Today, I spoke to my Mindfulness at Work students about a concept I’ve developed around the mindfulness of “Scratching Problems Away Like An Itch.” What is so important about an itch or scratching it? Well, many of us react to many aspects of our lives including our work in the same way we react to an itch. When problems arise suddenly, when we don’t like what we hear or read in an email, or when things don’t go our way, we often react as if its an annoying itch that needs to be scratched away. And of course, often we find out that it wasn’t as simple as an itch. This sort of spontaneous and impulsive reaction springs from our mind’s habitual ways of dealing with unwanted situations.

There is another side to scratching an itch,…..

which is mindlessly wanting to get rid of an uncomfortable sensation as well as banking on an opportunity to induce some pleasurable sensation. Of course, the itch and the scratch happen so fast that is hard to be mindful and aware of what’s taking place. I could see in the student’s eyes, thinking “So, what’s there to be aware of, if I can get rid of discomfort and feel pleasure at the same time, hey I’m going to scratch that itch away as fast as I can and do it very happily.” I continued expanding the concept and benefits of mindfulness and this type of impulsive and automatic behavior to other situations, like spontaneously killing a bug or a snake. As soon as a spider passes our way or a mosquito flies in our zone or a bunch of ants cross the counter, the thought arises, “Kill ’em, I say, kill ’em.” Well, while that thought, the same as the scratch, also makes sense to the mind, in this case we are actually taking a LIFE that might in fact be precious to that its owner. We make such quick decisions and justify it by thinking, “Its only a spider, what else you wana do, kill it.”

These two choices and behaviors in and of themselves may not be significant but they portray how the mind may be trained to respond mindlessly to those things we feel disgusted by or that might produce pleasure for us. These thoughts provoked my students to think a bit about the spider or the ant and other similar reactions. So, I proposed the following questions for their reflection:
Where else in life and work do you act so automatic, so impulsive and so justifiably? May be to an email or may be in a board room when you perceive someone is out to get your job?

And how else do you hurt yourself and or others by not being aware that you are really responding to relieve perceived experiences of pain / discomfort or more pleasure and not to the actual event?
How often does something get messed up in a project or a task because you acted automatically and mindlessly?
And sure enough they had many examples to offer about reacting to alleviate emotions rather than purely respond to a requirement or a request. One student remembered how she furiously attacked a man who she felt wrongly accused her of having started a political email. She realized, all she had to do was to inform the man that she did not start the email and that would have been sufficient enough. Rather, she responded with a long email attaching the man about how dare he assumed this about her and just went off so angrily. And all that had happened was a mistake on the man’s part that needed to be corrected with shortest, least amount of harm and in the most calm and peaceful way. She realized that she wasn’t responding to his suggestion, rather reacting to an uncomfortable feeling that came up much like seeing a bug and thinking, “How dare you cross my living space. You deserve to die.” And she got that may be next time she could be more mindful of her feelings about the bug and simply guide or lift it to safety and out of the way without having to kill it. Similarly with emails that feel threatening.
Think about it, just like there may be an alternative choice to killing, there may be an alternative choice to solving any problem or getting what you want than to quickly without thinking to scratch it and hoping it will go away. So, where else in your life or work do you react to events as if it were an annoying itch?
As you reflect on these thoughts you may see some truth about areas of mindlessness in your life and may even have some aha moments. While this insight is valuable, reflection and aha moments about our own behavioral patterns are just the first step and not enough. Unfortunately, specially with learned behavior and impulsiveness, just because we get it, if we do, in many situations it doesn’t mean we won’t do it again or we would act differently. This is because the mind is a system that can get programed to do many things automatically so we wouldn’t have to re-figure things out all the time. However, the same mechanism causes us to act habitually in places we should act mindfully. Therefore, our minds need training to settle long enough so that it can see the best choice possible at any given moment and for any given situation. Practicing mindfulness will help you distinguish between reacting to feelings and emotions and perceptions and a simple pure response to an event.

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