Awake at Work

Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Anakha Coman. Anakha is the founder of the Awakened Leadership Institute, and speaks, teaches, and consults with leaders and organizations worldwide—including Intel, Nike, and Save the Children. Her expertise is in organizational and leadership development, with an emphasis on mindfulness, presence, innovation, and awakened leadership. With Sounds True, Anakha is presenting a new online mindfulness program entitled Awake at Work.

In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Anakha and I spoke about what it means to incorporate mindfulness into the workplace, as well as the many benefits of such a program—including a greater sense of ease in the workplace, stimulation of employees’ creativity and the flow of ideas, and even increased productivity. We also talked about the positive effect on workplace culture that such a program can have, the qualities of a mindful leader, the three core principles of the Awake at Work program, and how to take the first steps to start a mindfulness program at your own place of employment. Here’s my conversation with Anakha Coman:

Anakha, we’re at a new time—you could say—in our culture where something like meditation—mindfulness—is now being introduced in organizations. People are even calling it”a revolution”—a mindfulness revolution. In business, of all things!

So, I’d love to know—to begin with—how [you] understand and see this time that we’re in.

Anakha Coman: I think one of the markers that we can look at is the acceleration that technology brings to our life and our work. People are becoming more overwhelmed and distracted—[as well as] less connected to themselves, their own creativity, and contributions. I think there’s actually a real crisis [in] loss of connection to that which is most innately powerful and creative within us and between us in the workplace. We’re seeing that when we look at disengagement, stress, and even illness in the workplace.

So, I think we’re at a point where there’s a receptivity and an openness. People are looking for what [they] can do to actually get back in touch with ourselves, with what’s most important, and with one another—and to create and innovate from there. A lot of times I think people are putting new processes in place, new programs in place—but they’re not dealing with the inner awareness of the people that are actually putting those responsible for those programs and processes.

So, something like meditation and mindfulness is actually shifting the consciousness and the awareness—thus bringing a very different result.

TS: So, it sounds like from your view, that part of it is there’s a need—you even [used] the word “crisis.” That is what is really at the root of this change. Would you put it that way?

AC: As you were saying that, I actually feel my heart. I think of one of my colleagues, Dr. Christina Bethell—she said all of the issues that we’re dealing with right now are a crisis in presence. If we were to become more present in the moment—more present with ourselves and one another—that the answers to our greatest problems are right there.

So, I do think it is a crisis. I do think that people are not doing very well often in their jobs. I remember stories of people saying, “I’m working harder and faster. But at the end of the week, I leave and sometimes don’t even know if I really contributed anything.”

That creates a—I think we are all meaning-makers. I think we all want to make a contribution. When that’s failing us, it really doesn’t create a sense of health or well-being.

TS: Now, I think some people would say meditation or mindfulness is becoming something that’s accepted and wanted in organizations because now there’s scientific studies that tell us that we’ll be more effective, more productive, and [actually] make more money for our employers. What do you think of that view?

AC: Well, I think that that’s true. I do think that one of the reasons there’s receptivity to mindfulness practice now is that all the science and the research is demonstrating that there are real benefits to it. When I look at the results that the Awake at Work program gets, there are real benefits as far as new ideas, new directions, a sense of more flow and ease in the work process.

But it also can bring up more challenges because sometimes people get back in touch and they see that things aren’t working well. It might bring forth conflicts that are normally suppressed. Or, sometimes people realize it’s not a good fit where they’re at.

So, I wouldn’t want to say it’s only focused on being more productive [and] making a company more money. It is true to the practice itself. Whatever we need to become present with is what we start to address in mindfulness. It doesn’t matter if we’re practicing in a retreat or if we’re practicing in a boardroom or a conference room.

Once you become present, you start to see. You start to see what’s in the way. You start to see new avenues of expression.

So, I think it’s both/and. I also see often that it creates a disruption in corporate culture at times. If a corporate culture highly values running around, being crazy busy and overwhelmed and productive—and they see people starting to take mindful pauses or maybe not answer a question—maybe say, “I don’t know,”—and start to interact, relate, and work differently, sometimes that can be a real rub with the status quo. It really is the people that at the beginning of bringing this practice into corporate America that are kind of the pioneers. [They] are the brave ones that are willing to say yes and try these new practices on, and see how they start to integrate with the culture or change and shift the culture.

