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Mindfulness at Work with Theo Koffler

Theo Koffler, founder of Mindfulness Without Borders

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Theo Koffler, founder of Mindfulness Without Borders, talks about meditation techniques for mindfulness and self-awareness at work.

Scott Snibbe: Theo Koffler, founder of Mindfulness Without Borders joins me today to talk about mindfulness at work. She touches on how to become more self-aware at work through programs that aren’t therapy but self-development, leading us to better inhabit the world and live meaningful lives.

She also touches on her work bringing mindfulness to police departments. As an extra to this week’s episode, Theo leads a guided meditation called “just like a mountain” that helps us accept and weather change.

This episode is part two of our interview with Theo. If you missed the first one, you can skip back one episode and listen to our first episode with Theo on Mindfulness for Teens and Young Adults, and also hear her inspiring personal story.

Scott Snibbe: So how have you helped to integrate mindfulness programs into work?

Theo Koffler: First of all we go where we’re invited. That’s an important part of who we are as an organization. In other words, we’re not telling workplace leaders that they need mindfulness. It’s rather, they recognize the internal stresses or what needs to be changed or what type of culture of mindfulness they’re looking for to expand into their workplace settings.

So that’s been our operating philosophy. When we’re invited to have a conversation around our programs, we get to listen and learn about the organization and their needs. That’s always interesting because it allows us to sit back and reflect on where a certain emphasis should be placed, which practices need to be really reinforced.

In our mindfulness at work program itself, there are eight sessions. And there are specific themes, specific practices. Again, it’s up to the participant to integrate according to what resonates with them. We actually offer practice and integration strategies as like home assignments.

That’s really supportive and beneficial because, not everyone buys into this need of the mindfulness ethic and way of being. And at the same time, not surprisingly more and more leaders have been taking note of the benefits of emotional intelligence and mindfulness as a way to combat stress and increase wellbeing in the workplace.

And typically the individual that contacts us, the individual that originally reached out to us becomes the champion on the inside.

And that person becomes motivated, even more so, to build a culture of mindfulness throughout the organization, by getting trained and becoming capable of leading our programs. So after we facilitate, then we offer as phase two, a certification program.

It’s a training that we provide that allows, let’s say the champion and the people that she feels should be facilitators to learn all the strategies and techniques that they need to effectively facilitate our program within their organization.

And with this model, training personnel to become facilitators of our program, they too become models for others, and in turn are deepening a culture of mindfulness throughout the entire organization.

It has this sort of nice rhythm to it, where we demonstrate, then we teach others and then those people that get certified can make these programs themselves sustainable. And that’s the key.

Scott Snibbe: Could you describe one or two of the specific problems people are trying to cope with at work through these programs and what practices apply to those problems?

Theo Koffler: That’s a complex question, Scott, because as humans, we are complex creatures and we are all facing challenges and suffering every day in multitude of ways.

My sense is that now people are attracted to mindfulness based programs because they are in search of a healthier way to be in relationship with their emotions, their anxieties, and purely just being more present in their day to day experiences. I think people are looking for new ways to be skillful with their communications, to be skillful in developing relationships and finding perhaps some stillness of mind and strength of heart, let’s call it, to help illuminate the path.

That’s a compelling reason, I think, why people are attracted to programs like ours. Our programs aren’t therapy, that’s for sure, but they definitely provide a platform for discussion and conversation around different ways to approach life that bring about self-care, and bring about a wiser relationship with the life they lead.

We chose the program name to be Mindful At Work with the understanding that there’s two different components working hand in hand. There’s an internal component where mindfulness as a practice starts from within and with practice is working from within. And there’s an external component which entails, focusing on the role and practices that will help us better inhabit our worlds, be more effective in leading our lives.

So Mindful At Work as a name doesn’t necessarily mean it’s just for people in corporate environments. It’s rather putting mindfulness at work, employing the skills to strengthen wellbeing from an individual basis.

At the beginning of our eight session program, we focus on the basics, like our youth program. We focus on mindfulness basics and self-awareness. We lead simple breathing practices that demonstrate the use of the breath. And simply by returning to the breath over and over again, that participants can bring their attention back to the present moment, off from distraction and the wandering mind back to the moment. They move off their treadmill of habitual automatic behavior, which when you think of it, is really key in the practice itself.

In the middle of the program, we address mind-body connection and emotional intelligence. Emotional awareness, such as identifying emotions, listening to the body’s wisdom, navigating emotional triggers and the practices for those are mindful listening, the body scan. And, mindful eating.

