It didn’t take long to recognize that meditation was not going to work for the team building trainings I was doing at PayPal. Not that mindfulness was my assigned task. My task was to bring Camp Winnarainbow’s “Towards the fun” motto back to Paypal after the open source group had such a fine experience at adult camp, and wished to continue the team building work at work. In the group’s closing circle at camp, the request was to bring camp to PayPal, which might be the equivalent of converting a square into a circle, the goal being to emphasize team collaboration in the midst of a culture of strong hierarchies.
The open source group’s enthusiasm, charged with disruption and transformation, wasn’t embraced by certain higher ups who were skeptical that juggling and clowning were going to do much of any good. Mind that word clown, it’s a red flag, a surefire place for assumptions and misconceptions. So allow me to be more specific: inner clown, tuning into your inner funny to create new pathways of expression to lighten communication to create collaboration, not putting on big shoes, make-up and acting foolish.
When I start my spiel, explaining clown is often a stumbling box, a hurdle that I (and many colleagues) have to jump over to describe this rigorous performance form which involves Being funny, sharing laughter with audiences and has little to do with make-up and animal balloons. It is one that requires the utmost excellence in capacities of non-verbal expression and deep listening. Skills that come in handy in many paths. Sometimes the expression is loud and boisterous, sometimes it is subtle and sophisticated. Just to be clear, it is the latter form of expression that my trainings dwell in, and can become skillful tools. That’s not to say though, that the loud and boisterous isn’t worthy of exploration. As it turns out, that is often what opens the door to expressing humor. Sometimes blasting through locked doors is the only way to get going on a new pathway.
Some people have a lot of fun with being big and exaggerated, others really don’t want to go there, myself included. Generally speaking (no pun intended,) as a collaborative communication system, loud doesn’t work. As a communicator in that mode, it’s really hard to hear, thus to have a true open conversation. Collaboration involves a lot of open minded listening, preferably with all your senses. I’m guessing that the term mindful listening exists, which is, as you might be guessing, about tuning in fully to the other without building little castles of thought and response inside your head. Maybe it requires saying that teams working well together need both sides of the equation, expression and listening.
That is what I recognized as my task. I had done this work with health care workers, with psychologists and therapists, with NGO working groups and non-profit organizations, yet coming into a major corporate entity was a new venue, and I had no doubts that I would be having to come up with new methodologies.
Writing about it after the fact, it is, as you might imagine, so much easier to have perspective. Thankfully i’m not sitting here kicking myself about all the mistakes I made and instead, I’m looking at how to go about explaining what developed. That’s not to say I didn’t make any mistakes, however the trainings really worked, and the team is still going strong today. Perhaps the most important take-away, is that while humor is less useful as a communication tool than I had imagined, it’s close cousin, lightness is the ticket to ride.
Placed in a wider context, what emerges is a new term, Lightfulness. Spell-check underlines that in red, to remind me that Lightfulness isn’t really a word, yet perhaps it has legs, a future to describe a ‘state of being’ to embody. Spellcheck, and I seem to have regular disagreements around words such as mediatize, humorize, humorful. I’m used to going in the ‘wrong’ direction as being a contrarian is an essential element in many clown traditions. There is a slice of graceful wisdom to be found in tuning into these ancient wisdoms. Yes ancient. The first instances of jesterdom are captured on Pharaonic hieroglyphs, and I imagine that being funny is an element of human behavior that has been around since the beginnings of humankind.
That’s the whole point of these fingers dancing over the keyboard this morning. Yes, I’d like to think there is some wisdom and reason to expound on what lightfulness is and what it can mean.
What is the lightness? Light as in lightheartedness, light as in the opposite direction of heavy, serious, moving in the direction of humor. Fullness as in awareness, both of self and what is beyond, also referred to as the egocentric and allocentric aspects of mindfulness.
What is mindfulness? I am reasonably sure that you have some clue seeing how it’s’ all the rage in corporate, pseudo-spiritual, spiritual, and other circles. I do know that there are a few light years of study and practice between simplistic explanations and deep examinations from Buddhist teachers. It’s a far cry from ‘being present in the moment’ to immersing oneself in the four foundations of mindfulness: body, feelings, mind and dharmas. It is a far distance between tuning into an app for 5 minutes of guided meditation and a 10 day sesshin (silent retreat.)