TS: Now, I quite appreciate what you’re saying about meditation and mindfulness potentially bringing up challenges inside someone—inside their life. It might bring up material you haven’t looked at that is now right there in your face.

But, how does that work? You’re selling mindfulness training into corporations. Someone like me, I can ask those kinds of questions. “Doesn’t it bring up these difficult issues?” But how does it go when you’re trying to “sell” this practice into companies? I’m sure that that’s not what they want to hear.

AC: I think that, for me, it continues to be a part of the integrity of the practice—to be able to speak about it in that way and to know that even if it brings up challenging material, that that backwards step into that challenging material or into something that we haven’t seen before is still bringing more aliveness, awareness, and creativity into our lives and into our work. So, even though it might feel uncomfortable or be challenging, it’s still a part of creating the sort of results we want to see.

A lot of times, when things are just being suppressed, we might not be having to deal with them directly—but they’re still having a significant negative impact on the company, on the work team, on the work product. So, if we surface those issues, at least we can deal with them from a place of intentionality and consciousness—whereas before they were just being swept under the rug. We might have been in the illusion that they weren’t creating harm or getting in the way of the sort of results we want, but the reality is they were.

TS: Do you find that corporate leaders are receptive to what you’re saying?

AC: I think some are, and some aren’t. Usually what happens is if there is a corporate leader—an executive—that actually comes in and has an experience for themselves—then they have a very visceral and practical understanding of how the practice works and how we use the practice to meet life and our work as it is—whether that be a challenge or an opportunity.

Once they have that experience, they often become advocates for it. In fact, I haven’t seen anybody that hasn’t become an advocate after fully participating in the program.

But I think there are many executives and leadership that would say, “No way.”

Almost, “We don’t want to know what we don’t know.” We don’t want to see. We don’t want people to wake up. If people wake up, they start to [sometimes] become more empowered and more clear. Sometimes, that’s a threat to the status quo.

TS: Now, tell me a little bit about the Awake at Work program. What I’m interested to know is if you were to summarize the core principles of the program, what those are.

AC: Well, there’s three key facets that I think about when I think about the program and how we tap into our highest potential not only individually, but relationally and collectively. So, those three landscapes [we are] starting to cultivate and create a sense of mindfulness, of presence, [and] of bringing what is most true and an integrity within us more to the forefront. Sometimes, that means dissolving and letting go of a lot that doesn’t belong anymore.

So, the cultivation of inner awareness—inner presence—and how that flows into our relationships. How do we create the capacity to be present and tuned in and mindful—[as well as] take better care of our relationships with other people. Once we’re present with ourself, we start to have an innate capacity to understand the needs and fears and motivations and tensions of other people—not to manipulate that, but to be more skillful in how we care for one another [and] how we call forth the best in one another.

When I look at organization life, that’s something that’s often missing. A lot of times, there’s a lot of competition. So, it starts to change our perspective on how we participate in a company or in a team.

So, that inner mindfulness—the relational mindfulness. And then I think about the collaborative or collective mindfulness, and how the culture starts to move with greater coherence [and] greater intentionality, rather than being fragmented.

So, the program really takes us through those three different landscapes. One builds on the other. Everything starts with “in” and then moves out from there.

TS: Talk more about this idea of engagement at work and what it means to inspire a culture of engagement. How does that actually work?

AC: I think that’s one of the things that I’ve seen: people putting themselves back in touch with what they want to contribute to the workplace rather than just being told what they need to do or just being on automatic pilot, going through their tasks. They start to become more awake to how they want to show up, [as well as] how they want to mold and influence their work and their connections with other people.

I think, sometimes, we just go to fall asleep to that. We just kind of get in and we have a sense of safety, security, or, “This is just the way it is.” We become a bit like in a trance or robotic in our work.

So, when we use this practice of mindfulness, we start to wake up to what’s most important to us—our own authenticity, our values, our priorities. We find ways that we can actually start moving from the inside out.

So, that’s really where the engagement is. I don’t think it comes from benefits that the company’s offering or trips or prizes—all these types of things that are being done. Those are nice and I think they motivate to a certain degree. But what I believe is most true about our humanity is that we really want to bring forth what is most true, vital, and alive within us. Mindfulness puts us back in touch with that.

