When the likes of Forbes publishes an article entitled, “How To Practice Mindfulness At Work”, and the Harvard Business Review publishes “Mindfulness in the Age of Complexity”, you know that the concept of mindfulness has reached the corporate mainstream. Companies like Google, Apple, Target, Nike, Proctor & Gamble, General Mills, Deutsche Bank and others have all embraced the benefits of mindfulness.
Whether your company has a mindfulness program or not, you can still engage in mindfulness on your own, at home and at work. How, you may ask, is this significant for those of us on the spectrum? Mindfulness, or “being present”, is available to anyone and everyone. And everyone, with practice, can see the same benefits: a calmer approach to life, seeing the world around you more clearly, and having more self-control. The difference for autistics is how and where those benefits touch our day-to-day lives.
What is “being present”?
But what is mindfulness? What is “being present”? Just imagine the driver of a car who is thinking about:
1) the project that's got to be done before the end of the week,
2) the upcoming parent-teacher conference,
3) what's going on in their favorite soap, and
4) did they leave the iron on?
Now think about a different driver who has put all that sort of thought baggage in the trunk of their car and is very much focused on the road, the other drivers, and how they are driving. Which driver would you rather have next to you on the road? The one who's paying attention, of course! The driver who is paying attention is said to be “present”, fully conscious the present moment, of what they are currently doing. They are not distracted from what's going on: they see clearly what is happening now and can better anticipate what will happen.
Being present is very much what it says: showing up for whatever you happen to be doing at the present moment, as opposed to being distracted by all the “stuff” going on in your life that doesn't really have any bearing on the now. If you're walking down the street with your head somewhere else, you may discover how much the lamppost hurts when you bump into it. When, instead, you are mindful of what's going on — if you are present — you are able to see not only what's coming, but you can also see yourself more clearly.
One of the natural aspects of life that presents a challenge to many of us autistics is change. Before we learned that I was an Aspie, I came home from work one day to see my wife and kids milling busily about the kitchen, all sorts of things out of the cupboards and on all the surfaces. My wife smiled and said, “I decided to rearrange the kitchen!”. Feeling as if the foundation of my entire life had been revealed as having been built on sand, I went beyond meltdown and completely shut down, quietly walking to the bedroom to try to deal with the anxiety. That may seem rather extreme to those of you new to the world of autism, but I assure you that it is not that uncommon. But the flip side of such a reaction to unanticipated change is that (as we now know), were my wife to have said, that morning, “Oh, by the way, I'll be rearranging the kitchen today”, everything would have been fine (we've tried it). I'd still have had to get used to the plates being here rather than there, as it were, but that's it.
This is one of the ways that mindfulness can be extraordinarily helpful to those of us on the spectrum. If you spend your working day present, alert, aware of what's going on around you as well as to your own reactions, you'll have a much better chance of anticipating change. You'll notice that Meg seems worried about the numbers, so you might have to revisit the marketing plan for that project. You'll notice that Alex looks tired and has been coughing, so you might have to pick up an extra shift. You'll notice that Keandra really likes the infographics you put together, so you might get to do more of that sort of thing. When you're paying attention, you have a much better chance of anticipating change, and thus not getting blindsided by it (like I was in the kitchen).
Another highly beneficial aspect of mindfulness for us autistics is being able to pay closer attention to ourselves! Many of us can get bogged down by inflexible thinking. This is also true of our ADHD companions and colleagues. We love our routines and patterns, and this can sometimes constrain us. This is where mindfulness about yourself can help, being present in your own thinking. You've got a problem to solve, and the usual approach isn't working. Getting trapped by rigid thinking can have us beating our heads against the wall, continually trying the approach that “should work”. Being present in that moment would allow you to see that you're getting nowhere fast, allowing you the presence of mind (pun intended) to realize that a different approach is warranted. The person who sits next to you always takes longer than they should for lunch, and this gets your goat because you respect the rules and are always on time. Yes, you could waste a lot of mental energy, getting yourself all worked up about a colleague's tardiness. Simply being mindful of your reaction, though, and how important a colleague's tardiness really is in the scheme of things (i.e. not that important) can clear unnecessary emotional baggage, freeing yourself up for a much more pleasant and productive day.
