Mindfulness at Work with Gayle Van Gils

Gayle Van Gils is a personal and business mindfulness trainer and founder of the consulting and coaching company “Transform Your Culture,” which helps entrepreneurs, leaders and everyone else to “be the change they want to see in the world.” Gayle has been practicing and teaching mindfulness for more than 25 years and is a senior meditation teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. She has helped thousands of people to find more peace, energy, inspiration and joy in their lives. She is the author of the book, Happier at Work: The Power of Love to Transform the Workplace, which is available for order here. Read more about her work on her website and listen to her Simple Habit meditations here.  

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How did you get started with daily meditation?

I got started with meditation immediately after college. I came from the era where there was a lot of experimentation with psychedelics to open your mind. The reason I was interested in those things was because I wanted to get into a deeper place of being. I sensed this all my life that that was what I was supposed to find. I went to everybody’s churches, and temples, just to try to figure out how to get to that place. And then of course, I tried the LSD and other things like that as well.

I could tell that there was something I was touching with the psychedelics, but I didn’t like the idea of putting any substances in my body. I found about Chögyam Trungpa, who was teaching meditation in (what’s now known as) Naropa University, Colorado. I went out there and when I was introduced to meditation, I realized that was the thing I was looking for that would actually allow me to find the place in myself without any external help. I was really lucky because I was young and so, all my formative adult years (parenting and working) was encapsulated in having a meditation practice. That was a real gift and I knew it right away. I remember saying “How could I live my life without this?”

When you found meditation, was it an instant click? Or did you start of slowly with 5 minutes/day?

I didn’t have an instant click and I actually resisted the sitting meditation. I found it really difficult to sit down for long periods of time because as a young person, I loved to move around, dance and party. But the way that we were doing it in those days in Boulder was for long periods of time so although I would maybe resist it, I would actually be disciplined and go and sit for maybe a whole day. I actually did a month long sit way early on, although I feel like I resisted every session of meditation. Then, finally at the end of that month, I really relaxed and began to enjoy it. That was the key for me- doing long periods of meditation made it really easy to do the shorter ones.

Now, I know today it’s a lot harder to find the time to do long meditations and I think the approach of starting small and adding to it really works. You start to find the 5-minutes isn’t enough and you want more – so you carve out time longer periods of sitting.

When did you know you wanted to make mindfulness into a career (i.e. teaching entrepreneurs, your work for Shambhala)?

I didn’t really see mindfulness as a career at first. It was so esoteric and under the radar. It wasn’t something that mainstream America was really embracing. So I had two sides of me. I was a meditation practitioner and teacher, because I soon became one of the senior teachers within our Buddhist lineage of Shambala. Then, I got an MBA and worked with the human side of business. What I discovered was that working with the human side of business, coaching people, strategic planning, and doing consulting, that the skills that I was using to help them came from the emotional balance that I learned through meditation. So I began to really see the connections early on before it really became a field.

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Shambala is an international organization that was started by Chögyam Trungpa, who came from Tibet. His vision was that human beings are inherently good and that if they know their inherent goodness, they can create an awakened or enlightened society on Earth. A society where people are interested in caring about each other – he had this vision. He felt that it was based on the practice of meditation and on connecting with your own human goodness and self-confidence. 

It’s a wonderful organization because it’s about applying meditation to our everyday life. That’s what I’m committed to. It’s always been why I practice meditation.

I love your meditations on Simple Habit! Currently, you have three very distinct meditations – Morning, Weight Control, Sleep meditation. How do you decide what type of meditation to record and what sort of techniques do you use?

I actually do a lot of research before I write these meditations – the science, personal stories of the troubles that people have. And then I stop and think about what I know about working with the mind. I created the two series (Morning Therapy and Weight Loss) because they are so needed and meaningful to people.

For the Weight Control series, I wanted to take an approach to looking at your inherent health, and the ability to regulate what you eat. The attitude is that you can treat yourself with kindness and respect and regulate your eating naturally but, maybe you have just gotten a little bit out of touch with that. This goes back to the idea that people are naturally good and healthy. The key is to become more aware of what you are actually feeling: are you really hungry or is it a story? Are you noticing when you had enough or are you continuing to eat because of a story of needing more food?

The Morning Therapy meditation is using similar tools, in that you’re tuning into awareness and finding peace within you that already exists. And then you’re tuning into your power of intention, which is to take control of your life (you’re also using this in Weight Control). The day that we do “Feeling the Sun” in Morning Therapy is an analogy for feeling the sun coming through the window for you and you also feel the sun inside of you; you are actually the source of that radiance and warmth in your own life. And you realize whatever problems there are, you can burn them away with the sun within you. That leads to releasing negativity, celebrating your goodness and feeling your connection with others. You resolve in appreciation and gratitude.

The Tossing and Turning meditation is for those of us who awaken in the middle of the night with stress and tumbling thoughts.  Most of us do experience this from time to time, and I have developed some strategies to work with this which I offer in this meditation.

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Congratulations on your new book coming out soon! How did you come up with the idea and vision behind it? How long did it take you to bring the idea onto paper?

This book wrote itself through me. For so long, I was starting little companies, writing talks, giving seminars and they all had to do with this intersection of mindfulness and business along with intention and opening the heart. I would write little bits constantly and it took place over a number of years.

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In the last few years, I have met a lot of people going through pain and heard all the stories of negativity and bad relationships in their work lives. They told me that they felt good after a weekend meditation program, or a session with me, but that they did not know how to change their workplace experience. I realized that Mindfulness was a good first step toward the awareness that could help them at work, but that opening the heart and compassion is really the key to shifting their experience and shifting the culture of their business.