Also, it gives us the courage to show up in that. [Most of the time,] I think what we’re afraid of is being judged, criticized, or rejected. When we think about what [we are] afraid of in that experience, it’s usually the discomfort in the body and the emotions that we don’t want to experience. So, mindfulness also gives us this inner sanctuary where we can hold the discomfort and choose to risk and show up as we truly are.

TS: Let’s talk more about that, because I think that sometimes in a workplace environment, people are afraid that they’re going to be punished if they bring forth their ideas. Even if you come in and you help people feel more confident that they can handle their sensations in their body, but they’re still in a culture where punishment is doled out, that’s not going to create a culture of engagement. That’s part of how I’m curious to understand how helping people learn mindfulness actually translates into these kinds of cultural shifts.

AC: Well, again, I think it’s the people that are on the forefront of this larger shift that often are the pioneers. They have some sort of innate courage and vision of what’s possible that’s fueling them and encouraging them to try different things on.

I always let people know, “You don’t want to start practicing these things on the riskier areas of your work life.” Start small and let that build. Try things on. See how they work.

Generally, what I see is that people are really actually drawn to these new ways of being. They’re more natural to us. Once one person starts to show up in that way—or a team—then it kind of starts to gather momentum and creates a company within the company, almost. A new culture within the larger culture starts to infuse behavior and interactions.

I think, at best, it’s great that it’s a grassroots movement. Even better if there’s leadership support and embodied practice [where] the leaders themselves are actually going through mindfulness training and learning how to apply it in their roles and their work.

TS: Now, let’s just stay with this for a moment. When you say for someone that they could “start small”—could you give me an example of that?

AC: Yes. So, there’s a story—some of these are very, very simple. But, there’s a story of somebody early on in the work at Intel—an engineer that was wanting to solve a technology problem. Just a simple decision—for him to turn off all the distractions, bring another engineer into a conference room, to use the mindfulness practice to really settle and focus—created a breakthrough in a problem that they’d been trying to work on for over a year.

When his boss came back from sabbatical, he immediately came and enrolled in the program. He was really skeptical. But when I asked him, “Why are you coming into the program,” he said, “Well, the results speak for themselves.”

So, that was a pretty small step. You know: I’m going to turn off all of my technology. I’m going to try this practice of focusing my awareness and really coming into that mindful presence. Then, I’m going to engage another engineer. And yet, that one small decision created a breakthrough and an opening, and it also drew other people into the practice.

So, I think that once people see that it has a direct impact—and a direct positive impact—on people’s work, their relationships, and the results they’re getting, that starts to create more interest and momentum around it.

TS: So, starting with the basics: if you are to go into an organization and, right at the very beginning, introduce mindfulness training, how do you do it? How do you frame it? What do you teach people?

AC: Well, I really start with the basics. It really is about bringing ourselves fully present in the moment—instead of being divided and having our attention divided across multiple things, and not really being fully here for any one of them. I think people are hungry for that. It’s really stressful when we have our attention divided and we’re that distracted.

So, teaching people how to bring themselves fully present in the moment—how to kind of reel their attention back in to the breath, to the body, and learn how to pause. I really think that if we just had more mindful pauses throughout our day—where we stopped, recollected ourselves, felt our body and our breath, got back in touch, and then proceeded—even that small of an intervention shifts the awareness and the consciousness with which we’re moving, relating, and interacting in our workday.

So, really, it starts with that. It starts with taking ourselves off of automatic pilot, reeling ourselves back into the moment, connecting with our breath and body, and allowing that awareness to infuse how we’re behaving, interacting, and communicating.

TS: So, let’s talk about that. So, it’s one thing for me to practice mindfulness by myself or with a group, but my eyes are closed. I’m not relating to anybody else. Now, I’m trying to bring mindfulness into—let’s say—a meeting. How do you help people do this?

AC: I remember one story that comes to mind about a gentleman that was filling in in a meeting for his boss. The person running the meeting came in, and there were executives. He was not an executive, but he was filling in for one of them. He realized soon that they were going around the room doing these top, high-level report-outs. He just started to freak out. His mind was going all over the place and anxiety rushing through.