Decision-making is another area that improves with mindfulness. I know I can get turned around, stuck in a loop as I try to figure out, for example, which next move would be the most productive. There I am, thinking a mile a minute, not realizing that I'm making no progress whatsoever. If I were mindful of my thoughts, however, I would see that I'm running about in circles rather than actually getting anything done. Being present as I'm contemplating the factors involved in an important decision allows me to step back and more objectively assess the situation before me. I can see each factor more clearly and can focus on the problem itself rather than getting waylaid by anxiety.
Being a bit too honest at work is something that's gotten me into trouble more than once (see also: this article about honesty in the workplace). I tend to focus on the problem at hand rather than, say, the egos of the other people involved in the project. I once got under the skin of a superior because, as we were discussing various possible solutions to a problem, I stated that such-and-such an approach simply wouldn't work. It was his suggested solution. He may have been my superior, but his approach to the problem still wasn't going to work. While it's good to be able to see a particular problem space free of insignificant encumbrances, it's still important to remember that people are involved (hint: their feelings aren't insignificant). That's easy to forget (at least for us autistics) when a particular problem is interesting or complex — especially when the problem is interestingly complex! Had I been present, I would have been aware that the problem itself was not the only thing going on at that moment. People were in the room, talking about the problem, all of whom had a vested interest in the problem. While bluntly pointing out the defects of a given proposal was a Good Thing for the project, it was not a Good Thing from the people perspective (nor for my tenure at the job, as it turned out). Being mindful would have allowed me to point out the benefits and deficits of different proposals without so glaringly bruising the ego of a colleague. The project still benefits (my original goal) but without … complications.
Most anything that can be grouped under the “executive functioning” umbrella can be helped with mindfulness, with being present. Be it planning, paying attention, flexibility of thinking, problem solving or any other aspect of executive functioning, being present can help. Most of the difficulties we encounter with executive functioning boil down to us having difficulty stepping back from the proverbial, distracting trees to see the whole forest. To continue the metaphor, being present enough to be able to see the forest for the trees is where the pattern recognition skills many of us have can shine: we can notice all of the trees, not just those closest to us, and we notice how the trees are arranged, as well as how they might be rearranged to get a better result.
Earlier I described a driver, distracted from the road by all sorts of thoughts — important in their life, perhaps, but not related to driving at that moment. But how does that driver learn to push all that cognitive noise to the background so as to leave enough room to focus on driving? How can you learn to step back so that you can more clearly see the situation at hand, both what's going on around you at this very moment and what's going on inside you?
Distraction is the key. All sorts of thoughts, worries, and musings can distract us very effectively from the moment in which we actually find ourselves. So we fight fire with fire. Or, rather, distraction with distraction. Putting it very simply, mindfulness can be achieved by distracting ourselves from those thoughts so that they don't take over. Being fully aware of the present moment is the goal. When all the noise of thinking about things in the past, in the future, nowhere really but in our heads — when all that cognitive noise distracts us from the present moment, we have the ability to regain control of our awareness by distracting ourselves with the present moment, thus dissipating all those unnecessary thoughts.
The autistic brain has been found to be more active than the neurotypical brain. The notion, “quieting the mind” — commonly associated with mediation — can seem a near impossibility to an autistic brain, which has to manage a flurry of activity in its resting state (if not a tempest). Fortunately, we have no intention of attempting anything of the sort. In fact, the notion of “quieting the mind” is quite simply preposterous.
Your mind is going to have thoughts. Guaranteed. At times my mind would easily win a “most chaotic and cacophonous” competition with either Grand Central Station or the traffic around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. I have no doubt you are familiar with the feeling. But we Spectrumites also have a superpower: hyper focus. Our ability to focus with intent is very much to our advantage as we learn the art of mindfulness. For it is with our focus that we distract our minds with the present moment.
The easiest way I have found to bring the present moment into focus is by doing something that all of us, autistic or not, have had a lot of practice with. Breathing. I may not know you, but I'll take a wild stab and guess that you have been breathing your entire life. Good. You can use that. Breathing has been at the core of many meditation techniques for ages. You can use breathing — meditating — as a way to become familiar with being present.
