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Sunday, November 6, 2016

Mindfulness Increases Creativity, Spirituality, and Connection (interview)

photo courtesy Brandi Lust
Brandi Lust is the founder of Learning Lab Consulting, which was created as a tool to improve the quality of life and performance of organizations and individuals seeking to grow in a more mindful, creative and connected manner.  She is also a writing consultant certified by the National Writing Project and is the author of Myths of Being Human: Four Ways to Connect with What Matters, which contains reflections and practices to increase mindfulness, gratitude, growth, and connection to others

Your work incorporates ‘mindful creativity.  What types of activities do you include, and how does mindfulness assist in the creative process?

Creativity is an inherent aspect of the human condition. However, our mindsets, beliefs and self-talk can create obstacles to accessing it.  Mindfulness cultivates ways of thinking and being that can counteract these obstacles.  

To use an example, I facilitate an activity where I ask participants to make their brains out of Play-Doh in either an abstract or a figurative interpretation.  They are then asked to explain their brain in a small group discussion.  Afterward, each person reflects independently on the sensations, thoughts, and feelings experienced during the activity.

When we share our reflections, I most commonly hear people say things like:

   “I was nervous because I didn’t know if I was doing it right.” 
   “I compared my brain to other people’s, and I felt like mine wasn’t as good.” 
   “I was worried about sharing my brain because I didn’t know if others were going to judge me.”  

This type of limiting self-talk is automatic for many of us.  Feeling as if there is a right way to do things, comparing with others, and worrying about how we might be judged are all obstacles to our creativity. Mindfulness is a way to distance ourselves enough from these self-limiting beliefs to engage and share safely what is within.

You use narrative writing in order to “explore the ways our story can either be a wall or a bridge to connect with others.”  How does the way we tell our story impact our relationships with other people?

In the novel Delicious Foods, by James Hannaham, the character Sirius states, 
“…most often people who have power turn their story into a brick wall keeping out somebody else’s truth.”  
My own “story” was that I was a liberal, open-minded person who valued diversity and sought out social justice when possible. 

Case closed. 

In reality, at age 33, I looked around and realized that while I may be socially minded and value diversity in theory, most of the people I had close relationships with were eerily similar to me: same educational background, same race, same socio-economic status, even the same weight class.

Deconstructing my own story and accepting that it was a narrative meant to protect me and keep others out felt vulnerable, risky, and embarrassing. I slowly began to recognize, however, that my personal narrative was a wall separating me from seeing myself and others clearly.  

When I looked critically at my past history and current experience and then acted intentionally to change what my narrative would look like in the future, my life transformed.  My social circle widened, and what it means to be an engaged, socially-aware person changed for me. 

Story is a powerful, meaning-making tool.  The way we tell our own story, to ourselves and then to others, can either facilitate introspection and deeper connection, or it can shut us down to the truths others may carry. 

Youve recently become interested in ‘implicit bias.  For people who may not be familiar with that term, what is implicit bias and how does it connect to mindfulness and compassion?

According to the State of Science: Implicit Bias Review 2016 published by The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, implicit bias is, 
“The attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Activated involuntarily, without awareness or intentional control. Can be either positive or negative. Everyone is susceptible.”

In this context, implicit bias is ubiquitous; it affects us all and is part of our automated system as humans.  At the same time, it has a very concrete impact on individual lives. 

Implicit bias has a measurable effect in the education, health care, and legal systems.  It can mean the difference between a good relationship with institutionalized learning or a conflicted one, the highest quality medical treatment available or a lack of responsiveness from a nurse or doctor.  It can even determine whether one is found guilty or innocent of a major crime and made to serve prison time.  Consequently, it is a life or death issue. 

Implicit bias is nothing we need to be ashamed of; we all have it. It is, however, something we should be aware of. Once we are aware, there is a personal responsibility to mitigate implicit bias when possible, particularly when and where it might impact our judgement in ways that affect others.  Becoming aware of our own bias can begin through online assessment tools like Harvard’s Project Implicit and through personal life inventories and critical reflection.

Research has shown that mindfulness is a promising tool to counteract the effects of implicit bias.  In addition, Loving Kindness meditation in particular has been shown to increase compassion for those we may have “othered” (State of Science: Implicit Bias Review 2016, Staats, Capatosto, and Wright, 2016, p. 46).   

I've begun working with awareness and acceptance of implicit bias, partnered with mindfulness meditation, as a pathway to increase compassion and connection to others while also mitigating the effects of implicit bias.  

This process begins with training in mindfulness paired with social and emotional learning on the value of connection and compassion.  It continues with implicit bias education focused on lessening the stigma while accepting the effects as an impetus to change and grow.  We then explore our own personal narratives and make specific, focused goals and intentions toward change.  

I'm excited by the way that this process further enhances the valuable practice of mindfulness while emphasizing social justice as a lifestyle and a personal issue.   

Youre currently studying toward a masters degree in clinical pastoral counseling.  In previous interviews, Emmanuel Ivorgba discussed mindfulness for Christians and the importance of interfaith dialogue, and Giovanni Dienstmann gave an overview of Christian forms of meditation.  Whats your perspective on being a person of faith while remaining open to other spiritual perspectives? 