With his eyes open, he just took some deep breaths and brought his awareness down to the anxiety and the sensations in his belly. [He] started to breathe and regulate his emotion. When it came to him to speak—it was his turn to speak—he said that it was all right there: the clarity, coherence, and what he needed to say just came flowing through.

That might seem counterintuitive, but if he would have stayed bypassing the body sensations and the anxiety—and just tried to get some coherence in his thoughts—I’m guessing that he wouldn’t have come through so clear and powerful. But, because he used his practice, he could settle and meet what was happening in the moment, and bring greater coherence into what he spoke. He was kind of amazed at how well the practice worked.

So, it really is [that] when we start to train ourselves to be able to meet what’s happening with awareness and to start to regulate with our breath, that is—in many ways—the greatest preparation that we have to meet whatever’s happening in the moment. Because of the connection between the body, heart, and mind, we increase coherence in our cognitive function. So, we [actually] become smarter when we’re using this practice.

TS: Now, it’s very interesting to me that you’re using this word “coherence.” Tell me more about that—what you mean by that.

AC: I think there are times—and you probably can even remember times like this too—when we’re speaking in ways that are disconnected and we can’t really bring through a deeper intelligence, deeper wisdom, or a clearer thought. A lot of times, I think that’s when we’re up in our heads. We’re deeply rooted in our hearts and our bodies and all the different intelligence centers that we have access to.

So, when I think of coherence, I think of firing on all cylinders. The intelligence in the body—in the gut-brain and the heart-brain and the head-brain—are all integrating and working together. We become smarter. We bring forth more insight and ideas when we’re connected at that level.

TS: Now, I may sound like I’m repeating myself, but I want to circle back to something because I’m imagining a listener who says, “You know, if I were actually in coherence with my heart and my gut, and I voiced what was going on for me in the meeting in a truthful way, I bet you I’d be fired on the spot! The culture I’m in—the company I work for—doesn’t actually want to hear what my heart has to say, actually.”

So, how do we help that person?

AC: Well, I think that’s a reality. I don’t want to downplay that truth. I think that comes back to personal integrity and your personal choice about what your priorities are. Is it more important that you are showing up and expressing that in the meeting, or is it more important to you that you keep your job and don’t rock the boat? Or is there some sort of middle ground that you can start to navigate with?

I think there are choice points in each moment. There’s something about being connected at this level that oftentimes we find ways to navigate those challenging situations outside of our rational mind.

I’ll give you an example: I think I was in my twenties and I had been doing this practice at the time. I was facilitating a merger and acquisition between a couple companies in Seattle. It was a Midwestern company that was acquiring a Seattle company. I was sitting there with a CEO and two vice-presidents much older than me. The CEO was a former military guy and very sure of himself, very confident. He was going on and on, talking about how nothing was going to change, how they would still have complete autonomy, they were going to be able to run their own ship, and saying all these things. The two vice-presidents in the room were nodding their heads in agreement.

The more that the CEO spoke, the greater knot I had in my belly. I was aware that if we speak this to employees, they’re not going to believe this—because this isn’t really how it’s going to happen.

So, rather than go into my mind—and starting to argue with him or convince him of something—I actually started with my body awareness. I said, “I just want to say that, as I’m hearing you speak, I’ve got this knot in my belly. I’m afraid that the employees aren’t going to believe that. I think that they’re going to think that things are going to change. In fact, they probably will. I just want to bring that up because I really think it’s important—if we want to retain the employees—that we tell them the truth.”

At that moment, there was this awareness in the room. One of the vice-presidents looked and he’s like, “Yes, I’ve got that knot too.” It completely changed the conversation: how we were communicating with one another and what got communicated out.

So, it really is a personal choice point. In that moment, that felt like what I had to say. I often have those experiences in my life. But each person is a little bit different.

TS: I think it would be interesting to make a little bit more explicit what you think is going on as somebody learns the practice of mindfulness and starts practicing on a regular basis—how they then learn the skills of bringing that into communication. It seems like there are some steps there that have to happen.

AC: Yes. Yes. I think the first relationship—and that’s why we start with the inner mindfulness—is starting to have a relationship with this vehicle that we are [as well as] all these different centers of intelligence, awareness, and insight.