Give it a try. This is something you can do almost anywhere, at practically any time. Especially with practice. Okay, let's talk about this for a minute. Practice. As with most things, you get better with practice. Mindfulness is no different. The more you practice mindfulness, being present, the better you will be able to apply it in everyday situations. The important thing is not to get discouraged. And the method I'm going to describe to you makes that really easy: by virtue of trying, you have achieved the first level of success.
I like to sit when I meditate, but it's entirely a personal choice. If you sit, as I do, then try to keep your back straight. It doesn't matter if you sit in a straight-backed chair (without touching the chair back, please), or on the floor, or on cushions. If you prefer to lie down, keep your legs uncrossed (and try not to fall asleep!). Now breathe. Don't force it, just breathe comfortably and naturally. Pay close attention as you breathe. Feel the air rushing through your nostrils or your throat. Does it feel cool? Is the flow of air gentle or forceful? How far through your body can you feel your breath flowing? Pay attention to your lungs and your diaphragm. Watch how they rise and fall with each intake of breath and each exhalation. Feel the muscles moving as your lungs fill with air. What other parts of the body are affected by your breathing?
That seems like a lot to keep track of, doesn't it? And that's the point: by paying close attention to all that's going on physically with your breathing, you don't leave your mind enough room to worry about what Mildred said this afternoon (Check this out: even while simply reading about breathing just now I'll bet you didn't think of Mildred once, did you?). When you focus on something as simple (yet fundamental) as your breath, you regain some control of your mind. And that “some” becomes “more” with practice.
Don't get me wrong: thoughts are going to crop up. That's what minds do, they think. There's no point in trying to stop yours. Rather than work against your mind's natural tendency, work with it. Thoughts will come. Let them; just don't get caught up in them. At first, you will almost invariably find yourself in the midst of a thought, having forgotten to focus on your breathing. But do you know what just happened? In becoming aware that you were lost in thought, you have once again brought yourself right to the present moment! Your desire to remain mindful, aware of the present moment, has won a small but significant victory over the litany of thought trying to distract you. And you will win that small victory again and again, each time a triumph. So, no possibility of getting discouraged because you succeed every time you practice. You'll notice I didn't say, “each time you try”, because you're not trying mindfulness, you're practicing mindfulness — you're doing the thing!
But that's just the pep talk to get you started. As much as possible, don't think about what you're doing while you do it. When a thought shows itself, just give it a nod and return the focus to your breathing, not letting the thought take over. If the thought does manage to distract you from your breathing, don't kick yourself for having messed up — because you haven't. Remember: by simply noticing that you got lost in thought you've brought yourself back to your intended goal. You are again in the present moment.
Also, it's important to point out that while you observe yourself breathing you are only observing. The last thing you want is to allow judgment in. There is no room for judgment. You are not observing your breathing in order to change it in any way, you are simply watching yourself breathe. Your breath, as it is, is just a way to bring your attention to the present moment. If you were to start assessing how you are breathing then you start thinking about your breathing, which pulls you from the actual into the theoretical. Abut if that happens, don't sweat it: as soon as you realize that you've been caught in a thought, you've become present again and, kindly nodding to the thought that popped in to say hello, you can once again return attention to your breath.
One of the ways in which I help myself stay focused on my breathing is by calling on my aspieness. I am a very visual thinker; concepts, for example, make sense when (quite literally, in my mind) all the bits fit together cohesively. So, for me, as I breathe in, my focus is bolstered by imagining the breath entering my body — my hollow body — as if the air were a billowing cloud, filling every part of me, from my head to my toes. As I exhale, I imagine any negativity (anxiety, worry, ire, etc.) leaving my body with my breath and dissipating into nothingness. As I exhale, I try to further relax each part of my body, feeling as if I am, in a sense, melting into the floor (while keeping my spine straight, mind).
