Take a breath

This fall, I decided to enroll in a French class. I have no idea why I felt compelled to do so. Perhaps because I remember the four semesters of French I took in college many moons ago, and how much I loved the experience.
At the Alliance Francaise, where I am taking my class, they give you a little assessment to see where to place you. Pretty quickly, they decided Beginners One was the right level for me. So much for the four semesters.
For an hour and a half on Saturday mornings, I sit with a dedicated professeur and a small group of genial folks learning to converse in French. We concentrate. We laugh at ourselves. When I drive home, I am thinking about how much fun it was. And being a reflective sort, I began analyzing why that is.
One thing I know is the "worry birds" that are flying around my head before class and all speaking English fly away as soon as I sit at the table. We enter a different vocabulary and stay there intensely during the class.
We let go of all other cares for that interlude. How refreshing that is.
Even during the week when I practice speaking French for about 15 minutes a day, I leave everything else behind. The interlude refreshes my mind in a way not unlike a few minutes of meditation. I let go of all the noise in my head and find myself much more productive when once again I return to regular work.
When I train coaches or coach my clients, I am forever suggesting they slow the pace of their lives. I believe we do better work if we cure ourselves of the hurry disease that is widespread in our country. Yet, I know there must be many internal and external influences countering my suggestions that clients slow down, because most of them have a hard time doing it.
I so value that open space in my day and am absolutely convinced of the psychological and physiological benefits. Furthermore, I know and am supported by solid research, that we are all most productive when we regularly let go of all of our tasks and deadlines for a few minutes, even to stare out the window or do jigsaw puzzles, as one client does to refresh his busy brain.
I began sitting in meditation on a regular basis years ago and am grateful forever for the practice. Entering a different vocabulary for a brief respite can be done in a variety of ways. For some, becoming lost in exquisite music takes them away. For many of us, a brief walk outside does the trick. If you have a public or commercial art gallery near your office, losing yourself there is a possibility.
What to do is rarely the problem. Giving ourselves permission to lay down our burdens is more likely to be the obstacle. What are we afraid of?
I’m not sure, but I’ve spent some time guessing. Perhaps we fear that someone else will get ahead of us. We might want to be seen always running around at a hectic pace, as if that demonstrates our importance.
Some clients have even told me they have a fear of relaxing for even brief interludes, a fear they will have trouble getting back in gear. In the end, it might just be the programming we can hardly escape from in this wonderfully productive and frenetic culture.
I know plenty of people who work themselves into frenzies in order to leave on a vacation.
Another observation I’ve made is that workers at the entry level and at the very top are better at taking time to breathe during the day. I’ve seen receptionists take a few minutes off to read a chapter or two in a novel.
Many workers have two mandated breaks a day and some use those in ways that refresh the spirit. Top officers of Fortune 500 companies seem to have clear desks, and I doubt if they turn down appearances on television news shows because their mornings are jammed with meetings.
Manage your time so an aura of peace emanates from you. I consider that one of the qualifications for leadership. So if you find yourself punching the elevator button three or four times because it just won’t get there fast enough, please think seriously about what you can do to enter another way of being for a few minutes each day.
It is only in the quiet that we can remember what we’re truly about.
Jo Hawkins Donovan has a coaching and psychotherapy firm in Whitefish Bay and can be reached at (414) 332-0300, or jo@hawkins-donovan.com. The firm’s Web site is www.hawkinsdonovan.com.
October 29, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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