So, we’re the first audience of receiving that deeper knowing, intuition, or wisdom. As we start to learn ourselves and kind of test—put some of those insights and awarenesses into play just in our own work—then [I think] we start to gain confidence and courage and a discernment muscle on how we can start to bring those into communication with other people.

In the beginning, it might be clunky. So, starting in relationships and in scenarios that we can practice with people. That’s what’s really great about forming these groups inside of companies that are practicing together. They can start relating to one another in those ways.

In fact, [at a company down in California] I recently had a team that was in part of the larger group. One day, they were having some problems on the team. The team had come to the leader, and the leader said, “Well, you’re all in the mindfulness program. So, what I would like is [for] you to go and use your skills and see what you come up with. Work it out together.” And they went and did that.

It’s just continued to grow for that team. Now that they have a baseline, foundational set of practices and principles and agreements in how they’re going to be with one another, they can practice with one another as it relates to the work.

So, even though we talk about it as a revolution, it has a lot of energy out in the world and sometimes a lot of hype, I would say. I can feel the tenderness in the truth in what I’m going to say—which is that it’s a slow process. It’s not overnight. Sometimes, companies want those kinds of quick fixes. I don’t believe that’s what we’re talking about with this sort of work. It’s something that we continue to cultivate within ourselves and within our relationships, [as well as] how that applies in our workplace.

We’re in a learning mode right now. We don’t know how all this is going to work. We see really positive results, but there’s some challenges it brings forward too. The great thing is, is that we can use this practice to meet it all.

TS: Now, when you talk about this interpersonal mindfulness—if you will—when we’re now communicating from this felt sense of what our body needs to express, it’s one thing to be on a team and sharing with our coworkers. It’s another thing to be able to sit down with your manager or your boss, and be able to talk about what’s really on your mind. I notice that’s where a lot of people get all effed up, for lack of a better way of putting it. It brings up a lot of early wounding for a lot of people.

What I wonder is: how does that kind of material get addressed? Is it even appropriate for that kind of material to be addressed in corporate life? And yet, if it’s not, it’s a true elephant—if you will—in the room. How far can the person go if [they have] that early sense of these parental figures [slamming] me down for speaking up? I’m certainly not going to here.

AC: Right, right. Right. One of the sessions in the program that has the most energy when we talk about it is the one that is based on Dr. Brené Brown’s work around vulnerability and shame—and especially the kind of “elephant of shame.” I believe many of our organizations are operating from a shame basis of, “Never enough. Never good enough.” That will trigger the areas within us that run that sort of dialogue. I think we all have it to some degree or another.

What I’ve seen [is that] as soon as that elephant gets named in a program, within an environment, people feel in some ways affirmed and somewhat liberated. The voices of, “Not good enough. Never enough,” that usually constrict and shut us down, and shut down that inner voice or our truth or our greatest creativity—we start to understand those mechanisms and how to work with them.

My experience, personally, is they continue to be there. They just don’t have the power over me from stepping—so, we start to learn to step beyond the voice that has stopped us. But, the first step is really starting to even bring it into awareness, because a lot of times we’re just operating with that voice very suppressed.

TS: Let’s talk a little bit about the mindful leader—the leader who can potentially make great changes throughout the whole organization. I’m curious if you were to paint a picture for me of a mindful leader, what that picture would look like.

AC: The first thing that comes to mind is a leader that is committed to their own mindful awareness and presence. They have their own practice and it’s a priority to them. They’re cultivating the capacity to be aware not only of themselves, but the greater relational field in the organization and also the greater picture of the culture and the environment that they’re operating within.

So, the capacity to develop that sort of mindfulness across those different levels and a commitment to that. They see that, in many ways, that’s their first and foremost priority.

I remember this quote—or somebody saying that a leader asked Jon Kabat-Zinn, “What is mindfulness?” He said, “Paying attention on purpose.” And Jon said, “What is leadership?” He said, “Paying attention on purpose.”

So many leaders I see now are just being driven probably by that greater influence of shame—“I’m never good enough.” So, constantly striving, overwhelmed, busy, making decisions without really collecting themselves and becoming aware. That commitment feels like a very important piece of it.

The second piece for me is about transparency. You were starting to talk about that in the kind of conversations we can have with one another, in our teams, and with our managers. I think one of the greatest things that could heal an organization and liberate its creativity, genius, and really motivate more engagement is starting to have leaders that can be really transparent—of what’s going on, of their own fears and insecurities, about their own desires and hopes and insights. But a real dropping of the mask.