So depending on if someone is a leader or an employee, the way of applying of this is slightly different. As a leader, you do have more power to bring these results to others so you can create a whole culture of kindness. If you’re an employee, by the way you apply these principles you can actually take what you learn in your meditation practice and bring it to the workplace and your colleagues. So that’s how I came to this idea.

I worked really hard on this book for 2 years. When I set a deadline and publisher and editor, it took another 6 months to pull it all together. So there were stages. From the day that I handed in the finished first manuscript to the day they said “You’re done, no more changes”, that was an additional 6 months of edits. It was actually a complex process.

There seems to be a trend of people being dissatisfied with their jobs and work in general. What are a few mindfulness techniques that one can incorporate in order to find more joy with their work?

One thing is to be aware and notice when you’re upset or triggered. Many of us react and we go into an autopilot mode and that begins an avalanche of negative repercussions. The simple mindfulness technique of noticing that you’re starting to get agitated, angry, triggered and stopping. STOP is actually an acronym that I use in the book:

S – Stop. It interrupts the reactive pattern right away.

T – Take a deep breath. This brings oxygen to the brain, promotes a sense of calm. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system.

O – Observe. What am I thinking or feeling right now?

P – Proceed mindfully to respond, not react.

Another thing is to get up and change your situation. If something is upsetting you or you’re distracted, you can just say “Excuse me, I need a moment.” You just get up and take a walk. Take a few breaths and reconnect, out of your head and into your heart, and then proceed.

Those are so powerful and simple. They are more accessible to you if you practice silent meditation first. It’s a little harder to say “You can just be mindful at work” before you even know how to interrupt your thinking.  Noticing that you are thinking, and being able to let go of the thought and return to what is actually happening – that’s the key application that will take you from the meditation seat to daily mindfulness.

I love the STOP acronym and the importance of responding, not reacting. How do you increase satisfaction with your work? Sometimes your daily routine can become monotonous.

The first thing is to bring up into awareness what it is that you like doing and what it is that you don’t like doing and why. So when you become more aware of it, there’s a chance that you could shift your job responsibilities potentially in the direction of what gives you more satisfaction and also what you do better in. By explaining it that way to your boss, they will probably agree with you and be open to switching your position to better fit your strengths.

You can also be curious and open and to seeing what else is going on around you. Not just being so fixated on yourself, your job, and what you don’t like. Being curious about what else you could do and how to improve your experience. It’s a combination of self-awareness and opening up and being curious about other possibilities.

You mention the idea in your book of “transforming the energy of fear.” I thought that was a beautiful way to phrase this. Could you give more insight into that thought?

Definitely! I think fear is really interesting – it’s the key of what’s going wrong for a lot of people in the workplace; the environment of repression, fear, or following the rules or else, like a stick approach. With a stick approach, you shut down. Fear energy makes your adrenaline rush, makes your thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) shut down so you can react quickly. Some managers use that as a motivation. That creates this constant state of stress. It’s a lot of energy being used and released, but it’s being used to actually shut down your capacity to be analytical or creative.

Transforming that is being able to recognize if you’ve gone into one of those reactive patterns, if you’ve bought into the fear. Then, you can stop it and you open up all that energy to be creative, collaborative, curious.

What are some ways of increasing confidence in the workplace?

Doing an inventory of your strengths and weaknesses and knowing your own values. That’s one of the tools that I offer because I’m trained as a Barrett Values Consultant. There’s a simple three minute quiz you can take here on my website to reveal how your personal values fall on a scale similar to the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This type of survey can be applied to individuals, leaders, and companies. It shows where your values fall, what are you confident that you understand what to work with, and what do you value that you still want to learn more about. 

Same with your strengths and weaknesses. You can tell an employer for help on areas that you’re struggling with but, would like to get better at them. If you can offer that, you can be confident that they will try to place you with the guidance and training that you need to fill in the gaps or develop your strengths further. That’s the external confidence – being confident in what you can do.

There is also this vast level of yourself – more like the Sun in the Morning meditation. You can tune into this underlying, human quality of yourself that is open and caring and is infinitely capable of learning and doing anything. You can learn to rest more and more in that as you practice meditation and tap into that place. That’s the place within our thoughts.

We have all these thoughts and that’s who we think we are. But in between our thoughts, what we really are is the space of possibility. That’s where is our real genuine confidence comes from.

Along with being an author and successful meditation teacher, you’re also a mom! How did you find a balance between your career and family? What are some mindfulness techniques that you use?

Scheduling is helpful and actually being aware of what you have to do. Also, making priorities and choices. I think that you have to be willing to put more emphasis on what the family needs and if you do that, you can ask permission for some time to do a business trip that would cut into family time. So it’s a matter of creating balance and awareness of everybody’s needs and if there’s a time when I had to pull back completely because the family needed me, I did that. That evened out later when my children were older and thriving, and I could focus at that point more on career again.

Wanted to end off by asking you this: What is one tip that you can give to a new meditator to create a daily meditation practice?

I think creating a daily meditation practice has a lot to do with a clear intention. It helps to have a reason. Why is it personally important to you? For instance:  “It’s important to me to meditate because I’m so stressed and it’s affecting my relationships.” or “It’s important for me to meditate to clear my mind because I’m finding it difficult to focus on my studies.” Whatever it is – and it may change each day – you find a personal reason to practice. Set an intention each morning such as; “I didn’t sleep well last night so I am going to meditate to center myself before starting my day.” When you have a reason to be on your meditation seat, it makes your practice stronger.

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