are about to do. Whatever you wish to call it, meditation has as much to do with effective human performance as Shakespeare has to do with literature.

In his classic book "The Relaxation Response", Dr. Herbert Benson proved conclusively that meditation lowers blood pressure and improves cholesterol levels. Recent studies also found that meditation relieves insomnia, a plague of our times.

SIMPLE AS BREATHING

In his Harvard Business Review article, "You're Working Too Hard," Dr. Benson argues that by getting our minds off whatever problems we are trying to solve, we reboot our brains and ultimately arrive at longer-lasting solutions more easily.

That really is as simple as breathing. Take deep, relaxing breaths: inhale deeply through your nose, letting your abdomen expand like a balloon, thus allowing more space in your chest for inspired air; as you exhale slowly through your nose or mouth, let your abdomen deflate. You don't have to exaggerate either the inhalation or the exhalation; your body knows what to do.

Your mind will not stay blank. Rather than fighting your thoughts, simply do not follow them. Instead, let thoughts come and go, and keep returning to your breath. The goal here is to connect with your intuition, the sacred gift, as Einstein calls it, and not tether yourself to the rational mind, the faithful servant.

Resetting ourselves in a positive position merely requires closing our eyes, shutting out external stimuli, and breathing. Meditation evokes a relaxed focus, not necessarily spiritually induced.

Meditation is merely the practice of being quiet, turning your attention inward, and focusing your mind. Once we connect with our intuitive mind, we then are able to put our thoughts to work making better choices that result in more effective behavior.

So, you might wonder, what is our time investment here? It only takes a moment. When I was in Saudi Arabia, one very accomplished scientist, on extreme overload from professional and family demands, allowed me to test the argument. We set our smartphone timers for one minute. We closed our eyes and did some belly breathing. When the alarm rang, she was refreshed and better equipped to handle the immediate challenges ahead.

I ask you, can there be a greater Return On Investment for a single moment spent getting our brain rebooted?

Perhaps marshaling our personal technology is not quite the same as heeding the haunting call to prayer. Yet, for me at least, pausing thus is just as profound.

Try it.

(Mary M. Mitchell has written several books on the subject of etiquette, now in 11 languages, most recently "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Modern Manners Fast Track" and "Woofs to the Wise". She is the founder of executive training consultancy The Mitchell Organization (www.themitchellorganization.com). The opinions expressed are her own.)

(Editing by Michael Roddy)

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