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  • Writer's picturePaul LaLonde

Zen Your Work: A Mindful Interview with Dr. Karlyn Borysenko Part I

“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).” – James Baraz

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Note: This blog post is a contribution to the #SHRM19Blogger website. If interested in discovering other amazing HR bloggers, please click the link to read other posts!

My first awareness of the concept of “mindfulness” came several years ago when I first read Thich Nhat Hanh’s masterpiece, Living Buddha, Living Christ. Today, the topic of mindfulness seems to be EVERYWHERE. Just do a Google search. But it is with great reason! I can personally attest to the benefits of incorporating mindfulness practice into my daily life. However, don’t take my word for it! I’m not the expert! Let me introduce you to someone who can much better explain what mindfulness is and how incorporating it into your life can lead to positive outcomes.

Recently, I had the exciting opportunity to interview someone I have admired for a long time. Dr. Karlyn Borysenko is the Chief Science Officer at RallyBright and the Founder of Zen Workplace. She is an organizational psychologist and executive/performance coach, who is a leader in integrating mindfulness strategies in a work setting (and other settings).

She is hosting a MEGA Session at the SHRM 2019 Conference called Zen Your Work: Creating a More Mindful Work Experience. Zen Your Workplace will be held on Tuesday June 25th from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. #SHRM19 attendees interested in becoming more aware, focused, confident, and productive should definitely make it a point to check our Karlyn’s session! Those who won’t be in attendance certainly don’t feel left out! She is incredibly accessible, and in addition, she wrote a book that is worth every penny. Without further adieu, here’s Part one of my two part interview with Dr. Borysenko!

Thank you so much for taking time to discuss your upcoming #SHRM19 presentation with me! I am a huge proponent of mindfulness practice. I was first introduced to the concept by reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ. It was a transformative read. When and how did you first get introduced to the idea of “mindfulness?” What was that like for you?

You might be surprised by this but there was a time I was huge skeptic about mindfulness. I was really interested in Buddhist philosophies when I was younger but years of formal education and existing in harsh environments led me to believe they were simply unrealistic in the real world that always seemed to be beating down on me and serving me one blow after another. So, when “mindfulness” first started creeping up as a buzzword in a business context while I was completing my doctoral work in organizational psych, I really dismissed it at first out-of-hand. I was a different person then and was really closed off to a lot of ideas that I considered to be fluff. But it was my study of psychology that actually turned me onto it. I sort of backed into it as I was exploring different types of research and was really establishing my perspective – “If X is true, that means Y has to be true…and if Y is true, that means Z has to be true,” and before I knew it, I’d landed in the realm of mindfulness. Even then, I was very resistant! But I thought “what the heck” and started practicing it little by little. I took up meditation and started exploring different belief systems and philosophies. My most transformative read during this time was Conversations with God, which is not a book about mindfulness. However, it is all about mindfulness at the same time because it’s about creating a fulfilling experience as a human being by setting aside all of the ingrained beliefs that many of us are programed with from the time we’re kids and looking at the world in a new way. And that was the thing that inspired me to learn how to integrate mindfulness into work in a way that goes beyond meditation or breathing, which is the basis of the work I do today.

I am glad you brought that up because many associate mindfulness with breathing meditation, but as you just said, you believe it’s much more than that. Without giving too much of your presentation away, how would you describe mindfulness to a beginner?

There are three core concepts that form the foundation of how I teach mindfulness: Be aware, be non-judgmental, and be in the present moment.

  1. Being aware is about being fully conscious of the internal and external factors at play in any context you’re operating in, including the inner dialogue going on in your mind, the sensations you’re feeling in your body, and the personalities you’re working with.

  2. Being non-judgmental is about resisting the inclination to immediately judge things going on around you as good or bad, right or wrong, better or wrong. By reserving judgment, you can explore different possibilities and perspectives and choose the ones that best serve your goals.

  3. Being in the present moment is about not allowing negative things that have happened in the past influence the actions you take now with the understanding that the past may not have any relevance to what is going on right now.

To be clear though, I’m a big fan of meditation. I meditate more than the average bear for sure and have found it to be a game-changer and certainly makes it a heck of a lot easier to integrate the strategies I explore in my work. However, the reason I don’t focus there is because there are so many people who are resistant to the idea of meditation, or believe (falsely, I would argue) that they can’t meditate. If we say to people “the bar of entry to mindfulness is that you have to sit and meditate every day,” we’re going to lose a lot of people. So, I focus on teaching other ways for them to practice mindfulness that seem easier, or more practical, to help them build the habits and experience the value of it. We start with the smaller stuff, and if they experience the value and change it can bring them, I’m able to work them up to meditation over time as they release their resistance to it.

That’s awesome to hear. There are many forms of meditation. Not all require sitting with crossed legs focusing on the breathe. Breaking people in over time is a great approach. Over the past decade (and likely longer), the concept of mindfulness has really gained widespread traction throughout the Western world. Why do you think so many people have been turning to mindfulness practice? 

