Friday, September 23, 2011

How to Control Urges and Exhibit Self-Discipline - My Guru, The Pita Bread!

My Guru, The Pita Bread!
I have a somewhat regular and sincere contemplative mindfulness practice that helps me understand why I experience life the way I do, both internally and externally. I've been able to see my own urges, those I'm not really aware of such as the urge to multi-task. Practicing mindfulness meditation and other mindfulness practices I've learned to become in touch with my own urges, how they've controlled my life and work and how now to control them through awareness and self discipline. So, here are a few reflections for your coffee time. As you sip on your deliciously made aromatic coffee, tea or hot cocoa, accept these thoughts for your own reflection.

At the third mindfulness class I took with Daniel Davis, I finally decided to do the homework he had suggested, which was to do one thing we do routinely during the day, mindfully. That is, to be with the experience of it and fully give it our undivided attention. For example, if we chose brushing our teeth, he said to brush slowly, feel every stroke as the brush moved around the mouth, what it felt like, the taste of the tooth paste, what the mind was doing; observe everything about that experience, while also focusing on our breath. This was our mindfulness exercise, which to me didn't sound too exciting. It took a lot of self discipline to be able to stay with an activity and not wander off in the mind.

So I never did the toothbrush exercise.

Until that final day of having burnt my 1967th pita bread and screaming to myself, "this is so annoying. It's not acceptable anymore!”

Aside from running my business, tending to clients, raising kids, continuing to graduate school, etc., I also managed to lead a life of arranging parties, cooking for anywhere from 25 to 70 people, for my kids and family and for different occasions. I'm considered a very good cook by those who enjoyed flawless dishes over the course of 25 years. With one helper at my side to help prepare I could cook and prepare up to 10 dishes for a party all in one day and have everything come out perfect with beautiful presentations. That takes self discipline, so I thought! I also viewed myself as very accountable and responsible.

So, why did I burn nine pitas out of every ten that I tried to warm up? That had to do with some kind of an urge that I wasn't aware of, an urge that was controlling my life in so many ways and now I saw it as causing me to burn so many pita breads.

You see, for we Persians, using the toaster or microwave or even an oven to heat up the pita is a no-no. At least that's how my grandma taught me. So, we have to heat our pita bread over the fire to cook it to perfection. This takes anywhere between ten and thirty seconds. I know. I've timed it. So, for a competent cook like me burning nine out of ten pitas is really absurd and very annoying.

Why was this happening? I had to find out. Hence, this became my mindfulness exercise for my homework. Oh boy, was I in for a huge lesson in getting to know how I went about living life. While I stayed with my pita bread to heat it up, I followed the instructions of my teacher, feeling all my feelings, being with the experience, being with my breath, etc. I observed how absolutely difficult it was for me to just do one thing at a time. I saw how I could not stay put for twenty seconds to finish this task. The urge to run and do other things was overwhelming. I'd leave the stove to get something from the fridge, to wash vegetables, cut them, put on music and so many other things while leaving the bread on the fire and rushing to turn it over in between all those other tasks. And of course, it would burn needlessly.

OMG, I could not, and I mean could not for the life of me stay put. I saw how absolutely uncomfortable it was for me to pay attention to one thing and wait until it finished. As if it was not worth my time or something! As if I had to prove I could do more or as if having accomplished heating a few pita breads was too low of an accomplishment! I couldn't figure out what this was all about. It was one of the most bizarre experiences I encountered with myself. At that moment it hit me, "Where else in my life do I behave in this way? Where else do I not pay attention where it might be so much more harmful than just burning a few pieces of bread?" I thought about my kids, my relationships, my business. I had to sit down with that overwhelming thought and start practicing loving kindness, acceptance and gratitude for myself or I would have felt like a total failure. The pita bread had become my mirror!

In that moment I saw how I reacted to events in my life through urges and the need to satisfy them. Now, I'm not an addict or alcoholic, but this sure felt like addiction to me, my not being able to stop running around. I also understood why my teacher had given us such exercise and what mindfulness meant. I had believed I was a self- disciplined person, but realized that at least that behavior was nothing more than being a slave to my urges of producing, entertaining, running to fix and to achieve.