I think often that’s what’s happening in our organizations. We’re covering up so much. We’re relating mask to mask, and we’re losing engagement. We’re losing vitality. We’re losing the creativity that some of that more truthful—and yes, mucky—fertilizer and grist for the mill or whatever you might call that.

So, we’re becoming one-dimensional or one-sided. So, somebody that is willing to talk about their own fears, their own shame, their own inner life as it’s showing up in the workplace.

And I’m not talking about [bringing] all of our childhood baggage or our personal-life baggage into work, and start using that as a venue to talk about it. But we’ve got plenty of material in the workplace to start bringing more transparency to this.

TS: Now, when you were describing this mindful leader, you said that this person is paying attention to their own inner mindfulness process, but also the relational field—I believe that that’s the term you used—of the organization. Tell me what you mean by that.

AC: Being able to pay attention to how people are doing in the organization—to how they’re relating, to where the blocks in communication might be, to where power struggles might be. Being able to have their pulse on not just the business product and the result, but the core relational processes and health of an organization that are creating that.

A lot of times, I don’t think they’re attending to that piece of the work at all.

TS: Now, I’m also interested to hear you say a little bit more about this issue of shame—of this sense of never being enough. I do think this is tremendously pervasive. Whether it’s someone who’s leading an organization who’s saying, “We have to grow, grow, grow. It’s never enough. It’s never enough. We haven’t hit our targets yet,” or it’s just an individual who doesn’t feel good enough.

I’m curious to know: from your own experience, what heals that sense of “never enough?”

AC: This has been something that has been really significant in my own life—starting to become aware of how shame and that message of “not good enough” has impacted me. I remember—several years ago—somebody said, “You should really check in to Brené’s work.”

I was like, “Oh, shame.” I mean, I was classic. “Oh, I don’t have shame. I think you have that issue, but I don’t think I do.” I was in denial of how that was impacting my life.

So, I think the first part of healing that is starting to have an honest dialogue with ourselves—and even making an inquiry. Even if you think that that isn’t impacting you or relationships. But even to take a moment and look, and make an honest inquiry into how much shame and that voice of “not good enough” [are] showing up.

For me, it operated in a couple of different ways. One—in my early adulthood, it was filled with striving and pushing and forcing and achieving, [as well as] being somewhat disconnected to my own well-being and the other priorities in my life. Oftentimes, making sacrifices of other people’s well-being because of that focus. I was going to outrun that voice. I was going to out-achieve it.

Then, as I started to become more aware and more present, I got to see another face of it—which was how it kept me from acting on what was most true—and showing up more vulnerably in that, whether that be in my relationships or bringing something through that was really valuable to me and expressing it in my work.

So, bringing it out of the darkness, secrecy, and silence is part of it. Then, starting to cultivate a sense of kindness and compassion. We have to be able to meet that and hold it with awareness. When we can do that—so that might look like when the flash of heat comes across your face, your throat constricts, and you feel this sinking feeling and this fear of doing something wrong, or bad, or not good enough—you can actually identify that that’s what’s happening. [You can] take a breath and start to bring that loving awareness to that experience.

From that place, you still might be feeling those emotions. You might be having those thoughts. But they’re not stopping you from taking that next step and showing up.

I think as we bring more and more awareness—and the more that we stop beyond—sometimes that voice gets quieter. And yet, sometimes when I think we’re really on our edge and really showing up—whether starting a new relationship, printing a new idea, or launching a new business—sometimes when we’re really up to something good and we’re right on track, that’s when the voice gets [even] louder.

So, for me at least, it’s kind of a constant companion in my practice.

TS: Now, I’m curious, Anakha, because you call your program Awake at Work. [For Sounds True,] I’ve been doing a whole thirtieth-anniversary series called Waking Up: What Does It Really Mean? In that series, I’m talking to spiritual teachers about awakening. What is spiritual awakening?

So, I have a couple questions about this in relationship to bringing this kind of training into the corporate world. So, my first question is: do you talk about spirituality at all, or are you able to present these deep ideas and insights without getting into the territory of “spirituality” explicitly?