As you practice you'll likely find a routine that feels right, that fits. Go with it. Don't worry in the initial stages about any of this, but instead focus on focusing on your breathing. Everything will fall into place, as long as you keep at it. Don't worry about achieving different states of Nirvana. That's not the point. The point is to practice mindfulness. That makes it easy: as long as you practice, as long as you take the time, even five minutes a day (I like to meditate for about twenty minutes each morning), then you are successful at it. Because you're doing it.
The more you practice mindfulness, the easier it will be to intentionally find yourself aware of the present moment, alert and ready. The more you practice focusing on your breathing, the longer you'll be able to meditate without a thought whisking you off to someplace that isn't here and now. The more you practice meditation, the more you'll be aware of what you're thinking while you're thinking it, rather than blindly reacting in the moment and mentally going over everything later.
Oh, I still find myself realizing, after the fact, that things would likely have gone better had I been more present. I'm far from perfect. But it happens less frequently than it used to. I am more aware of myself and what goes on around me. I routinely use breathing to help myself prepare for a meeting, deliver a presentation, or get ready to meet some new people. By turning my attention to my breathing I can make sure I bring myself into the present moment, shedding most of the cognitive noise that could easily distract me from the task at hand. The beauty is that this can easily be done without drawing attention to yourself — at your desk, in an elevator, or even in the middle of a meeting. All you're doing is turning your attention to your breath. You can still look at Chuck as he drones on before it's your turn to speak (but really, also listen to what Chuck's saying, as it might be relevant later), but take a minute to notice how you're breathing, pay attention to it and soon you'll find yourself more present and aware. Now you can really listen to Chuck and be better prepared mentally for when it's your turn to speak.
Whether you practice mindfulness in a meeting with Chuck, or sitting quietly in your bedroom (or both), the point is to practice. By simply paying attention to your breathing you are bringing yourself to the present moment. By practicing this you are getting used to being present, getting used to pushing distracting thoughts aside, thoughts that serve no purpose in the moment. You are getting used to bringing yourself to awareness.
Just keep at it. Distract your mind with your breathing. Nothing more natural. Or more powerful.
For those of you who wish to explore this further, there are abundant resources. Just search in whatever medium you most comfortably learn from — maybe it's YouTube, perhaps online forums or Googling websites — and explore away. For my old-school self, it's books, and I'll recommend two of them.
The first is Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman (Rodale, 2011). More recently I encountered Mindful Living with Asperger's Syndrome: Everyday Mindfulness Practices to Help You Tune in to the Present Moment, by Chris Mitchell (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2013). Both take a similar, stepped approach, and it is clear that Mitchell has been influenced by Williams and Penman (which is interesting, as I discovered these two books entirely independently of one another).
Both books walk you through a progressive set of meditations in a way that's easy to follow. Mitchell talks to the Aspie directly about the benefits of mindfulness for those of us on the spectrum, whereas Williams and Penman speak to a general audience. Either of them is a good resource; just check them out and decide which is a better fit for you.
If you're on a budget, there are also companion recordings to Mindfulness: http://rodaledigitalbooks.com/mindfulness/. While of course the book offers greater richness and depth, but in a pinch, the recordings by themselves can help you on your journey. Just take your time, listen, and keep practicing.
- Stahl, Ashley. “How To Practice Mindfulness At Work.” Forbes, 14 September 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashleystahl/2017/09/14/how-to-practice-mindfulness-at-work/.
- “Mindfulness in the Age of Complexity.” Harvard Business Review, March 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/03/mindfulness-in-the-age-of-complexity.
- Velázquez, José L. Pérez and Galán, Roberto F. “Information gain in the brain's resting state: A new perspective on autism.” Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, 24 December 2013. https://doi.org/10.3389/fninf.2013.00037.
- Supekar, Kaustubh, et al. “Brain Hyperconnectivity in Children with Autism and its Links to Social Deficits.” Cell Reports, 7 November 2013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2013.10.001.
- Lee Keown, Christopher, et al. “Local Functional Overconnectivity in Posterior Brain Regions Is Associated with Symptom Severity in Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Cell Reports, 7 November 2013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2013.10.003.
- Markram, Kamila and Markram, Henry. “The Intense World Theory – A Unifying Theory of the Neurobiology of Autism.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 21 December 2010. DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2010.00224.
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