After that aha moment passed, I tried heating my bread as an only task and it was not easy. It was as if I were a smoker or an addict who had to quit multi-tasking. At first, I tried to impose control over my behavior, like a chain smoker trying to quit smoking but couldn't do it all at once. As I put another pita bread on the fire, I stayed close by, opened the drawer next to the stove to get forks and knives out, and the cabinet above to get plates out. I needed a great amount of self-discipline and didn't have it.

How I learned to control my urges and exhibit self-discipline:
1. First I had to feel my urges, which took self- discipline and tolerance to be with something that was very uncomfortable.

2. Coming back to the task at hand made it easier and easier to feel the urge to control by doing one thing at a time.

3. Seeing clearly. I realized that only a fraction of my attention was applied to any of the tasks I did while multi-tasking. Control was not the right strategy because it wasn't sustainable. I needed to be aware of the underlying urges that activate my choices and actions and by acknowledging them not become a slave to the urge to multi-task.

4. Training the mind was what I needed to enhance my self-discipline. I needed the skill and ability to stay in one place and to finish one task at a time with excellent quality and the least amount of stress. Boy, this has really helped minimize a lot of humanly mistakes that I could easily brush under the carpet or just find some justification for.

Practicing mindfulness has helped me control my urges, increase my self-awareness and self-discipline and has enhanced my results dramatically (I burn one out of ten pitas, a 90% improvement). I clearly see the connection between my efforts, desired outcomes and my serenity. I've learned that the quality of time and outcomes definitely depend on the quality of my awareness.

By meditating routinely, bringing my attention to my breath and back to the task at hand I am so much calmer, so much happier and more accomplished. The quality of life is all in the way I experience things.   And this, simply, is how the pita bread became my guru.
First published in Nov 2008

Dr. Manijeh Motaghy is the founder of Mindful Business Institute an Organizational Effectiveness, Management Consulting, and Employee Training Firm. For workshops on Mindfulness at Work, Mindfulness in Time Management, Mindfulness in Your Strengths and other mindfulness training Visit us at:

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mindfulness of your Strengths, Strength Finder 2.0 - Part I

In the past few years I've been including the Strength Finder 2.0 test in my training and consulting sessions. I have found knowing clients’ talents and Strengths to be quite valuable in helping them create solutions to enhance their outcomes. As the Strength Finder 2.0 promises, living through strength rather than weakness enhances handling day to day interactions and tasks as well as creating a more fulfilling work-context. Knowing my own natural talents and Strengths has certainly worked wonders for me. I no longer obsess about what I'm not good at, rather I employ my Strengths to work with every situation effectively and with ease. I've also learned that these identified Strengths work the same way as any tool might and that we cannot rely on them as an all purpose tool.
For example, when it's time for me to get home I would use my car as the tool to get me there, and when I arrive at home I need a different tool, a key, to open the house door. Obviously, if I were to use the same tool that helped me arrive there, the vehicle, to open the door it could cause a lot of damage to the door and the walls and prove to be the worst “tool” to use. It works in the same way if we are not aware when we are being in a specific Strength, such as let’s say the “Includer” Strength, which is my own top second Strength. The Includer does not like to exclude. Everyone has to be included, and she can easily sense gaps between the haves and the have-nots and has a lot of tolerance for diversity, etc. This Strength is very useful to me when I am teaching a class or running a meeting. I am quickly able to sense who may not be included and make sure everyone's voice has been heard. However, I have found myself needing to include people without considering the appropriateness of it. The more I have worked to notice and be aware that I am naturally and automatically doing that, the more I've been able to exclude those that need to be excluded without feeling uncomfortable about it. This has helped me cultivate healthy boundaries without judging myself for having the Strength of “Includer”.
Other Strengths need more explicit skills such as the “Strategic” Theme To be effective as a Strategic Theme, one needs to learn the "how-to" of developing strategies, i.e. learn how to do a SWOT analysis. We cultivate these natural talents by accumulating skills needed so that we could utilize them effectively and in a timely manor.
Working with various clients regarding their Strengths has been an interesting journey. Some turn out to be quite skeptical about their Strength Finder test results and others quite excited. Some relate to them right away by identifying their past experiences through the lens of their Strengths and others struggle quite a bit. Some managers think that simply because they know their employees' Strengths, all they need to do is to place them in the right position and the person will perform magically well. They go through the process with certain expectations and often face the fact that it doesn't quite work the way they thought it should. The fact of the matter is that even though our Strengths have great influence on the quality of our performance and experience, there are several other factors that influence the purity, sharpness or power of our Strengths. These factors include faulty perceptions, lack of skill to use the talent, which means it has not become a Strength yet and lack of awareness that the person is actually in one or more of their Strength modes. Here are three ways we can enhance the quality and outcome of our Strengths:

Three Ways To Enhance Your Top Five Strengths:
  1. Mindfulness: The first factor is mindful awareness. It is important to be aware of ourselves when we are actually exhibiting our strengths. Lack of awareness of our own mental processes and what drives our behavior negatively impacts the success of our top five Strengths. For this, you have to practice awareness of thoughts, perceptions, bodily sensations and our reactions to circumstances as they arise. The ways you can cultivate mindfulness include: Mindfulness meditation and applying a mindfulness training in your daily activities... See Thich Nhat Hanh's daily mindfulness Gathas. If you can't find it through Google, let us know and we will send it to you.
  2. Practice: The second factor is to evaluate your Strengths and note if they are really strong or still in the stages of developing as merely core-talents. In the book, "Outliers", the author indicates that one of the most important factors that contributed to the people of extraordinary talents (the outliers) and made them successful is an enormous amount of time in practice. 10,000 hours of practice is what their studies have shown to distinguish a genius from an ordinary talent. Their studies include geniuses such as Mozart, Steve Jobs and the Beatles. For all these characters a crucial element to their success was the opportunities they found and/or created to put their talents into practice. Then suddenly the tipping point happened and they became noticed for their skill and talent. Of course, this is not to suggest that we all have to become geniuses and extraordinary off the chart people. However, by knowing our core-talents we can become the best at the one thing we can do that no one can do better than us. “Practice makes perfect.” The opposite is also true. When we do things unskillfully, we can create harm and conflict instead of success and well-being. An example would be, a person who possesses the Strength of “Individuation” (who is able to see the potential in human diversity and identify best placement for employees). If the person is not skilled at this Strength, she may make comments to others about their uniqueness in a way that may seem critical and judgmental rather than encouraging and acknowledging. Knowing your top five Strength types is one thing, having consciously practiced them is another.
  3. Using the Right-Tool at the Right-Time, Right-Context: Assuming that our Strengths are all-purpose tools, and that when we are in them we are happy, productive, and successful and can resolve any issue can be a pitfall. The reality is that there are many other tools, both soft and hard-skill tools that one needs to develop for these top five Strengths to manifest properly. One of these soft-skill tools is having healthy boundaries, as I explained in an example above. Another aspect of this would be right-time, right-context. An example of this would be if a person with the “Woo” Strength (who's aspect is the talent to inspire others) keeps wooing people without the tool of healthy boundaries or at the wrong time with wrong people. They can run into a lot of problems when wooing the wrong people or the right people at the wrong time. It takes awareness and skillfulness in order to utilize your top five strengths properly.
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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Breaking the Fear Barrier - How to Bust Corporate Barriers

Breaking the Fear Barrier is a book by Tom Rieger published by Gallop.  The article printed on Gallup Management Journal on Aug 18, 2011 explains "The biggest threat to an organization's success: the fear that lives within its own walls."

