Engineering a Mind-Body Connection

Engineering a mind-body connection

ISE Magazine November 2019 Volume: 51 Number: 11

By Ashley J. Benedict


Like most engineers, I find that I behave in linear and systematic ways with not only work but also life. My calendar is structured and scheduled out, my to-do list is ready to be checked off and my standard work documents help me complete my recurring tasks. I am regularly planning for the next assignment at work or the next personal trip.

However, I recently got a chance to participate in an eight-week Mind body class through work, and it has started to change my perspective on how taking time to focus inward can impact the outward work. I want to describe my self-discovery journey, and hopefully you’ll be inspired to take one of your own.

First, you may wonder what an industrial and systems engineer was doing in a Mind body class. Isn’t that for a psychologist or at least a human factors engineer? For the eight-week course, two newly trained instructors led a group of six students through multiple sessions of introspection. Initially, I was very uncomfortable and came up with strategies on how I could make my time in this session more efficient and effective for my personal growth. Each session started with a few minutes of soft-belly breathing – deep breaths in and out with the eyes closed or a soft gaze – followed by taking turns sharing what was happening in our lives that could be related to a previous session or just how was life going in general.

For the first session, we shared what we wanted to get out of the class and what we wanted to accomplish as we focused internally. As an engineer working with teams, I am often looked upon to provide solutions to problems the team has encountered or help brainstorm solutions. This program was not structured to provide answers or give us known strategies but required us to look introspectively as we traversed through the sessions by utilizing our own inner wisdom.

Over the additional weeks, we were taught tools such as meditation, dialoguing, chair yoga, mindful eating, drawing, imagery, shaking, dancing and daily gratitude. The instructors encouraged us to practice with them and informed us that we were in control of what solutions we wanted to try. Similar to working with improvement project teams, teams often wait for leaders to tell them the solutions and what to do when the solutions really lie within the team to identify and implement.

Plan, do, study, act – meditate

At first, I asked myself how I was going to build these into my life. To start, I found that I needed to make time to practice and decided to run a PDSA (plan, do, study, and act) on meditation. My plan was to mediate twice a day for at least five minutes. I scheduled time on my work calendar for first thing in the morning and mid-afternoon to prompt me to meditate. This time was left as “free” time in Outlook to allow others to schedule time with me if needed, and I could modify my meditation schedule to fit.

I started out doing meditation by spending five to 10 minutes following along with an app (I tested out the free versions of Headspace and Calm). Then I found some YouTube sessions and sometimes set a timer and worked on my breathing for those dedicated minutes. From the meditation teaching, one of my favorite applications was to recognize when your mind wanders, where it wanders to and then bring your attention back to the breath. You take a pause to acknowledge the wandering thoughts before coming back to the breath. I found that during these sessions my mind often opened and creative solutions appeared to problems I was having at work or even in my personal life. While I wasn’t looking for solutions, they bubbled up, and in many of the cases after the session, I remembered them and was able to act on them.

Take an assessment of your mental state: How do you feel? Are you happy, sad, grumpy or excited? Next, set a timer on your phone, computer or watch and spend the next three minutes breathing (in through nose and out through mouth). If your mind starts to wander, don’t get upset; instead acknowledge the thought and return to your breathing. After the three minutes is up, redo your assessment. Did thoughts come in that were helpful? Were you thinking about a topic that is a current frustration? Were you able to focus on the breathing the entire time?

As a more left-brained person with a tendency toward logic, analytics and reason, this opened up my right side and allowed me to pay attention to my emotions as well as those of the people with whom I interacted after the meditation session. When this started happening, it made me think about the book by Travis Brad berry and Jean Greaves called Emotional Intelligence 2.0. They highlight the concept of emotional intelligence (EQ) and help identify your core EQ skills related to self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.

When I first calculated my EQ scores a few years ago, I was at an overall score of 69 with my lowest score in self-awareness. To be self-aware is to know yourself as you truly are. A few of the strategies they include are to quit treating your feelings as good or bad; feel your emotions physically and check yourself. I have found that, through meditation, I have become more self-aware and am able to check in with myself regularly. By being aware of my own emotions, it has helped me check in with the emotions of those around me to see what they are feeling

After a couple of the sessions, I started to be mindful with less focus on making the session efficient and effective. Mindful-ness, a concept introduced in the class that I had heard of previously but hadn’t practiced, allowed me to shift my perspective to one of planning and forward thinking to just being present. Psychology Today defines mindfulness as “a state of active, open attention to the present. This state encompasses observing one’s thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad.”