AC: Yes—I don’t explicitly talk about spirituality. But I remember one example of this was: I think we were talking about the concept of not being our thoughts, our emotions, and our sensations. I remember there was this engineer in the program that just shot out of his chair. He said, “Well, if I’m not my thoughts and I’m not my emotions, who am I?”

I remember looking back at him and saying, “I can’t tell you that, but you can make that inquiry.” He went into that inquiry of, “Who am I?” which starts to lead someone down the path to looking at their true nature.

But I don’t explicitly bring it forth in a spiritual context. But what I have seen is that those individuals that start to wake up to—I would say—more the truth of who they are, often will come and seek me out for one-on-one coaching and discussions about that.

But really, it isn’t something that is inherent within the program—but it’s inherent within the practice.

TS: I’d like to ask you the question that I’ve been asking all of these different spiritual teachers in the series, which is: what does “waking up”—spiritual awakening, and I’ll use that word myself here, even though I realize you don’t when you bring Awake at Work to companies. But what is spiritual awakening to you? What is that?

AC: This is a really funny time to ask me this question, because I think that if you asked me six months ago, I might have had a lot of things to say about it. But now, it feels more and more like I don’t know. I don’t really know what that really is.

I mean, I can say things that I have heard and that I’ve experienced. But, in many ways, it feels as simple as what mindfulness teaches us. It’s being here in this moment—awake, aware, paying attention. I see that part of what my experience is, is that the ways that I identify myself—roles, attributes, qualities—that that’s still there. But what moves me more strongly is that background presence of intelligence.

But I don’t consider myself awake. I’m in touch with that. But I’m also in touch with the parts of me that are very identified and caught, as well. So, I think in some ways [that] awakening in this practice of mindfulness—that the power of how we get caught and identified loses some of its oomph. The greater awareness—the greater presence—takes hold and starts to move us.

Yes—but I don’t know. [Anakha laughs.]

TS: Now, I asked you if you could give the broad brushstrokes of the mindful leader. That was very helpful. Now I would love to know, if you were going to paint me a picture of what the mindful workplace looks like. You go into a workplace—and this is a workplace that’s really dedicated itself to bringing mindfulness [and] bringing presence into the workplace. What does it look like? How does it feel?

AC: The first thing that comes into my awareness as you ask that question—and I haven’t really ever answered out loud—but I think there’s a sense of a strong foundation—a trustworthy foundation. As soon as you walk through the doors, you can feel how the practice of mindfulness brings you into that calm, clear, balanced state. So, there is a foundation of integrity and awareness, and it’s palpable. And yet, from that place, all of this kind of organic creativity.

I can’t even name an organization today that I can think of that I’ve had that experience within. But out of that foundation, ideas and insights and a very organic flow to inspiration is allowed to happen.

So, right now, a lot of times we have people who are assigned to innovation or teams that are assigned to creating certain breakthroughs or products. I see that some of those divisions have really dissolved. There’s a greater flow of synergy, ideas, and movement. That takes a trustworthiness because the way that we do it now is highly structured and controlled.

But I think one of the other pieces of a mindful organization is that the coherent intention—the stated purpose of why the organization exists—is so strong and so infused into everything. That is what creates that safety or the boundaries within which all of this creativity can blossom.

So, I think we’re going to see a much more dynamic organization, a much greater inflow of ideas arising from all parts of the company, a receptivity to actually listen to one another [and] to be generative. So, when an idea comes forward from somebody, it’s caught and it’s understood and it’s built on and it’s this kind of flow and respect. I see a lot more joy and well-being.

And it doesn’t feel like we’re that far away on some days. And then on other days, it feels like to release that sort of control—which I think a lot of organizations are working under—does require a sense of courage.

TS: Tell me more about that. What do you mean? Where’s the courage? What courage?

AC: I think the courage to experiment with some new ways. Instead of trying to manage people and manage innovation and manage the organization—if you set a strong foundation of mindful awareness with a clear, coherent intention of what the organization’s wanting to create and enough structure to actually support people’s creativity—there’s a certain amount of letting go of control and not forcing structures or timelines or deadlines onto creativity and innovation. [This allows] the space for something much greater to arise in the people and the teams within the organization.