As I read the Q&A with the author about how this fear is developed throughout organizations and how leaders are responsible for eliminating it, I realized he had not considered the one human factor, perception,  present in all human experiences regardless if one is a leader, manager or a follower.  Perception is what gives power to any type of feeling, sense of urgency or lack thereof.  
Last night, during the third session of my Mindfulness at Work Class, I presented a model of how perception is developed and how perception is almost always faulty, not factual and a root cause for stress, dissatisfaction, mistakes and failure.
As it turns out we are constantly forming perceptions.  Perception is formed when an event happens and combines with the way we feel about the event. Perception can be faulty or true.  In the case of organizations, and Rieger's perception that fear is the underlying factor for a lot of issues in organizations, while I might agree I would have to add that our relationship to the way we experience phenomena has precedence over the impact of fear itself.  Fear alone has no impact on anything.  It is the way we experience fear and generate more of it that is the issue.  Consider the following process as faulty or true perception is formed.  First,  Faulty Perception because it is much more common.
Faulty Perception:
  1. An event represents any ordinary or extraordinary phenomenon that happens every moment of the day. This could include receiving an email, witnessing an accident, taking a walk, breaking a dish, watching a movie, talking to a friend, finishing a project,  counting inventory, signing payroll checks, etc.
  2. The first thing that happens after the event occurs (which could change from moment to moment) is that a category of feeling or a mixture of feeling categories arise: Pleasant, Unpleasant or Neutral. Based on our relationship to the present feeling thoughts immediately come up to explain it. See the diagram above.
  3. When thoughts come up to explain the feelings they change the actual event from its pure form to the version of one's own understanding or better yet, one's own liking. In this way Faulty Perception is formed.
  4. When this happens the original event is contaminated and one's reaction or response in that moment is no longer to the original version but rather to the version one has created, the Perception.
  5. What's more harmful is that the perception about the event goes on to be stored in the memory system as fact, which one draws on at later dates.
  6. Hence, one is constantly responding either to a faulty perception one forms in the moment or the faulty perceptions one has stored in their memory system.
True Perception:
  1. True perception is created by acceptance. Acceptance means not being in conflict with any event as it arises no matter the feeling tone that arises with it. It does not mean one has to agree with it and it does not mean not to feel anything. And it doesn't mean not to do anything about it. It simply means responding directly to the event and not to the interpretations of the event.  Which there may be many interpretations depending on how many parties are involved.
  2. Of course, this is easier said than done, because perceiving happens so fast it is hard to notice what is true and what is an interpretation of the truth. This is why Rieger's view that leaders could eliminate fear is not realistic. Perceiving happens as fast as if one were falling off a tree. During the fall the person is not able to notice how many branches they passed, or how many leaves they might have seen. All they notice is one minute they're up and the next minute they're experiencing contact with the ground and really bad pain in parts of the body that hit the ground first. However, it is possible to cultivate the skill in the mind to be able to catch it at the feeling tone and not add to the event. This cultivation requires cleansing the mind by teaching it to settle down so it can see more clearly what is going on before rushing into interpretation, opinion and judgement.
  3. The way to keep one's perception clean and truthful to the actual event is to practice developing a non-judgmental mind through Mindfulness Meditation.
  4. As one practices mindfulness of the breath meditation their mind becomes more and more accepting and less and less argumentative about what is happening in the moment. In my consulting and training work I always include mindfulness training. There is no better way to retain the learning gained from training and sustain changes made through strategic planning.
  5. The practitioner of Mindfulness Meditation builds the skill to recognize the feeling tone before their mind has a chance to contaminate the event via the ego's attempt to explain and own it. As soon as the feeling is recognized and acceptance is present the ego lets go of taking ownership of the event and handling it. Thus, managers, leaders and department heads become more attentive, more wise and less reactive to the underlying fear that drives their decisions.
  6. As a result of True Perception, appropriate response is given to reality as opposed to what's made up by the mind.
  7. When one is in acceptance they are realistic rather than idealistic. The view is "It is what it is," and the question is what is the one best solution that takes into consideration the benefit of all involved towards accomplishing the mission of the organization.
If you are a human being, you are constantly forming perceptions and must evaluate or have the skill to detect how accurate you are in your perception. Otherwise, your response could cause a lot of waste in resources, time and money. This explanation about perception can be helpful for organizations to understand why there may be so much misalignment between departments, leaders and /or between members of any department.
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Dr. Manijeh Motaghy, PsyD. OMC is an Organization Management Consultant who is a Mindfulness practitioner and trainer.  For her full bio visit:

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Pathways in My Brain Have Changed!