People are more stressed out than ever and are looking for ways to find balance in their experience. Mindfulness is something that anyone can do, is absolutely free to practice, and can make a profound impact. I also don’t think we can dismiss the impact of younger generations here too. Now, normally I’m not a fan of making generalizations based on the year someone was born, but I do think that Baby Boomers were born to be much more “tough” than the generations that came after them. I don’t mean that they have greater levels of mental fortitude. Rather, that they were willing to take a lot more grief without speaking up and saying “I deserve better” because they just accepted it as the way the world works. Think about it: How many of us were taught growing up that work has to be hard…that’s why they call it work! But that’s a big lie that’s been perpetuated so much that many accept it as truth. We can talk about the entitlement of the younger generations as a problem, but I actually see it as a really great thing. They know that they deserve to be happy, and that’s not a right they have to earn. In this way, I think that entitlement has led them to exploring ways they can take care of themselves that their parents might have dismissed off-hand. Mindfulness is one of those ways. And of course, it’s led to them expecting their employers to do more too, or they are very wiling to get up and go somewhere else.

Taking it a step further for people to be so committed to the practice, it must provide great outcomes. Could you describe the positive benefits that one gains from mindfulness practice? How does mindfulness assist people in controlling their emotions and thoughts?

To put it simply, you’ll live a more empowered life because you take responsibility for the experience you are creating every day. Becoming aware of your inner dialogue is key to this. Our brain likes to go to the worst case scenario as part of our survival mechanism, so when we aren’t working at it, we tend to make decisions based on the worst possible outcome, even if that outcome is extraordinarily unlikely!

I was working with a coaching client just the other day who is a great example. A brilliant HR pro in fact! We were talking about her implementing a new process for recruiting that she was nervous about for a variety of reasons. I asked her what the worst thing that could happen was if she went forward with it, and before I knew it, she had created a whole scenario that led to her being fired on the spot for implementing this new process that had been developed collaboratively with different stakeholders across her company! She was so detailed about it: “This person will complain to my boss, and my boss will decide to give them my job, and then I’ll be fired. Then, I’ll be so embarrassed that I won’t know what to do!” She delivered this whole story in a way that was absolutely convincing that the most likely outcome of this scenario was that she would be fired.

Now, of course that’s not the case. There is a very low probability of that actually happening, but what this exercise made her aware of was that she had unconsciously created this very detailed scenario in her head and had been ruminating on it for a bit. That’s why she was so stressed about pulling the trigger – she had convinced herself that if she did, she would be fired. But all of that was going on in her subconscious, so she wasn’t overtly aware of it. Our exercise brought that inner dialogue out to the forefront and made her consciously aware. And that’s where we get to the good stuff because once you’re aware of a story, you can disrupt it. This is how you take control – by making the choice to take responsibility for those thoughts by becoming aware of them, evaluating if they serve your goals, and then choosing to have different thoughts if they don’t! Don’t like the story you’re telling? Replace it with another one. Don’t like how you feel today? Take a few deep breathes and choose to feel a different emotion. These choices are always available to us. We just have to take advantage of them!

I love that phrasing! “Choices are always available to us!” It’s something so simple yet we forget it, or don’t realize it. We are always in control of how to feel. We just need to remember it! So, how would a beginner incorporate mindfulness practice into a day at the office?

There are a few really simple things anyone can do, that seem deceptively easy: Turn off your email and block your calendar.

When you keep your email on all day, you keep yourself in a constant state of multi-tasking in which your attention is draw from a task you should be focusing on to answering every message as soon as it pops in. This inhibits your productivity – it may seem like you’re getting more done, but this constant shifting energy makes that impossible. So instead, turn it off for the first 45 minutes of every hour. Use that to focus on the task at hand. For the last 15 minutes, turn it back on and answer any messages that need answering. Believe me, if it’s an emergency, someone will come and find you. And frankly, we shouldn’t be emailing in the case of an emergency anyway! You have to train your co-workers that they are not entitled to an immediate response for all messages – it just makes no sense. Over time, they’ll learn and behave accordingly.

When you keep your calendar unblocked, you open it up to being scheduled for meetings at all time. Your work time is no less valuable than the time you spend in a meeting. In fact, many people would agree with the statement “meetings in my organization are unproductive,” which means your work time is actually MORE valuable. So treat it that way. Try blocking off an hour every day. This is your time, and it is sacred. Use it to focus on making measurable progress on your goals and you’ll get more accomplished. That means you won’t be working all hours at night, or stressing out over how much you didn’t get done.

Part II will be released later this week. Until then, please read more about how awesome Dr. Borysekno is! Her bio is below with links to her other work and social media sites!

Dr. Karlyn Borysenko is the Chief Science Officer at RallyBright and the Founder of Zen Workplace. An organizational psychologist and executive/performance coach, she is a leader in integrating mindfulness strategies at work to increase productivity and creativity, reduce stress, and create better work experiences. Her practice is based in the greater Boston area and serves clients all over the world. She holds an MBA and a PhD in Psychology, is an experienced trainer and facilitator, coach, and award-winning speaker. Karlyn is a contributor to and the author of Zen Your Work: Create your ideal work experience through mindful self-mastery.

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