Many Buddhists have a hard time with the popularization of mindfulness, or it’s yogification as the the sometimes see it, an over-simplification and de-spiritualization of a rather deep practice. Regardless, it seems that the movement is leading people in the right direction. Suddenly it’s ok to talk about compassion in the workplace. As the boundaries between the personal and work worlds continue to blend, the value placed on emotional intelligence grows. Co-workers engage with one another at deeper levels, and lives intersect in more diversified capacities.
Mindfulness was not a term I gave much attention to until I was brought into PayPal. I wasn’t quite sure how it would fit into the team trainings, yet I knew it had a place, and was an important piece of the puzzle. What worked so well at Camp Winnarainbow was not just the change of environment and activities, it was on what level the team members were interacting, and where the individuals heads were at. Perhaps the simplest way of putting it is to consider that they weren’t in an environment requiring that their thinking caps be on their heads firm and square for extensive work sessions. Instead they were being offered constant opportunities to allow their intuitive minds the space to direct their activities, and to interact more on the human being level.
During the year’s team training project, I developed the understanding that what’s important concerning mindfulness in the workplace, at least for team building with software engineers, is that a shift in brain balance is essential. Creating time and space for not-thinking activities is essential, whether it be meditation, or what turned out to be an effective tool in these circumstances, juggling.
If you are starting to wonder what understandings in mindfulness allow me to reach such conclusions, perhaps I should mention that I’ve been teaming up with Zen teachers for twenty years in workshops offering both meditation and humor-training.
Like many team-building frameworks, there needed to be opportunities to have fun together, and for individuals the space to be more themselves, for the team to experience each other as people outside the work environment. Trust was an important factor, creating trust meant a deeper level of understanding and knowing between the team members. Another important factor was creating safe space for disagreements and diverging opinions to live in the same room. This meant, creating better communication skills around disagreement, much along the lines of workshops I offered to professionals in care-giving environments.
What was different from previous workshop experiences was that here I was returning once a week to work with the same group, and that I had a chance to witness how effective my offerings might be. Over the course of a year, I discovered that there was more to the picture. In developing lines of communication, it seemed that individual skill sets lacked the capacities for positive ways to disagree. It wasn’t necessarily that easy to get past attachment to one’s personal opinion to see the picture from a more global team/beyond, to let go on ‘my’ way for the team perspective. Totally reasonable given the investments of personal time, energy, and often hard work to arrive at the point in question, hence attachment to the result.
The other thing I was realizing was how the team members were pressed for, and pressured by time, and by the sheer workload. A mindfulness practice might be a great thing, however is that going to be practical here given the time constraints? Did the software engineers even want to to meditate? I started to research exactly how mindfulness was being practiced in the corporate world. I quickly discovered that it was mostly being marketed as a leadership skill, how the individual can improve, deepen, expand their capacities.
The mindfulness focus seemed focused on self-centered awareness, and as team builder, my job, my interest was and remains, improving the awareness of the whole, which in this case is the team, And the self. When I heard James Austin (Zen and the Brain) speak at his Los Angeles Zen Center dharma talk, he employed the term allocentric awareness. Turns out there is a term for placing awareness on what is going on beyond the self.
It’s wonderful that the world is embracing mindfulness, however it sure seems that the movement is a bit focused on self-centered side of mindfulness. It’s not to say that those practicing the mindfulness are self centered. What I am pointing at is that the practice is about what’s happening to you-your relationship to what’s going on inside you, and around you. What about how your actions/words are affecting the other folks in the room, in the interaction? What about placing your attention on the reactions of those being affected by you? While It’s true that one needs to develop self-connection in order to improve one’s connection with others, what seems timely and useful at this juncture, is creating an awareness of the whole. This just happens to mesh with my personal opinions about the present world, that the me me me choruses that are encouraged at every turn in our mediatized version of reality could use some huge overwrites of we we we.