Our mind is in charge of all our affairs, personal, professional, all of it.  How reliable is your mind? Can you trust it to make wise decisions for you?  With all the constant interpretations,  assumptions, opinions, judgments, and a faulty perception, how could it manage your life and profession optimally and to your satisfaction.  If you look at your life and your own level of satisfaction, you will see what I'm saying is true.  Of course, we always blame the outside elements and forces to be the cause of our unhappiness and our mind has plenty of reasons and stories to justify this theory and perception.  The truth is that our dissatisfaction is mainly due to the habitual way our mind is grown to perceive and rule.  We assume something to be true about any event and respond based on our assumptions.  Often, not true.  Brain experts tell us that with long term meditation we can cleanse the mind and re-train it to see things as they are and respond to event appropriately.  In fact, we can change the habitual ways of the mind by creating new pathways in our brain that integrate with the rest of the brain in an optimal way, hence enhance our lives dramatically.

I think I have created new pathways in my brain via constant meditation and mindfulness practice, like the scientists at the Nova Brain institute suggest we could do. Sitting at our regular Tuesday night sitting group my entire body felt in alignment with my mind in a space of deep concentration and alertness. As I sat in meditation, all parts of my body were locked-in together like a solid building structure. I felt no urge for movement, no pain or discomfort in the body meant anything. Even when the teacher rang the bell, and it was time to get out of meditation, my mind and body which were completely at ease, alert and stable did not wish to stop meditating. I think I sat there for the rest of the night with my eyes closed and without much movement. It just felt right. I was alert. I heard every word of the dharma talk and every word that our sitters shared. I wasn't tuned out. I was right there, stable, present and solid.

After we left the session, I reflected on this perfect experience of ease and strength both in the mind and the body that I had not experienced in quite the same way before. I realized it was all due to the love of the practice I had developed during this week at the Abhayagiri Monastery. As I participated in all the meditation sessions and listened to the dharma talks and asked questions about my own practice and my understanding of it, I felt a leap into a different level of ease and knowingness. I can't tell you how effective the response to all my questions was as the smiling monk, Ajhan Sanyamo, answered them. I had been there before, cherished my stay and experiences, participated in all the work meditation, talks and events, but hadn't before voluntarily done extra meditation. This time, I did extra sessions of walking meditation and sitting in my room, all afternoons and evenings. My mind wanted to. I was looking for that ease, comfort and stillness. All agendas of why so and so does this or doesn't do that or all the desires of the heart to have this or that have faded away. It must have been the effect of the monk's responses! I was curious, why this sudden shift of no effort in my meditation? My mind feels like a dutiful, loving and responsive child who has gotten the routine down and is not in conflict with sitting or being in silence. It must be the tipping point, Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book, the "Tipping Point.”

Similarly, this must be what scientists and experts of brain development mean when they say that with consistent and long term meditation the brain's elasticity develops new grooves and pathways. According to Dr. Daniel Siegel, with longterm meditation, the frontal cortex, which is responsible for managing our lives, integrates better with the rest of the brain and becomes a collaborative chunk instead of being fragmented. And that seems to be happening with my brain. Every time my mind tries to travel the old pathways of constantly interpreting, expecting, assuming, judging, etc. , it gets nowhere, because with the new pathways the map of my brain has changed. Negative thoughts and expectations of things to be different no longer stick for long because there is no groove for the mind to fall into. The mind is now craving for peace, concentration and equanimity and it knows where to get them. It has a clear address and route to them. Just follow the breath and let go of all thoughts that are not relevant to what's happening now. This is the new groove in my brain!

I shared with a sitter last night that my stay and practice at the monastery felt as if I had gotten a very strong dose of a peace and concentration vitamin shot. Of course, this experience was not only impacting my love for meditating and wanting to sit more, but, as a result, has enhanced the way I am experiencing everyday difficulties particularly when the results of what I do turn out contrary to my wishes or expectations. In a way, expectations seem to be slowly fading away. The need to plan perfectly and expect my plans to work out is also slowly and effortlessly falling away. The pain that came from holding on to fantasies of how life should be, how my man should treat me and how my kids should turn out or how my name and fame should go, and many other fantasies have dissolved into acceptance, kindness and joy. What is taking place is ease, comfort and wisdom that create more of what I really want at the core and less of what I really don't want. I'm also better able to transfer the insights I gain from practicing Mindfulness to my students and clients.

I am grateful to all the teachers and practitioners of mindfulness. May the blessings of all your efforts benefit all beings.

Dr. Manijeh Motaghy, PsyD.OMC
Mindfulness Business Consultant and Trainer 
Mindful Business Institute