That sort of mindful eating practice is really an important practice because we know that people pretty much wolf down their meals on the go, don’t remember what they ate, and with a more mindful approach to eating can really use the moment to feel a sense of nourishment from the food. And even feel grateful that there’s food on the table, and to honor the people that helped bring the food to the table. So those are those practices in the middle of the program.

Towards the end we discuss themes of open-mindedness, of nurturing gratitude and equanimity. And those themes are more about strengthening human interaction, both inside and outside. That aspect of the program is so interesting because it rests on breaking down the barriers that cause us to have fixed perceptions. And this is so key in one’s personal and professional life. These are the qualities of mind that we believe can really pave the way for healthier relationships: more curiosity, more collaboration and more empathy.

So for that part of the program, we lead an everyday gratitude practice, which literally I do every night before I go to bed. We lead mindful walking and an equanimity practice.

When we conclude the program, we actually talk about embodiment. Embodying mindfulness. That mindfulness isn’t just about reading more books and listening to podcasts and just gaining an intellectual appreciation of the practice, but rather, diving deep into one’s interiority and settling with practice. With practice and in time we hone our internal instruments, which I refer to as those qualities of heart, like patience and kindness, self-acceptance and compassion. Those qualities when embodied actually lead us or invite us to be in service to the world.

Scott Snibbe: I wonder if you’d be willing to talk more about your programs for police and first responders.  That’s obviously a loaded topic, but how are these programs working out with police officers, first responders? And what are the benefits?

Theo Koffler: First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that police officers everywhere are exposed to repeated stress and trauma as part of their duties to the communities they serve. It’s also worth noting that most health and wellbeing efforts in policing have focused on assisting police officers after they are impacted by trauma.

And only recently, has there been a shift in giving critical tools proactively to diminish officer trauma and to build resiliency to stress. So, as an example, our mindfulness-based program has been inside one of the largest police departments in Canada since 2014. And at the time, literature on the effects of mindfulness was showing promising results in the reduction of stress.

And this police department, namely the York Regional Police Department, decided to look for an organization who could partner with them in developing their own robust resiliency curriculum. Mindfulness Without Borders actually fit the bill. 

One of the police officers in the management team decided that developing a culture of mindfulness was what they wanted to do. And now seven years later, our program is one of the many programs that this police department is engaging under their umbrella of resiliency training.

In terms of benefits, I believe it’s beneficial to the development of positive human traits and human potential, regardless of profession. Just imagine for a moment a mindfulness based intervention that focuses on meditation practice and skills-building; a training that brings us intentionally present to our thoughts and emotions and encourages an open relationship to them; a program that strengthens perspective taking and compassion. Imagine even a mindfulness based intervention in which individuals become more aware of their automatic thoughts and behavior and become less likely to be overwhelmed by them. Scott, well, how does that make you feel?

Scott Snibbe: I mean, it sounds amazing. You know, I’ve had few different jobs and there was never really a time in any of them where they talked about bringing out our best qualities or making us more self-aware and engaged with the best aspects of the world. So it sounds incredible, especially for a police force.

Theo Koffler: Well, there’s your answer. These are some of the effects of mindfulness that research has been finding globally. I believe that mindfulness can be a valuable tool for any human being. And hopefully with increasing research and more promising evidence, the field of law enforcement will embrace this intervention as a potential best practice for high stress occupations, such as policing. 

Scott Snibbe: Are you working with any American police departments?

Theo Koffler: No, not yet.

Scott Snibbe: I think a lot of us would love to see how this worked out with American police forces and addressing some of the challenges

Theo Koffler: Yes. And a lot of great work has been done. There are a lot of programs that are working with police, which is for me, very exciting. It’s just a growing sector which is an important one.

Scott Snibbe: Let’s hope that we see a lot more of that over the coming years.

In Buddhism, they have this idea of the bodhisattva, that the person who’s in an army or police officer needs to be the most compassionate and willing to give up their life to benefit someone else. So I always loved that ideal.

Theo Koffler: yes, I’m totally with you. I think that that’s where I’d like to truly live from.

Scott Snibbe: You talked about self-awareness as one of these qualities that mindfulness and your programs can develop. I read this article, it was quite a popular study from the Harvard Business Review that a woman named Tasha Eurich wrote that maybe only 15% of adults are self-aware. And that made me worry a little bit about our, our society. Although we know it’s trainable, you can become more self-aware. First of all, do you think this statistic is true? Do you think so few people have the self-awareness.

Theo Koffler: I must say I’m not that familiar with her work. However, I do think that self-awareness in general is low. Probably because at least in North American culture, we live at such a fast pace, in such a knowledge economy that our self-awareness is compromised. And I’m not sure we could ever quantify self-awareness.