Beyond that, in the goal of better team intercommunication, I didn’t really think that team members in the height of disagreement would agree to meditate together for 5 minutes to bring their discussion to a more mindful place. Whether that would have a positive outcome wasn’t the question. It was more a question of practicality in the workshop. It was clear to me, that the methods needed to be able to be put into practice spontaneously. What might work in a spontaneous situation? Humor! What if the team could laugh, or at least smile around disagreements, and agree not to take their points of view too seriously. Seemed logical, possibly practical as well. I had already journeyed for a number of years in developing training around expressing one’s negative emotions with humor.
I should specify that the humor at hand is of the non-belligerent kind, in other words that it is constructive rather than destructive, both to those receiving and those offering. I had also best specify that humor primarily exists in connection with others. Yes, quite often we simply find things funny, yet it is almost always in reference to some external event, or internal thought one has. In other words, there is a counter-party to the humor.
Humor exists in the intersection between two entities:
Without the intersection, there is no humor. In other words, connection between people is required for a humorful event to take place.
As humorous expression isn’t exactly a required part of the common educational curriculum, a little explaining might be in order. Most of us, when looking to express humor, focus is on the verbal repartee of quick wit. Words have a habit of saying the wrong thing, or rather we so often speak before thinking, and once out of the mouth, your humor may be laughed at/with or backfire at tremendous speeds. It may even cause both of those reactions at the same time, with different people. That humor might also be expressed non-verbally is usually not a consideration.
After many years on the clown teaching side of life, my experience is that humor is mostly a right brain activity, and is most often a spontaneous expression. That being the case, thinking (of something to say) is often counter-productive in this situation. Unless you have the gift of gab, it often takes us immediately away from our humorous impulse. As I am currently digging into James Austin’s Selfless Insight book, where he discusses the fMRI readings as to what regions of the brain respond to humor. It is clearly far more complex than simply right brain-left brain analogies. Both are active in myriads of ways, however to keep this discussion simple, one might simply consider which side of the brain is, so to speak, driving the car.
I would argue that to a strong degree, we are driving the car with our left brain thinking minds. How often do you go with your gut feeling, with what intuition is telling you? How often do you question those impulses by thinking about them, and eventually dismissing the impulse?
When I spoke to Mr. Austin after his talk to quiz him on where the brain processes humor, his response was that they are studying it now. How we receive and interpret humor in the brain might not explain how we have impulses for humorous expression, how we come up with our funny. In Selfless Insight, Mr. Austin does state that “In order for a joke to work, an intuitive flash must occur. It strikes the essentials, discerns incongruities, and enables old barriers to collapse.” Does that prove that our humoristic expression is the result of intuitive impulses. Hardly, but it certainly points in the right (brain (hahaha)) direction.
Given that, it makes sense that offering humorous expression via non-verbal techniques is a much more direct line to expressing humor than seeking words to express the impulse with. Our opportunities for humor expression are most often in reaction to any given situation. The vocabulary consists of looks, sounds, gestures, pauses, changes in posture and stance. The power of the non-verbal is that it is interpreted by the receiver in the same way it was offered, on the intuitive side of the equation.
Whereas we are so used to communicating left-brain wise, in a rational framework, with words that can be interpreted and misinterpreted. What happens when we bypass this normal network to communicate right brain to right brain?It is a different connection. The more spiritual folks would say that we are then connecting heart to heart, instead of thought to thought.
Getting back to the PayPal team training aspect of this story, what I discovered over time was that humor wasn’t necessarily the right tool, or rather that humor wasn’t necessarily necessary to achieve the desired results. Humor could be a bit too much, too demanding. One was interjecting a demand for response, imposing one’s agenda, that no matter how well-meaning, was not necessarily the right approach in the moment. It takes two to tango, and regardless of the capacity, the will is necessary as well. Not just the will to appreciate the humor and respond to the offering, but to enter into that connection in that moment. The other party might be in no mood to be receiving the offering, no matter the generosity backing it up.
What about if one used a more subtle offering, one of suggestion rather than imposition? What about coming from a more lighthearted place. Lightness however does not necessarily require connection, it is more a suggestion than an offering. Certainly, connection is going to open up the effectiveness of the offering. However one can hold a sense of lightness within regardless of whether one is, or one is attempting, (to be) in connection with others.