A mindful approach: Slow down, savor

During the class on mindful eating, we were given a grape to eat. Normally, I would have popped the grape in my mouth, chewed it partially. Then, swallowed without much thought to what I had just consumed. The instructor asked us first to look at the grape, smell it and roll it around in our hands. We were asked to think about the growing of the grape, where it came from, how it got from the vines to the grocery store to our class, etc. Next, we put the grape in our mouths and slowly ate it. This allowed us to really taste its flavor and feel its texture before consuming it.

If you have a meal or snack coming up soon, I encourage you to try this out. Before eating one of the foods, run through the items above: look, smell, feel, listen, and taste. Use all the senses to experience a few bites. Slow down and savor the flavor. What was that experience like? Did you notice something new about the food you ate? Did you enjoy it more or did you enjoy it less?

This activity made me think about how in my career as a healthcare process improvement expert I have to get teams to think about processes from where they start to where they finish with all the steps in between. Working with a team to complete this mapping requires time and focus. Creating a detailed process map is really an exercise in mindful mapping of the process under study. Sometimes a team has to pause and take a minute to think about the perspectives of their customer and their suppliers. Team members have to think about what hap-pens before the team process begins.

Another activity we completed in the class was drawing our current state and our future state. This didn’t mean mapping out what it was but drawing a picture that represented what we currently felt and then sketching a picture of what we saw in the future. Of all the exercises we learned, this was one that I have applied with project teams many times. This can be a fun activity to get teams to share their frustrations with their cur-rent state in a creative way. I have often seen teams draw chaos in different forms by trying to display confusion, poor communication and other frustrations. The future state is ordered and streamlined with the team members all having smiling faces.

The last activity I will share is the concept of dialoguing. When this topic was first introduced, I was initially skeptical it wouldn’t work. That was until I realized that dialoguing re-minds me of working through a “five whys” exercise when you just keep conversing with a frustration until you get to the root cause. The activity started with the students each identifying a frustration and then having a dialogue with that frustration. My conversation was with my aching knees and hips (obviously, I am no longer a young engineer). After having this conversation with my knees and hips, I came to realize I needed to incorporate more stretching and yoga into my life. This is again something I can build into my calendar and test different PDSAs to see what works for me and what doesn’t. Without this conversation, I might still be thinking that all I need to do is find better shoes or spend less time working out.

For the last self-guided exercise, draw your current and future states or complete a dialogue session with a frustration you are having. What was your conclusion? Did you notice something that will help you get to your future state? Did you come up with a plan on how to deal with the frustration? Did anything surprise you by these exercises?

Clear minds lead to solutions

While I am still constantly using the left side of my brain, applying these skills to my daily life has allowed me to continually test different tools that make my life feel more complete and have helped me excel in my job. I have allowed thoughts to come during meditation that have led to solutions to problems. I am now able to monitor my emotions during times of calm but also in heated discussions. This has also allowed me to identify some areas of my life that needed a PDSA approach, such as practicing daily meditation, adding daily stretching and being present with those around us.

I find that I can pigeonhole myself based on my degree, my job title or even my dominant brain side, but this Mind body program has opened me up to other possibilities. I have started to embrace these moments of silence as I deep breathe in the morning and in the afternoon. I have pushed myself to be a bit more present in meetings, in interactions with others and while completing tasks. Some days my practice is stronger than others, but using mindfulness has allowed me to be in the moment and not focus too much on the past or the future. I am more open to saying “yes” to a new experience or testing out a new activity.

During lunch, I have been taking walks with a work friend and fellow student in class around a lake behind our building at work. We have started to notice the different types of birds along with their babies, the bunnies eating their lunches, the alligators hanging out and the other people walking around the lake. Taking these 20 minutes out of our day has made us more centered and more energetic as we get in that one-mile walk. I would have probably stuck with it for a few days on my own, but finding a friend who helps motivate you only adds to the successes that you have when testing out these tools.

I encourage you to learn more about how to incorporate some of these tools into your daily life, and if you are any-thing like me take a step out of your circle of comfort and find how you can grow by trying something new. A younger version of me would have loved to have some of these skills and tools available to use when doing some introspective evaluations. I hope this helps you as you grow and develop into your future self.

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