I think we can ebb and flow in and out of self-awareness, and I think that strategies for awakening self-awareness are key, and that they can be our anchors. But I asked someone about that question and they said that they often describe self-awareness as a clothesline line to which we attach our understanding of everything we experienced as humans.

And I went, oh, there is something exciting to think about. Without self-awareness, it is more difficult to effectively navigate life. If we pay attention or if we want to cultivate self-awareness that it’s something we can do as an innate ability.

Scott Snibbe: Can you talk a little bit about how self-awareness relates to mindfulness you might cultivate it?

Theo Koffler: Yeah, I think that there is both an internal and external element and becoming self-aware, so as a result, there is a strong mindfulness component. It takes many moments of silence and self-reflection and contemplative practice to notice one’s experiences, notice one’s thoughts and awareness and navigate through it rather than push it away. Mindfulness, self-awareness demands a practice of attention to these thoughts and emotions in a clear and accurate way.

Scott Snibbe: I want to ask you something a little funny. Meditation has become a big business, and there are these very popular apps that teach meditation and so on. But I’ve even run into people who work for these meditation companies and get burnt out and stressed out and so on.

So I wanted to ask you just more personally, as a leader of an organization, if you’re able to apply the principles that you teach in your own business or how those of us who are leading organizations can apply these principles in our business to practice what we preach.

Theo Koffler: Well, first of all I think of mindfulness as a way of life and the principles of mindfulness can be integrated into business life with intention. At Mindfulness Without Borders, we are a small mighty team. And I think it’s our greatest asset that the degree in which we work together collaboratively sits on the foundations that human connection is what we want to share. It’s part of our values.

Each of us see each other as a beacon of light. We work towards being not just our best selves, but being our best selves in an organization, bringing those qualities of heart, the qualities that live in a mindful way, such as compassion and kindness and empathy, into all that we do. We really work hard to listen mindfully, to not interrupt the other when we’re having meetings or at this point, online conversations and Zoom calls.

We deeply respect and value individual difference. In fact, I think we’ve come to learn that it’s in our differences where there’s a richness in the conversation and in how we proceed as a company, as an organization. That’s why I say human connection is the piece that we value the most; that we strengthen that and we do everything we can to be mindful around developing a culture where that exists.

Scott Snibbe: I really like how you put human connection first in your answer, because I think a lot of us, when we think of mindfulness, we think of it as a solitary pursuit: personal, individual, private, inward. But your emphasis on its ability to make us more deeply connected to others is very powerful.

Theo Koffler: Thank you so much.

Scott Snibbe: You’ve agreed to also lead a short meditation that we’re going to share as an extra to this episode as well. Can you just tell us a little bit about the meditation you’ve chosen to go with this episode?

Theo Koffler: It’s actually a new meditation, which I wrote, called Just Like A Mountain and it’s not new, there are all sorts of mountain meditations out in the world. I think I might’ve even learned the mountain meditation through a retreat with Jack Kornfield at Spirit Rock. Anyways the idea of writing this meditation came out of living in the pandemic and feeling like every day is being challenged in a way that it felt for me personally, like I was slowly trekking up a mountain. And not yet seeing the end or feeling an end and also having to deal with all the challenges of what climbing up a mountain can look like.

So in this meditation, the idea is to bring a more spacious and accepting awareness to whatever is arising in the body, whatever’s arising in terms of thoughts and emotions. And, as in the practice of mindfulness, without judgmental thoughts around it.

Part of this meditation also directs one’s attention to the fact that both our internal and external conditions are always changing. And yet like a mountain, we are capable of weathering these moments of change. And with the practice we are trying to experience, what does it feel like to be open to the external and internal conditions that arise? Rather than push them aside, just be with them, navigating through them. So that’s the meditation, the essence of it.

Scott Snibbe: Great. I’m looking forward to doing it. Well, Theo, thank you so much for joining me and taking so much time to talk about your incredible work. I really appreciate it.

Theo Koffler: Thank you too. It’s been a real gift for me personally, to be reminded about my life’s journey, how I got there, where I am now. And the sense of joy and meaning that my life has brought to me personally, my work has brought to me personally, and also the immense amount of gratitude that I feel for my team or the team, I shouldn’t even call it my, it has nothing to do with my, the team at Mindfulness Without Borders and all the people and the relationships, the thought leaders, the board of directors, the advisory council, all the people we’ve met along the way and all the partnerships, it’s helped me recognize how, what a cherished experience it all is.

So thank you.

 Scott Snibbe: Thanks for joining us for our conversation with mindfulness without borders, founder, Theo. Koffler.

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We wish you a wonderful day.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced and edited by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio


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