Serious Neutral Lightness Funny
Another powerful aspect of lightness is the openness of the communication. Whereas humor is directed, imposed if you will: we are broadcasting a message: lightness tends to emanate, an energy that a person holds and shares, there need be no push, attempt to influence opinion or mood. Lightness can be felt, yet there is no specific demand being placed on the receiving end. This allows for the communication to be more open, as there are no demands being placed on the receiver. A person offering humor generally expects a reaction, if not a response. When a person holds lightness in their presence, there is no need for, though there can be, an offering.
What comes to mind to explain Lightfulness as a presence comes from Steven and Ondrea Levine’s book “Who Dies.” They describe how a person can just sit in a patient’s room in open mind, open heart meditation, and how their energy is felt, how it will soften the patient’s condition without any specific offering, push or attempt to change the patients’ state of being. In the book, they describe how they often encounter nurses who have developed these capacities intuitively, without anyone explaining their effectiveness.
Perhaps as an extreme example: what happens when a person who wishes for an argument fails to create an adversarial relationship with the intended target? What happens when that other person refuses to open a combative space? It might be difficult for an argument to open up. Lightness might fall into the opposite camp of extreme. Rather than a hard, definite statement, it falls on the side of subtle and easy, easily enjoyed and relatively easily dismissed. Lightness can be is a skillful tool in your communications kit. It is not a stand alone tool.
It goes hand in hand with our capacities for awareness and listening during our interactions in the common space, our allocentric awareness. It would be just too easy to use the term mindfulness, especially considering the wave of popularity it’s riding these days. A true understanding of the term in Buddhist sense will take you to a much deeper place than being present here and now. It is such a big kettle of fish that I would skip mindfulness entirely, yet it’s completely relevant to this discussion around Lightfulness. That being said, it is also safe to say that I will be skimming the topic lightly.
A truly gifted humorist has the capacity to listen to their audience as they deliver their humor. Their main question on stage is often, does the audience find this funny? They listen for audience response, and their subsequent actions are often guided by that response-if it’s funny, give them more, if it’s not working, move on. Indeed the humorist’s awareness antenna is keenly tuned to the audience’s reaction. They are more than likely not just listening with their ears, but with most of their senses, tuning in to the ‘feeling’ in the room. This is a good example of allocentric awareness, if you forgive my assumption here that the humorist’s main goal is making the audience laugh, as opposed to satisfying their personal wishes, pleasures.
This is not always the case, as the humorist might simply be looking to massage their oversized ego with their abilities to make audiences laugh. One can go even further to recognize that the humorist, in this case most often the verbal humorist, has no problem, and might even enjoy getting laughs at other’s expense. They might be the most sarcastic and cynical of humorists and the audience might be roaring at their jokes. Thankfully I am not here to analyze the value in such performance, but rather to encourage constructive humor.
What would be the motivation for constructive humor? A wish to uplift, to lighten the feeling in the room? A desire to share one’s joy with others? a desire to look at the brighter side of life, regardless of what the current situation is suggesting? Perhaps, it is a wish to defuse tension that is present in the moment, or to acknowledge visible or hidden stresses that are pushing a situation in the wrong direction.
The common thread here is that regardless of benefit to self, there is a strong motivational link to the common good, and to allocentric awareness. Underlying the use of constructive humor is a generosity of spirit, a wish to, in some way, uplift, to bring people together in celebration. OK, celebration may be a strong word to be using here, however the point is a wish to acknowledge the joyous aspects of life.
What about the not so joyous aspects of life, in fact the downright negatives that we perceive, our angers, fears, and the like? Is Lightfulness of use, usable?
Yes !!! In fact that might be where lightness, Lightfulness, and humor have their greatest strength: seeking positive expression when things go wrong, seeking a silver lining in the most disastrous of situations. I’m not going to say that where there is a will there is a way. However extensive experience in the field leads me to believe that people can actually enjoy their anger, their fears, at least for a moment or two.
Workshop participants often look at me cross-eyed when I outline exercises to enjoy anger or fear. What Could I possibly mean by that? However once they go through the process, they discover, experience joy in the expression. How does this work? Well for one thing, first things first: acknowledge the existence of these emotions presence. Yes I do get angry (or can get angry), yes I do have fears. Don’t live in denial, don’t pretend that you are better than your negative emotions. That is not the question. What is at hand is how do you relate to them, and how can you express them.