To be transparent, I am currently on a leave of absence from the graduate school I was attending.  I made this choice based upon my value to, as Parker Palmer would say, “let my life speak.”  The work that I was doing, the same work I do now, had such an incredible pull for me that I felt I needed to embrace the opportunities that were coming my way while also being mindful of the time commitments of being a full-time student, business owner and parent.  Leaving school was an act of risk, vulnerability, and awareness of my own limitations- all aspirational values for me. 

This being said, as an interspiritual person attending a theological school grounded solidly in spiritual development and social justice, my time there will always be a foundational experience for the rest of my life.  For those for whom “interspiritual” is a new term, in my own words, it means that I value all religions as spiritual paths to greater oneness and deeper connection. 

Each path is valid and valuable to me; my greatest spiritual teachers thus far have been Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, and Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk, for example.  This being said, remaining open to other’s perspectives is still a central focus of my personal work.  

While in school, I lived this experience through frequent dialogues with others whose beliefs, world perspectives, and personal experiences were different from my own.  I attended classes and had deep conversations with people at different points on the conservative to liberal spectrum, watched people who were passionate about their denomination in conversation with others who were passionate about a different denomination, and participated in conversations where people who were questioning their faith engaged with others who felt their faith was being threatened.

What this taught me was the importance of cognitive flexibility, deep listening, and empathy.  Interfaith dialogue is about belief, but it is also about emotion, meaning, morality, life experience and personal identity.  I have to listen deeply to really hear the nuances and layers of another’s spiritual and religious experience and try to empathize with their reality.  When I do this, I am changed by what I hear.

Because of my interfaith and interspiritual interests, I've taken particular note of the way mindfulness very naturally intertwines with, and often enhances, the individual spiritual and religious lives of people from many different backgrounds. While I work in predominantly secular settings (though occasionally in religious or spiritual communities), I find that very consistently people reflect and journal about their spiritual and religious experience as part of their mindfulness practice. 

What I love is that it doesn’t matter what religion or spiritual perspective an individual comes from; the same practice means different things to different people and engages us all at the level of our deepest humanity.  In this way, mindfulness can be a tool in building interspiritual and interreligious communities.  It is an inclusive practice and language that enriches spirituality and enhances a sense of common humanity.

When mindfulness is paired with what Adam Bucko and Rory McEntry call “dialogical dialogue,”* I think it provides context for discovering deeper authenticity while remaining open to other’s truths.  Dialogical dialogue is an intentional conversation where one speaks from his or her authentic self “while further evoking emergent understandings” within the community they belong to.       * The New Monasticism: An Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Living 

I have a dream of combining this discussion method with mindfulness practice in inter-religious contexts to help create greater understanding amongst people.  We wrote a grant proposal for this work while I was in grad school, but it wasn’t accepted.  There may be some iteration that is still possible, however.    

What does ‘mindful teachingmean to you?

Mindful teaching means bringing my whole self to the process of building growth-oriented communities.  I'm being a “mindful teacher” when I'm fully engaged and connected to those I'm working with, and when I'm constantly asking myself the question, “What is called for right now, in this moment, to help this community grow?” 

What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you with your work?

My own mindfulness practice is fairly dynamic and fluid.  I try to make sure that I'm engaged in a sitting practice for at least 15-20 minutes daily.  What I do during this time depends on what I need, but primarily I engage in an open-monitoring or a breath-focused meditation.  Sometimes I start with a guided meditation; sometimes it’s just silence.  In addition to sitting, I also have a regular yoga practice that I do on most days.

As far as informal mindfulness practice, my favorite activities are to take long hikes or walks outside.  I also love playing with my puppy, Tucker, and doing journaling exercises focused on reflection and gratitude.  When I'm feeling overwhelmed, by either positive or negative emotions, I'll turn to these tools to recenter. 

My personal practice has everything to do with my work, but I would say the three biggest ways it contributes are:

1.) Creating opportunities for my own centering and rejuvenation
2.) Allowing me to be present with others with whom I am working
3.) Being part of the life experiment that later becomes my work with others

On the first point, teaching, and especially being a facilitator of social and emotional learning, is highly engaging but at times overstimulating, at times emotionally draining.  My practice allows me to recenter and either come down or reboot after my work experiences.  For example, I just hosted two days of workshops with all new audiences.  After day one, I came straight home and did a yoga nidra (relaxation) practice. Today when my workshop ended, the first thing I did was put on my tennis shoes and take my dog on a long walk.  I am a very passionate person, and that passion can be exhausting!  My practice helps me to cope and stay centered. 

On the second point, I've found that my personal practice has given me so much more distance between my experiences and the voice in my head; honestly, it is so much quieter up there and the things I hear so much nicer than they used to be!  This is important because I'm much more able to be present in my interactions and fully invested in the communities in which I work. 

On the third point, when I began blogging about and teaching from my personal experiences with mindfulness, gratitude, growth, connection, compassion etc., I viewed my life quite differently; it became an experiment and an incubator for practices that engage and grow the values and qualities I want to see grow in the world.  This makes me take myself a little less seriously.  I am going to try things.  Sometimes I will fail.  Sometimes I will succeed.  It doesn’t matter; it’s all just an experiment. Life is more playful now.