There is a great cartoon of a yoga student doing what is called the Warrior Pose—that is, standing with feet wide apart, front knee bent, arms outstretched. Eight squiggly bubbles circling her head reveal thoughts like “Am I doing this right?” “Am I doing anything right?” “What is my life’s purpose?” “Should I get chips for dinner?”
The title of the cartoon: The Worrier Pose.
Clearly the cartoonist hit on what may be the number one issue on many modern minds: everything. If you too find focus difficult because you are consumed by thoughts of self-judgment and other distractions, you could benefit from the practice of mindfulness: a concept that can help improve not only public speaking, but also listening, leadership—and living.
Mindfulness is by no means a new idea. Practitioners of yoga and Buddhism have been employing it for centuries. Since the 1970s, however, the influence of mindfulness has expanded to fields as diverse as psychotherapy, sports and leadership.
So what is mindfulness? Take a look at three related, but different, perspectives.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, is generally credited with bringing secular mindfulness to the United States. To him, mindfulness means “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”
In other words, when you are involved in an activity, whether it’s speaking, spending time at work or with family, pay attention. Be completely present. Dedicate your full mind to what you’re doing. Instead of thinking about yesterday or tomorrow, concentrate on what your senses tell you about that very moment. And instead of weighing the pros and cons of what you or anyone else is doing, simply be.
Many people turn to various forms of meditation to practice mindfulness. The key to meditation is to accept that as human beings, our minds will jump from thing to thing, and that’s all OK. Meditation is not about falling into a trance-like state. Rather, it is the activity of bringing your mind back when it wanders—training it to settle on the here and now.
According to psychotherapist Dawn Barie, founder of the Center for Mindful Living in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, mindfulness is “nonjudgmental awareness of mental states.”
“The practice allows for the development of equanimity and inner balance about otherwise unpleasant or stressful mental states,” she writes. “This helps to cultivate mental and emotional health and resiliency.”
Barie says that when it comes to public speaking, mindfulness practice helps promote self-confidence, which makes it easier not only to speak but also to communicate a vision.
“Mindfulness allows one to more readily access creativity and intuition necessary for publicly communicating a vision and problem-solving,” she says.
Mindfulness combats speaking anxiety because it regulates the emotions, naturally calming anxiety and allowing the speaker to think clearly and behave more spontaneously. It’s not that we aren’t going to be anxious sometimes. It’s just that we can observe these feelings as they appear and let them pass away, minimizing their effect.
In 2001, Toastmaster Karen Hudson co-founded the Mindful Communicators Club in Woodland Hills, California, because, she explains, she is a person who is mindful of others and felt the club would benefit people.
“When I prepare a speech I am also mindful,” Hudson adds. “My first concern is to know what the audience wants and needs for me to share with them from my expertise.”
Club President David Ballantine strives to continue that people-centered legacy today.
Our fast-paced, technology- driven world makes mindfulness more and more difficult to come by.
“I think mindfulness is about being aware of different people in the club,” he says, “knowing about the diversity of people’s experiences, so we can be more aware and more respectful, and encourage them to share their own stories from their work and lives so they feel seen and heard.
“That gives them a good experience, and that gives them a reason to come back. They feel more connected.”
Ballantine remembers one situation in particular. He was talking with the outgoing club president, Joe Sumekh, CC, CL, and the incoming president, Marcia Iturbe, ACB, ALB. Ballantine was about to start as the club’s vice president education.
“We were asking Joe for advice,” he recalls. “Joe is very kind. He simply said, ‘No matter what happens, everything will be all right.’ Ever since, I’ve kept Joe’s words in my head. Before a big meeting, I let go of worry because I know it will always turn out OK.”
All three perspectives described above are essential for mindful Toastmasters. When our focus is on the present moment, we will not only accomplish the task at hand, we will also be more accepting of our emotions and those of others. When we listen, we can completely listen with our ears, eyes and hearts. When we speak, we can feel confident that intrusive thoughts and emotions, whatever they are, will not prevent us from communicating our message. And when we lead, we can do so with the sensitivity that comes from feeling good about ourselves, connecting with others and having the mental clarity to focus positively on what really matters.
It should come as no surprise that our fast-paced, technology-driven world makes mindfulness more and more difficult to come by, and thus more and more crucial. But you don’t have to go very far out of your way to practice it. All you need is to learn some simple skills and daily strategies.
Step away from the phone. A recent study found that when cell phones are within reach, students don’t perform as well on tests—even if they don’t use them! Just the knowledge that a phone is around is apparently enough to distract us.
Do one thing at a time, and do it well. Psychologists claim there is really no such thing as multitasking. Rather than actually engaging in two or more tasks simultaneously, our brains toggle from one to the other, accomplishing about as much on each as if we were drunk. Didn’t hear what your boss was saying on that conference call? Were you texting a friend by any chance?
Switch it up. Are you right-handed? Try to accomplish a simple task like brushing your teeth or stirring milk into your coffee with your left. We do so many things without paying attention that changing a simple habit once in a while forces us to focus on our actions.
Sense it. Developed in the early 1970s, “Sensurround” gave theatergoers a multisensory experience during the film Earthquake—they actually felt their seats move! Although the technology went out of fashion before the decade was over, the filmmakers were onto something. Many of us tend to focus on the sense of sight without paying nearly as much attention to our other senses. Take a walk in the park or the mall—or just sit at your desk. Use all your senses to fully experience the moment. Ask yourself: What do I hear? What do I smell? What do I feel? What do I taste?
Focus your body. Barie, the psychotherapist, recommends a simple meditative activity to enhance mindfulness. You can do it almost anywhere. Place your awareness at the center of your body, at the middle of your abdomen. This allows you to gently withdraw your attention from thinking while strengthening your awareness on the present moment. Observe the transient nature of your feelings, thoughts and physical sensations.
Cultivating this type of present-moment awareness of the body and mind promotes mental strength and clarity, says Barie, while directing your actions with intention and purpose. In this way, you can respond more skillfully to any challenges that arise.
And that, as we know, is what Toastmasters is all about.
Caren Neile, PhD is a performance storyteller, professor, and writer. She has contributed numerous articles to the Toastmaster magazine and has spoken at two Toastmasters International conventions.