I am amazed by how much fun people have in workshops engaged in just these activities. Once given permission, people find great fun in getting angry or afraid, as long as they know that they are the ones controlling the expression. When the impulse for expression is beyond their control, it might not be so easy to enjoy the emotion. However when it is you digging into your own network of feelings, a lot of fun possibilities open up and emerge. Once one has fun with them, avenues of expression colored by that fun emerge. How useful is this?
Perhaps this is the wrong question, whether it is useful or not. Perhaps the question should be: can you embrace, enjoy these aspects of your being? I’m here to tell you that the answer is yes. However until you experience it in your own being, you may not be willing to accept that. Once you have embarked on the journey, then you are bound to discover methods of expression that are useful, shareable.
Consider a situation, and specifically a person that says something that makes you frustrated, or even angry. Do you respond in a similar manner? Can you side-step your initial reaction to respond in a composed manner? Our habitual response is not a response, it is most often a reaction, often paralleling the tone of the ‘attack.‘
One of the many powerful outcomes of a strong mindfulness practice is that it allows one to be more responsive in interactions and less reactive. The strength of your practice may likely be a determining factor in how easily you can slip into a state of mindfulness spontaneously and seamlessly in order to respond to an ‘attack.’ Let’s say that your mindfulness practice is strong enough to offer you the ability to pause your reactions and consider your responses. What tools does mindfulness offer you for expressing that response? How does one engage the ‘attacker’ in a way that brings them into a responsive place as well? Chances are that if a person is ‘attacking,’ that they are hardly in a responsive state of mind. Perhaps they think that mindfulness is a bunch of malarkey.
A question along these lines came up recently in a training with social workers and psychotherapists, “How do I use humor when I am in a confrontation?” (the workshop was on more focused on humor than lightness.) My short answer was “You don’t.” My longer answer was about how humor only happens when one is in connection, when one is moving with another person in parallel, not in opposite directions. Somehow one needs to disarm the attacker so to speak. To respond to their wish for confrontation. They may not wish for confrontation, they may simply be habituated to it, or assume that it is the way to get things done.
As previously stated, humor may or may not be the best disarmament tool. There is a rather marked potential for backfire, that your offering might be misinterpreted. That potential increases significantly when words enter the picture. Hence really the responder’s job is twofold: to open a pathway to disarm the attack, and secondly, place the conversation on a parallel rather than confrontational path. For example, when it is clarified, or reminded, that both parties are looking to achieve a positive outcome, might that open a pathway for dialogue?
When one has a few tools of lightful expression in one’s toolkit, one might be able to offer a lighter manner of acknowledging the confrontational attitude being presented, and suggesting that is not the conversation you are wishing to have. It’s remarkable how powerful one’s tone of voice can be, and how that can be enough to send signals that suggests pathways to solutions and resolution rather than a “I disagree with you, my way is better” or “I’m right, you’re wrong” reaction. If done skillfully, one might be able to steer the interaction towards a useful outcome.
How to get there from here?
3 Areas of Personal Being and Growth Potential . These are listed not necessarily in the order of importance.
-One’s State of Being
The saying goes that it takes two to tango, yet in Lightfulness, once one opens up in a lightful state of being, the benefits one encounters are greater than what happens in interactions with others. I’m hoping that that is pretty evident to the reader that if you treat yourself better, with more kindness, self-forgiveness and lightness, that you are doing yourself a favor. If you can develop the capacity to keep that state of mind in a potentially conflictual engagement, that non-conflictual pathways may open up.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect here is not to have expectations, to not try to lighten the atmosphere and to allow the presence of one’s lightness to be felt without imposition. That lightness is present and can be felt, in one’s tone of voice, in the presence of light in one’s eyes, and most of all, in not dueling with an adversary while suggesting that other pathways are available.
-Humorous Expression Skills
As mentioned earlier, the pathway to developing expressive tools in lightness is easiest by exploring and opening capacities in humorous expression.
-Mindfulness- Inner Not Thinking Capacities +Allocentric Awareness Capacities
The more connected one is inwards, the more one connects outwards, and vice versa. There is no magic formula in developing mindfulness. It is a practice, and a sustained effort in re-balancing/balancing one’s mental powers. Many of us are quite adept at mind games that involve thought, and have some work to do on just being present, on stepping off the mind train.