TS: You know, I want to circle back around in some ways to where we started our conversation. For me, as an organizational leader, I’m interested in Sounds True becoming a mindful organization—an organization of presence—no matter what. Whether it makes us more money or costs us money, actually. For me, it’s a value in and of itself.

But I don’t know how many business leaders think that way. My understanding is that most corporate leaders—when they look at bringing a program like Awake at Work [to bring] mindfulness into their organization—they’re asking themselves, “Will I get a return on investment?” in terms of cash, not in terms of soul blossoming or people are collaborating better. But, “Does it turn it into money or not? I want to know. Give me the numbers.”

How do you talk to that kind of person, who says, “Tell me—is this going to make me more money?”

AC: You know, when you’re saying this—and I will answer your question. But I think that, in some ways, that whole kind of corporate mantra of, “What’s the return on investment?” is one of those trances that we’ve got into. I don’t even know if the individuals that are asking the questions, often, really even care about that as much as the corporate slogan might make you think.

I think, oftentimes, people—we’re all human, and we all have that hunger to become more connected. I really believe that’s true—that it’s an innate impulse.

So, I think a lot of times when I’m talking to organizations, we can give enough data and enough feedback on the sort of results that are possible through engaging this program. But I’m also talking to the human being and the person that actually has that hunger themselves for a different experience in their work. Or, if not in their work, in their family life. There’s not a person that has come into the program that doesn’t have some area of their life that is causing them suffering and that they would like to bring more awareness to, [as well as] bring greater well-being to.

Every single person has that. Whether it’s being a different relationship with their children or their spouse or their coworker, or wanting to get over the anxiety of speaking in public so they can bring more ideas forward. Everybody has something.

So, tapping into that really speaks to people. The reality is that it is [that] the practice itself does help people become more productive, more focused, oftentimes more inspired. So, it does result in those sorts of benefits as well.

TS:OK, Anakha. Just two more questions for you. Let’s say someone’s listening and their experience is, “Look, I don’t know what’s going to happen in my business. I don’t think they’re going to spend the money for a program like Awake at Work or a mindfulness training. But I want to be part of what Anakha pointed to—this grassroots revolution that can happen inside companies. I myself have a meditation practice. How do I go about this? How do I have a grassroots launch within my company?”

AC: I like what you said about a person already having their practice, because I think that’s the first step. Sometimes, we can get excited and say, “Oh, I want to bring a program in,” but we ourselves haven’t even started our own practice. So, I think that’s a great place to begin.

If you have and you want to include other people, I always say take the first step. See if there are other people in the organization that want to do a lunchtime meditation or something in the morning. Or, find some time during the week or the month that you can start to offer something to other people.

In every company that I’ve seen this happen in, there’s usually a large group of people that are just hungry and ready, and they begin. Once they begin, then other people join them. Then, oftentimes, that results in the organization deciding to pilot a program like Awake at Work.

There are also other ways—the program at work that we’re working on with Sounds True. The online program is another great way to start. People can—wherever they’re at in the organization—start a practice on their own and start to see how that practice can help them in their job. Once they have that experience, then maybe taking the next step to engage with other people.

TS:OK. Here’s my final question. As you know, this program is called Insights at the Edge. I’m always to curious to know what someone’s growing edge is—particularly in relationship to Awake at Work and what you’re doing, but also just in your life. What would you say is your edge, Anakha?

AC: Perfect! I so have an answer to this.

For me, it really is about expanding my capacity for joy and for taking in the good. I have a capacity for working hard, looking at my shadow, and really mucking around and doing a lot of personal growth work. I notice that it’s actually more challenging for me to allow things to be good—to take in new possibilities and opportunities and pleasure.

So, that’s my edge right now that I’m working on. Taking in the good.

TS: Well, I think you can definitely “take in the good” of this interview. It was great to talk to you. I think you’ve shared some really important ideas and are one of those pioneers that are starting to [really] bring the depth of what mindfulness and meditation can offer with this emphasis on the interpersonal component and all the kinds of changes that can happen—not just within an individual, but within groups. It’s wonderful work. Thank you so much.

AC: Thank you, Tami.

TS: Anakha Coman has created with Sounds True a new online training program both for individuals and organizations. It’s called Awake at Work: A Mindfulness-Based Program to Awaken Creative Genius and Inspire a Culture of Engagement and Excellence. Again, thanks Anakha. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.

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